Holding the line

I am a bit tied up with Important Things right now and so am falling a bit behind in this important Great War endeavour. These are some of the things that happened since the my last post, which I hope to return to shortly.

29/12/1918 The Independent Social Democrats leave Ebert‘s coalition in protest at the German Chancellor’s decision to send troops against the People’s Navy Division on Christmas Eve.

31/12/1918 In less than two months flu has claimed the lives of 20% of Western Samoa‘s population.

2/1/1919 Criminal investigations open into atrocities ordered by Turkey’s leaders during the war.

3/1/1919 Emir Faisal reaches an agreement with Zionist leader Chaim Weizman to support Jewish immigration into Palestine.

3/1/1919 The Red Army occupies Riga. In response to the Bolshevik invasion, Latvia’s government seeks to form an armed force of German volunteers.

4/1/1919 A bizarre and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by an American officer to kidnap the Kaiser.

5/1/1919 Demonstrations in Berlin by the far left Spartacists escalate into an armed uprising against Ebert’s government.

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Spartacists (Wikipedia: Spartacist uprising)

24/12/1918 Berlin’s Christmas Eve Battle #1918Live

It is Christmas Eve. Across Europe people are preparing for the season of goodwill to all men. But not in Berlin, where rival groups of men are today trading gunshots.

The German revolution first stopped the German navy from launching a suicidal attack on the British fleet, before overthrowing the Kaiser and hastening the end of the war. Now Friedrich Ebert leads a coalition government of his own Social Democrats (the SPD) and the slightly more radical Independent Social Democrats (the USPD). Preparations are underway for fully democratic elections to be held early next year.

No one really knows whether the German revolution is now essentially over, with the future being one of gradual reforms improving the lives of the SPD’s working class supporters, or if this is just a transitional phase akin to the rule of Kerensky‘s Provisional Government in Russia. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League hope that Ebert’s government will soon be replaced by a government based on workers’ councils, as supposedly is the case in Soviet Russia. Ebert meanwhile fears that any sign of unrest has been whipped up the Spartacists as a prelude to a coup attempt by them.

The Volksmarinedivision (People’s Navy Division) is a unit of revolutionary marines that were stationed in Berlin in the early days of the revolution, currently billeted in the former royal palace. Now a dispute has arisen between them and the commander of the city garrison, Otto Wels. Wels held back the marines’ pay; in return they have now mutinied, abducting him and roughing him up.

Ebert fears that the marines are preparing to spearhead a Spartacist putsch. He may also be coming under pressure from Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to do something about the unruly marines. So he orders regular troops to attack the palace and suppress the marines.

The assault on the palace begins with an artillery bombardment and then a fire fight erupts between the two sides. However the attack turns into something of a fiasco. The marines easily repel the army’s assault. They find themselves being assisted by armed civilians and members of the police force. There are even reports of soldiers switching sides and joining the Volksmarinedivision.

At the end of the day Ebert’s attempt to crush the marines has proved an embarrassing failure. His coalition partners in the USPD meanwhile are furious, as he launched the attack without consulting them. But the Volksmarinedivision makes no move to overthrow Ebert’s government; perhaps they are not actually in league with the Spartacists after all?

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Soldiers of the People’s Navy Division (LeMo – Lebendiges Museum Online: Die Weihnachtskämpfe 1918)

Members of the Volksmarinedivision defending the Neptune Fountain (Wikipedia: Skirmish of the Berlin Schloss)

9/11/1918 Germany overthrows the Kaiser #1918Live

A revolutionary wind is blowing through Germany but the Kaiser is facing increasing calls to abdicate but remains determined to hold onto his throne. Nevertheless even in conservative circles some are now thinking that the Kaiser must go in order to take the sting out of the revolution. At military headquarters in Spa the Kaiser is joined by his son, the Crown Prince, and he meets with senior military leaders to make plans for the future. He talks of leading the army back to Germany to restore order, but Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, administers the death blow: he informs the Kaiser that he no longer enjoys the confidence of the army. “The army,” he says, “will march back to Germany peacefully and orderly under its commanders and commanding generals, but not at the command of your majesty, because it no longer supports your majesty”.

To support Groener’s proposition, the views of a group of officers who have just arrived at Spa are canvassed. Of the thirty-nine, just one is in favour of marching behind the Kaiser. Even without the Kaiser they see an armistice as a vital precondition before any attempt to restore order in Germany can be attempted.

The Kaiser is shocked. He resolves to resign as Emperor of Germany but remain as King of Prussia. Then he goes for lunch while this news is cabled to Berlin. But then comes disturbing reports from Berlin. Prince Max, the Chancellor, has announced the Kaiser’s complete abdication as both emperor and king. And Scheidemann, a leading Social Democrat, has gone further: to cheering crowds gathered outside the Chancellery he announces the abolition of the monarchy. Germany is now a republic.
The Kaiser attempts to send messages to Berlin informing them that he his only abdicating as Emperor and not as King of Prussia, but no one is listening. Rumours begin to spread that the Kaiser’s personal safety cannot be guaranteed and that his personal guard are no longer reliable. He finally bows to the inevitable and agrees to go into exile in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile in Berlin the situation remains chaotic. Prince Max has resigned as Chancellor, handing power to Ebert, but Ebert is furious with Scheidemann for declaring a republic, feeling that only a constituent assembly could make this change. Scheidemann is unrepentant. His spontaneous declaration has taken the wind out of the sails of Karl Liebknecht, the Spartacist leader, who had planned to proclaim a socialist republic on the Bolshevik model.

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Philipp Scheidemann declares the Republic (Wikipedia: Philipp Scheidemann)

8/11/1918 Bavaria becomes a republic but the Kaiser insists that Germany will not lost its Emperor nor Prussia its King #1918Live

Revolution is spreading through Germany with the masses turning against the royal families that have long ruled them. Yesterday the King of Bavaria fled to Austria; today in Munich the monarchy is declared abolished. Bavaria is now a socialist republic with Kurt Eisner of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) its first premier.

The position of the Kaiser as head of Prussia and Germany meanwhile is increasingly under threat. The Social Democrats have called for his removal, a move calculated to prevent their support ebbing away to more radical rivals like the USPD or the Spartacists of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Prince Max, the Chancellor, fears that the country will descend into a civil war if the Kaiser does not go. From Berlin he telephones the Emperor at Spa, warning him that he should resign to prevent the country descending into chaos. The Kaiser is again furious, railing at Max that he has no intention of abdicating and will restore order to Germany at the head of his army if needs be. The Chancellor offers to resign, but the Kaiser will not let him go; he wants Prince Max to stay on so that blame for the armistice terms will attach itself to him.

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Celebrating the Bavarian Republic (German History in Documents and Images: The Proclamation of the Bavarian Republic (November 8, 1918))

7/11/1918 Spreading revolution in Germany leads to the flight of Bavaria’s King and calls for the Kaiser’s abdication #1918Live

A year ago the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Now Germany too is in the grip of revolution. What started as a sailors’ mutiny is spreading through the cities of northern Germany, with the the sailors’ recruiting workers and soldiers to their radical goals. Hamburg, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven have joined Kiel and are now in revolutionary hands. Radical agitators have spread the revolution inland, with Hannover, Cologne and Oldenburg now also flying the red flag. Even Bavaria is not immune to the revolutionary wave, with increasing unrest in Munich forcing King Ludwig III to flee for the relative safety of Salzburg in Austria.

The leaders of the mainstream Social Democrats are cautious, fearing the consequences of unbridled revolution. But they know also that they must remain in step with the popular mood or risk being consigned to the dustbin of history. Ebert, the Social Democrat leader, warns the Chancellor that if the Kaiser does not abdicate then an uncontainable revolution will be inevitable. Then in the evening the Social Democrats go further, issuing a public demand for the abdication of both the Kaiser and the Crown Prince.

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Friedrich Ebert (Wikipedia Commons)

Munich demonstrators (Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte, Revolution in München: 7. November 1918 – Theresienwiese)

5/11/1918 The end draws near: Wilson tells the Germans that Foch has been authorised to receive their armistice delegation #1918Live

Germany’s position is now dire. At home unrest is spreading, with Lübeck today following Kiel in declaring for the revolution. The collapse of Austria-Hungary meanwhile leaves the country vulnerable to invasion from the south. And on the Western Front the ability of the army to resist the Allies diminishes hourly. Yesterday Allied troops forced a crossing of the Sambre canal; as part of this battle New Zealand troops succeeded in storming the town of Le Quesnoy, capturing large numbers of German prisoners. Groener, Ludendorff‘s replacement, decides that he has no option now but to order a general retreat.

It must then come as something of a relief when the latest note from Washington arrives in Berlin. Lansing, the Secretary of State, informs the Germans that Wilson has conferred with the other Allies and that Marshal Foch has now been authorised to receive Germany’s representatives and present the Allied armistice terms to them. The end of the war is at last in sight.

Lansing’s note

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The Scaling of the Walls of Le Quesnoy, by Edmund Butler

4/11/1918 The Red Flag flies over Kiel #1918Live

German sailors in Kiel were engaged in acts of mutiny but now, after exchanging gunfire with officers yesterday, they are now engaged in revolution. The sailors are demanding the overthrow of the German monarchy, an immediate end to the war and radical reform of the German constitution, including votes for women and universal adult suffrage. Souchon, the naval commander at Kiel, is unable to control the situation. The city’s garrison is largely siding with the sailors, leaving Souchon with no force to suppress the revolt. Port workers too are joining the revolutionary sailors, who now are preparing to send agitators to other bases to encourage them to join the revolution.

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Revolutionary sailors (Wikipedia: Kieler Matrosenaufstand)
[picture shows sailors from later in the month, in Berlin rather than Kiel]