The German View of November 1918
Created | Updated Nov 9, 2006
The First World War was a turning point in European history. Of the key players involved in its creation, the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires had collapsed by the end of the War, the Ottoman was on its last legs and would not survive for long and the British Empire would be on the road to a more peaceful, but equally final change.
Russia was the first to go, battered on the battlefield and in turmoil within. The Tsar was deposed in 1917 and finally murdered, together with his family, by his own former subjects in June 1918. The Romanovs were related to most of the European Royal families, and their murder sent a warning to all the crowned heads of their likely fate should revolution occur. In a similar fashion, the Russian Revolution of 1917 sent a message of hope to those who opposed monarchy. The discontent with the War was expressed in many ways but, in general, the nearer a country was to Russia, the more likely a similar show of discontent would be. Russia and Lenin, of course, would support it verbally, but at that stage no material support would have been given.
The Navy Mutiny
There had been discontent in the German Imperial High Seas Fleet since the Battle of the Skaggerak1 in which it had emerged as the debatable victor of a very close run contest. Since then it had lain at anchor, hemmed in by the British blockade, which also prevented the importing of any goods by sea. This enforced idleness, at a time when the army was being bled dry, served to foster opposition to the War. It was aided and abetted by the Spartakists, an extreme-left faction of the SPD, the Democratic Socialist Party. They, like the Russian Communists were plotting revolution.
It was not a sudden and spontaneous revolt. There had been minor incidents in the navy which, in themselves, were no indication of unrest, more of war-weariness. There was a mutiny in August, 1917, which was quickly brought under control by the army, the ringleaders being shot and the major players sentenced to hard labour.
The year of 1918 had not gone well for Germany. The Spring offensive in the West, Operation Michael, had early successes, but they could not be sustained and the Allies had begun to advance towards Germany. The German Army was considered to be unable to stem this advance and there was a desire to sue for peace before the Allies reached the border. The Kaiser had gone to the Army Headquarters in Belgium to support his Generals. The army generals had effectively run the country until 28 September, 1918, when they handed control over to the Reichstag, Germany's elected Parliament, under the Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden. This showed a weakness in government. On top of that, on 2 October, 1918, the Chief of the Army, General Ludendorff, told the Reichstag that they could not win the war. Once again, it was message of weakness to those who wished for the end of the War. With America's President Wilson, they began to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire.
It was known that the navy did not like the idea of giving up their warships without a fight and thereby a rumour grew that the Admirals of the Imperial Navy were about to set sail in an attempt to break the British blockade. This would have been without the knowledge of both the Kaiser and Reichstag and was tantamount to political suicide. This knowledge and the low morale and anti-war feelings led to a refusal to obey orders on 29 October, 1918, on ships in harbour at Wilhelmshaven. Three hundred gave up, were arrested and were sent ashore. A revolt had already been organised and the arrest of these men sparked action on shore. Seizing control of the dockyard, the revolt spread to the ships. Red flags were hoisted over all the ships and the dockyard buildings. Within four days, it had spread to Kiel. On 31 October, the Ottoman Empire asked for an Armistice, which was given.
In Kiel, the other naval anchorage, a similar mutiny now took place and officers replied by arresting some of the sailors. This led to a mass demonstration of the men on 3 November. These demonstrations were fired on, resulting in eight deaths and 29 wounded. This sparked a take-over of ships and buildings which, once again were adorned with red flags. The Kiel dockers, who were already on strike, joined in and on 4 November created the first Workers' and Soldiers' Council2 in Germany in defiance of national government. They were similar to the Russian soviets. On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian government asked for and was granted an Armistice. Germany was alone.
Major revolts occurred in Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck. In days, the example of the northern ports was followed by local activists all over Germany. The Council was not revolutionary in that it asked only for fair treatment for the sailors, an end to hostilities and political freedom. No officers were executed, no property seized other than the dockyards and there was no call for the Kaiser's abdication or a republic. Much has been made of the German 'revolution', but it did not fashion itself on the model of the Russian example. Herr Noske, the Minister for Military Affairs, had no difficulty in establishing order among the 'revolutionaries' at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. The only concession to a revolution was the fact that it spread and the effect it had on the traditional ruling classes.
The disorder had spread to Munich by 7 November. A large gathering of workers assembled on a field in the city and marched toward the castle of the King of Bavaria in the town centre. Their leaders may have mentioned revolution, but the crowd was hardly armed and probably did not know exactly what it wanted. Before the group arrived at the castle the old King Ludwig III, perhaps fearing the fate of Nicholas of Russia, had abdicated and was on his way into exile. In the early hours of 8 November an Independent SPD member, Kurt Eisner, formed a Soldiers', Workers' and Peasants' Council and declared Bavaria a Volksstaat, a People's State. He did this not because there was a call to do so, but because it seemed like the right thing to do and no one else seemed to want to do it.
The departure of local royalty continued apace as if they wanted to go. The old order was in disarray and on its way out. There seems to have been no coercion, no force, no ultimatums. It was the end. In all, four Kings, five Grand Dukes and 12 Princes gave up their right to rule and, in almost all cases, their land and property, and left.
The Kaiser goes
On 8 November, the Army Council decided to bring troops from the Western Front to restore order in the name of the Kaiser, but were advised that there were not enough loyal troops to do so. The revolution had spread to the army. The Kaiser's continuing hold on power, it was realised, could lead to civil war. At that time even the moderates, who would have kept a constitutional monarchy, began to call for the Kaiser's abdication. Kaiser Wilhelm would have none of it. Desperate to limit the damage of the revolution, Prince Max von Baden announced the Kaiser's abdication on 9 November, 1918. This was actually illegal and quite 'revolutionary' in its own way. The Prince then resigned from the post of Chancellor and declared Friedrich Ebert, the moderate SPD leader, the new Chancellor. Karl Liebknecht, the revolutionary and Spartikist leader, who had just been released from jail, declared a German Socialist Republic. Chancellor Ebert, who despised revolutionaries, immediately countered this by announcing the Free German Republic.
All this time, the Kaiser was at the Army Headquarters at Spa, Belgium. It fell to Field Marshall Hindenburg to break the news about the state of loyalty among the troops and that he, the Kaiser, had no support. Being a long and devoted supporter of the monarchy, he just could not do this. The shame was too great. It was his adjutant, General Groener, who did so. The Kaiser came to the decision to abdicate quite independently, some hours after Prince Max's announcement. He did so with bad grace and at first did not accept what amounted to a coup d'état, but bowed to the inevitable. Once again, he must have had thoughts about cousin Nicholas' fate a few months earlier. He left Spa on 10 November on the Royal Train for exile in Holland. He never did forgive Hindenburg.
Endings and Beginnings
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times', so described Charles Dickens the time of the French Revolution, and so it was for Germany. An armistice was agreed on 11 November, 1918, but the War was not brought to an end officially until 28 June, 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles. The old order had been swept away, but there was nothing of substance to replace it. While the end of hostilities was celebrated, Germany was disarmed3and the Allies occupied the Rhineland.
The political situation in Germany was volatile and returning troops entered the fray. There was bloodshed and civil insurrection, but a fully fledged civil war was averted. At last there was democracy in Germany and the spectre of a Communist revolution faded. The War had ended, the monarchy and the Second Reich (Empire) had finished. The divisive kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms had ended, too, and a united, if smaller Germany had begun. Land was lost to the French in the West and to the new Polish State in the East. The discontent grew, too, and from it came the tiny beginning of what would grow to be a new threat to Europe, the National Socialist Workers' Party, known by the shorter name its members used - the Nazi Party.
Note: For those who wish to research further many other links are available, but are connected with Anarchist, Marxist and other organisations which advocate authoritarianism and violence to promote change. This researcher found many. Be aware.