By this time 100 years ago, World War I — fought mainly among the imperialist powers in Europe and rightfully called “The Great Slaughter” — was finally drawing to a close, its end accelerated by the 1917 Russian Revolution a year earlier. There was no “good side” in this war that brought death to 20 million people. The major states on both sides of the 1914-18 war — Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary — were all oppressor nations, as was the United States, which did not enter World War I until April of 1917.
This article focuses on developments in Germany, especially the events in the first nine days of November 1918, when an uprising of sailors of the North Sea Fleet ended the war and forced the German ruler, the Kaiser, to abdicate. The text is from Chapter 16, “The Revolt of the Kaiser’s Blue Youths,” in the book: “Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions” by John Catalinotto.
Part 1: The Revolt of the Kaiser’s Blue Youths
When Germany declared what was to become World War I, its rulers promised that the war would last only a few months. Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German General Staff said that the army’s rapid and glorious victory would allow Germany to annex parts of Belgium and France and increase its colonial rule in Africa and the Middle East. They told this to the ruling class — the industrialists, bankers and landowning nobility — and they told it to the masses of workers and farmers.
Germany lacked access to the resources that would allow it to maintain the living standards of its population and field a mass army during a long war of attrition. It needed a quick victory. The German rulers may even have believed that their promised rapid results would come true. This self-deceit left their politicians and generals unprepared for what became four years of grinding slaughter.
Without organized opposition to the war as in Russia (where from the beginning the Bolsheviks fought against the war) from Germany’s powerful Social Democrats, the German workers offered little resistance to the ruling class’s enthusiasm for conquest as the war began. Many Germans were caught up in a chauvinistic war fever in the summer of 1914 that was mirrored in France and Britain. Millions of young German men volunteered not only to join the military but also to go to the front. They imagined war would be an ennobling opportunity to exhibit one’s courage and skill in battle.
Ernst Toller, a socialist leader and writer, in the book “A Youth in Germany,” provided his personal experience to illustrate how the mood of large sections of the German population changed between 1914 and 1918 as the German war effort collapsed. Toller was a German Jew who grew up in East Prussia in a town whose working class was mostly of Polish origin. Like nearly all his contemporaries, he volunteered for the army and for the front. He aimed to prove his heroism in battle.
At the front, all it took was one morning spent in a ditch in a French town in the company of some uniformed German cadavers to erode Toller’s patriotic fantasies. He was not the only German, French or British soldier to have his fairy tales laid to rest after a few weeks in the grim trenches on the Western Front.
Instead of glorious contests of skill and courage, what they experienced was the overbearing damp, cold, hunger and boredom of trench warfare, broken only by the occasional thud of artillery and the fear of a sudden or, worse, a lingering death. Any glory-seeking commander who ordered his troops forward out of the trenches saw them mowed down by withering gunfire or poison gas.
In the infamous battle of the Somme in France, for example, fought from July to November 1916, there were 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German troops killed, wounded or missing.
Life grows more miserable at home
Meanwhile, life at home grew steadily more miserable for most Germans. The British fleet imposed a tight blockade, which cut the German population’s access to food and warmth. According to German war propaganda, a glorious victory was near. Always. Each year it was harder for the German population to believe in victory, and this lie fell apart completely in the summer of 1918.
Ralph Haswell Lutz, a member of the American Military Commission in Berlin in 1919 and a historian, wrote about how the German Army attempted a last-ditch offensive on the Marne River in April 1918 that collapsed and then succumbed to a French counteroffensive in July: “The failure of the Germans in the second battle of the Marne is the first cause of the German revolution.”
Lutz described the organized political opposition to the war: “More important than the enemy propaganda was the attempt of certain groups of Independent Socialists to undermine the fighting power of the army. Since the failure of the general strike in Germany in January 1918, these groups worked systematically for the overthrow of German militarism. Thousands of strikers who were sent to the fighting lines helped to spread this propaganda among the troops.”
The German state sent the unionized workers to the front to punish them, but the workers struck back by organizing inside the army.
Germany’s allies began to desert and sign separate peace agreements; Bulgaria signed on Sept. 30, 1918. By the first week of November, Germany’s Austria-Hungarian ally had signed a peace treaty with Italy and Austria’s Kaiser had abdicated.
By this time, according to Toller: “Want in Germany is growing, the bread gets worse, the milk thinner, the farmers chase the city dwellers from the fields, the city food gatherers come home with their pockets empty, the soldiers at the front, bitter about the debauchery and indulgence of the officer staff, about the misery at home, are tired of the war. ‘With equal food and equal pay, the war’d not last another day,’ sing the soldiers.”
One might expect that the rebellion would hit first among the vast infantry forces that had suffered so much and with little recognition or glory. On the contrary, it was the cream of the Kaiser’s forces, the sailors, who were to lead the way. They had first rebelled in 1917, but the final revolution began at the end of October in 1918.
Toller continues: “The sailors of the fleet, the Kaiser’s blue youths, are the first to rebel. The High Seas Fleet is set to sail on a suicidal mission; the officers would rather ‘die with honor than accept a shameful peace.’ The sailors, who were in 1917 already pioneers of the revolution, refuse; they put out the fires powering the ships. Six hundred men are arrested. The sailors leave the ships, storm the prisons, take over the city of Kiel, then the shipyard workers team up with them, and the German revolution has begun.”
Part 2: Workers and soldiers councils seize German cities
Erich Kuttner, an anti-war Social Democratic Party member and organizer who had been wounded at the front and, like Ernst Toller, a writer, described the sailors’ rebellion. By Nov. 20, just three weeks after the rebellion had broken out, Kuttner, a sympathetic participant, had written a 30-page pamphlet about the spread of the revolt and the heroism of the mutinous sailors.
Kuttner’s facts were verified in another pamphlet that described the same events, but one that was written by a naval officer. Lt. Cmdr. Baron Georg von Forstner was a submarine commander whose description was hostile to the rebellious sailors, excoriating them for “cowardice.” These two contrary evaluations of the Kiel sailors’ rebellion nevertheless corroborate the external facts described here.
Unlike the infantry, which recruited heavily from among the millions of German farmers, the navy needed able sailors with experience using modern machinery. For this reason it recruited from the working class in the industrial cities. Because they had been workers who were often active trade union members, this meant they had the habits of unionists and often had contact with the Social Democratic Party. While this party’s majority leadership was still cooperating with the war effort, many members had turned against the war.
Also, work on ships was difficult, exhausting and stressful. Combat was deadly. There were 14-hour shifts where a sailor’s whole life was surrounded by steel floors and gates. As Kuttner describes it, the big warships were a cross between factories and prisons. There was little human contact between the overworked sailors and the privileged officers, who, like civilian bosses, ate separately with much better food. Officers’ orders allowed no questioning; they only demanded obedience.
On Oct. 28, the admiralty issued orders to Adm. von Hipper to proceed with the fleet to the Belgian coast. This move was allegedly an attempt to use the fleet to relieve German land troops in a battle in Flanders. But the sailors didn’t trust the naval command. The admiralty was a hotbed of ultra-patriotic “Pan-German” officers. This group had always been the most aggressive, pushing for war. They also refused to admit Germany’s defeat.
Whether these ultraright officers really had ordered a suicide mission on Oct. 28 was unclear. Von Forstner denied it. Kuttner wasn’t sure. Whatever the reality, the sailors knew their superpatriotic officers were intransigent and believed them capable of sending the fleet on a suicide mission. And the sailors had no wish to commit suicide.
Sailors reject suicide mission
Otto, a sailor in the North Sea Fleet, on Nov. 2, 1918, wrote to his father, a Social Democratic representative in the German Reichstag: “We shook each others’ hands heartily with the words, ‘Victory down the whole line.’ … I must share this with you, that if the armistice isn’t signed soon, that the most awesome military revolt will break out here and we will be forced to make our way back to our homeland with weapons.” (Kuttner)
Otto also wrote that the sailors believed this was an order for a suicide mission. Rejecting suicide, the sailors refused to hoist the anchors on some ships. On others, the stokers put out the fires that created the steam that drove the ships.
When sailors on Otto’s ship heard of these refusals, his crew decided to act in solidarity with their fellow sailors and join the movement. Faced with growing insubordination, the officers kept postponing the hour for the ships’ sailing: first, from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., then, to 8:15 a.m. In the end, no ships sailed toward Flanders.
When the ships all returned to German ports, some to Kiel on the Baltic Sea in Schleswig-Holstein, others to Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea in Lower Saxony, the naval authorities in Wilhelmshaven arrested 600 of the sailors who had taken part in the work stoppage, with focus on the leaders, calling the rebellion a mutiny. Von Forstner called all the rebellious sailors “cowards” whose fear of dying stopped the ships. More to the point than their physical courage, however, was their political consciousness.
Kuttner wrote: “But the first experience of struggling together successfully had made the sailors aware of their strength and their feeling of solidarity grew extraordinarily. The sailors of the Third Squadron in Kiel demanded the release of their imprisoned comrades, and, when this was refused, they called for a protest assembly on Saturday, Nov. 2, at the union hall. By now this not only would make demands for a release of the comrades, but would protest the entire system of bad treatment on board the ships and the inadequate food and accommodation.”
The authorities ordered sailors taking part in the protest to go nowhere near the union hall. This order only got the sailors angrier. They called a mass demonstration that reached beyond the fleet to Kiel’s working class. Each step the officers took to stop the protest — like ringing alarms — made more sailors aware of the revolt and forced them to choose sides.
Officers fire on demonstrators
Some 3,000 began to march through the barracks, calling on more sailors to join them. Then they ran into a roadblock of naval officers — 48 mates and trainees — on the way to the military prison. The mates fired on the demonstrators, first a salvo of blanks and then lead. They killed eight demonstrators and wounded 29, including some from worker families.
Some sailors, too, were armed. They fired back, severely wounding the lieutenant commanding the mates. Kuttner: “Taking their cue from the Russian Revolution, the troops elected a soldiers’ council, which ordered and carried out the general arming on the morning of Nov. 4, when 20,000 rifles with sixty cartridges each were distributed.”
That same morning, the ships of the fleet flew red flags, wrote Von Forstner, “their officers surprised and pushed overboard.”
The military command then sent four infantry companies from the Kiel battalion against the sailors. Instead of shooting at the sailors, the infantry companies negotiated with their leaders. Three infantry companies joined the rebellion. The other allowed itself to be disarmed. Kiel’s organized working class joined the general strike. Without another shot being fired, the city was in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ council, elected by the sailors, infantry and organized workers.
The workers and sailors grew confident; the top officers grew anxious. The Schleswig-Holstein Folks’ Newspaper wrote: “The cold sweat of fear glowed on the white foreheads of the admirals and captains as they negotiated with the fresh young sailors, whose eyes gleamed with the happiness of a better future.”
The sailors knew the only way they could escape severe punishment was to spread the rebellion far beyond Kiel. Commandeering the ships in the fleet, they moved the struggle along Germany’s northern coast. Wherever the sailors landed, organized workers went on strike and joined them.
Army troops join movement
The generals sent the army out to crush this movement of sailors and workers. Before shooting, however, the army troops held discussions with the sailors — and then joined the movement:
“It was revealed how rotten the old system had become. Often all it took was the landing of a small unit of armed sailors to bring large and important cities into the hands of the revolution within a few hours.” (Kutter)
By Nov. 6, the harbor cities of Cuxhaven, Rendsburg, Brunsbüttel and Warnemünde-Rostock, among others, were in the control of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. On the same day, the movement won an outstanding victory. In Hamburg, the second-largest city of the German Empire, which happened to be near the coast, workers laid down their tools on the docks and in many factories. Ships in the harbor raised the red flag. On the streets, patrols stopped the officers and disarmed them.
The rebellious sailors presented an ultimatum on Nov. 6 to the military authorities with the following 14 points:
- The release of all those arrested and all political prisoners.
- Complete freedom of speech and press.
- Abolition of censorship of sailors’ letters.
- Appropriate treatment of the sailors by their officers.
- Sailors return to ships and barracks without punishment.
- Prohibition under all conditions that the fleet should set sail.
- Take all preventive steps to avoid bloodletting.
- Withdrawal from Kiel of all troops not in the Kiel garrison.
- Sailors’ Council has the authority to protect private (personal) property.
- When off-duty there is no recognition of superior officers (no saluting, saying “sir”).
- Unlimited personal freedom for all enlisted men off duty.
- Officers who accept the authority of the sailors’ Council are welcomed; the others are dismissed without claim to compensation.
- Members of the Council are exempt from any service.
- All future orders must be countersigned by the Council. All these demands must be recognized as general military orders.
On the same day, Wilhelmshaven, where the rebellion began, joined the movement when more than 60,000 sailors and shipyard workers demonstrated. What was now called the Soldiers’ Council negotiated the takeover of Wilhelmshaven with the station chief. The revolt spread to the smaller coastal towns and naval stations nearby. By that time the naval uprising to stop the fleet from sailing to war had turned against the Kaiser and any remnants of the German monarchy. What had begun as a sailors’ revolt turned into a political revolution.
U.S. Military historian Ralph Haswell Lutz wrote: “Although the Independent Socialists had in many instances planned uprisings for later dates, the sudden arrival of armed revolutionary soldiers and sailors furnished the leaders and the dramatic moment so essential to any revolt. It was the navy [to be precise, the rank-and-file sailors’ revolt – JC], which destroyed the imperial rule in North Germany.”
Part 3: Revolution sets up Bavarian Soviet Republic, seizure of Berlin
The revolt leaped over central Germany to Bavaria in Germany’s south. Although it was part of the German Reich, Bavaria had the structure of a separate kingdom. There, as early as Nov. 3, a mass demonstration in Munich, the capital, against continuing the war freed political prisoners from Stadelheim prison.
On Nov. 5, at a mass anti-war demonstration in Munich, both the Social Democratic Party and the more leftist Independent Socialists called for a meeting of the entire population two days later, on Nov. 7, the one-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The meeting would be to demand an end to the Kaiser’s rule. That Nov. 7 afternoon, 100,000 people cheered the 12 speakers who demanded that the Kaiser abdicate.
The soldiers in Munich at the Nov. 7 demonstration moved in military formation to release their comrades, who had been confined to quarters by their officers. Thus, the opening of the military revolt in Munich began with the freeing of 250 soldiers who had been confined in the military prison for their “revolutionary acts,” as their officers judged them. Soldiers in trucks with red flags patrolled the streets, and Bavaria’s capital was in the hands of the soldiers and workers.
Soviets control Bavaria
By the morning of Nov. 9, the southern region of Germany was controlled by the Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants of the Free State of Bavaria. Bavaria’s King Louis III put up no resistance. On Nov. 13 he abdicated and fled to his estate in Hungary.
The main target of the North Sea Fleet uprising was Berlin, the capital of the empire, which was the seat of power of the Hohenzollern family monarchy, of which Kaiser Wilhelm was the last ruling member. Germany’s old noble ruling class was ready by this point to try to set up a constitutional monarchy led by Prince Max of Baden if, by pushing out Wilhelm, they could save some of the old ruling structure, along with their privileges. This old structure had prepared its defense. Since 1916 the German General Staff had made plans for an elaborate defense of Berlin and the Kaiser should the masses revolt, which they apparently expected was likely as war sacrifices continued.
The General Staff prepared a chain of command and set out the key points of the city to be held, from the railroad station and post office to the Kaiser’s palace. On paper, it was a perfect plan. It had only one problem: It needed obedient troops to carry it out. There were none to be found. Berlin’s population did not need Facebook or even cell phones for word to travel that the troops would not shoot down the workers.
On Nov. 6, Prussian Gen. Alexander von Linsingen, who was in charge of this repressive machinery without gears, still had the arrogance to forbid a demonstration set for Nov. 7. The workers wanted to celebrate the first anniversary of the Russian Revolution. And they did. As each hour passed, even Von Linsingen was beginning to get the message. His troops were in place at key points throughout the city, but he began to doubt they would fire on the workers.
Goodbye to Berlin
Instead of waiting to find out, Von Linsingen said goodbye to Berlin on the evening of Nov. 8 without ever giving an order to fight. The next morning, Saturday, Nov. 9, 1918, workers spontaneously began a general strike, shutting every factory in Berlin. There was no resistance from the old government.
With the empire vanished, two diverse political leaders each declared a republic — really two different kinds of republic. Karl Liebknecht, recently released from prison for his anti-war agitation and a co-leader with the still imprisoned Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League, declared a socialist republic in the afternoon.
Friedrich Ebert, who had rushed to beat Liebknecht to the punch, had declared a democratic (capitalist) republic two hours earlier. The two declarations signaled the struggle that was to take place between these two political tendencies.
On one side, Ebert and the conservative Majority Social Democrats defended the rule of the capitalist ruling class of Germany, but without the Kaiser and eventually without any trace of the monarchy. On the other side was the Spartacist League, which was to develop into the Communist Party of Germany. The Independent Social Democrats, whom Lutz referred to as playing a role in the November revolution, held an intermediate position.
Over the next two months the Majority Social Democrats did all they could to restrain the revolutionary workers from taking over the government. In mid-January 1919, they made a desperate and brutal move. They collaborated with the military officers of the Freikorps — the officer-led organization of military reactionaries — to execute the leaders of the Spartacist League.
The Spartacist group was too small and weak to seize power on its own, as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia. The Independent Socialists vacillated and refused to challenge the Majority Social Democrats. Consequently, the German working class was unable to take advantage of the revolt in the military, seize power in its own name and smash the old state.
Lt. Cmdr. Von Forstner made an important assertion in his pamphlet: that the rebellion came not from within the fleet but was brought in from the outside by social-democratic organizers. Von Forstner refused to believe the impulse came from the sailors themselves. Perhaps, since he was a submarine captain, he imagined the relations within the entire fleet mirrored those on his submarine, where a handful of officers, mates and ordinary sailors worked closely together, shared conditions and dangers, and depended on each other to survive in combat. Even then, Von Forstner might have overestimated the loyalty of the sailors on his vessel. Still, the hierarchical relationship on a big battleship, with much greater privilege and comfort for the officers, was more likely to accentuate class differences and antagonisms.
Organizer Ernst Kuttner argued, on the contrary, that the revolutionary impulse came more from the sailors than from the worker-organizers. This is believable. For the sailors, everything was an immediate question of life and death. Also, the sailors’ living conditions on the fleet mirrored that of workers in factories, only under more repressive conditions.
Is it really possible, though, to separate the political changes taking place in the working class and the population as a whole from those within the fleet? The sailors were from the working class in the major cities and had family members who were Social Democrats. Some were themselves workers and union members as civilians. Could the officers possibly isolate the sailors from these political changes among the workers? Could they isolate the workers from the revolutionary sentiments of the fleet?
There is another important point: Once the sailors began to revolt, it was almost impossible for them to safely retreat without first upending the monarchy. Leaving the monarchy intact left all the sailors at risk. They had mutinied. At a minimum they faced long terms in military prisons, at a maximum, execution. From the sailors’ point of view, the struggle had to be seen through to its conclusion: political revolution.
In addition — and this is essential — the sailors were armed. After the first repression in Kiel, they distributed tens of thousands of weapons and ammunition. This meant they could march into city after city, connect with striking workers and place a tacit ultimatum before the military authorities and, more importantly, before the rank-and-file soldiers: Either join us or we fight! Once discussions began, the troops on land could see that if they joined with the sailors and workers in solidarity, they would represent the new power in that city and could reach out city to city until they took Berlin.
Again in history, the collapse of the capitalist military forces — albeit a temporary collapse — opened the door to a successful political revolution by dissolving the prior-existing structure and opening the path to a possible social revolution. Unlike in Russia a year earlier, however, the German working class and its disparate parties were unprepared to seize this opportunity to take power and wield it in their own class interests.
Ernst Toller, whose book is quoted earlier in this article, served for six days in April of 1919 as president of the short-lived Soviet Republic of Bavaria and was jailed when the counterrevolution won. The class battle continued for 14 more years of the Weimar Republic and ended in the defeat of the workers in 1933, when Adolf Hitler’s Nazis took power.
This failure to seize power eventually had tragic results for humanity. But this does not negate the historic lessons of the heroic revolt of the sailors of Germany’s North Sea Fleet.
Forstner, George Günther, Freiherr von (1882-1940). Die Marine-Meuterei. Berlin: K. Curtius, 1919.
Kuttner, Erich (1887-1942). Von Kiel bis Berlin: der Siegeszug der deutschen Revolution. Berlin: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaft, 1918.
Lutz, Ralph Haswell (1886-1968). The German Revolution, 1918-1919. Stanford University Publications, 1922.
Toller, Ernst (1893-1939). Eine Jugend in Deutschland. Berlin, Hamburg: rororo, 2012.
All translations by John Catalinotto