The Kiel mutiny was an anti-government rebellion that broke among German sailors towards the end of World War I. It quickly transformed into a burgeoning revolution and contributed to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
By September 1918, German generals were resigned to the fact they could not win the war. In October, Wilhelm II named Prince Max von Baden, a minor royal of liberal political views, as his chancellor. This appointment, it was hoped, would facilitate armistice negotiations with the Allies – particularly the Americans, who were seen as being more amenable to a peace deal.
The day after his appointment, von Baden contacted US president Woodrow Wilson with peace overtures. At first, Wilson was prepared to broker a ceasefire – until London and Paris became aware of his actions and objected. On October 23rd, von Baden was told that no armistice would be possible without an unconditional German surrender.
As von Baden was working to negotiate a ceasefire, German U-boats were continuing their aggression against Allied mercantile shipping. Three Allied vessels were attacked in October 1918, another factor in the Allied refusal to accept any terms other than total surrender.
Its U-boat campaign aside, the German admiralty had suffered a string of failures in the war. The Kaiser’s fleet had spent most of the conflict in port at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, boxed in by Allied ships and mines. The war’s only major European naval engagement, the Battle of Jutland (1916), did nothing to dent the British Royal Navy’s dominance.
With the war drawing to an end, the German admiralty gave orders for one last major North Sea battle. Two German destroyer groups would break from the harbour and bombard the French and British coastline, enticing Allied ships to respond.
Once in the open, these Allied ships would be attacked by German U-boats and the rest of the Kaiser’s fleet. It would be “an honourable battle”, according to Admiral Reinhard Scheer, “even if it became a death struggle”.
The Plan 19 “suicide mission”
Operation Plan 19, as it was called, had little chance of success. The German navy, for all its ingenuity and U-boat strength, was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by the Allied fleet, which included British, British Commonwealth, French and American ships.
German officers seemed to accept and even relish this final suicide mission. On receiving their orders, some were seen drinking joyful toasts to the imminent battle and the “death of the Kaiserliche Marine”.
The German navy’s enlisted men, however, responded much differently. Few were interested in sacrificing their lives in the freezing waters of the North Sea, in order that the Admiralty might restore some of its lost prestige.
The revolt breaks out
On October 29th, sailors aboard two major ships at Kiel failed to return from shore leave. Within a few hours, the revolt had spread to several battleships and cruisers.
This growing mutiny forced the Admiralty to abandon Operation Plan 19. Instead, they attempted to disperse the mutineers, relocating the troubled ships to other German ports. This divide-and-conquer strategy failed. Within 48 hours, the mutiny had spread to other ports and naval stations.
On November 3rd, the sailors at Kiel, joined by workers from the nearby city, detained their officers and took control of their ships. They also formed elected councils, not dissimilar to the ‘workers’ soviets’ that had precipitated the Russian Revolution the previous year.
A list of demands
Echoing the 14-point peace plan of US President Woodrow Wilson, the Kiel mutineers drafted their list of demands, the first six points being:
“1. The release of all inmates and political prisoners.
2. Complete freedom of speech and the press.
3. The abolition of mail censorship.
4. Appropriate treatment of crews by superiors.
5. No punishment for comrades returning to ships and barracks.
6. No launching of the fleet under any circumstances.”
As the days passed, the Kiel mutiny spread across Germany. It also adopted a distinctly political tone.
Munity becomes revolution
What had begun as a revolt against suicidal naval orders had quickly transformed into a fully-fledged political revolution. Workers’ councils in Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck, Munich and other cities demanded political reforms. They included the abdication of the Kaiser and of local princes, the end of aristocratic privilege, the empowerment of the Reichstag and the implementation of socialist policies.
On November 7th, Bavaria’s King Ludwig III fled to Austria in fear of his life; he later surrendered his power to a republican government. Ludwig would not be the last nor the most significant German royal to be dethroned. Two days later, the Kaiser himself was forced from power, beginning Germany’s transition to republican government.
A historian’s view:
“Whether the sailors and soldiers identified with any socialist party is difficult to ascertain with any certainty. They raised the usual red flags, but those flags were just as likely to stand for a bourgeois republic and improved living conditions as for the creation of a vaguely conceived socialist order. What is clear is that the Kiel mutiny was the opening volley in a period of intense social unrest in central Europe that was to continue well into 1923, during which the fate of Europe itself seems to hang in the balance.”
1. In late October 1918, German warships, which had played little part in World War I, were given orders to instigate one last major battle in the North Sea.
2. The news of this apparent suicide mission, dubbed Operation Plan 19, gave rise to a burgeoning mutiny amongst enlisted ranks stationed in Kiel.
3. On the day the attack was to commence, thousands of sailors from warships stationed at Kiel refused to return to their ships, sparking a mutiny.
4. The Kiel mutiny quickly grew, drawing in workers, soldiers and other sailors and spreading to military bases and cities at various locations around Germany.
5. The political councils formed as a result of Kiel demanded republican and socialist reform. This led to the abdication of several German royals, including Kaiser Wilhelm II.