Pictured – German sailors wave the red flag as they march through town.
When Germany’s naval commander Admiral Scheer ordered his fleet to sail out into the Channel and “fight to the death,” his sailors had other ideas. On November 3 they mutinied in the town of Kiel, refusing to sacrifice their lives in a meaningless battle to the death with the Royal Navy. The striking sailors came from the III Flotilla based in Kiel. They extinguished the fires in their ships’ boilers, and then, in an unprecedented move, marched into town to protest the war, the Kaiser, and the complete detachment from reality of the Wilhelmine government.
The mutiny terrified the naval staff into cancelling their attack, but to try and repress the sailors. Officers arrested several and ordered that the strike leaders be handed over for execution. Repression only magnified the protest. Now many sailors who had not been part of the mutiny left their ships and marched to the Kiel prison, where officer cadets and police opened fire on them, killing nine. This escalated the mutiny even more, leading workers from the town to join with it and form workers, sailors, and soldiers’ councils (Arbeiter-, Matrosen, und Soldatenräte), just as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia in 1917.
The Kiel movement sparked a wave of revolution across Germany as more disillusioned fighters and workers joined in and formed councils of their own. The sailors’ mutiny at Kiel had set in a motion a course of events that would end with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, the end of the German Empire, and the signing of the Armistice on November 11.