Robin Oomkes on the day the German monarchy ended…
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 seemingly unlimited reinforcements, was the beginning of the end for the German Imperial Army.
From August 1918 onwards the Allies had been 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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
By that time, Wilhelm was still his life of exile on a country estate in the Netherlands, Huis Doorn (now a museum). There, 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 whatever scientist was willing to come over and agree with the ex-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.
Neither did Hitler. Despite writing to the Führer in 1940 to congratulate him on his invasion of France, Hitler had no plans at all to reinstate the monarchy. A year later, just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and with German soldiers guarding his house following the invasion of Holland, the Kaiser died of a pulmonary embolus.
To learn more about Kaiser Wilhelm II and his life and rule from Berlin, see the author’s “Kaiser Bill” tour here