By which office did the emperor rule?

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On November 28, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. This ended the constitutional monarchy in Germany. The way was clear for a German democracy.

The emperor's handwritten certificate of abdication. (Click to enlarge the picture) (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

When Wilhelm II signed the official document of abdication while in exile in the Netherlands, it had long since become obsolete, at least within the German Reich. As early as November 9, 1918, Chancellor Max von Baden had proclaimed the emperor's double resignation from the throne, thus anticipating Wilhelm's plans to at least save the Prussian royal dignity. The news of the abdication quickly spread from Berlin all over the Reich and set the November Revolution in motion. Max von Baden's initiative paved the way for parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic. The military and political collapse of the empire preceded this.

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Wording of the emperor's certificate of abdication

"I hereby waive the rights to the Crown of Prussia and the associated rights to the German imperial crown for all future. At the same time I release all officials of the German Empire and Prussia as well as all officers, NCOs and men of the Navy, the Prussian Army and the troops of the federal contingents of the oath of allegiance to Me as their emperor, king and supreme commander. I expect them to help the owners of actual power in Germany until the reorganization of the German Empire, the German people against the threatening dangers of anarchy to protect against famine and foreign rule. "

Wilhelm II on November 28, 1918 in Amerongen
In the years before the outbreak of World War I, large sections of German society were calling for a reform of the political system. Not only the liberal and socialist left, but also conservative and nationalist interest groups put pressure on the monarchy to open up parliamentary. In the 1912 Reichstag elections, the liberal and social democratic Left, the SPD and the Progressive People's Party (FVP), together won almost 50 percent of the vote. The crisis of the German Empire did not come with democratic elections, but with the First World War, which was nearing its end in the summer of 1918.

War fatigue and parliamentarization

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1900 (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
After more than four years of war, the German ruler and his allies were increasingly under military pressure from the Allies. The remaining front in the west after the peace of Brest-Litovsk with Russia in 1917 began to disintegrate. The "victory peace" strategy of the military and political leadership encountered resistance among the soldiers. Many refused to leave the trenches or deserted. In August the first soldiers' councils were formed on the front.

On September 29, 1918, the Supreme Army Command (OHL) asked the Reich government to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. The negotiations were to be conducted by a new Reich government: For this purpose, the Parliamentarization Act was passed on September 30th. The new government was to be elected and formed by the Reichstag. The Kaiser, OHL and Reich Chancellor wanted to anticipate the feared "revolution from below" with a "revolution from above".

Armistice against democratization

On October 3rd, the new government was formed under the leadership of Chancellor Max von Baden. For the first time, it also included the majority parties in the Reichstag, the SPD, the Center and the FVP. A day later, the German government officially asked the Allies for a ceasefire. This refused, however, because US President Woodrow Wilson tied extensive conditions to an armistice: the disarmament and democratization of the German Empire and thus expressly the abdication of the German Kaiser.

Parliament and Chancellor tried to accommodate Wilson's demands. In a constitutional reform, the Reichstag decided on October 28th that all declarations of war and peace treaties require its approval. The responsibility for all political actions of the emperor was transferred to the realm chancellor. However, the Allies continued to insist on Wilhelm II's abdication.


The government system of the empire

The German Empire was founded in 1871. It was formally a princes' union and as such consisted of 25 federal states and the realm of Alsace-Lorraine, which had numerous freedoms according to the provisions of the imperial constitution.

The empire was a constitutional monarchy. The Kaiser (and King of Prussia) appointed an Imperial Chancellor who was both Prime Minister of Prussia and Chairman of the Federal Council and who ran the business of government. The legislature consisted of two chambers: the Bundesrat and the Reichstag were jointly responsible for legislating - the Bundesrat, as the representative of the federal states, had more influence than the Reichstag.

The Reichstag was elected by general election by all male Germans over the age of 25. His political rights to shape and control, however, were extremely limited by the bundling of almost all power with the emperor and the imperial chancellor. With the consent of the Federal Council, the Reichstag could be dissolved by the Kaiser. The respective Reich Chancellor was only politically responsible to the Kaiser, not to the Reichstag.

More about the political system and the constitutional order of the German Empire:
Authoritative state and grassroots democratization

The revolution is rolling

The situation in the military remained tense. After the German Admiralty asked the Navy to attack the British fleet in the English Channel, German sailors mutinied in Kiel on October 29. Developments quickly spread to other cities, and soldiers 'and workers' councils were formed throughout the empire.

The Berlin edition of the SPD party newspaper "Vorwärts" broadcasts the abdication of Wilhelm II on November 9th in a special edition. (& copy picture-alliance / akg-images)
Union officials and the left-wing radical "Spartakusgruppe" led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht called for a general strike in Berlin on November 9th, as a result of which mass demonstrations marched through the Reich capital and strategic buildings such as the police headquarters were occupied.

The end of the monarchy

On the same day, giving in to the pressure of the street, Max von Baden proclaimed the emperor's abdication and handed over his official duties as Chancellor to the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert. With that the November Revolution took its course. Around 2 p.m. Ebert's party colleague Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the "German Republic" from a window of the Reichstag - two hours later the Spartacist Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the "Free Socialist Republic" at the Berlin Palace.

Government power was initially taken over by the "Council of People's Representatives", which was formed under the leadership of Ebert and Hugo Haase from the SPD and the USPD, which it split off during the war because of its rejection of the "Burgfriedenspolitik". November 1918 effectively at the end.

Escape into exile

On November 10th, Wilhelm II fled into exile in Holland, disguised and equipped with false papers, first to Amerongen, and later until his death in 1941 in Doorn near Utrecht. Meanwhile, the war continued on the Western Front. All fighting did not end until November 11th, after the delegation of the new Reich government had accepted the Allied terms for a ceasefire in a wooded area near Compiègne. At that time, the First World War had cost the lives of several million soldiers and civilians across the continent - the exact number of casualties is controversial.

Parliamentary democracy began for Germany with the end of the German Empire: In January 1919 the constituent national assembly was elected, in which the moderate bourgeois and social democratic parties formed a stable majority. On August 14, 1919, the new Reich constitution finally came into force: the Weimar Republic was born.

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