Pitiless Fate: The Dresden Mutiny, 1917
By Chris Oakley
Based on the series "A Chacun Son Boche" by the same author
In his 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, American political/social commentator and former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg sums up a chapter on the perceived decline of morality in the United States by quoting an observation from an anonymous friend: "In a society where anything goes, sooner or later everything will go." In a nutshell, this was the state of affairs in Kaiser Wilhelmís Germany in late 1917 as Allied troops pushed from both east and west towards Berlin, the capital of the Second Reich. With the Imperial German Army falling apart on all fronts, German civilian society was experiencing a corresponding disintegration behind the lines and beliefs ordinary Germans had once held as indisputable facts of life were subjected to ever-increasing scorn.
Few segments of German society were a more fertile breeding ground for discontent than the Imperial German Army, once a near-monolithic wall of support for the Kaiser. Not only was there growing dissension within the ranks of the Imperial Armyís enlisted men, but a sizable part of the officer corps was disaffected too. There were even vague murmurs of discontent starting to be heard behind closed doors among the Imperial General Staff. But the true extent of just how deep the alienation ran within the German army would not become clear until one cold December afternoon in the historic city of Dresden....
When World War I began in 1914, few would have dared imagine that soldiers tasked with defending one of Germanyís oldest cities would even consider a mutiny, much less start one. But the Second Reichís fortunes had abruptly started to turn sour just weeks after the war began when papers detailing a planned German drive on Paris by General Alexander von Kluckís 1st were captured by a French patrol. Using those papers, the French 6th Army initiated a counterattack that stopped the German advance dead in its tracks.
From that point on, everything which could have possible gone wrong for the Reichís war effort did go wrong. By the late fall of 1917 most of Germanyís soil was under Allied control and Berlin was simultaneous threat of attack by American-led multinational forces from the west and Alexander Kerenskyís Russian Republican army from the east. Of all the belligerent powers only Russia had experienced greater domestic turmoil, and that turmoil had significantly died down after Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was assassinated.
By contrast, the civil discontent in Germany was escalating day by day as the Allied armies inched closer to Berlin; antiwar rallies were a daily event in just about every major German city not under Allied occupation and young men were increasingly opting to become fugitives rather than submit to the Kaiserís draft and risk getting maimed or killed to soothe their rulerís damaged ego. And Dresden would not be the only German city to undergo a major uprising-- only a handful of days before the mutiny one of Dresdenís sister cities, Leipzig, had been the scene of fierce rioting when Imperial Army troops and peace marchers fought with one another after the troops tried to suppress a rally calling for Kaiser Wilhelm to abdicate and make way for a new government that would negotiate a peace accord with the Allies. In the few foreign embassies still operating in Berlin, there was a growing consensus that unless a peace pact was worked out soon between Germany and the Allied powers one of two dire scenarios was likely to come to pass: 1)Berlin would become the battleground for a final confrontation between Allied ground forces and what was left of the Imperial German Army; or 2)the German capital would be transformed into the flashpoint for the outbreak of full-blown civil war between the Imperial regime and its internal foes.
For the men of the Imperial Army reserve garrison at Dresden, the straw that finally broke the camelís back and spurred them to open revolt came on the afternoon of December 5th, 1917 when one of their platoon leaders was executed after making a comment to a senior garrison officer that the officer regarded as gross insubordination. Though most of the garrison troops had never met the ill-fated platoon leader personally, they knew him by reputation to be a man of high character and an outstanding combat soldier; heíd won the Iron Cross 2nd class for heroism on the Eastern Front in 1915. They regarded his execution as a personal insult.
Much as rotten meat had been one of the catalysts for the Potemkin mutiny of 1905, spoiled bread would be a major factor in the Dresden uprising twelve years later; the executed platoon leaderís crime had been nothing more than pointing out to the commander of the garrisonís quartermaster unit that the garrison bread supply was contaminated by worms and mold. Unfortunately for the platoon leader, the commander of the Dresden fortís quartermaster section happened to be an old school Prussian who expected the reverence enlisted men had always given to officers in the Imperial German Army, and he didnít take kindly to any suggestion that his handling of his responsibilities had been anything less than perfect. The garrison commanding officer had granted a free hand to his senior staff in disciplining soldiers who werenít toeing the line-- two months before the Dresden mutiny, a private had been thrown in the stockade merely for giving a lieutenant a dirty look. So the quartermaster felt fully justified in having the platoon leader arrested and shot for what he deemed to be slander of his abilities in overseeing the garrisonís food stores.
On the evening of December 5th, the enlisted men of the Dresden garrison held a secret meeting to debate what their next course of action should be. Some suggested drafting a petition and sending it to the Kaiser in hopes that he might intervene to remedy their troubles; others advocated marching to Berlin and starting an uprising against the Imperial regime; still others called for a mutiny against the garrisonís senior officers to force the Kaiser and his chancellor Georg Michaelis, who was by then the real power within the German government, to take action to correct the injustices the enlisted men felt they were being subjected to every day. In the end, the petition option was scrapped and it came down to a choice between marching on Berlin or mounting an insurrection closer to home against the Dresden garrisonís senior officers.
The men chose mutiny. Shortly after breakfast on December 6th, a second meeting was held to decide how to go about effecting their uprising. At that meeting the mutineers made up their minds to start the rebellion by seizing the garrison commandantís office; the attack was to be made no later than high noon on December 8th. But events would conspire to set the mutiny off before noon...
On December 7th, the eve of the Dresden mutiny, a so-called "honor court"-- one of the special military tribunals which had recently been established at the behest of the Kaiser in a frantic attempt to preserve his soldiersí crumbling discipline --convicted a corporal named Stefan Panier on a dubious charge of insubordination. His real sin had been daring to correct his battalion commander when said commander made an error on the status of one of Corporal Panierís platoon comrades; the battalion leader had claimed the man in question was AWOL, but as Panier had rightly point the individual the commander was looking for was in fact dead, killed in action on the Eastern Front.
Panierís fellow soldiers-- and many of the officers under who he served --were outraged at the honor courtís verdict and its sentence of life imprisonment for the corporal. They made up their minds not to wait any longer to rise up against their tyrannical seniors, and at 10:00 AM Berlin time on the morning of December 8th they stormed the garrison commanderís office and arrested him and his senior staff; 15 minutes later, they freed Panier from his prison cell and threw the garrisonís senior officers into the empty cells nearby. One of the leaders of the mutiny, a sergeant named Heinrich Witzleber, then had a telegram sent to Berlin announcing the takeover of the garrison and stating that he and his comrades were rebelling against their senior officers in order to, in Witzleberís words, "cleanse our nationís soul of the gangrene that now infests it." A crisis that would shake Germanyís national identity to its very foundations had arisen.
Even as the telegram announcing the mutiny was making its way
to Berlin, word of the uprising was spreading quickly throughout Dresden proper
and the villages immediately surrounding it. While there were some Dresdeners
who disapproved of what the mutineers were doing, most of the cityís residents
wholeheartedly agreed with the actions of Sgt.
Ironically one of Witzleberís main allies in the mutiny was a man who, by all rights, should have sided with the beleaguered garrison command staff when the mutiny broke out. Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Vanaker was an officer with thirty yearsí experience in the Imperial German Army; when the Great War began, he had wholeheartedly supported the Kaiserís military policies, but that support had slowly faded in the face of the steady sharp decline in the Reichís military fortunes. The events of the 48 hours prior to the mutiny had destroyed the last traces of his belief in the war effort, and in the Imperial regime itself for that matter...
To Be Continued