Fury and discontent

Desperate measures lead to a major uprising

The Kiel mutiny was a major event in the German Revolution of 1918-1919, which marked the end of the German monarchy and the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

It took place in the city of Kiel, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, in late October 1918.

The mutiny was sparked by the discontent of sailors and workers in the naval base at Kiel, who were frustrated with the ongoing war, the deteriorating living conditions, and the lack of political representation.

...sailors, unwilling to participate in what they saw as a futile and suicidal mission, refused to obey orders...

On 28th October 1918, tensions reached a breaking point when orders were given to launch a final, desperate naval assault against the British Royal Navy.

The sailors, unwilling to participate in what they saw as a futile and suicidal mission, refused to obey orders.

The situation escalated as the sailors demanded an end to the war and better treatment.

Map showing schematic of proposed German Fleet raid of October 1918 and possible British response.

User:Dfvj - Wikipedia

...in terms of its immediate goals, the Kiel mutiny was a success...

The mutiny quickly spread to the rest of the city, and soon the whole of Schleswig-Holstein was in the grip of a general strike.

The uprising was led by a group of socialist and communist activists, who demanded an end to the war and the establishment of a socialist government.

The mutineers were supported by workers and soldiers across Germany, and their actions had a significant impact on the outcome of the revolution.

In terms of its immediate goals, the Kiel mutiny was a success. It led to the end of the war, the abdication of the Kaiser (the German monarch), and the establishment of the Weimar Republic.

"The Iron Front calls! Where are you?"  - A 1932 Social Democrat Weimar Republic poster.

(17) "The Iron Front calls! Where are you?" (1932 Weimarer Republic, Social Democrats) : PropagandaPosters (reddit.com)

However, the long-term consequences of the mutiny were more complex.

The Weimar Republic faced numerous challenges in its early years, including political instability, economic turmoil, and social unrest.

The Kiel mutiny also played a role in the emergence of more radical socialist movements in Germany, such as the Spartacist uprising and the Bavarian Soviet Republic, which further destabilized the country.


As the tide of the First World War turned against Germany by September 1918, the once-mighty Kaiser Wilhelm II faced the stark reality of impending defeat.

In a significant shift, he heeded advice to seek an immediate cease-fire from the Triple Entente and transition the government toward democracy.

On 3rd October 1918, Wilhelm II appointed Prince Maximilian of Baden as the new imperial chancellor, marking a pivotal moment in German history.

Prince Maximilian of Baden's cabinet was noteworthy for the inclusion of the Social Democrats (SPD), a move aimed at placating the growing discontent within the population.

Among the SPD members in the cabinet, Philipp Scheidemann stood out as a prominent figure. As undersecretary without portfolio, Scheidemann wielded significant influence. His position was a testament to the evolving political landscape, with traditional hierarchies making room for representatives of the burgeoning democratic movement.

German soldiers posing in gas masks in the Vosges Mountains in 1918. Despite the capable and well-equipped appearance of these soldiers, by late 1918, a struggling Germany was staring defeat in the face. 

Julius Backman Jääskeläinen (@julius.colorization) • Instagram photos and videos

...a last-ditch effort to salvage a crumbling empire...

This marked the beginning of a delicate balance between the old imperial order and the emerging democratic forces.

Scheidemann's involvement signaled a transitional phase, setting the stage for the events that would unfold in Kiel later in October, ultimately leading to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the establishment of the Weimar Republic.

The appointment of Prince Maximilian Von Baden and the inclusion of SPD members reflected a last-ditch effort to salvage a crumbling empire by embracing democratic reforms.

Plummeting morale

After the pivotal Battle of Jutland in 1916, the capital ships of the Imperial Navy experienced a significant reduction in activity outside the Baltic, remaining mostly confined to harbor.

Facing this shift, many officers and crew members volunteered for transfers to submarines and light vessels that still played a crucial role in the ongoing war effort.

However, this reassignment left the remaining crew on battleships like the dreadnought Prinzregent Luitpold with a sense of diminished purpose as their formidable vessels languished at dock-side.

The events of 2nd August, 1917, at Wilhelmshaven marked a critical juncture for the Imperial German Navy, signaling the culmination of simmering discontent among the crewmen of the Prinzregent Luitpold.

Frustrated by reduced activity, lower rations, and the confined state of their formidable vessel, 350 crewmen united in a protest demonstration that underscored the deep-seated grievances within the navy.

The German battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz in harbor after sustaining major damage at the Battle of Jutland.

(18) [1280 x 960] A colorized image of battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz in harbor after sustaining major damage at the Battle of Jutland : WarshipPorn (reddit.com)

...far from extinguishing the discontent, this severe response acted as a catalyst for change...

In response to this act of defiance, the naval authorities opted for a draconian approach. Two perceived ringleaders were swiftly condemned to face the firing squad, a harsh punishment that sent shockwaves through the navy.

Simultaneously, a number of other participants in the protest were handed prison sentences, a punitive measure designed to quell any further dissent.

However, far from extinguishing the discontent, this severe response acted as a catalyst for change.

The repercussions of the Prinzregent Luitpold incident reverberated across the navy, prompting the clandestine formation of sailors' councils on several capital ships in the ensuing months.

These councils served as underground networks of dissent, allowing sailors to voice their grievances and coordinate collective action.

The Prinzregent Luitpold, scene of the first naval protest.

...their grievances could not be ignored and that collective action was necessary...

The emergence of secret sailors' councils marked a pivotal shift in the dynamics of the Imperial German Navy. It reflected a growing realization among the rank and file that their grievances could not be ignored and that collective action was necessary to address the deteriorating conditions and assert their rights.

This internal dissent would contribute to the broader socio-political changes that unfolded during the tumultuous period leading up to the end of the First World War and the establishment of the Weimar Republic.

The Naval Order - Plan 19

In October 1918, the Imperial German Navy, under the command of Admiral Franz von Hipper in Kiel, devised a bold plan ("Plan 19") to dispatch the fleet for a decisive confrontation with the Royal Navy in the English Channel.

The naval order issued on 24th October 1918, outlined the preparations for this final battle, a move that proved to be a catalyst for significant unrest among the affected sailors.

Admiral Franz von Hipper

...the sailors reacted with a mutiny...

The prospect of being thrust into what they perceived as a futile and perilous mission intensified the discontent that had been brewing within the navy. Fueled by a sense of disillusionment with the war effort and inspired by the revolutionary fervor of the time, the sailors reacted with a mutiny.

This mutiny, triggered by the naval order and the impending deployment, quickly escalated into a broader revolution that unfolded within a matter of days, ultimately leading to the sweeping aside of the monarchy and contributing to the transformative events of the German Revolution of 1918-1919.

The first act

The sailors' rebellion first unfolded on the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, where the German fleet had anchored, anticipating a planned battle.

The night from October 28 to 30, 1918, bore witness to a defiance of orders by certain crews, with sailors on three ships from the Third Navy Squadron refusing to weigh anchor.

On SMS Thüringen and SMS Helgoland, battleships of the First Navy Squadron, mutiny and sabotage erupted among segments of the crew.

A 1910 map of Wilhelmshaven, taken from "Northern Germany as far as the Bavarian and Austrian Frontiers; Handbook for Travellers" by Karl Baedeker. Fifteenth Revised Edition. Leipzig, Karl Baedeker; New York, Charles Scribner's Sons 1910."

Baedeker's Northern Germany - Perry-Castañeda Map Collection - UT Library Online (utexas.edu)

...confronted with this show of force, the mutineers surrendered...

The mutiny, however, faced a turning point a day later when torpedo boats trained their cannons on the defiant ships. Confronted with this show of force, the mutineers surrendered without resistance, and they were subsequently escorted away.

Despite the apparent containment, the naval command, recognizing the diminishing loyalty of the crew, abandoned its plans. The Third Navy Squadron received orders to return to Kiel, signaling a shift in the dynamics of the naval command's authority and a clear indication of the escalating unrest within the German fleet during this critical period of October 1918.

Kiel sailors revolt

Squadron commander Vizeadmiral Hugo Kraft sought to regain control of his battleships in the Heligoland Bight, executing a maneuver that, when deemed successful, bolstered his confidence in commanding his crews.

As the squadron navigated the Kiel Canal, Kraft took decisive action, imprisoning 47 sailors from the Markgraf, perceived as ringleaders. The squadron's sole stop on the way to Kiel was in Holtenau, where approximately 150 mutineers were apprehended for transfer to military prisons.

The incarcerated sailors and stokers, determined to prevent the fleet's further deployment and secure their comrades' release, convened at the Union House in Kiel on the evening of 1st November.

Delegations dispatched to officers seeking the mutineers' release were met with silence, prompting the sailors to seek alliance with unions, particularly the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and the SPD.

Karl Artelt (left) became one of the leaders of the Kiel mutiny.

The Mutiny and Outbreak of Revolution in Kiel, November 1918 - Naval Forum - Treasure Bunker Forum

...thousands of people, including workers' representatives, rallied,...

The closure of the Union House by the police fueled greater unity, leading to a massive open-air meeting on November 2 at the large drill ground (Großer Exerzierplatz). Under the leadership of sailors Karl Artelt and mobilized shipyard worker Lothar Popp, both USPD members, the assembly called for a larger gathering the following day.

On 3rd November, thousands of people, including workers' representatives, rallied, echoing the demand for "Frieden und Brot" (peace and bread). This multifaceted slogan reflected their call not only for the release of imprisoned sailors but also an end to the war and improved food provisions.

The situation escalated when Sublieutenant Steinhäuser, tasked with suppressing the demonstrators, ordered warning shots and then direct gunfire.

The confrontation resulted in seven fatalities and 29 serious injuries. Some demonstrators retaliated with gunfire, and Steinhäuser, though severely injured, survived.

Regarded as the catalyst for the German Revolution, this incident prompted the dispersal of demonstrators, and the patrol withdrew from the tumultuous scene.

Escalation and the Fourteen Points

Wilhelm Souchon, the naval station governor, initially sought external troop assistance but rescinded the request when his staff assured him of control over the situation.

Having arrived in Kiel on October 30, 1918, Souchon, a recent deployment, heavily relied on his staff.

However, on 4th November, the request for military aid was reinstated, leading to the deployment of six infantry companies to Kiel. Some units stationed themselves in the Wik city quarter and the Marinestation der Ostsee.

...spontaneous demonstrations erupted...

On the morning of 4th November, groups of mutineers traversed the town, with sailors in a large barracks compound in the northern district of Kiel (Wik Garnison: Tirpitz Hafen) refusing obedience.

After a commander's division inspection, spontaneous demonstrations erupted, and Karl Artelt orchestrated the establishment of the first soldiers' council, prompting the creation of several more. The naval station governor had to negotiate, resulting in the withdrawal of units and the liberation of imprisoned sailors and stokers.

Some of the Kiel Mutineers

The Kiel Mutiny (everything-everywhere.com)

Soldiers and workers subsequently assumed control over public and military institutions. When troops advanced to suppress the rebellion, they were intercepted by mutineers, either being sent back or joining the sailors and workers.

By the evening of November 4, approximately 40,000 rebellious sailors, soldiers, and workers firmly held Kiel, with Wilhelmshaven following suit two days later.

In the evening of 4th November, a meeting of sailors and workers representatives at the union house led to the establishment of a soldiers' and a workers' council.

The soldiers' council issued the Kiel 'Fourteen Points,' outlining demands and resolutions challenging the military system and emphasizing immediate measures.

...resolutions challenging the military system...

Resolutions and demands of the soldiers' council:

  • The release of all inmates and political prisoners.
  • Complete freedom of speech and the press.
  • The abolition of mail censorship.
  • Appropriate treatment of crews by superiors.
  • No punishment for all comrades on returning to the ships and to the barracks.
  • The launching of the fleet is to be prevented under all circumstances.
  • Any defensive measures involving bloodshed are to be prevented.
  • The withdrawal of all troops not belonging to the garrison.
  • All measures for the protection of private property will be determined by the soldiers' council immediately.
  • Superiors will no longer be recognized outside of duty.
  • Unlimited personal freedom of every man from the end of his tour of duty until the beginning of his next tour of duty

German poster produced during the Kiel Mutiny. 'Ich Streike' translates to 'I'm on strike'.

cldrtx — Poster during the time of the Kiel mutiny of... (tumblr.com)

  • Officers who declare themselves in agreement with the measures of the newly established soldiers' council, are welcomed in our midst. All the others have to quit their duty without entitlement to provision.
  • Every member of the soldiers' council is to be released from any duty.
  • All measures to be introduced in the future can only be introduced with the consent of the soldiers' council.

These demands are orders of the soldiers' council and are binding for every military person.

German sailors during the mutiny.

The Kiel Mutiny (everything-everywhere.com)

The mutiny spreads

In the subsequent developments, councils across Germany adopted the principles outlined in these 14 points.

On the same evening, Gustav Noske, a deputy from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), arrived in Kiel, receiving an enthusiastic welcome despite his orders from the new government and SPD leadership to quell the uprising.

Noske strategically positioned himself by being elected chairman of the soldiers' council, swiftly restoring peace and order.

...he couldn't prevent the revolutionary wave from spreading across all of Germany...

Within days, he assumed the governor's post, with Lothar Popp from the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) becoming the overall chairman of the soldiers' council.

While Noske managed to diminish the influence of the councils in Kiel over the following weeks, he couldn't prevent the revolutionary wave from spreading across all of Germany, as the events had transcended the city limits.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in naval uniform talking to dockers in Kiel shortly after the mutiny, November 1918. Prince Heinrich of Prussia can be seen behind the Kaiser.

THE KIEL MUTINY, NOVEMBER 1918 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

...the mutineers had taken control of all significant coastal cities...

Other seamen, soldiers and workers, in solidarity with the arrested, began electing workers' and soldiers' councils modeled after the Soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and took over military and civil powers in many cities.

Delegations of the sailors went to all of Germany's main cities and by 7th November, in addition to Hanover, Brunswick, Frankfurt am Main, and Munich, the mutineers had taken control of all significant coastal cities.

From mutiny to revolution

The Kiel mutiny would help spark off the wider German Revolution in which the Anif proclamation (a declaration in which the monarch relieved all civil servants and military personnel from their oath of loyalty to him) was made by Ludwig III, the last Bavarian king.

Kurt Eisner of the USPD, who claimed that Ludwig III had abdicated his monarchy through the Anif statement, was the first to declare Bavaria a Volksstaat, the People's State of Bavaria.

...a chain reaction followed...

A chain reaction followed and by the end of the month, all 22 German monarchs had been overthrown. In the days that followed, the hereditary kings and queens of all the other German kingdoms abdicated.

Sculpture in Kiel to remember the 1918 sailors' mutiny.


Further reading