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Had it not been for the involvement of women, would the German Revolution have even taken place? From organising strikes in factories, to battles for the vote on the streets, we go beyond the familiar names of Rosa Luxemburg or Clara Zetkin, to explore the role women played in the days running up to and during the German Revolution of 1918-19. 

A People’s History of the German Revolution, is a myth-busting popular history of the German Revolution focusing on the roles of women, workers and ordinary people, published in the centenary year.

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Women have been hidden from history. So, it is no surprise that the German Revolution is typically given a male-centric narrative. Despite it seldom being discussed, gender was a critical dimension of the transformations of 1918/19. It is not unexpected to find female agency absent from so many narratives, but this absence produces an inaccurate and incomplete account history. Among others, Clara Zetkin made a powerful case for the centrality of women to the German revolution. Less than two weeks after the overthrow of Imperial Germany, on November 22, 1918, Zetkin published her article The Revolution—Thanks to the Women in Rote Fahne. This emphasis on female workers was echoed by Rosa Luxemburg in a letter to Zetkin on November 24.

If some on the left praised women as revolutionaries, the right heaped scorn on them as traitors who were behind ‘the stab in the back.’ One emerging pillar upholding this myth was the claim that women and children were responsible for the military failure on Christmas Eve to overwhelm the People’s Naval Division. One rightist woman, Paula Mueller-Otfried, criticized working-class women’s ‘grumbling letters and moaning and groaning’ for undermining soldiers’ morale. The upheavals of war and revolution may have roused deep fears among male nationalists of a loss of masculinity and perhaps an ‘unconscious hatred of women.’

The struggle for women to attain their own agency was part of a long historical process. Industrialization had resulted in increasing numbers of female workers, particularly important were women factory workers. This in turn began to impact the German working class in ways both positive and negative. With women entering industry in the later part of the nineteenth century, middle- and upper-class reformers began to rant about all the ills they associated with female factory labour. As early as the turn of the twentieth century, the German government had banned female work between 8:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. Women were only allowed to work a maximum of eleven hours during the week or ten on Saturdays. Labour shortages during the war allowed female workers to break into previously male-only occupations, from bus driving to metal working. Female workers were on the frontlines working in a myriad of jobs and holding society together as wives, mothers and daughters. Women were among the first to break with the wartime social truce and take to the streets to protest.

Hardworking women were often recast as delinquent or spendthrift mothers and wives neglecting their families. There were calls for ‘protection’ of women by reformers. This in effect, in the words of feminist Alice Saloman, ‘persecuted women struggling for economic independence and social equality.’ Put differently, protecting women from working outside the house actually meant returning them to a submissive role within the family household.

It would be a mistake to think of working women as mere passive victims waiting for reforms enacted by upper-class men or women, great or small. Female workers developed a culture apart from those of bourgeois feminists and other middle-class reformers. For example, they accepted out-of-wedlock births and typically refused to accept the shame such occurrences had for better off Germans. By the time of World War I, on average 9 to 10 percent of all births were illegitimate, with this rate being much higher in industrial areas.

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In many arenas, women, especially working-class females, were becoming more aware of controlling their own bodies and sexuality. Their extensive use of birth control, while certainly influenced by economic conditions, was at the same time an expression of control over their bodies.

Abortion was strictly illegal in Imperial Germany. Still, as industrialization produced urbanization and proletarianization, women turned more frequently to abortion. There was a rapid growth in female prostitution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Typically, a sex worker would be a woman in her early or mid-twenties, who turned to prostitution after failing to find work in other fields. Unlike the hypocritical public horror expressed by the upper levels of German society, the working class was more understanding that sex work was a means to feed oneself or one’s family. To many on the left, prostitutes were workers just like any others, not fallen women, and this led to later attempts to organize these women into trade unions to defend their rights.

Despite these and other occasions in which male workers supported their female counterparts, there remained a large degree of anti-feminism within the male proletariat of Germany. These men believed that having women in the workforce drove wages down and caused stress within the working-class family. This attitude was sharply opposed to the theory put forth by Marxists who believed that an increase in women’s work would lead to their, and ultimately everyone’s, emancipation. August Bebel, one of the founders of German Social Democracy, dealt a blow against antifeminism with the publication of his Woman under Socialism in 1879. This text, alongside others by Engels and pivotal women like Clara Zetkin, Toni Sender and Luise Zietz, attracted an increasing number of female members to the SPD.

It was not only highly placed women who fought for peace and social change. During the war, ordinary women often acted openly in defiance of the government. The authorities were hesitant to arrest women for fear of compromising already shaky morale yet the number of female convictions for protests skyrocketed. In the year before World War I, female convictions for disturbing the peace, participation in riots and like offenses was only 187. By 1917, the number of women convicted for the same crimes rose to 1,028. Police informers warned of the key role women played in radical groups like the USPD and the Spartaksubund. As time went on, the police became increasingly concerned about revolutionary ideas being shared in purportedly non-political Social Democratic ‘women’s reading evenings.’

In Frankfurt in 1916, as Toni Sender reported, for example, ‘the bulk of the opposition to the war was formed by women.’ The global armed conflict sucked men out of German industry leaving vacancies filled by women. Even before 1914, trade unions had become increasingly packed with women. One female organizer even joked that the day might come where men would have to fight for equal rights in the union. While it didn’t come to that, women were the bulk of wartime strikers. In 1916, 62 percent of all work stoppage participants were female and the following year saw women make up 75 percent of strikers. Women workers in munition factories, were the ‘leading forces of the mass strikes’ no later than April 1917. Working-class women who were not war industry workers also played an important role. In the days before the strike, these proletarian females were on the streets protesting and, in Berlin at least, appeared to make up the majority of the demonstrating crowds.

When the revolution broke out in November 1918, women continued to play a critical role in radical agitation. When the revolution made its way from the naval mutiny to the inner-city districts of Berlin in November 1918, it was a combination of the underground activity of women and men. In Hamburg, in the first days of the revolution there were scenes that seem unexpected if not unreal. Lida Gustava Heymann recounted ‘the convening of a large public assembly at which only women were supposed to speak.’ Most accounts of the German Revolution fail to note such incidents of female agency.

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German suffragettes.

Likewise, the demand for women’s suffrage is often presented as if it was only a concern for respectable bourgeois ladies. That may be true in the cases of the votes for women movements in England or the United States, but it was unquestionably not the case in Germany. Europe’s most impressive working-class female suffrage movement took the form of female socialists in Imperial Germany.

Women’s struggles neither started nor ended with the war and revolution. Even something that looks like a clear victory, like gaining the right to vote, could hide a more complex reality. While some men on the left failed to acknowledge the critical role of women in the German Revolution, males on the right usually did not forget or forgive. By the start of 1919, paramilitary groups like the proto-fascist Freikorps began to hold a new vision of a ‘feminized crowd that portrayed it as both threatening and consequently deserving of violence.’ The beating and killing of Rosa Luxemburg on January 15, 1919 is well known but it is hardly an isolated event of violence targeted at female bodies. To suppress revolutionary crowds and protests, Government troops unleashed unparalleled levels of violence against civilians including working-class women and children. To justify this, the Government had to promote an image of dangerous and brutal women who deserved no respect or mercy.

After breaking up the occupation of a Berlin newspaper in January 1919, the Freikorps found Frau Steinbring, a mother who said she had been providing first aid. As she left the building Steinbring was greeted with punches and troops shouting: ‘it’s red Rosa.’ She was hit with rifle butts, sworn at, called a Spartakus whore. Count von Westarp, one of the group’s officers, remarked ominously, ‘this is it.’

Taken to a Dragoon Barracks, Steinbring and other prisoners were further abused. Six or seven female first aid workers had their clothes mostly torn off their bodies by their jailors. Luckily for Frau Steinbring, a Major von Stephani intervened when a soldier raised and aimed his rifle at Steinbring. It was too public a place for such a cold-blooded murder it seems.

Women were one of the main forces that created the revolution. Looking at the evidence, it is difficult to even imagine the German Revolution taking place in November 1918 had it not been for the mass involvement of women. Although this has habitually been neglected by history and historians, it was apparent to most people at the time. The remnants of the old order, the Freikorps, and even the nominally pro-women Social Democracy all raised alarm that ordinary women were storming onto the stage of history. From the brutal violence of the paramilitary right to the paternalism of the SPD, these forces all sought in different ways to push women off the street, out of politics, dismiss them from the factory, and push them back into the home. The typical attitude was that men should worry about politics while women tended to children and attended church. But Clara Zetkin was right: the German Revolution was only possible because of women.

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A People’s History of the German Revolution 1918-19 by William A. Pelz is available from Pluto Press.

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William A. Pelz was Director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and Professor of History at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Haymarket, 2015), The Eugene V. Debs Reader (Merlin Press, 2014) and A People’s History of Modern Europe (Pluto, 2016).