In the last days of the first world war, an event occurred which resulted in the rapid collapse of the German monarchy, and ultimately hastened the end of the war.
The event was sparked by sailors in the German High Seas Fleet who after suffering from months of low morale, finally decided to stop taking orders.
Learn more about the Kiel Mutiny and how it shaped the outcome of the first world war and the future of Germany, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand the Kiel Mutiny we need to know where Germany and the German Navy were entering November 1918.
Most of the historical focus of World War I deals with trench warfare on the western front. However, the war was also fought at sea.
In 1916, the Battle of Jutland was fought in the North Sea between the German and British navies. It wasn’t just the largest naval battle of the war, but also in terms of total tonnage, the largest naval battle in history.
Technically, the British suffered significantly higher losses than the Germans did, but because they had such an overwhelmingly larger navy, the end result was that the German Navy never was able to operate outside of the Baltic Sea.
U-boats still played a major part in Germany’s naval strategy, but its surface fleet was for the most part sidelined.
Not only were they sidelined, but resources were transferred elsewhere in the war effort. That meant for about two years, the crew on the surface ships, aka the battleships and battlecruisers, mostly did nothing, and as such, they were also given sharply reduced rations.
After the Battle of Jutland, morale amongst the German sailors dropped further and further.
Discontent was in the air as early as August 1917 when the 350 man crew of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold staged a protest in the port city of Wilhelmshaven.
In typical German military efficiency, two of the leaders of the protest were shot and others were thrown in prison. The protest was quashed, but the discontent was still festering below the surface.
In the fall of 1918, the handwriting was on the wall for the German military. The allies were winning the war of attrition, especially since the injection of supplies, money, and troops from the United States within the last year.
On September 30, Georg von Hertling resigned as the German chancellor, and he was replaced with Prince Maximilian of Baden.
Prince Maximilian took office on October 3, and by October 5 he was exchanging telegrams with President Woodrow Wilson about an armistice.
By this time, Austria and Bulgaria, Germany’s two major allies, had already signed independent armistice agreements, and Germany was now all alone.
The precondition that Wilson demanded to even begin talking about an armistice was an immediate cessation of u-boat activity in the Atlantic.
On October 20, Prince Maximilian agreed to this condition, and on October 21, all u-boats were recalled back to Germany.
The problem was, this angered the head of the German Admiralty, Admiral Reinhard Scheer.
Scheer decided he was going to take matters into his own hands. On October 22, the day after the German Chancellor gave the order to end unrestricted submarine warfare, Admiral Scheer told Admiral Franz von Hipper, the head of the German High Seas Fleet, to prepare for an attack on the British Navy.
This operation was dubbed “Plan 19”
Here I should note that since the Battle of Jutland two years earlier, the disparity between the British and German navies only grew larger. The British had more of everything except for submarines, and now the American navy would be in the picture as well.
Also, the German sailors, remember, had pretty much done nothing for the last two years, were malnourished, and a wave of the Spanish Flu had just torn through the fleet within the last month.
Basically, Plan 19 was pretty close to a suicide mission. Even if by some miracle the German could win, what would they win? The war was still going poorly on the ground, and in the end, that is what really mattered.
Even worse, it appears that Admiral Scheer knew exactly what the odds of success were. He said,
“An honorable battle by the fleet—even if it should be a fight to the death—will sow the seed of a new German fleet of the future. There can be no future for a fleet fettered by a dishonorable peace.”
The German Chancellor was not notified about Plan 19. This was all being done from within the admiralty without the government’s approval.
On October 24, the order was given from the German naval headquarters in the city of Kiel to begin sailing out in preparation for the attack.
The fleet began to assemble off the northwest coast of Germany near Wilhelmshaven, close to where the German and Dutch borders meet in the North Sea.
On the night of October 29 and 30, the ships were ordered to raise their anchors….and this was where the problems started.
The sailors knew that this was basically a suicide mission and that the war was close to over. There was nothing to be gained at this point, and the sailors were going to have none of this.
If you put yourself in their shoes, they really had nothing to lose. Either they get killed in combat, or they might get killed by their own side, and the former was looking a lot more likely than the latter.
Three ships in the Third Navy Squadron refused to raise their anchor and the crews of the battleships SMS Thüringen and SMS Helgoland outright mutinied. Five times the order was given, and five times it was ignored.
The next day on October 30th, the ships were threatened to be sunk by torpedo boats and the mutineers soon surrendered. There were over 1,000 men who were arrested.
The admiralty had to call off the attack because they didn’t have the loyalty of their sailors anymore.
For the admiralty, this wasn’t the end of their problems, it was just the beginning.
When the mutineers were brought back to the naval base at Kiel, the real problems started.
Sailors stationed in Kiel as well as dock workers who worked at the base began to protest. 250 sailors and workers met on November 1 and demanded to the officers that the sailors be set free. The officers ignored their demands.
The next day on November 2, the protests had gained momentum and hundreds began to protest outdoors with sailors and unions working together.
On November 3, it had quickly grown to thousands of protesters.
The military tried to subdue the crowd by shooting into it. They killed seven protesters and injured 29, however, only fanned the flames of the movement.
On November 4, the entire town and military base of Kiel were under the control of 40,000 sailors and workers.
The slogan that they were protesting under was “Frieden und Brot” which means “bread and peace”.
That evening, the main organizing group in Kiel issued a list of demands known as The Kiel ‘Fourteen Points’. The fourteen points were basically demands for an end to the war, basic rights like free speech, and improved living conditions.
The army sent 40,000 troops of their own to put down the uprising, but it was to no avail as most of them joined the mutiny.
The rebellion spread with shocking speed throughout Germany. Delegations from Kiel were sent to every major city in Germany, and by November 7th, every coastal city was under the control of councils made up of sailors and workers.
This was now the beginning of the German Revolution.
All over Germany, in almost every major city, protests erupted and worker committees began to take over.
The concern throughout the country was the prospect of a Russian-style revolution taking place in Germany.
On November 9th, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne, and Germany was declared a republic.
Here I should note that the Kaiser was the Emperor over all of Germany, but there were also 22 different monarchs, including the Kaiser, which ruled individual kingdoms and dutchies within Germany. Within the month of November 1918, all 22 of them abdicated, including King Ludwig of Bavaria.
As you probably know, just two days later on November 11th, the war ended when the armistice came into effect.
In hindsight, there were several questions that historians have had about this whole episode.
The first was why did Admiral Scheer order the attack on the British navy, knowing full well that it would probably result in the destruction of his own fleet?
The consensus is that he wanted to attack the British to try and scuttle any talks between the German government and the allies. If there was a major attack that inflicted huge casualties, even at the cost of his own ships, it would probably cause the allies to walk away.
The second big question, was why didn’t the Kiel Mutiny and the subsequent German Revolution result in a Soviet-style revolution?
You saw the creation of worker committees all over the country, similar to what happened in Russia.
The reason is that the Fourteen Points, which were the demands that everyone rallied around, were very limited in scope. They didn’t call for sweeping political changes. It was mostly about the end of the war, which everyone was tired of at this point, and guaranteeing civil liberties.
There also wasn’t an equivalent of a Bolshevik party in Germany to spearhead a nationwide revolution.
There were communists in Russia who thought that this was going to be the start of their grassroots revolution going international, but that never really happened. Not just in Germany, but anywhere else.
What it led to was the end of the war, democratic reforms, and the Weimar Republic.
Even without Plan 19 and the Kiel Mutiny, the war probably would have been over within the month anyhow. Nonetheless, the Kiel Mutiny served as the final nail in the coffin of the first world war, and the event which finally brought the war to a close.