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The November insurrections (German: Novemberunruhen) were a group of civil conflicts in the German Empire during the Weltkrieg that directly led to the signing of the Enabling Act. The insurrectionists failed to achieve their goals and the revolt was suppressed after several days.

Background

The roots of the attempt at revolution lay in the strains placed on the population of the German Empire throughout the Weltkrieg, and the social tensions that became obvious alongside them. Even though the German Social Democrats agreed to the so-called Burgfrieden in 1914, the German government increasingly started to crack down on activities such as strikes and peaceful opposition in the course of the war. Social injustice prevailed even among soldiers, with a deepening gap between enlisted and officers, while perceived anachronisms such as the three-class-franchise Prussian voting system remained.

Attempt at Revolution

Kiel mutiny

While the situation in the Heer steadily improved following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the naval forces of the German Empire had been pinned in their harbours for several years and discipline had broken down. On their own initiative, Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned another large-scale engagement with the Royal Navy to crack the blockade before winter arrived. This planned attack was wildly unpopular in the ranks of the fleet, with many sailors thinking it was a hopeless charge at a superior foe, nothing but a desperate attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. After the crews of several Hochseeflotte ships mutinied in their base in Wilhelmshaven following the order to lift anchor, the III. Schlachtsquadron, which had the most cases of mutiny, was ordered to Kiel for training maneuvers while the rest of the fleet remained in Wilhelmshaven, running drills.

52 crewmen who were identified as ringleaders were arrested and brought to the Arrestanstalt (The local military prison) after the squadron arrived in Kiel. After a meeting of several hundred sailors in the Kiel Union House on the evening of October 30th, further meetings were forbidden and the Union House closed by police. This led to a demonstration of several thousand sailors on the Großer Exerzierplatz (large drill ground) on November 1st; with the Bolshevik-derived slogan "Frieden und Brot" (Peace and Bread), they demanded the release of the imprisoned sailors as well as an immediate end to the war and the improvement of food provisions. Eventually, the leading sailor Karl Artelt began to organise movement towards the military prison, where soldiers under Lieutenant Steinhäuser prohibited them from proceeding. After several salvoes of warning shots, the lieutenant ordered his troops to shoot directly into the demonstrators, killing 7 people and severely injuring 29. Patrolling soldiers and demonstrators dispersed afterwards, but the first shots of the November insurrections had been fired.

Novemberinsurrections-kielsoviet

A sailors council on the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, November 2nd.

On the morning of November 3rd, groups of mutineers moved through the town, convincing most of the local garrison to join them. Artelt organised the first soldiers' council on German ground, which was soon followed by several more. The imprisoned sailors were freed and the local telegram station occupied, but not before word of the mutiny had gotten to the alarmed OHL at Spa. By the evening, the city was in the hand of thousands of rebellious sailors, soldiers and workers, but several brigades of front-line reserve units were already on their way by train while the revolt remained limited to the city proper, with the suburbs and surrounding villages remaining in the hands of the police.

Spread & Disputes

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Armed soldiers and militias in Berlin, November 5th.

Delegations of the sailors traveled to many major cities in Germany, spreading the message of the mutiny. By November 5th, workers and soldiers councils had been formed in many large coastal cities as well as Hanover, Brunswick, Frankfurt am Main and Munich, but only in Berlin and Munich did the revolt survive the coordinated police response. In Berlin, the Workers and Soldiers council was led by SPD chairman Friedrich Ebert as well as the USPD activists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Kurt Eisner led the revolt in Munich, where the percentage of USPD affiliates was highest. The revolters imprisoned officers and seized police and garrison arsenals while the Kaiser left for a "front-line visit" to Spa.

While the insurrection enjoyed massive support among workers and garrison troops, the vast majority of the middle-class showed little to no support. Many stayed inside their homes and waited out the upheveal, hoping for the restoration of order. And even among factory workers, many thought the time for a general uprising was not well chosen, with the war effort being more popular again after the victory against Russia and the occupation of the grain-producing Ukraine. As it became more and more clear that the old order would not collapse, SPD and USPD affiliates began to argue over their next course of action; The SPD deputies sent to the councils, after consulting with their leaders, argued for talks with the police and an end to the uprising, while the USPD demanded an immediate attempt at realising the Socialist revolution. After unsuccessful negotiation, the SPD deputies left the councils and went over on November 6th.

Suppression

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One of the many quickly dispersed demonstrations in support of the insurrectionists, here in Mannheim, 6. November.

Kiel was reoccupied by loyalist front-line units arriving by train on November 6th, putting the strongpoints of rebel resistance (telegram office, harbour, and Union Hall) under siege without opening fire. During the evening, the SPD deputy Gustav Noske arrived in Kiel and was greeted enthusiastically at first, but then booed by the assembled sailors on SMS Helgoland after it became clear that he had not come to bring SPD support, but to convince the sailors to lay down their arms. While the leaders of the strike, including Artelt, tried to convince the sailors to defend themselves with the guns seized from ship and city arsenals, the majority finally caved to Noskes' offer of a general amnesty in the morning hours of November 7th.

Novemberinsurrections-tank

Heer unit using a captured British tank during the Schlacht unter den Linden (German: Battle under the linden trees).

Once victory in Kiel was assured, Ludendorff ordered a general assault on the council-controlled and barricaded city centres during the afternoon of November 6th, after the pre-negotiated surrender of SPD forces in many cities. Police and Heer started their assaults, with police quickly falling in behind soldiers using infiltration tactics and heavy equipment tried at the Western Front. The insurrectionist forces knew their situation was hopeless; as soon as combat started, they prepared to go underground - in Berlin literally, using the sewer system - while leaving behind a token force for resistance. The amount of casualties on both sides was therefore generally limited.

Maximiliansplatz massacre

The exception was Munich, but not from the assault on the council-controlled areas. A unit commanded by Leutnant Hermann Souchon, a several times removed nephew of vice-admiral Wilhelm Souchon, was tasked with dissolving one of the several improvised and illegal demonstrations in support of the insurrectionists on the Maximiliansplatz. The demonstration numbered several thousand unarmed, mostly young participants, many of them students. Their march through the unoccupied city centre was stopped in Max-Joseph Street by trucks and infantrymen using improvised shields. They were then quickly surrounded by more infantry wielding their full combat equipment, many chanting anti-Socialist slogans, and Souchon gave the order to open fire without giving the protesters the opportunity to disperse. As the Heer did not open the square until several days afterwards, the number of victims was guessed by survivors to be at least several dozen.

Aftermath

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The Reichstag debates the Enabling Act, 13. November 1918.

The Maximiliansplatz massacre, and especially an ill-timed official telegram of gratitude for the "preservation of order" sent by many parties, including the SPD, to the OHL and the Kaiser at Spa was received with outrage in worker and liberal strata and led to the mocking nickname "Novemberverräter" (German: November traitors). November 9th quickly became a day of frequent civil disobedience, rivaling even May 1st.

Meanwhile, Ludendorff used the intimidated state of the Reichstag following the insurrection to get his proposed Ermächtigungsgesetz passed, banning all Socialist parties completely and expanding his powers. This would lead to the USPD going completely underground, reforming into the DOI in 1922.

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