Mark Jones Details Germany’s Dark Revolution
By Aria Bracci '17 | Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Aria Bracci '17
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Professor Mark Jones of the University College of Dublin and the Free University of Berlin visited UMass on Thursday, October 4, 2016 to give a talk titled “Founding Weimar: Violence and the German Revolution of 1918-19” and discuss his book of the same name. “The jet lag could kick in at any moment, and I don’t want to be at the podium when it happens,” Mark Jones laughed from the front of Herter 601, where, from his preferred seated position, he was set to begin.
Students and fellow historians filled the seats, their faces lit by the large map projected in front of them. It showed the streets of Berlin, and Jones directed their attention to the particular junction of Chausseestraße and Invalidenstraße. The ownership of this urban space, he explained, was once the source of major conflict. Following the first World War, and in the wake of Germany’s weakened morale and resources, German revolutionaries sought to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government. But in light of the transfer of power from the Kaiser Wilhelm II to Friedrich Ebert, the newly appointed leader of the budding Weimar Republic, many Germans were divided on what they wanted from their government. “There was this sense that order was about to break down,” Jones explained, and violence, as a result, was used by the government to effectively smother this chaos.
November 1918 marked the first time that workers publicly demonstrated, parading with red flags, which was an extremely radical act. About 15-25 people died during the demonstrations that month, most as a result of panic gunfire. This phenomenon, Jones noted, played a significant role in conflict casualty, as the anxiety of the state often manifested in unpreparedness and desperation, especially in such a concentrated urban area.
By December, revolutionaries occupied buildings in Berlin’s Newspaper District, and on December 6, tram-riding civilians were killed by government soldiers via machine gunfire. Deaths climbed to 150-200 in the ensuing months. By March, the social-democratic government—that had been opposed to the death penalty prior to World War I—proclaimed its right to execute captured protesters on the spot. Records show over 1000 deaths, less than 100 of which were soldiers on the government side. Most were rebels, and some were civilians.
“The fear spread of a narrative of this kind,” Jones explained, “is very familiar to us. It’s the threat of terrorist violence in the streets.” This was likely a legitimate fear for civilians, like the 16-year-old girl killed on the tram—the incident’s youngest recorded victim—but the risk of loss, coming “as a result of political violence,” was almost expected, since many Germans’ memory of revolution was primarily of the bloodshed of the French Revolution. “Revolution, for them,” Jones noted, “is a word-concept that means violence,” so, comparatively, their own country’s revolution wasn’t nearly as extreme.
Perhaps more surprisingly, these events also led to another idea: “the idea that we share something with our opponents.” Such “inversion of roles,” which “only help[ed] escalate the breakdown between different socialist party groups,” could be said to have created the unanticipated byproduct of sympathy. By early December, the general consensus was that “the states had lost control of the streets of Central Berlin,” which put virtually everyone at risk—equated. The breakdown of control became a unanimous fear.
Jones spoke fluidly of these political and emotional nuances, detailing an often overlooked period of Germany’s history, one overshadowed by the country’s atrocities several decades later. His passion for this topic was evident in his wide eyes and hurried speech, as he attempted to consolidate a book’s length of his findings into a one-hour lecture. But he understandably paused at moments of pain, giving voice to those often left behind in this century-old conflict—a highly politicized binary between the revolutionary demonstrators and the state. “I like to bring them to the center,” he said. “Somebody should remember them, surely.”
This talk was sponsored by the Department of History, the Department of Political Science, the Program in German and Scandinavian Studies, and the Max Kade Foundation.