October 29, 1918: German Navy Refuses to Fight, Triggers Revolution

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A Brief History

On October 29, 1918, a disheartened and disgusted German Navy had enough of the slaughter, mismanagement and bungling of World War I and mutinied when ordered to sail out for one last ‘glorious’ mission that amounted to a suicide mission when the war was already lost.

Digging Deeper

The German High Seas Fleet had basically been bottled up in port after the enormous naval Battle of Jutland, in which an outnumbered Imperial German fleet acquitted itself quite well.  Despite many pleas by the Navy for other chances to contribute to the war effort, German leadership kept them safely in port while they bungled away the war.  Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhard Scheer decided on the last sortie as a way to retain the reputation of the German Navy, an idiotic and suicidal gesture not exactly appreciated by the sailors.

Stupidity and lack of insight infected all sides in The Great War, and the men doing the fighting and dying were getting tired of it.  Disease, starvation and slaughter were commonplace, while military leaders wined and dined in luxury accommodations, seeming not to care about the fate of their men and demanding unrealistic feats from them.

By October of 1918, the German people had had enough, and were ready to revolt.  When elements of the High Seas fleet started to mutiny, the revolt spread to other parts of the fleet and into the population.  Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate after a republic was declared on November 9, 1918.  Elections were held in January of 1919, and by August of 1919 the Weimar Republic had been established.

The German fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, Scotland by the British Royal Navy, and on June 19,1919 somewhat redeemed itself when Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the men to scuttle their ships in order to prevent the British an other allied navies from seizing and using the ships for themselves.  The British sailors guarding the German fleet tried to save as many ships as possible, but 52 of the 74 ships interned at Scapa Flow were sunk.  In all, 10 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 5 cruisers and 32 destroyers were sunk, valuable ships denied use by the Allies.

The German Navy of World War II, the Kriegsmarine, further redeemed the honor of the German Navy by fighting a skillful and valiant battle against overwhelming odds.

The German Navy was not the only fighting force to seriously question the wisdom of fighting World War I, as the Russian Revolution had also been precipitated by the folly of the War and the French Army suffered a crisis of officers refusing to mount suicidal attacks.  The British and Colonial troops at Etaples suffered a riotous mutiny as well, and to some extent most of the lesser participants in the war did as well.

World War I is one of History’s greatest debacles on a grand scale, with so much poor political and military leadership on all sides that it defies belief.  Incredibly, barely over 20 years later Europe was at it again, this time no more Mr. Nice Guy, either!  Question for students (and subscribers): Are we doomed to have a World War III?  Let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Schneider (‘Icarus’), Ernst, Joe Thomas, et al.  The Wilhelmshaven Revolt. A Chapter of the Revolutionary Movement in the German Navy 1918-1919.  ChristieBooks, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of sailors demonstrating at Wilhelmshaven provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.