Primary Documents - Count Detlef von Moltke on Kaiser Wilhelm II's Abdication, 29 October-11 November 1918
With Germany actively seeking an armistice and revolution threatening, calls for Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate grew in intensity. Wilhelm was himself deeply reluctant to make such a sacrifice, instead expressing a preference to lead his armies back into Germany from the Western Front. Upon being informed by his military advisers that the army could not be relied upon not to harm him Wilhelm abandoned the notion.
Wilhelm's abdication was announced by Chancellor Prince Max von Baden in a 9 November 1918 proclamation - before Wilhelm had in fact consented to abdicate (but after Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann had announced the Kaiser's departure from the balcony of the Reichstag). Faced with a fait accompli Wilhelm formally abdicated and went into exile in Holland (an account of these events by a member of his personal staff, Count Detlef von Moltke, is reproduced below). His abdication proclamation was formally published in Berlin on 30 November 1918.
Faced with public criticism over the nature of Wilhelm's abdication German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg issued a statement on 20 March 1919 explaining the sequence of events and defending the Kaiser's role.
In the wake of the Kaiser's abdication his eldest son - Crown Prince Wilhelm - expressed a desire on 11 November 1918 - the date of the armistice - to be allowed to lead his army back home to Germany. His wish was, given the anti-royalist fervour of the moment, rejected out of hand by the government. He too went into exile in Holland, despatching a letter to Hindenburg following his arrival in which he explained and justified his position.
Having instigated the Kaiser's abdication Prince Max resigned, handing power to incoming Chancellor Friedrich Ebert who, in statements issued on 10 November and 17 November, appealed for public calm and reassured the German public that the incoming government would be "a government of the people".
Count Detlef von Moltke on Kaiser Wilhelm II's Abdication, 29 October-11 November 1918
I come now to the 29th of October, the day of the departure of the Emperor from Potsdam for Spa, the headquarters of the Army in the West. The journey was resolved upon by the General Staff at midday.
The suddenness of it did not surprise us soldiers, accustomed as we were to quick movements. It aroused, however, speculation on the part of the public and was commented on from different angles by the press, on the 30th, some of the more radical newspapers even hinting, in guarded language, at flight.
When we examine the reasons for the journey, we must not forget that the Emperor and King was not only Monarch but Commander-in-Chief of the Military Forces of the Empire.
We must, therefore, ask ourselves what remained of the Imperial powers after the change to parliamentary government in the first days of the month? The answer is: almost nothing.
The hypocritical Wilson had now brought it to pass among his Allies, external and internal to Germany that the Emperor as Monarch, that is as Civil Governor, had but little authority. In the new parliamentary government sat as the Fata Morgana of the new system Erzberger and Scheidemann, the plague and bane of Germany.
The Emperor had been obliged to surrender the power over war and peace to the Reichstag. All the appointments of Ministers and of the higher military officials as well as all decisions in regard to military political affairs required the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers.
All the powers in these respects formerly exercised by the Emperor had been taken from him and nothing left to him but the powers of administration in detail. This was the aspect of the Emperor's powers in the latter October days. The American Professor had issued his commands and the German Michel had obeyed and fallen from power.
Can anyone then blame the Emperor that, having been deprived of all of his powers as Monarch, he betook himself as soldier to his brave, hard-pressed soldiers? This question carries its own answer.
At 4 p.m., October 30th, we arrived in Spa. Two days later, on November 1st, Dr. Drews, Minister of the Interior, presented himself to the Emperor for the purpose of requesting abdication.
The Emperor heard him through and then replied: "What, you as a Prussian officer, who have sworn your oath of loyalty to your King, you come before me with such a proposition! I will describe to you then the chaos you invite. I and my house abdicate! Immediately all the German dynasties fall! The army is left without a leader! The front dissolves and the soldiers stream back across the Rhine. The traitors throughout the country get together burning, plundering, murdering and the enemy assists in the nefarious work! I have no idea of abdicating! The King of Prussia dare not betray Germany, least of all in this hour of her greatest need. I also have sworn my oath and I shall keep it!"
Has not everything turned out as prophesied by the Emperor?
On the 2nd of November occurred the abdication of Emperor Charles, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian front in Upper Italy. On the same day news was brought to the Emperor of the heroic resistance of my old regiment, the Guard Cuirassiers, to the advancing enemy. This report was received by him with joy and gratitude, alas, almost the final joy of his imperial life.
On the 3rd of November, the Emperor betook himself by way of Liege and Brussels to the battlefront. Near Ghent representatives from eleven divisions were greeted and decorated. The presence of the Kaiser had not been announced and the fresh and hardy and orderly appearance of the troops was all the more gratifying. The spontaneous enthusiasm of the soldiers on seeing their Commander-in-Chief was also most encouraging.
On the 5th of November in the early morning we arrived in Spa. During the immediately following days we learned of the revolt in Kiel and of the demand of the Social Democrats for the abdication of the Emperor.
Railroad connection with Germany began to be irregular and broken. Soon it ceased altogether. No train crossing the Rhine. Telegraphic and telephonic connection with Berlin became difficult. It appeared to be under some sort of censorial control and confidential messages could no longer be trusted. Finally we had to have recourse to air service. Two airships flew to Berlin, but none returned.
I come now to the 9th of November, that day of greatest misfortune to our Fatherland. In the night or early morning the Chancellor, Prince Max, telegraphed that the Emperor must abdicate, otherwise the Cabinet could no longer remain, that the Social revolution was extending on all sides, and that the Social-Democrats could no longer hold the radicals under control.
It was also reported that the city and town officials in the large cities on the coast and in the western and southern portions of the Empire had assumed independent authority and that the Rhine and the great magazines of munitions and food along and east of this line had been seized by the Revolutionists.
Such was the situation when at 10 a.m. on that fateful day Hindenburg appeared before the Emperor. The matter first considered was whether it were possible to suppress the internal revolt by force of arms. The new Chief of Staff, General Groener, took the ground that there was in his opinion no prospect of success in such a move.
The idea was given up because the Emperor was unwilling to shed the blood of his own countrymen in a fratricidal conflict. There was also the danger that the Revolutionists might stop the supplies to the army. They had threatened it and there were supplies for only a few days at the front.
The Emperor inclined to the plan of waiting for the conclusion of the Armistice and then leading the army back in person into Germany, without announcing any purpose of employing it against the revolt.
General Groener considered this idea also unrealizable since the revolt had turned against the Emperor personally. He said that the army would march back peacefully and in order under his (Groner's) command, but not under the Emperor's command, "Because it no longer stands behind your Majesty!" he exclaimed.
In spite of the fact that some of the generals did not agree with Groener, the plan was abandoned, in deference to his view.
I relate this in all calmness, but I beg my readers to place themselves for a moment in the position of the Emperor, who, as I well know, had never wished the war and had always had in mind the good of his people and consider what must have been his feelings when his own military subordinates now turned the consultation to the question of his abdication.
The Chancellor and his colleagues in the ministry were from Berlin, pressing with increasing earnestness and impatience for the abdication. The Crown Prince, who had been summoned from his headquarters to take part in the deliberations, now arrived on the scene.
Under-Secretary von dem Busche telephoned from the Chancellor's office in Berlin that Liebknecht would be proclaimed President of the Republic in case the Emperor did not at once abdicate. It was further reported that Berlin was bathed in blood, that the troops forming the garrison had gone over to the Revolutionists and that only the immediate abdication of the Emperor could save the Fatherland from civil war.
After several fruitless attempts to establish telephonic communication with Berlin, the Chief of Staff of the Garrison, Major von Berge, was reached. He reported to the inquiry regarding the situation in Berlin that most of the troops of the garrison had mutinied, that the fighting in the streets was not very considerable and that it was not at all true that Berlin was bathed in blood.
Immediately following this message came another telephoned by His Excellency Wahnschaffe, declaring that civil conflict was no longer a matter of hours but of minutes!
Then the Emperor in great agony of mind declared that if civil war could be prevented in no other way, he would abdicate as Emperor, but would remain King of Prussia.
The Emperor signed this declaration and caused it to be telephoned to Berlin. Immediately the following surprising answer was received: "Too late. We can no more make use of that. By order of the Chancellor."
The Wolf Telegraphic Bureau made public the following telegram: "His Majesty, the Emperor and King, has abdicated, the Crown Prince has renounced the succession. Prince Max has been appointed Regent, and representative Ebert, Chancellor."
This telegram had been given to the public at midday, while the telephone message from the Kaiser announcing his decision did not leave Spa until half past one, one hour and a half later. Nothing whatever had been said in the consultation at Spa about the renunciation of the succession by the Crown Prince and, of course, nothing about that was contained in the Emperor's telephonic message.
The action of the government in Berlin was thus nothing other or less than a coup d'etat of the most serious and virulent nature.
In the course of the afternoon, reports were received that detachments of the troops not only along the routes to the base of supplies but at the front had mutinied. The garrison at Spa even was said to have become unreliable. It was reported that it would not do anything against the Emperor but would do nothing for him. Nevertheless, the Kaiser said, at 8 o'clock in the evening, in my own hearing, "I do not think of leaving. I shall remain with the army in Spa."
Around ten o'clock the same evening the Emperor was advised by his counsellors to go into neutral territory in order to avoid further shedding of blood and civil war. He was now called upon to make this critical decision under the feeling that he had been abandoned, even thrown overboard by his own people, and betrayed by the highest counsellor of the Crown.
What should he do? Which way should he turn after both the front and the Fatherland had been closed to him? After agonizing self-deliberation, he chose Holland as his place of refuge.
I come now to the 10th (November). The night passed quietly but I doubt if a single eye was closed in sleep during its entire course. Soon after 4 a.m. we assembled in the dining car. The Emperor came in apparently self-possessed and calm, gave us all a friendly shake of the hand, as usual. During the breakfast we learned the shameful terms of the armistice.
At 5 o'clock a.m. the train started for the Dutch frontier. It had a guard of four soldiers in each car, since it had to pass through places occupied by mutinied troops. Soon ten minutes after we halted at the little station La Reide.
In the darkness, the Emperor left the train and stepped, accompanied by a few gentlemen, into the automobile provided to take him across the Dutch frontier.
The rest of us continued in the train. We travelled through Pepinster and Liege and ruined Vise. About 7 a.m. the train stopped. Obliquely across the track was a wire hedge. We had reached the Dutch frontier. As parting greeting the last German sentinel had called after us some coarse words.
Our car was uncoupled and we waited for the Dutch engine to take us across the frontier. It came at about 10 o'clock a.m. and drew us into the neutral Kingdom. When we reached the first Dutch station we saw the Emperor, who had preceded us in automobile, walking up and down the platform.
In great depression of spirit we presented ourselves before him.
The Dutch Government had been made acquainted with the decision of the Emperor by its Consul in Brussels. The Emperor had also telegraphed to the Queen asking her permission to enter her kingdom as a private gentleman.
The Emperor had been received at the frontier by the Dutch Military Commander, Major van Dyl. T he Major looked out for our protection against the public, as the place was filled with hostile Belgian deserters. In the course of the forenoon the German Consul at Maastricht had a number of Dutch officers, both civil and military, presented themselves before the Emperor.
We learned that the Queen had placed the Castle Amerongen, property of Count Bentick, at the service of the Emperor. Our departure from the frontier for the Castle was fixed for the next day, the 11th of November.
It was a most depression, shameful journey. At every station thousands of people were gathered, greeting us with shouting, whistling, cursing. They threatened us, made signs of choking and hanging us, etc.
In such manner was our poor Emperor received on Dutch soil.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A "Communication Trench" was a narrow trench constructed at an angle to a defensive trench to permit concealed access to the defensive trench.
- Did you know?