The sailors who brought down the German Empire

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The sailors who brought down the German Empire
Sailors demonstrating in Wilhelmshaven in October 1918. Photo: German Federal Archive / Wikimedia Commons

On October 29th 1918, the First World War was all but over - but German Navy ships were due to launch one final assault on the British fleet. The German government knew nothing about it, and the sailors were against it. This doomed assault would spark a revolution that brought the German Empire crashing down.


The order came on October 24th 1918: the German fleet at the North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven was to prepare for battle.

Admiral Franz von Hipper was commander of the High Seas Fleet at the time.

A couple of days earlier, he had been instructed by Reinhard Scheer, German Admiralty Staff Chief, to prepare for an attack on the British fleet.

They would set out on October 30th from Wilhelmshaven, meeting the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet in the southern North Sea before conducting a raid on the Thames and the Flander's Coast.

But on October 29th - the eve of the planned attack – sailors began to mutiny.

Sailors 'knew they wouldn't survive'

Klaus Kuhl, author of a blog documenting the sailors' revolts, has carried out extensive research into the 1918 mutiny.

"The German Navy knew they weren't as powerful as the British fleet," he told The Local.

In spite of this, they ordered the fleet to set sail – but as far as sailors were concerned, this was a suicide mission.

"The German sailors were convinced they would not survive such a battle," Kuhl explained.

"The ratio between English and German sailors was almost 2:1:"

An attempt to continue the war?

It wasn't just a conviction of failure that triggered the revolt.

Amongst the sailors, fears arose that this attack could damage the credibility of Germany's new democratic government, led by Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden.

Earlier in October, Baden had begun diplomatic talks with US President Woodrow Wilson.

"Germany's new government wanted armistice, and peace negotiations," Kuhl told The Local.

But the government had no idea of Scheer's plan.

"Sailors thought that the navy officers wanted to hamper peace plans," Kuhl said, "and continue the war despite the government's efforts."

The SMS Helgoland, one of the battleships on which sailors revolted. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Active rebellion

On the afternoon of October 29th, the High Seas Fleet assembled at Schillig Roads.

Mutinous demonstrations took place on several ships, as sailors refused to prepare for battle.

On the SMS Thüringen and SMS Helgoland – both First Squadron battleships – crews actively rebelled, with stokers turning off the boilers and refusing to work.

When torpedo boats drew alongside these boats and aimed cannons at the crews, the mutineers stepped down.

But by now, Hipper knew that the fleet couldn't set sail under these conditions.

The plan was abandoned, and around 1,000 sailors were arrested and sent to stand trial in Kiel.

The revolt was over in Wilhelmshaven – but over the next few days, mutinous spirit spread.

On November 3rd, the Kiel mutiny began.

A new era for Germany

The revolution that swept across Germany in the next week was immense.

By November 4th, Kiel was in the hands of some 40,000 rebellious sailors, soldiers and workers - and Wilhelmshaven soon followed.

On November 7th, the revolution reached Munich, and on November 9th, the republic was proclaimed as Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate.

With the monarchy swept aside, this was the start of a new era in German history: the Weimar Republic.

'No chance to avoid defeat'

What would have happened if those sailors in Wilhelmshaven had never revolted on October 29th?

Kuhl is uncertain.

The German government "would probably not have dared to confront the military," he told The Local.

"Nevertheless someone would have had to negotiate for peace," he said, "and there was no chance to avoid the defeat."

"So perhaps in the end the military would have been forced to publicly acknowledge their defeat - which was avoided as they sent the new government for negotiations - and this would have given less chances for the spread of the stab-in-the-back myth."

But it's always difficult for historians to answer the "what ifs," he said.

One thing seems certain: Scheer's planned attack on October 30th was doomed from the start.

"If things had gone well, they could have made heavy blows to the English fleet," Kuhl said.

"But ultimately, they would have been defeated and most of the German sailors killed."

By Hannah Butler


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