By late October 1918, the Allied victories during Hundred Days Offensive tore huge gaps in the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front and the German Army conducted a fighting retreat to shorten their lines and hopefully reestablish a defense. The Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and with it Germany’s food and oil supply. Morale plummeted among both the military at the front and the civilians at home. Erich von Ludendorff knew he needed to “restore the valor” of the military in order to stop the Allied offensive and gain an acceptable negotiated peace. To convince the retreating German Army that this was truly the “Endkampf” or “Final Battle”, a valiant sacrifice was needed, one worthy of emulation. The German High Seas Fleet would provide that sacrifice.
Without approval by the government (because it would certainly be denied) and despite vehement objections by the Chief of the German Admiralty, Adm Reinhard Scheer, Ludendorff issued the Naval Order of 24 October 1918 to the commander of the High Seas Fleet Adm Franz von Hipper. Hipper was warned of the order two days before and began concentrating the fleet at Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven. The concentration itself was break from the norm which didn’t bode well for the sailors.
The High Seas Fleet last saw serious action at the Battle of Jutland two years before and had sortied only three times since then, conspicuously returning to port without engaging any Allied ships each time. After the Battle of Jutland, the High Seas Fleet was no match for the British Grand Fleet, especially after the addition of four American battleships, so it sought to avoid contact with their British adversary. However, that did nothing for the morale of the average German sailor who toiled under bad conditions and ruthless discipline while conditions at home and news from the front grew steadily worse.
Rumors swirled below decks as to the reason for the concentration. On 29 October 1918, the crews’ worst nightmares were confirmed: The German High Seas Fleet was to sortie and engage the British in a decisive battle that could only end with their glorious destruction. That night, several crews of the capital ships at Schillig Roads refused orders to weigh anchor and some began sabotaging equipment and machinery. Sailors on shore leave refused to return to their ships and had to be forcibly returned. Mass insubordination occurred on at least seven ships. It took three days, and loyal sailors from torpedo boats, U-boats and minesweepers, before control was restored. Nevertheless, Admiral Hipper ordered the operation cancelled. Ludendorff was cashiered by the Kaiser when he learned of the Wilhelmshaven mutiny. The most mutinous squadron, the Third Naval Squadron, was ordered to return to Kiel in order to isolate them from the rest of the High Seas Fleet.
Kiel was not an optimal choice for the mutineers’ ships to harbor. Kiel had a long history of socialist and workers’ agitation stemming from the Russian Revolution of the previous year. The addition of the crews of the mutinous ships to the city proved to be the spark needed for open rebellion. Mass demonstrations and riots were organized and soldiers, sailors, and workers’ councils took over the ships and the city. Imprisoned mutineers were freed, but the demands for “Peace and Bread” were not forthcoming. German troops resorted to firing into the protesters which only enflamed the crowds and caused many soldiers to desert and join the mutineers. By 3 November, red flags replaced the Imperial German ensign on the fleet’s masts. On the 4th Kiel was controlled by more than 40,000 workers, sailors, and soldiers and the mutiny had spread back to Wilhelmshaven. That evening, their leaders met at the Kiel Union House and formed a ruling council. The council issued demands for a “social, liberal, and democratic” political system.
The successful Kiel Mutiny inspired countless other mutinies, revolts, and defections on the Western Front and in the town and cities behind the frontlines, and quickly spread as far south Munich by the 7th. On the 9th, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Almost immediately, a democratic republic was announced, and 30 minutes later its first vote turned the nascent democratic republic into a socialist republic, which tore the country apart. The German Revolution continued until the Weimar Republic was established in August of 1919. Peace talks with the Allies commenced on the 10th, the day after the Kaiser abdicated, and an armistice ending the fighting began at 11 am on 11 November 1918.
The Kiel Mutiny and the uprisings it inspired gave rise to the “Stab in the back” legend that the German Army was not defeated on the battlefield in the First World War but by civilian agitators at home. German Nationalists and National Socialists promulgated the patently false legend later in the 1920s, which combined with the denouncement of the onerous (to Germans) clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, caused significant political gain for them, leading directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.