October 29, 1918 - The Kiel Mutiny & Germany's Surrender in World War I
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
October 29, 1918. Kaiser Wilhelm’s German Empire is losing World War I and is on the brink of collapse. One last order is transmitted to the German High Seas Fleet – a directive to sail out for a suicide run against the Royal Navy, to sacrifice themselves for the honor and prestige of the Navy. There’s just one problem: the sailors aren’t having it. The High Seas Fleet Mutiny begins today, and will spell the end of the German Empire.
Ever since the “Black Day of the German Army” – August 8, 1918, at the Battle of Amiens – it was clear that the Central Powers were going to lose the First World War. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the Army duo that had basically run Germany as a military dictatorship for the last two years of the war, had gambled that Germany could win a military victory rather than negotiate a peace. Ludendorff had gambled even further in March 1918, when he launched a grand offensive on the Western Front that was intended to be a knockout blow against Britain and France before the United States could bring its industrial and manpower strength to bear. He had failed, and in the process squandered almost a million men – fatally weakening the German Army for the inevitable Allied backlash.
The British attack at Amiens was soon followed by French and American attacks all along the Western Front in August and September 1918. The “Hundred Days Offensive,” as it came to be known, was a sharp contrast to the previous years of trench warfare. The Allies made rapid gains across the board, overrunning German defensive positions and taking tens of thousands of prisoners. The truly frightening thing, for the Germans, was that the attacks just didn’t STOP, and every time they moved reinforcements to one trouble spot another fire would break out somewhere else. The unrelenting Allied pressure was chopping away at the tree of the German Army, and by October 1918 that tree was starting to wobble.
Things weren’t any better on the other fronts of the First World War. The Austro-Hungarians were facing a major Italian offensive near Venice, and without German support they were crumbling like wet paper. The Allies were moving northward from Greece as well, and a British army was chasing the Ottomans out of Syria and Palestine, with Lawrence of Arabia’s Bedouin riders flanking them through the desert. It wasn’t like any of these forces was going to reach Berlin anytime soon, but each of them was on the verge of knocking a major Central Powers partner out of the war, and when one surrendered the others would soon follow.
Obviously, German morale was hitting new lows. General Ludendorff himself had denied reality for weeks, then months, but by October 1918 even he had to admit that the Army was both morally and physically destroyed, and they could not look for salvation in any direction. On October 1, he held a General Staff meeting to discuss the situation. The German Army’s only reinforcements in the near future would be the 637,000 young men coming of age in 1919; the manpower barrel was otherwise dry. Against this the Allies could pitch at least 3 million fresh American troops in 1919, and even then most of the German troops were growing…unreliable. Bulgaria had asked for peace terms on September 29, and the Austrians and Ottomans were clearly leaning that way. As a result of this meeting, Ludendorff officially informed Kaiser Wilhelm and the Chancellor that they needed to request an armistice “without any hesitation.”
When Wilhelm received the news, the rounds of diplomatic messages – mainly with Woodrow Wilson – began. But they would not stop the fighting for another month and a half. The Allies plowed forward across the Western Front, with both sides suffering catastrophic losses in the closing days of the war that everyone knew was ending. Normally, the last days of a war see less casualties and a gradual decrease in violence, but World War I was different: the casualty rates of Britain, France, the USA and Germany were INCREASING even as the diplomats haggled out peace terms. With every day, the German position grew weaker, and with every day the Allies continued their bloody advance. When would it end?
By October 26, the German government had tried and failed to gain lenient peace terms. When Ludendorff learned of the price Germany would have to pay for peace, he was enraged and vowed to continue the war; only when the political leaders and the Army’s leaders refused to back him did he finally concede the field. Ludendorff left his defeated Army and fled to Sweden, ending the military dictatorship and for all intents and purposes ending any hope that Germany might continue the war. It was left to the political leadership to swallow the bitter pill of peace.
The onset of peace in October 1918 shocked the German people. Overnight, it seemed like Germany had gone from the verge of victory to the verge of defeat. The Reich still occupied much of western Russia. Poland, Belgium, the Baltic States, Romania, and Ukraine were all under the rule of the Kaiser. How could Ludendorff demand an armistice NOW? The German population, having been fed a steady diet of victorious propaganda and virtually shielded from any bad news, were now facing four years’ worth of bad news all at once. 65 million Germans did not know what was in store.
The German home front had suffered horribly in the last years of the war. Near starvation, political upheaval, and social unrest had rocked the people of Germany. The winter of 1916 was known as the “turnip winter” since that was almost all there was to eat, and the winter of 1917 made 1916 look like a buffet. The declining standard of living, the mounting death toll, and the slow shrinkage of rations had all helped to unhinge the situation in Germany.
The broken state of German society in 1918 created a political climate that tended to extremes. The Social Democrats (SDP), Germany’s left-wing party, had joined in support of the war during the initial fever of 1914, but were now clearly on the verge of taking control of the country. The SDP, even if they were more left-wing than most of Germany, feared the far left even more. These were the radicals like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, who wanted a socialist state much like the one that Lenin was currently forming in Russia; they had broken away from the SDP to form a more radical party in the USDP (Independent Social Democratic Party). The Bolshevik Revolution scared Germany to death, especially since many German soldiers had come back from the Eastern Front chanting Bolshevik slogans and waving red flags. The German political leaders – both left and right – were in mortal fear of a socialist revolution.
One of the lowkey bedrocks of political agitation in Germany was, of all things, the German Navy. It was the German Navy that had been one of the main factors in the leadup to the war, since its expansion was a direct threat to Britain’s naval interests and helped push Britain into the Allied camp. The Navy was also a “new” service, compared to the Army with its old Prussian traditions. Its rank and file seamen were drawn from the major urban centers like Hamburg, Lubeck or Wilhelmshaven, and thus the German Navy’s enlisted men were from some of the most left-wing areas of Germany. It would be like if the U.S. Navy was completely recruited from AOC’s district of New York.
The German Navy’s surface fleet had not seen much action in the First World War. For all the money and political capital spent on building a prime battle fleet, it had almost no real impact on the course of the conflict. The British blockade of the German coast, which had done so much to starve and impoverish the Germany people, also kept the High Seas Fleet penned up in its ports, barely able to move and even less able to affect events. The U-Boats, of course, proved to be a major factor in the war, but the High Seas Fleet sat lonely and unused. Their only workout was the great naval battle at Jutland in 1916, and even though the Germans scored a minor tactical success they were unable to break out past the much stronger British battle fleet.
The Navy’s top-ranking Admirals, men like Franz von Hipper and Reinhard Scheer, were dismayed by the High Seas Fleet’s inactivity, and embittered by Germany’s imminent defeat. They had labored for years to build up a glorious fleet, 18 battleships and 5 battlecruisers, only to see them sit in port for years as Germany fought and lost the war without them. The morale of the crews and self-respect of the officers had declined as a result, and small acts of mutiny became more and more common, including the August 1917 arrest of 200 men from the “Prinzregent Luitpold”. The British Grand Fleet, based off the east coast of Britain, had 35 dreadnought battleships and 11 battlecruisers, five of which were from the U.S. Navy. It was clear what the result of any major action would be. Even worse, the Spanish Flu struck the Grand Fleet in autumn 1918, at the same time that it was making its way across the rest of Europe. 1% of the Fleet’s sailors died, and many more were hospitalized.
Even with all this in mind, Hipper and Scheer decided that the Fleet had to go out fighting. Anything else would be humiliating, a waste of years of training and resources. On October 24, 1918, the Admiralty issued an order for the High Seas Fleet to sally forth with everything it had against the Allied armada. It could only be described as a death ride, a suicide run, a final show of determination against the enemy that had haunted them for four years. Though Scheer would claim after the war that he *really* had a super good plan that could turn the war around for Germany, it was abundantly clear that the Death Ride of the High Seas Fleet was going to be a salve for the Navy’s wounded pride.
Slight editorial here: it is disgusting and repulsive on every level of leadership to send men under your command into almost certain death for some sort of symbolic victory that you know won’t change a damn thing. The war was over, and these men just wanted to go home; instead, the Admirals decided better dead than defeated. But they didn’t get to decide that for the sailors. As it turned out, the sailors would decide for themselves.
The sailors’ uprising first began near the port of Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea, where the fleet was assembling for its suicide mission. Beginning on October 29, 1918, several of the crews of the Third Squadron refused to obey the orders to weigh anchor. When their captains ordered them to make ready for sail, to prepare for death and glory, the sailors…just didn’t do it. On at least two ships in the First Squadron, they literally sabotaged the vessels to prevent them from sailing. The mutiny was broken up the next day – October 30 – when torpedo boats surrounded the mutineers’ ships and forced them to stand down.
The German sailors were escorted off the ships, but this was the end of the admirals’ war plan. It was evident that the sailors, like the soldiers on the Western Front, could no longer be trusted to fight. The Third Squadron was ordered back to Kiel, in the Baltic, where new plans would be laid.
These are the last days of October and the first days of November, keep in mind. Events had been happening FAST in Germany itself. The same day that the sailors refused to go on a glorious death ride in Wilhelmshaven, October 29, Wilhelm II was spending his last day on German soil. That day, he left for Spa in Belgium – the headquarters of the German Army. Cheerfully offering to lead the Army back into Germany to restore order, he quickly learned that the Army would not follow. Behind him in Germany, meanwhile, chaos was breaking out.
The Third Squadron had returned to Kiel, and its commander Admiral Hugo Kraft ordered a training exercise to be conducted. When this passed without incident, he felt assured that he had control over his ships again. Kraft quickly had 47 sailors identified as the ringleaders of the October 29 mutiny arrested and confined. The sailors of the High Seas Fleet were not fooled; they caught on to the chipper mood and devil-may-care attitude of their officers. One of the key signs of impending suicide is a sudden cheerfulness and a desire to get rid of possessions, and after months of gloom that was how the German fleet’s officers behaved. Unlike a normal suicide, though, it was clear that they planned to take every gunner, stoker, repairman and crewman on board every ship with them. If the sailors didn’t act now, it might be too late.
Led by a sailor named Karl Artelt and a shipyard worker named Lothar Popp, both member of the far-left USDP, several thousand sailors and dockworkers assembled in Kiel for a mass meeting on November 3. They adopted the slogan “peace and bread,” and demanded the release of the mutineer prisoners, the end of the war, and the distribution of food to the hungry people. The Kiel Mutiny moved towards the prison, but ran straight into a patrol of Army troops that had been ordered to stop them. Shots were fired, and soon seven demonstrators were dead and 29 injured; both the demonstrators and patrol withdrew.
But this was only getting started. This first encounter on November 3 marked the beginning of the German Revolution. Soon the mutineers came back in strength, and by November 4 swarms of naval mutineers were thronging through the streets of Kiel. When they confronted Army troops in the local barracks some resisted, but others joined the movement. Soon soldiers’ councils, workers’ councils, and sailors’ councils were being formed throughout the city, and the mutineers were freed. The admirals fled for their lives from Kiel, and on the great steel battleships that Kaiser Wilhelm had loved so much, red revolutionary flags were soon unfurled.
Late on the evening of November 4, the Kiel mutineers issued a set of “Fourteen Points” that called for personal freedom and the abolition of the military system. Soon these Fourteen Points had spread to most of the cities of Germany, which were already awash with labor strikes, rioting soldiers, and mass robberies as civilians searched for food. Along with the Points came representatives from the Kiel councils, with the effect that it looked like a pandemic was spreading across Germany – a pandemic of revolution, with the epicenter among the sailors of Kiel. Sailors, soldiers, and workers began forming councils from Munich to Cologne to Berlin. Germany was in the throes of revolution.
This was extremely scary, of course, and with the Social Democrats now in the driver’s seat of government they too were quite concerned. By November 7, with almost all the large coastal cities and major urban centers in the hands of the Revolution, the Social Democrats were able to convince Wilhelm II to abdicate; the golden Imperial train crossed the border pathetically into the Netherlands on November 10. Kaiser Wilhelm would never set foot in Germany again. On the 9th, the day prior, the Chancellor Max von Baden and the SDP’s leader Friedrich Ebert had announced the abdication and proclaimed the beginning of a German Republic. Its first assembly would meet in February 1919 at the town of Weimar – hence the name “Weimar Republic.”
It was thus on the head of the Republic that the final peace settlement would fall. On November 11, 1918, the guns finally went silent as the ceasefire came into effect on the Western Front. World War I was over, in large part thanks to the role that the Kiel mutineers had played in forcing the hand of the government and the military. When it became clear that not only was the German military, but all of German society was on the verge of collapse, the will to fight finally went out of the ruling elites of the German nation.
But the Revolution was not over – at least, there were significant groups that did not WANT it to be over. The new German Republic stood on a shaky foundation. Its only support was from the liberals and mild leftists of the Social Democratic Party and the Catholic Center Party, led by Friedrich Ebert. On the right, there were the Army and the conservatives, who despised the new government as the libtards who had cost them the war; on the left, there were the USPD and the out-and-out socialists, who looked at the Russian Revolution for their example. The devil and the deep blue sea confronted Germany in late 1918, even as they faced the almost greater problem of negotiating what was sure to be a bitter peace with the Allied powers at Versailles.
The German Revolution had one sad act to play out. The SDP was terrified of the far left in particular because of the example being played out in Russia. Lenin’s Bolsheviks had unleashed the “Red Terror,” a state system of murder and secret police carried out by Lenin’s Cheka. The news coming out of Russia mortified the whole world, who looked with unbridled horror on what was happening in the Russian Revolution; this outpouring of fear sparked the first Red Terror in Europe and America. In Germany, the very fragile new Republic had only to look down the street to see the workers’ councils and soldiers’ councils being formed – what in Russia would be called “soviets.” If the SDP was the Bernie Sanders party, they were looking dead-on at a party that idolized Vladimir Lenin and they were scared.
In January 1919, even before the Republic had sent its delegation to Versailles, a general strike and armed uprising broke out in Berlin. Its leaders were the Communist Party of Germany, which had grown from the kernel of the left-wing USDP into its own movement. Its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, headed the Spartacist League, which sought to establish a socialist government based on the workers’ councils. 500,000 participants surged onto downtown Berlin, intent on continuing the German Revolution past democracy and into socialism.
The Social Democrats, their back against the wall, made a deal with the devil. Large numbers of returning soldiers from World War I, disillusioned and traumatized, had banded together in right-wing militias known as Freikorps to resist the revolution. Facing total societal revolution, the SDP called on the Freikorps – their ideological enemies – to assist them in putting down the Spartacists. The Freikorps gladly obliged. Around 170 people died in the subsequent fighting in Berlin, and the Freikorps arrested Leibknecht and Luxembourg. They were brutally beaten and executed on January 15, and Rosa’s body was thrown in the canal, where it was not found until months later.
The fact that the Social Democrats had called on the right-wing Freikorps to suppress the socialist revolution would kill any hope of long-term stability for the Weimar Republic. Many members of the Freikorps, including Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Roehm, would be leading members of the Nazi Party. Neither the surviving Communists or the emergent far right would have any interest in preserving the infant Weimar Republic.
When the Nazis threatened to take power in Germany in 1932, a last-minute alliance between the Communists and Social Democrats could have prevented their rise – but the Communist leader Ernst Thalmann refused to ally with the “Social Fascists” to stop the insurgent Nazis. The memory of the Revolution was too strong, and the blood of Rosa Luxembourg still too vivid. Thalmann believed that Hitler would spell the end of capitalism, and that his rule would be short and futile; once Hitler had fallen, socialism could finally come to Germany. “After Hitler, our turn,” he asserted.
Ernst Thalmann died in Buchenwald in 1944. The left and the center had failed to unite to stop fascism, and paid for it. What began with a mutiny at Kiel ended in the blood and ruin of Nazi Germany.
Don’t take any lessons from that or anything.