Nov. 9, German Date of Fate. Part 2: 1918 – the Abdication of the Kaiser

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November 9th is known in Germany as its ‘Day of Fate’. It wasn’t only the date on which in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. So many other important historical events occurred on this day that the German government could hardly turn it into Reunification Day (that became October 3rd instead).

In 2014, Paul Sullivan, myself and some other Slow Travel Berlin writers divided the historical events of the ‘ninths’ between us and published stories on them on slowtravelberlin.com. As that website is now, sadly, partly unavailable, I am reposting my articles on this blog. (Check here for the 1848 story on the execution of Robert Blum).

Nov. 9, 1918 – the Abdication of the Kaiser

In early November 1918, Germany was in chaos. Even though the country no longer needed to fight on two fronts (the Russian revolution of 1917 had led to Moscow’s unconditional surrender), the arrival of United States on the Western Front, with its almost unlimited reinforcements, was the beginning of the end for the German Imperial Army.

From August 1918 onwards the Allies were on the offensive, and German Supreme Army Command realised that total military collapse was near. The population was grieving for the men lost in the war, food was severely rationed, and, since the example of the Russian surrender of 1917, both the Social Democratic and Communist parties were clamouring for peace.

The ultimate trigger for the events that occurred on 9 November 1918 was a last attempt by the Imperial Navy to turn the military tables in Germany’s favour. On 24 October of that same year, battle cruisers stationed at Kiel were ordered to make their way to the North Sea for a final showdown with the British Royal Navy. But the sailors refused to sail, and before long, their mutiny had spread from the ships to the town of Kiel itself.

The first Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council was proclaimed there on 4 November, and representatives of the Council spread throughout Germany to urge workers and soldiers to form revolutionary councils of their own. At the same time, on the home political front, Friedrich Ebert, leader of the moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD), had already secured concessions from the Kaiser and Supreme Army Command that effectively turned Germany into a parliamentary democracy. Ebert and his number two, Philipp Scheidemann, considered these concessions sufficient and certainly wanted to avoid a full-blown revolution.

Meanwhile, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had left – some say fled – Berlin on October 28 for German Military Headquarters in Spa, Belgium, was slowly coming to terms with the fact that support for the monarchy was slipping away. When he suggested he return to Berlin to restore order with the help of the Imperial army, he was told by military commanders that the army was no longer his to command, and in fact might turn against him.

On November 9th, Wilhelm, still in Spa, had started to consider relinquishing the title of German Kaiser but staying on as King of Prussia. Developments in Berlin, however, had long passed the point of no return, and the Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, had by that time already announced the Kaiser’s abdication.

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The ex-Kaiser’s study at today’s Museum Huis Doorn, where he took refuge after abdicating. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Finally facing up to reality, Wilhelm took the royal train to the Dutch border, where he was granted political asylum in the early morning of 10 November. He wasn’t the only one to lose his throne of course. King Ludwig III of Bavaria had been forced to abdicate on 7 November by radical Socialists, and between 9 and 30 November, the twenty remaining German Kings, Archdukes, Dukes and Princes followed suit.

Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II spent the last 23 years of his life at a country estate in the Netherlands, Huis Doorn, now a fascinating museum. He maintained a make-believe Imperial Court, with the aid of 59 railway carriages full of Royal furniture, treasures and uniforms that the Weimar regime had allowed him to transport out of his three Berlin palaces. He spent his days chopping wood in the surrounding forest, and his evenings debating astrology and archeology with any scientist willing to come over and agree with the Kaiser’s views.

As the Dutch government was quite embarrassed at having to host the Kaiser (he was after all wanted as a war criminal by the Allied governments of the UK, USA, and especially France), he was under a kind of house arrest. He could go for drives in the vicinity of his country house, but only within a radius of some 10 kilometres. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands famously wanted nothing to do with her distant relative – in the 23 years of Wilhelm’s exile, she never received him. Until his death in 1941, the Kaiser never gave up hopes of resuming his role in Germany – he even wrote to Hitler offering his services, which understandably didn’t improve his standing with the Dutch government either.

Back in Berlin on the afternoon of the 9th of November 1918, rumours had reached the SPD’s Philipp Scheidemann, lunching with Ebert at the Reichstag, that Karl Liebknecht, leader of the Spartacus League (the precursor of the German Communist Party) was about to declare a Soviet Republic. To steal Liebknecht’s thunder, Scheidemann stepped onto one of the balconies of the Reichstag to give a spontaneous speech, in which he declared “The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!”

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Philipp Scheidemann addressing the crowd from the Reichtag restaurant’s window on 9 November 1918.

Ebert, the SPD’s chairman, was furious and told Scheidemann he had no right to declare a republic – the political form of the new German state should be for the Constitutional Assembly to decide. But the rumour about Liebknecht had been true enough; gaining a balcony of the Stadtschloss (City Palace) on Lustgarten, two hours after Scheidemann had made his own proclamation from the Reichstag, and fuelled by the momentum originating from the sailors’ mutiny at Kiel, Liebknecht indeed declared a Communist (Soviet) Republic.

Liebknecht’s action resulted in the creation of a revolutionary Council of People’s Deputies. In a classic “if you can’t beat them, join them” spiel, the SPD’s Ebert and Scheidemann, who wanted to stay on the parliamentary track, got themselves elected to the revolutionary Council to prevent the most radical elements taking control.  The SPD gradually gained control of the Council, and dissolved it in favour of the democratically elected Weimar National Assembly in February 1919.

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The ‘Liebknecht portal’, the only preserved part of the old Berlin City Palace, destroyed in 1950.Photo: Robin Oomkes

The Stadtschloss, the centrepiece of these momentous events, was blown up by the GDR regime in 1950, though it made sure to save one piece: the portal from which Liebknecht had declared the revolution. Carefully restored, it was integrated into the new building for the GDR Council of State on the other side of Schlossplatz, where it remains today – and is now part of the management institute that currently occupies the building. By the time the new Stadtschloss will be finished, possibly by the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall in 2019, there will actually be two Liebknecht Portals – one in the recreated City Palace, the other in the ex-GDR building across the square – but very little will be left of Communist Germany otherwise.

It is hard to say which of the many fateful “ninth of Novembers” dotting German history had the most long term impact. Ironically, the events of November 1918, which  could have done so much good for the country – the dismissal of a totally outdated, autocratic monarchy in favour of a modern, liberal democracy – ultimately caused such a violent backlash both on the populist as well as the conservative sides of society that it paved the way for the Nazis to take over.

Words: Robin Oomkes

Editing: Paul Sullivan

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Kaiser Wilhelm II finally tried for WW I war crimes – acquitted on four out of five counts.

51zqXhdzU2L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_Although much of the last decade’s historical writing is more nuanced (see especially Christopher Clark’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sleepwalkers), most people in the English speaking world still consider Kaiser Bill the main actor in starting World War I. During his lifetime the Kaiser was never put in the dock for his alleged war crimes. To make up for that omission and also to shed more light on the ‘whodunnit’ question, a team of Dutch historians and lawyers staged a moot trial of Emperor Wilhelm II for war crimes. They’ve worked on the project for eight years but today, the book documenting the trial was presented at Amerongen Castle – Wilhelm’s first place of refuge after coming to the Netherlands on 10 November 1918.

For the trial, the team used the five allegations against the Kaiser that were documented in 1919’s Versailles Treaty. Article 229 specified that the Allies would request the government of The Netherlands, where Wilhelm had been granted political asylum, to extradite the ex-Kaiser. He would then stand trial in a court consisting of an American,  a British, a French, an Italian and a Japanese judge. In the end, the trial never took place. The Netherlands refused to surrender the Kaiser, and by the early 1920s, the Allies’ focus changed to different matters, such as making sure Germany would stick to the Versailles Treaty’s other measures.

The trial team, consisting of international and criminal law experts and historians, tried to create the kind of trial that Wilhelm could have expected if the Allies had had their way. For this, they studied international law as it was current in the 1910s and 1920s.

Again based on the Treaty of Versailles, the indictment consisted of five counts:

  1. The Kaiser is considered responsible for starting a war of agression,
  2. The Kaiser is considered responsible for the invasion by German troops of neutral Belgium,
  3. The Kaiser is considered responsible for the war crimes committed in Belgium by the German army,
  4.  the Kaiser is considered responsible for declaring unlimited U-Boot war, in violation of international law, and
  5. The Kaiser is considered responsible for the violation of international law and the use of war.

In an interview with Dutch broadcaster NOS, Hans Andriessen, who led the project and also took on the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s trial lawyer, explained his trial tactics.

Much like the ex-Yugoslav leaders and generals who were tried at The Hague over the last fifteen years, he first tried to deny the court’s jurisdiction over the Kaiser: at the last minute, the Allies had snuck in many unfavourable clauses into the Versailles Treaty, which the Germans had had no choice but to accept. This duress, Mr. Andriessen argued, rendered the whole Treaty void. This argument was rejected, but Mr. Andriessen was surprised that the other parts of his defence, as judged by contemporary international law, were largely accepted.

On the first count, the Kaiser was acquitted, as starting a war, at the time, was a deplorable but legitimate course of action for nation states that considered themselves threatened. Wilhelm was found guilty on the second count. Andriessen’s repeat of his defence that Germany had felt threatened by the enemies surrounding it to such an extent that its only option was to invade Belgium (and attack France) was considered not plausible.

On count three, the Kaiser again was acquitted as no direct link between his command and the atrocities could be established. Interestingly, count four, total U-Boat war, also led to acquittal. Andriessen’s successful defence was that the British had started arming their merchant vessels even before the start of WWI. This made it unsafe for German submarines to surface and establish whether ships were carrying passengers or not. Having given sufficient warning of its rules of engagement, the German navy, and its supreme commander, could not solely be blamed for the course of the U-Boot war. (The same argument, Andriessen points out, was also successfully used by Admiral Dönitz at the Nuremberg trials after World War II).

The fifth count was struck out by the court as it was considered too vague. This meant the Kaiser was found guilty on only one of the five counts, and a sentence was passed that excluded him from public office and confined him to house arrest for the rest of his life – probably not coincidentally exactly what happened to the Kaiser anyway. He spent the rest of his life on an estate in the Dutch village of Doorn, chopping wood to keep fit and holding court for those who still wanted to visit him. He died there in 1941 and lies buried in a small mausoleum in the grounds.

For more information on the book, for example check amazon.de.

The interview with Mr. Andriessen by NOS can be found here.

ssew.nl is the home page of the Dutch Society for the Study of World War I, which sponsored the moot trial.

Visit huisdoorn.nl to learn more about the Kaiser’s last refuge in the Netherlands, now a museum documenting his life in exile and providing information on World War I.

 

The Emperor’s new castle, part I – the Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace

From Ht. Koenigsbourg castle, you can see across the Alsace plain to Germany's Black Forest and Kaiserstuhl (Emperor's Chair)
From Ht. Koenigsbourg castle, you can see across the Alsace plain to Germany’s Black Forest and Kaiserstuhl (Emperor’s Chair)

Alsace, a beautiful region on France’s north-eastern edge, is blessed by a sunny climate, vineyards that produce some of the world’s finest whites, and picture-perfect villages of half-timbered houses that have overflowing flower baskets on every window sill. But Alsace’s wealth, and its strategic location on the left bank of the Rhine and at the foothills of the Vosges Mountains,  have also caused it to be the focus of land-grabbing campaigns by both French and German rulers. In fact, although originally part of the (German) Holy Roman Empire, Alsace has been forced to switch sides between France and Germany so many times since the days of Louis XIV that even many locals have lost count.

Vineyards are never far away in Alsace - like here, directly behind Turckheim's Grand'Rue
Vineyards are never far away in Alsace – like here, directly behind Turckheim’s Grand’Rue

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war ended up in the creation of the German Reich, and caused Alsace, and its sister region of Lorraine, to be attached to Germany. By the time Wilhelm II was crowned German Emperor in 1888, the Alsatians’ hearts and minds had still not exactly warmed to their new rulers. In a curious mix of Romance/Germanic cultures, most Alsatians had been quite happy to be French, even though the local language, Elsässisch (which is still spoken by older people today) is a German dialect.

The castle seen on a particularly grim day. Due to its situation far above the plains below, you may end up with your head in the clouds.
The castle seen on a particularly grim day. Due to its situation far above the plains below, a visit can get you right into the clouds

Cue Wilhelm’s passion for royal PR. Very much aware of how new the German imperial title was, and how tentative its recognition, he grabbed every opportunity of legitimizing it with links to his forebears. A Roman emperor in the family tree would have been perfect, but failing that, any link to the Staufen rulers of the High Middle Ages would also do. And that is how Wilhelm recognized a perfect opportunity for educating the population of Alsace when the city of Sélestat, some 70 km south of Strasbourg, presented him with the ruins of the Hohkönigburg (its German name, literally High Kings’ Castle) – which was once upon a time owned by Barbarossa, the most famous Staufer Emperor of all.

This huge castle, perched atop the ridge of the Vosges and looking down on the Alsace plain and over the Rhine to the German Black Forest, was in ruins since the tender ministrations of Louis XIV’s troops, but it had an imperial pedigree that made it very much fit for Wilhelm’s nation-building purposes.

Bodo Ebhardt's drawings of the ruins and plans for reconstruction
Bodo Ebhardt’s drawings of the ruins and plans for reconstruction

He set about restoring it in much the same way as he (and his grandfather, Wilhelm I) rebuilt the Kaiser-Pfalz at Goslar: with a heavy-handed nationalist touch. The additional twist in the case of this particular symbol of Germanness was its location at the very western fringe of the Empire – as a counterweight of sorts to the Marienburg in current Poland (a castle I hope to pay a visit for this blog later on). He gave the job to Berlin architect Bodo Ebhardt, who specialised in restoring castles. Ebhardt is the German equivalent of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – another 19th century restorer of historical treasures, and similarly accused later on of violating the historical substance of the buildings he touched.

Today, of course, Alsace is very much French again. Since World War II, school children have been taught exclusively in French, which means that Elsässisch is on the point of extinction. One elder wine merchant told me some fifteen years ago that he was only able to communicate with his grandchildren in his own language once they started learning German in high school.

Wilhelm II was not shy to sign the works he instigated
Wilhelm II was not shy to sign the works he instigated

The museum that Haut-Koenigsbourg has been ever since Wilhelm finished its restoration in 1908 got the same treatment. Until a few years ago, La République Française completely ignored its Wilhelmine history and treated it as an example of a mediaeval castle – with tournaments, pageantry and a book and gift shop full of knights’ armour for children and books on chivalry.

At last returned to the castle he had restored - Kaiser Wilhelm II.
At last returned to the castle he had restored – Kaiser Wilhelm II.

I was delighted to find that on my visit this year, the focus of the exhibition, and also the story told by the tour guides, had shifted to the castle’s more recent political history. There were displays on the restoration by Ebhardt, there were some infographics on the German Reich, and there even was a life-size cutout of the Kaiser himself!

Finally, I was also able to get a good photograph of the famous fender that Wilhelm had installed on his last visit to Haut-Koenigsbourg, in April 1918. The inscription reads “Ich habe es nicht gewollt WII”, or “I did not want this”. It is still not clear exactly what the Kaiser meant. Some pundits say the statement refers to the castle’s tasteless restoration, but the most common interpretation of the inscription today is that it is an apology of sorts for the atrocities of World War I.

Wilhelm II's famous fender from 1918 at Haut Koenigsbourg castle. The text translates as "I did not want this".
Wilhelm II’s famous fender from 1918 at Haut Koenigsbourg castle. The text translates as “I did not want this”.

Honouring the dead in Berlin’s West End

Langemarckhalle - commemorative shields for regiments that fought in the battle
The Langemarckhalle – Hitler’s link between soldiers dying in WWI trenches and the 1936 Olympic Games

Follow the Strasse des 17. Juni all the way west from Brandenburg Gate and after about 10 km you will find yourself in the leafy area of Berlin’s West End. There are two poignant war memorial sites here: the 1936 Olympic complex with its Langemarck Hall, honouring the German dead of World War I, and the 1939-1945 Berlin Commonwealth War Cemetery.

Berlin’s sports complex for the 1936 Olympics and the Langemarck Hall

Berlin’s huge Olympic site in the West End is one of those projects, like the Autobahns, that are usually credited to Hitler but which were actually conceived in the era of the Weimar Republic. Hitler knew a good idea when he saw it but would normally add his own perverted twists.

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1936 map of the Reichssportfeld. Much of the site remains as shown here.

In the case of the Reichssportfeld, this involved turning the original design for the Olympic Stadium, which was Bauhaus-inspired with lots of steel and glass, into the traditional Nazi design language of forbidding stone cladding and intimidating Doric columns.

Hitler also added the Maifeld to the west of the stadium, a huge parade ground where the Party could marshal hundreds of thousands of people for mass gatherings, and an amphitheatre for open air performances (known as Waldbühne today and still used for performances). Then there was the Olympic Bell Tower (Glockenturm) overlooking the Maifeld and the Olympic Stadium (and much of the rest of Berlin besides – very much worth a visit!).

Maifeld grandstands and Olympic Belltower. Fuhrer's Lodge is below the tower.
Maifeld grandstands and Olympic Belltower. Fuhrer’s Lodge can be seen at the base of the tower.

But the structure most telling of Hitler’s belligerent intentions, already as early as 1936, was the Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Bell Tower. Langemar(c)k is the name of a Flemish village near Ypres, where one of the first entrenched battles of World War I took place in October 1914. Many young German volunteers lost their lives, and in Germany the name became symbolic for the horrors of war but also for the heroism of the soldiers who died.

View over Berlin from the top of the Glockenturm
View over Berlin from the top of the Glockenturm

The Nazis used Langemarck in their propaganda whenever the topic of World War I arose – which it frequently did, as the platform on which the NSDAP had come to power was the shame of Germany losing WW I, and the Stab-in-the-back myth of Socialist and other mainstream parties agreeing the November 1918 armistice, where, if left to fight on, the German army could have won the war .

Friedrich Holderlin's 1799 quote on sacrifice for one's country - taken out of context by the Nazis - adorns one of the Hall's walls.
Friedrich Holderlin’s 1799 quote on sacrifice for one’s country – taken out of context by the Nazis – adorns one of the Hall’s walls.

But in the runup to the 1936 Olympics, Hitler took Langemarck propaganda one step further in creating a direct link between sportsmanship and the heroism of fighting and dying in battle. By building this rather grim memorial to the dead of World War I at the centre of the Reich’s most prestigious sports facilities, he managed to frame the Olympics, for the German population at least, as a kind of preparation for the struggle to come.

Outside view of Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Glockenturm
Outside view of Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Glockenturm

The 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery

The modest entry path to the Commonwealth Berlin War Cemetery on Heerstrasse
The modest entry path to the Commonwealth Berlin War Cemetery on Heerstrasse

A different, and far more peaceful, kind of war memorial is the 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just over a kilometre away from the Bell Tower, at the northern edge of Grunewald forest, this site is the central burial place for British and Commonwealth airmen killed over Eastern Germany, as well as for killed prisoners of war.

Most of the fallen at this cemetery were bomber crews – the survival rate of flying staff in the R.A.F. was only 44%. Crews lie buried together whenever possible. The cemetery was opened in 1945 and bodies of airmen were soon collected from all over Eastern Germany to receive their final resting place here, in what was then the British sector of West Berlin.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardeners tend to the cemetery.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardeners tend to the cemetery.

Visiting the cemetery is a familiar experience for anyone who has been to a Commonwealth war cemetery anywhere else – the same headstones, the same simple descriptions of rank and date of death, and often an inscription chosen by the dead man’s relatives. The grass and flowers are meticulously kept by the cemetery’s groundsmen, and the atmosphere is very much one of peace – sadness yes, but definitely peace, and gratitude for those that gave their lives.

“Their name liveth for evermore” – Rudyard Kipling, who lost a son in World War I, was asked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to choose a suitable text for use in the cemeteries. He chose this quote from Ecclesiasticus.

There couldn’t be a more different approach to honouring a country’s fallen soldiers than between the Langemarckhalle and the Berlin War Cemetery. Visiting them together makes for a fascinating half day away from the bustle of central Berlin. The stark contrast between the two memorials is a great reminder of the power and the dangers of propaganda, and clearly shows the difference between how democratic and totalitarian countries come to terms with their history.

Bell Tower and Langemarckhalle: Am Glockenturm, 14053 Berlin, admission 4,50/2,50.

Berlin War Cemetery: Heerstrasse 139, 14055 Berlin.

Both sites can be reached by S-Bahn S5 from Friedrichstrasse – get off at Pichelsberg, not Olympiastadion!