Revolution in Germany: the First World War’s bloody aftermath

The end of the First World War did not bring an era of peace to Germany. Dissatisfaction with the outcome of the war led to an era of political unrest and violence; groups from the left and right of politics battled it out in the streets for control of the new republic. The legacy of the revolutionary period in Germany was profound. It set the path for the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and a Second World War, a truly global conflict more devastating than its predecessor.

The postwar revolutionary period in Germany and its aftermath is the subject of historian Lachlan Grant’s article in the latest issue of Wartime: “A time of violence: the end of the First World War sparked a revolution in Germany which left profound consequences”.

The Memorial holds an extensive collection of postcards depicting street fighting in Germany, and German political posters from the postwar era; too many to include as illustrations for the printed article. Additional images from the Memorial collection depicting the street fighting, as well as a series of political posters from the era, can be viewed by opening the media gallery below.

Wartime issue 84 is available here.

Freikorp and government troops during the fighting in Berlin, 1919. A01667

A captured British tank deployed by government troops used in action against communists, Berlin, 1919.  A01305

A captured Mark IV British tank; note the death’s head symbol adopted by the Freikorps. A01699

Freikorps patrol a Berlin street during the communist uprising, March 1919. A01672

A Freikorps machine gunner on the Waisen bridge, Berlin, 1919. A01694

Communist fighters being led away after the capture in Berlin, 1919. Many prisoners faced execution. A01690

Freikorps artillery deployed against the communists in Berlin. A01304

A captured British Whippet tank used by German government backed troops during the unrest in Berlin in 1919. Note the death’s head insignia painted on the side by the Freikorps. H06815

A 7.7 cm FK 96 anti-aircraft gun on a self-propelled truck chassis in Wilhelm Platz, Berlin, March 1919. Troops armed with artillery and tanks were deployed in cities throughout Germany to communist uprisings during 1919.  A01317

A number of the postcards in the Memorial’s collection depicting street fighting in Berlin in 1919 – included those in this gallery – were donated to the Memorial by Captain Charles Mills. Mills had served with the 31st Battalion and was captured at Fromelles in July 1916 (see Wartime 44). As a prisoner of war, Mills worked for the Wounded and Missing Bureau of the Australia Red Cross, for which he would be awarded an OBE. After the war he traversed Germany searching for graves of missing AIF prisoners of war. Mills was in Berlin where this photograph was taken in March 1919, when there was street fighting between communists and the Freikorps.  J00230

A German nationalist poster from 1919 depicting death and destruction warns against: “the danger of Bolshevism”. ARTV06118

A beast, depicting Bolshevism, drives people from their homes in this anti-communist poster from 1919.  The title on the poster can be translated “The fatherland is in danger”. Further text on the poster reads, “The wave of Bolshevism threatens our frontiers; in our own country there are Bolshevistic powers who want to destroy our country economically. Polish units invade old German territory heading westward. Extraordinary measures are needed. Help immediately! No time to lose! All bank deposit accounts and branch offices are ready to accept your contribution for the Osthilfe [Eastern Help].” The poster refers to events in Germany and Eastern Europe following the Armistice, when German right-wing paramilitaries fought against communists in Germany and Eastern Europe. ARTV00116

This anti-communist poster “Nations of Europe join in the defence of your faith and your home” depicts Bolshevism as a smoking skull bringing destruction and famine from the east. Before they descended on Berlin in January 1919, right-wing paramilitaries, such as the Freikorps, fought communists in Eastern Europe in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

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Warning that “Bolshevism means hunger and death, but never peace” this poster from 1919 depicts a malnourished mother with a dead child.

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Depicting German citizens from various walks of life, this proclaims poster “The National Assembly is the dawning of our Socialist Republic”. Revolution in Germany brought an end to the First World War and saw the abdication of the Kaiser. The elected National Assembly was established and drew up the new constitution of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933). The Weimar Republic faced battles on many fronts due to economic woes, political fallout, and civic unrest following defeat in the war.

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A left-wing poster depicting a worker with his trowel declares “The National Assembly, the foundation stone of the German Socialist Republic”.

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For more stories on the end of the First World War, purchase a copy of Wartime issue 84 here.

About the author

Lachlan Grant is Senior Historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.