By September 1918, Germany's military situation was hopeless. Kaiser Wilhelm II was advised to request the Entente Cordiale for an immediate cease fire and put the government on a democratic footing, hoping for more favorable peace terms. On 3 October, the Kaiser appointed Prince Maximilian of Baden as the new Imperial Chancellor. In his cabinet the Social Democrats also took on responsibility. The most prominent and highest-ranking was Philipp Scheidemann as undersecretary without portfolio.
While the war-weary troops and the population disappointed by the Kaiser's government awaited the speedy end of the war, the Imperial Naval Command in Kiel under Admiral Franz von Hipper, without authorization, planned to dispatch the fleet for a last battle against the Royal Navy in the English Channel.
The naval order of 24 October 1918 and the preparations to sail first triggered a mutiny among the affected sailors and then a general revolution which was to sweep aside the monarchy within a few days. The mutinous sailors had no intention of being needlessly sacrificed in the last moment of the war. They were also convinced that the credibility of the new democratic government which was seeking peace would have been compromised by a simultaneous naval attack.
The sailors' revolt started on the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, where the German fleet had anchored in expectation of a planned battle. During the night from 29 to 30 October 1918 some crews refused to obey orders. Sailors on board of three ships from the Third Navy Squadron refused to lift anchor. Part of the crew on SMS Thringen and SMS Helgoland, two battle ships from the First Navy Squadron, committed outright mutiny and sabotage. However, when a day later some torpedo boats pointed their cannons onto these ships, the mutineers gave up and were led away without any resistance. But the Naval Command had to drop its plans as it was felt that the crew's loyalty could no longer be relied upon. The Third Navy Squadron was ordered back to Kiel.
The squadron commander Vizeadmiral Hugo Kraft exercised a manoeuvre with his battleships in the Heligoland Bight. When it "functioned perfectly (tadellos funktionierte)" he believed he was master of his crews again. While moving through the Kiel Canal he had 47 sailors from the SMS Markgraf, who were seen as the ringleaders, imprisoned. In Holtenau (end of the canal in Kiel) they were brought to the Arrestanstalt (military prison in Kiel) and to Fort Herwarth in the north of Kiel. The sailors and stokers were now pulling out all the stops to prevent the fleet from setting sail again and to achieve the release of their comrades. Some 250 met in the evening of 1 November in the Union House in Kiel. Delegations, sent to their officers requesting the mutineers' release, were not heard. The sailors were now looking for closer ties to the unions, the USPD and the SPD. Thereupon the Union House was closed by police leading to an even larger joint open air meeting on 2 November, at the large drill ground (Groer Exerzierplatz).
Led by the sailor Karl Artelt, who worked in the torpedo workshop in Kiel-Friedrichsort and by the mobilized shipyard worker Lothar Popp, both USPD members, the sailors called for a large meeting the following day at the same place. This call was heeded by several thousand people on the afternoon of 3 November with workers' representatives also being present. The slogan "Frieden und Brot" (peace and bread) was raised showing that the sailors and workers demanded not only the release of the imprisoned but also the end of the war and the improvement of food provisions. Eventually the people supported Artelt's call to free the prisoners and they moved to the direction of the military prison.
Sublieutenant Steinhuser, who had orders to stop the demonstrators, ordered his patrol to give warning shots and then to shoot directly into the demonstrators. There were seven people killed and 29 severely injured. Some demonstrators also opened fire. Steinhuser was severely injured by rifle-butt blows and shots, but contrary to later statements, he was not killed. After this incident the demonstrators dispersed and the patrol withdrew.
Nevertheless the mass protest turned into a general revolt.
On the morning of 4 November groups of mutineers moved through the town. Sailors in a large barracks compound in a Northern district of Kiel (Wik Garnison: Tirpitz Hafen) refused obedience: after a Division inspection of the commander spontaneous demonstrations took place. Karl Artelt organized the first soldier's council, and soon many more were set up. The governor of the navy station, Wilhelm Souchon, had to negotiate. The imprisoned sailors and stokers were freed. Soldiers and workers brought public and military institutions under their control. When, against Souchon's promise, different troops advanced to quash the rebellion, they were intercepted by the mutineers and were either sent back or joined the sailors and workers. By the evening of 4 November, Kiel was firmly in the hands of approximately 40,000 rebellious sailors, soldiers and workers, as was Wilhelmshaven two days later.
On the same evening the SPD deputy Gustav Noske arrived in Kiel and was welcomed enthusiastically although he had orders from the new government and the SPD leadership to bring the rising under control. He had himself elected chairman of the soldiers' council and reinstated peace and order. Some days later he took over the governor's post, while Lothar Popp from the USPD became chairman of the overall soldiers council. During the coming weeks Noske actually managed to reduce the influence of the councils in Kiel, but he could not prevent the spreading of the revolution to all of Germany. The events had already spread far beyond the city limits.
Other seamen, soldiers and workers, in solidarity with the arrested, began electing worker and soldier councils modeled after the soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and took over military and civil powers in many cities. On November 7, the revolution had reached Munich, causing Ludwig III of Bavaria to flee.
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