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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German National Monuments – Weird Wonders of the Wilhelmine World

Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (1896) at Porta Westfalica. The Kaiser is shown as a triumphant Caesar, bearing a laurel wreath.
Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (1896) at Porta Westfalica. The Kaiser is shown as a triumphant Caesar, bearing a laurel wreath.

Dotting Germany’s northern half, there is a collection of 19th century monuments that are astonishing both in size and theme. These huge memorials have various motifs: many are dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm I and were built after his death in 1888. Others, like Berlin’s Victory Column, glorify battles as recent as the victory over the French in 1871, or as ancient as the Roman legions’ defeat by the Germanic tribes under Hermann the Cherusker in 9 CE, at the Hermannsdenkmal near Detmold. The central theme of all these monuments is that they celebrate the German nation’s unity, symbolized by the royal and imperial family.

National monuments – German statues of liberty?

Today, these monuments seem absurdly pompous and conservative, and we usually see them as symbols of the militarism and nationalism that led to World War I. But at the time they were built they were also symbols of hope, progress and modernity. The German middle classes of the 1860-90 era took the initiative for many of these monuments and funded them too. Not out of the kind of patriotism that seems narrow-minded today, but as symbols of a newfound national identity that marked a clear cut with the ancient-regime past.

Monument for Hermann the Cherisher, who defeated the Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Hermann is shown facing southeast, towards Germany's
Monument for Hermann the Cherusker, who defeated the Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Hermann faces southwest, towards Germany’s “arch enemy” France.

Ever since the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars which followed, middle-class Germany had tried to rid itself of its archaic, divided system of government. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, and also in the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848. But each time the various local princes, backed by the aristocracy, had been able to more or less restore the scattered status quo.

Therefore, to many ordinary Germans, the proclamation of the Reich and the coronation of the Kaiser at Versailles marked their hope of an end to a period of division, religious intolerance, censorship, and lack of consistent rule of law that had lasted centuries. They were hoping for liberty and democracy. Many people working in Germany’s fast-rising trade and industrial sectors felt that their country had finally caught up with other modern nations such as France and Britain.

North-south divide

Bavaria's Walhalla monument on the Danube near Ratisbon. Pic: Lisa de Jong/helderontwerpwerk.nl
Bavaria’s Walhalla monument on the Danube near Ratisbon. Pic: Lisa de Jong/helderontwerpwerk.nl

It’s worth noting however that none of these grand monuments, shown in red, are in the southern regions of Swabia and Bavaria, possibly indicating a lack of fervour for the idea of a united Germany with Prussia at the helm. The 1842 Walhalla in Bavaria, grand as it may be,  doesn’t celebrate German unity, but rather the greatness of the German speaking area (including, for convenience’s sake and not to the liking of many Dutchmen, the Netherlands). And another early Bavarian monument, the Befreiungshalle at Kelheim from 1863, celebrates the liberation of German lands from Napoleonic oppression in 1813, but expressly aims to maintain Germany’s federalist status quo (it depicts all 35 members of the German Bund at that time).

Memorial building during the reign of Wilhelm II

Bismarck statue (and Victory Column) in Berlin. Both were moved from in front of the Reichstag to their current location in 1939.
Bismarck statue (and Victory Column) in Berlin. Both were moved from in front of the Reichstag to their current location in 1939.

After the death of Wilhelm I, and once the initial wave of monuments in his honour had been built, the monument-building frenzy cooled. His successor, Wilhelm II, was never as popular as the first Kaiser, and in his thirty year reign never inspired the population to keep up the momentum. In fact, monument builders turned to Bismarck as a subject, the original chancellor of united Germany dismissed by Wilhelm in 1890. The 1913 Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Memorial to the Battle of the Nations) was built, like the Befreiungshalle above, to remember the 1813 battle between Napoleon’s troops and the Allies on the outskirts of Leipzig. It was the last of the great patriotic monuments built in Germany’s version of the long nineteenth century.

Public perception and the monuments’ survival

From Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) to Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal, these memorials have physically stood the test of time well. Considering all the political and ideological changes since they were built, the remarkable thing is that they have survived at all!

Germania is handed the crown. Detail of the mosaic at the foot of Berlin's Victory Column. Mythical Germania was shown instead of Kaiser Wilhelm I to avoid offending King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who had second thoughts about Wilhelm's nomination.
Germania is handed the crown. Detail of the mosaic at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column. Mythical Germania was shown instead of Kaiser Wilhelm I to avoid offending King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had second thoughts about Wilhelm’s nomination.
Nazi demonstration at Leipzig's Monument for the Battle of the Nations
Nazi demonstration at Leipzig’s Monument for the Battle of the Nations

When World War I ended and the Kaiser abdicated, the public’s perception of the memorials, and the political system that produced them, changed considerably. For many Germans, they were embarrassing reminders of the era of the last Hohenzollern Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, by the end of the Great War, had lost all credibility with the population. But only a few years later, the Nazis were able to seamlessly fit the monuments into their myth of German history. Their often spectacular locations and huge scale made them great venues for Nazi mass meetings.

At the end of World War II, the end appeared to have come for many monuments. The Allies, whether capitalist or communist, were united in their abhorrence of these gigantic symbols of Prussian nationalism and militarism. The monument at Porta Westfalica almost succumbed when the British occupation force blew up the tunnels in the mountain below that had been used as a forced-labour camp by the Nazis, but survived (part of the viewing platform surrounding it fell down the mountain, though). And the local Soviet military commander could only just prevent East German communists from destroying the Kyffhäuser Kaiser Wilhelm memorial – he is famously supposed to have said: “It is time you Germans finally learn to live with your history and your monuments!”

Day-tripping the monuments

Although many are in more or less remote locations, monument builders took care to make them accessible on day trips for workers from Germany’s emerging industrial cities, sometimes creating a railway station especially for the memorial. For the monuments to carry their nation-building message successfully, it was essential that as many ordinary people as possible would be able to visit them. Souvenirs and miniature monuments were sold at affordable prices, to make sure people would take the message home with them (for a collection of these, see the exhibition at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column).

The Kaiser memorial at Porta Westfalica gives a great view of the surrounding hills and forests. At the bank of the river Weser, bottom, you can see the railway station built for the monument.
The Kaiser memorial at Porta Westfalica gives a great view of the surrounding hills and forests. At the bank of the river Weser, centre, you can see the railway station built to afford access to the monument.

But also after the end of World War II, the monuments remained popular regional day trip destinations for ordinary Germans – just as they were in the era when they were built. Despite the ideological contrasts of both East and West Germany with the monuments’  nationalist and militarist messages, people kept coming to visit, if only to enjoy the view from the scenic vantage points on which they were built. In fact, that is how many of the local Tourist Boards refer to them today. Rather than entangling themselves in the monuments’ murky political history, they simply promote them as viewing platforms.

For more information on the historical background of many of the larger monuments and practical information on visiting them, consult the website of Strasse der Monumente –  a network of monument owners run by Berlin’s Victory Column.

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”.

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.