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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Living History at the Dead Emperor’s – at Museum Huis Doorn

 

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I revisited Museum Huis Doorn last weekend. This country house, in a wooded area on the banks of the Rhine near Utrecht, is where Kaiser Wilhelm II ended up after seeking refuge in The Netherlands in November 1918. From the date of his forced abdication onwards, he never travelled far from Doorn. He spent his days chopping wood (yes, really), and never gave up hoping to be able to return to the Fatherland as Kaiser. He died at Huis Doorn, at the age of 82, in 1941.

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His remains are still there, in a purpose-built mausoleum in the museum grounds. Occasionally, groups of Prussian nostalgists come from Germany to lay wreaths at his coffin – the last occasion was the Kaiser’s 155th birthday in January 2014. The picture below is taken through one of the mausoleum’s windows, and is probably as close as you’ll get to seeing an actual dead emperor on this blog!

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When I visited, the house grounds were taken over by a living history event depicting daily life in WW I – both in the armed forces as well as at home. I didn’t know this, but there’s a distinction between living history and historical reenactment: whilst the latter is more about getting the details of the battles right, the former focuses on depicting daily life, costumes, and arts and crafts as close to the historical original as possible, usually with an educational purpose. For the event at Huis Doorn, living history groups had turned up from Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

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Now you should know that, as a trained historian, I usually even frown upon historical novels, because of the poetic license that I imagine their authors to take. I like my history unfrivolous and hard-core. But I was fascinated by the living history people. The ones I spoke to really knew their stuff and also were able to put their roles into context. I spoke to a German guy called Siggi, who played the role of an ensign in the Prussian army. He had a great beard and a wonderful banner showing the colours of his regiment.

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I was curious how ‘military’ these guys actually were, so I asked Siggi if he had ever served in the army. It turned out he’d served in the Bundeswehr for four years as an NCO at some point. Because he’d been a sergeant-major during his stint in the modern army, that’s the historical uniform he also liked to wear when role-playing, because it was what he identified with most. But many of his fellow role-players had not served in the army, or if they had, wore any uniform they chose. According to Siggi, there were no set rules for this.

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When I asked Siggi what he imagined the biggest difference there would have been between life in the modern army as opposed to 100 years ago, he immediately said ‘discipline’ – the discipline to which soldiers were subjected to back then was much stricter than today. Transgressions which would have lost you a weekend’s leave back then would not even be noticed today.

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For depicting life ‘back home’, the organisers had chosen to represent the upper classes: ‘grand-mère’s birthday on the lawn’, complete with croquet, cucumber sandwiches and deferential staff.

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All very Downton-esque and beautifully done. For the people in this group, it meant sitting in their lawn chairs the whole afternoon, making conversation about grand-mère and other family matters, and as far as I could see they never dropped their roles. An interesting point in the proceedings arrived when a ‘Dutch officer’ began explaining the uniforms of four ‘Prussian soldiers’ to the public. This took place in front of grand-mère’s marquee and gave a nice contrast between military life and aristocratic hedonism.

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As the Kaiser himself loved to dress up in all kinds of military uniforms, and certainly showed a lot of awareness of Prussian history (see Berlin’s Terracotta army – the Statues of the Kaiser’s Victory Boulevard), I am sure he would have approved of such an event at the home where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life.

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As you’ve probably been able to read between the lines, this hard-core historian was very much won over by the commitment and hard work that the living history people put in their displays. Will I find some funny dress and join them? Probably not, if only because I’d probably get bored after 15 minutes of sitting still. Will I go again? Definitely – there’s a lot to learn by viewing these displays and talking to people who are so passionate about their chosen period.