Steamship Sunday – 1918: German Sailors Mutiny

Steamship Sunday

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Sailors of the Kreigsmarine, the German Navy, mutiny in Kiel.

German Sailors Mutiny, 28 October 1918

On 28 October, 1918, sailors in the German High Seas Fleet steadfastly refused to obey an order from the German Admiralty to go to sea to launch one final attack on the mighty British navy, echoing the frustrated, despondent mood of many on the side of the Central Powers during the last days of World War I.

By the last week of October 1918, three of the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – were in talks with the Allies about reaching an armistice, while the fourth, Bulgaria, had already concluded one at the end of September. With the end of the war seemingly in sight, the German naval command – led by the Admiralty’s chief of staff, Reinhardt Scheer – decided to launch a last-ditch effort against the British in the North Sea in a desperate attempt to restore the German navy’s prestige.

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Tone deaf: Kriegsmarine Admiral Reinhardt Scheer wanted one last grand battle against the Royal Navy, precipitating a mutiny in the Kriegsmarine that spread to the German Army as well.

In the words of Reinhardt Scheer, chief of staff of the German Admiralty, “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.” Choosing not to inform the chancellor, Max von Baden, of its plans, the German Admiralty issued the order to leave port on October 28.

Coming on the heels of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, many believe that the mutiny in the Kriegsmarine was politically motivated and patterned after the Bolshevik uprising. However, the uprising of German sailors in October-November 1918 was not politically motivated and certainly not fomented in imitation of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution or by German Socialist political agitators as was claimed at the time by German officers and later by communist East German propagandists. Rather the mutinies, which actually first broke out in August 1917, were motivated by poor food, lack of leave, often savage discipline and officer incompetence. The final spark igniting the October-November 1918 revolt of sailors at the port of Kiel was Admiral Scheer’s plan for one last suicide sortie by the High Seas Fleet against the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.

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The mutiny of the sailors of the Kriegsmarine began in Kiel.

The German High Seas Fleet ethos of command after 1900 developed as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s hatred of Britain drove him to try to best the Royal Navy and construction began of a German fleet in competition with Great Britain.

German Naval officers – unlike German Army officers – were drawn traditionally from the middle classes. The Naval officer corps, being stationed before 1900 in ships scattered around the world, were tolerant and cosmopolitan. They avoided creating the equivalent of the Army’s elite regiments, shunning Prussian snobbery and militarism. Relations between officers and ordinary sailors were marked by respect and leniency. The elevation of Admiral Alfred Tirpitz as Secretary of the Navy in 1898 began to change all that. Tirpitz’s new battleship navy concentrated in the North Sea came more and more to resemble the Army with its harsh discipline and rigid caste system.

Pressures of war began by mid-1916 to destroy vaunted naval morale and efficiency. The ennui of weeks and months of laying inactive in port following the Kriegsmarine’s defeat by the Royal Navy in the Battle of Heligoland Bight followed by the strategic defeat of the Kriegsmarine in the May 1916 Battle of Jutland was corrosive of morale and efficiency. Inactivity was made more unbearable by the increasingly poor quality of the rations issued to sailors and stokers, particularly as these were far inferior to the food served to officers. Veteran officers detached to man the growing U-boat fleet were replaced by inexperienced younger men. Officers attempted to control sailors’ grumbling with increasingly harsh punishments and ceaseless drill. This only made matters worse. In August 1917 a wildcat food strike erupted among the sailors of the Prinzregent Luitpold. Retaliation was harsh with long prison sentences and two death penalties exacted on those suspected of leading this action. Word of these excesses spread throughout the High Seas Fleet. Meanwhile, peace sentiment spread among the populace and in the parliament as more and more soldiers and civilians realized that Germany was losing the war.

With an improvement in rations during 1918, matters simmered for a time. Sailors, many of whom were former trade unionists or from urban working-class families, were familiar the weapon of industrial action. When it became known Germany was seeking an armistice and that the Naval high command was actively planning a final suicidal “death ride” against the Royal Navy, full-fledged mutiny broke out among sailors in Kiel. Mismanagement by ranking Naval officers resulted in this mutiny spreading first over the entire German coastline and then throughout the country. At no time did the sailors’ demands echo Bolshevik slogans. Rather, they called for peace, just treatment, amnesty for strikers and an end to political autocracy.

The sailors themselves, knowing the attack to be a suicide mission, would have none of Scheer’s order. Though the order was given five times, each time they resisted. In total, 1,000 mutineers were arrested, leaving the Imperial Fleet immobilized. By October 30, the resistance had engulfed the German naval base at Kiel, where sailors and industrial workers alike took part in the rebellion; within a week, it had spread across the country including the Army, with revolts in Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck on November 4 and 5 and in Munich two days later. This widespread discontent led Socialist members of the German Reichstag, or parliament, to declare the country a republic on November 9, followed swiftly by Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication and finally, on November 11, by the end of the First World War.

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Above: sailors of the Kriegsmarine march in mutiny in Wilhelmshaven; Below: the revolt in Kiel.

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Below: funeral of mutineers in Kiel.

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One Comment

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  1. Amazing what one doesn’t know about history. As a sailor I cannot imagine joining in a revolt (mutiny), but, but neither have I faced such ignorant orders from someone who was not willing to lead the fight. It is amazing to me the events of history either I was not taught or didn’t pay attention. I always pictured the GERMAN as the ones to ‘follow orders’.
    I knew two men personally, who farmed under Hitler. No repair parts for tractors, you must repair or you were shot. Produce or die. But that was Hitler’s rule and I imagine my knowledge was more of the Army than the navy. Interesting the relationship of naval officers and the swabbies. Who knew? Not me!

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