Imperial Germany in 1918 was a nation in a state of collapse. Four years of war had cost it the flower of its manhood had bled the nation dry. Over 2 million men had died and another 5.6 million wounded and nearly a million more take prisoner. “One German soldier had died nearly every minute, 55 every hour, and 1331 every day of the war.” (1)
Revolution was in the air. The effects of the war and shortages of nearly every commodity including basic foodstuffs caused by the Allied blockade of German ports had taken their toll. Communists and members of the radical Independent Socialist Party agitated for revolution in key industries and in the military. Units of the Army and the High Seas Fleet whose ranks had been filled with conscripts who were “undisciplined youths, already indoctrinated with the defeatist propaganda of the extreme Leftist parties, to which they adhered more from the fear of combat than from political conviction.” (2)
Even in the spring of 1918 when German troops were winning spectacular victories on the Western Front revolts were occurring at home.
As Germany’s allies collapsed around her, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and finally the Astro-Hungarian Empire it was apparent to the High Command that an Armistice with the Allies was imperative. On October 29th the Kaiser left Berlin for the last time and arrived at the headquarters of the Army High Command in Spa, Belgium. In the next few days plans devoid of reality were suggested that the Kaiser should either lead the Army back to Germany to crush the revolts or die at the head of a regiment in battle.
Revolting Troops in Berlin
Then in early November the red flags of revolution were raised aboard the battleships of the High Seas Fleet in its bases of Kiel and Wilhemshaven. Soon workers, sailors and soldiers councils were “springing up everywhere to take over power.” (3) The authority of Naval Officers on their ships was gone, many were prisoners of their crews. “From the ports the torch of revolution was carried to western and southern Germany.” (4) Soon the royal dynasties that made up Imperial Germany were toppled one by one. In spite of this Wilhelm who had lived in a dream world throughout most of the war, shielded from the truth by advisors, military and civilian believed that the German people would rally to his cause.
General Wilhelm Groener who had replaced General Erich Luddendorff as the First Quartermaster of the Army was now showing himself to be the “most clear headed and determined of the army’s leaders.” (5) After a brief visit to Berlin in the first week of November Groener became convinced that the Kaiser must abdicate if there was any hope of preserving the monarchy and transitioning to a constitutional monarchy an idea supported by the Majority Socialists and their leader Friedrich Ebert.
Facing the unrealistic ideas of the Kaiser Groener called an emergency meeting of 50 senior commanders of which 39 arrived in time to take part in the council. In answer to Groener’s questions as to whether the Army would stand beside the Kaiser only one commander “guaranteed that the soldiers stood squarely behind the Kaiser.” (6)
That morning Admiral von Hintze an emissary of Prince Max of Baden, the Chancellor and the Army headquarters in Berlin brought new messages warning “that unless the Emperor abdicated at once, a revolution would sweep him and the monarchy away.” (7)
With that news and the results of his poll of the army leadership at Spa Groener took action. Hintze and Groener convinced Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg that the Kaiser must be informed. Hindenburg wanted to offer his his resignation and remained silent in the background as Groener told Wilhelm “The Army will march home in peace and under orders from its leaders and commanding generals, but not under the command of Your Majesty for it no longer stands behind Your Majesty!” (8)
Wilhelm II Arriving in Holland
The Kaiser was stunned and by the morning of the 10th he departed by his royal train to Holland where he went into exile. Several years later in recounting the day the former monarch still lived in a dream world writing in his memoirs:
“The decision as to my going or staying, as to my renunciation of the Imperial Crown and retention of the Royal Crown of Prussia, was summarily snatched from me. The army was shaken to the core by the erroneous belief that its King had abandoned it at the most critical moment of all.” (9)
Of course he was wrong. He had helped lead his nation and the world into a war that swept his monarchy and other great monarchies away. It was a war that ultimately led to another war of even greater destruction. It changed the world order which had existed from the time of Metternich and the Congress of Vienna.
Groener was instrumental in preserving the unity of Germany and helped establish the Weimar Republic working with the leaders of the Majority Socialists. Unfortunately their efforts to establish a working republic were frustrated by the actions of the vengeful Allied powers, the terrible political polarization of the country and the effects of several economic crisis which doomed the Republic.
The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II was to many in Germany, especially the Officer class and nobility “the end of the world.” That being said had more leaders had the foresight and leadership of Groener and Ebert the republic might have survived. Had Ebert not died unexpectedly it is possible that the center might have held. But it was not to be.
1 Herwig, Holger The First World War, Arnold a Member of the Hodder Headline Group, London 1997 p.446
2 Gordon, Harold J, The Reichswehr and the German Republic 1919-1926, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey 1956 p. 4
3 Ibid. Gordon. p.6
4 Carsten, F. L. The Reichswehr and Politics 1918-1933, Oxford University Press, London 1966 p.7
5 Craig, Gordon A. The Politics of the Prussian Army, Oxford University Press, London 1955 p.345
6 Ibid, Herwig p. 445
7 Dorpallen, Andreas, Hindenburg and the Weimar Republic Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1964 p.17
8 Ibid. Herwig p.445
9 Wilhelm II, The Kaiser’s Memoirs Translated by Thomas R. Ybarra, Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York and London 1922, pp.287-288