CONFERENCE - Make Revolution Great Again: The context and legacy of the 1918-19 German Revolution

he 1918-19 German ‘November Revolution’, which catalysed the end of WW1 and prompted nearly a year of violent upheaval, saw the political institutions of one of the most advanced societies in Europe quickly and comprehensively overthrown by a combination of military revolts and civil unrest. While its immediate causes lay predominantly in the defeat of the German Reich at the hands of the Allied powers, the German Revolution took place within the context of a larger wave of socialist and anti-colonial revolutionary activity that gripped Europe and the wider world between 1916 and 1923—much of it inspired by the successful revolutions against tsarist rule in Russia in 1917. Similarly, while the rupture it brought about was a direct response to the exigencies of four years of wartime repression, censorship, rationing, labour requisitioning, and wage restraint, the Revolution also represented the long-awaited culmination of a long period of ideological debate and partisan pressure by a variety of democratic and socialist currents who aspired to a significant break with Germany’s absolutist, imperial, militarist past.

The aim of this conference, held on the centenary of the declaration of the new German Republic, is to explore the social and intellectual context and legacy of the German Revolution. It seeks to re-examine the reception of the Revolution, as well as the Weimar Republic and the interwar period, across a range of disciplines, including but not limited to European history, intellectual history, political theory, and political science. In light of the collapse of the nascent Republic into Nazi dictatorship, and shortly afterwards the abrupt end of two decades of uneasy peace with the outbreak of WW2, there has been a temptation to see the German Revolution and the Republic it inaugurated somewhat in block-colour terms. Either they are presented as a ‘false dawn’, an aberrant moment of superficial democratisation that failed to achieve lasting structural transformations in a recalcitrantly reactionary society, or a ‘lost opportunity’, a glorious first flowering of progressivism replete with idealistic creativity whose reversal represented one of the greatest tragedies in European history. Together, these views have contributed to a systemic neglect of a moment, and a period, whose effects reverberated around Europe for many years afterwards.

This conference intends to help redress this neglect by refocusing attention on the Revolution and the Weimar period as objects of study and sources of insight in their own right, and locating them within a more rounded picture of their geographical and temporal setting. On the geographical side, it hopes to use the occasion of the German Revolution centenary as a springboard to decentre the 1917 Bolshevik revolution as the paradigm case of interwar political transformation, in favour of a more comparative treatment of the revolutions that took place during and after WW1 and the regimes that emerged from them. On the temporal side, the conference aims to reconnect the German Revolution and its aftermath with the moments of socialist, anti-absolutist, and anti-colonial activism and unrest across Europe before and during WW1, and trace the continuities between interwar institutions within and beyond Weimar Germany and those that emerged in Europe after WW2. In particular, it seeks to regalvanise interest in neglected social and political thought from or about the German Revolution and the wider interwar period in Europe and beyond, as well as offer a new appraisal of the significance of the events of 1918-19 for the study of revolutionary practices and political violence.

Organisers: Ruth Harris (Faculty of History; All Souls College, Oxford), Stathis Kalyvas (Department of Politics & International Relations; All Souls College, Oxford), Marius Ostrowski (Department of Politics & International Relations; All Souls College, Oxford), Nick Stargardt (Faculty of History; Magdalen College, Oxford)