Wrapping My Head Around the Weimar Republic, Pt 2: Born in Revolution

As I mentioned in a previous post, I went into my newest project a year ago with an astonishing degree of ignorance about the Weimar Republic. As I got into the reading, I was both shocked and embarrassed about how little I knew. And one of the things I didn’t know was how the Weimar Republic began. My best guess, had someone asked me, would have been that the Republic was established as part of the Versailles Treaty. (After all, both the Austrian and Ottoman empires were dissembled in the peace talks, creating the modern states of Austria and Turkey. Why not the Hohenzollern empire?*

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In October, 1918, Germany’s old absolute monarchy was effectively dead, though Kaiser Wilhelm was still on the throne. The (relatively) liberally minded Prince Maximillian, appointed Imperial Chancellor, joined forced with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to alter Germany’s constitution. Together they were in the process of creating a true constitutional monarchy and reforming electoral law. (In theory Germany had universal male suffrage before the war, but the man in the street wasn’t allow to vote for anything that mattered so it wasn’t worth much.)

On October 29, the hope of an orderly transfer of power blew up in their faces when sailors in the port city of Kiel mutinied. Several days later, delegations of sailors traveled by railroad to big cities across the country, spreading the word of their revolt against the officers, stupid orders, the war, and the empire. By November 7, the mutiny turned into a rebellion, as striking workers and mutinous soldiers joined forces with the sailors. Borrowing from the Russian Revolution, the workers and servicemen elected councils that negotiated with local authorities. It was grassroots democracy in a country in which most people had no experience of political participation.

On November 9, Prince Maximillian, hoping to restore order, turned over the position of chancellor to Friedrich Ebert, the head of the SPD. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated.**

The old Reich was dead, but the new Republic was on shaky ground. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Philip Schiedemann, speaking for the new provisional government, proclaimed the end of the empire from the balcony of the Reichstag building to cheering crowds. Several hours later, Karl Liebnecht, a radical socialist leader, stood on the balcony of the royal palace, and proclaimed the creation of a socialist republic.

On November 11, Ebert and his colleagues formed a new government in coalition with the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). (You caught that, right? Two governments in two days.) Despite the shaky start, the new republic began with a rush of political reforms. Spurred by the energy of the mass movements in the streets, they passed laws guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, suffrage reform (include suffrage for women!) and amnesty for political prisoners.

The Weimar Republic was on its way and things were looking good.

*Did I mention that the depth of my ignorance was embarrassing? I’m not even sure that old stand-by “not my field” is an excuse.

**Possibly with his fingers crossed behind his back. Royal attempts to regain power in Germany are a recurring theme in newspaper articles of the 1920s.

The Women With Silver wings

My Own True Love is an aviation history bugg, which means I have tiptoed around the edges of the subject. It’s probably not surprising to any of you that the aviation stories that catch my imagination the most strongly are the ones where aviation history and women’s history overlap.  I'm always delighted when a good book on the subject crosses my path. Case in point:  The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II by pilot and historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck .

Landdeck. tells the thrilling, and sometimes heartbreaking, story of the female aviators who flew for the United States in World War II More than 1100 women served as pilots in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Despite initial doubts as to whether women could do the job, they successfully trained male pilots for military service, transported planes across country and served as test pilots. As the war drew to an end and male pilots came home, they were forced to give up the jobs they had done so well and immediately forgotten by the country they served. Landdeck tells their story with empathy and academic rigor.

Landdeck brings more than intellectual curiosity to the task. The WASP community welcomed her into their circle, as both a pilot and a historian. Drawing on interviews with surviving pilots and their unpublished letters and journals, she uses the personal stories of individual women—why they enlisted, where they learned to fly, and what happened to them after the war—to enrich her account of the creation, growth and dismantlement of the service.

The end result is an eye-opening account of the first American women to fly for their country--and their subsequent fight to be recognized for their role in history. The Women with Silver Wings will appeal to fans of women's history, aviation enthusiasts, and WWII buffs.

Most of this review appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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Today’s news from 1929: The tiny* but strategically important island of Heligoland, which commanded access to Hamburg and Bremen, revolted against German rule and tried to re-join Great Britain. Heligoland had been British until 1890, when Britain traded it to Germany in exchange for Zanzibar. Germany had turned the island into an important naval base and, more importantly, built a huge concrete sea wall to protect the island from storms. The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to demolish its fortifications. In Heligoland, that meant demolishing not only the naval base but the sea wall. The island was disintegrating a bit more with every storm. Surely, the islanders reasoned, Britain would jump at the chance for a strategic naval base , and build a sea wall as part of the fortifications. According to my girl Sigrid Schultz, the revolt began with hundreds of Heligoland’s 3400 inhabitants marching on the newspaper office while singing Britannia Rules the Waves “with gusto, in a broad German accent.”

The problem with learning history from the newspaper is that you don't always find out what happened next. But my guess is that Britain took a pass.

*Roughly 1/5 of one square mile

New Discoveries of Ancient Women Warriors, or Old Bones Revisited

Earlier this week, a news item about the discovery of an ancient woman warrior appeared in my news feed.* Here’s the link if you’re interested: https://bit.ly/2N25WHJ.

The story will sound familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to this kind of thing in recent years:

Russian archaeologists discovered the remains in what is now Siberia in 1988. Dated from the early 6th century BCE, they were so well-preserved that is was possible to see the wart on the young warrior’s face. (And by young, I mean twelve or thirteen years old.  Which probably didn't seem as young to the ancient Scythians as it does to us.) But partial mummification had not preserved what are politely described as “secondary sexual characteristics”. Since the warrior was buried with a full array of weapons—an axe, a three-foot-long birch bow and a quiver full of arrows—the archaeologists deemed the remains to be male. Because thirty years ago, weapons were also considered a secondary sexual characteristic.

Recently, the archaeologists were given the opportunity have the remains subjected to paleogenetic analysis, what you and I know as DNA testing, which revealed the young warrior to be a girl. Holy Birka Woman, Batman!

This re-thinking of an existing discovery is not an isolated case in the three years since since discovery that the Birka man was, in fact, the Birka woman. Scholars are beginning to ask more complicated questions about gender and remains. And as a result, there have been several new discoveries as a result of using techniques of forensic anthropology to consider what we know about existing remains. (Here are a couple of links to stories that appeared in my feed in recent months: https://bit.ly/2KD7OFM and https://bit.ly/3eV8kN2)

I suspect that in coming years we are going to see more instances of possible women warriors as these technologies and new questions are applied to new discoveries and existing remains. At a minimum, we can no longer assume that sword means male, because that would be a phallus-y.**

*Google alerts are a wonderful thing.

**Sorry, but I’ve wanted to use that pun for at least two years now. Just  groan and move on.


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Today's news from 1928: Members of the League of Nations council were so distracted by women staff members who attended a session without stockings (a new and apparently shocking fashion) that they stopped working on an anti-war pact to pass a rule forbidding it.