Pitiless Fate: The Dresden Mutiny, 1917
By Chris Oakley
based on the series "A Chacun Son Boche" by the same author
Summary: In the first chapter of this series we dealt with the circumstances which led to the Dresden garrison mutiny of December 1917 and the early hours of the mutiny itself. In this episode, we’ll recount chancellor Georg Michaelis’ reluctant decision to use force to end the mutiny and the reaction overseas to the news of the garrison uprising.
It was just after 12 noon Berlin time on December 8th when German chancellor Georg Michaelis was informed of the mutiny at the Imperial Army’s Dresden reserve garrison. For Michaelis, the Dresden uprising was yet one more burden heaped on shoulders that already groaned under the weight of running the beleaguered German government in the absence of Kaiser Wilhelm II; Wilhelm, whose mental state had been steadily deteriorating along with Germany’s military position for at least a year and a half, had practically given up his crown after the Leipzig anti-war riots in late November. The Kaiser was still the titular head of state, but for all practical purposes Michaelis was the real head of the Second Reich-- or more accurately what was left of the Reich -- when the Dresden mutiny erupted.
Michaelis immediately convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet to weigh the possible options for dealing with the mutineers. Some of his ministers were in favor of a negotiated solution to the uprising; they argued that with Germany’s military position being as precarious as it was, the last thing the Berlin government needed was for a civil war to break out. An opposing faction argued that it was necessary to send troops in to put down the mutiny; they asserted that to delay for even an hour in moving against the mutineers would invite an outbreak of larger insurrections throughout the Reich.
The German chancellor’s natural sympathies lay with those who advocated negotiations with the mutineers. Like many of his brother and sister Germans, Michaelis had had enough of the seemingly endless bloodshed that had been a fact of life for the Second Reich since 1914. While he and his cabinet dickered over what to do about ending the mutiny, the rest of the world looked on stunned at the events in Dresden...
British prime minister David Lloyd George was the first foreign head of state to learn of the Dresden uprising; he received the news of the mutiny via a coded telegram from the head of the British Army’s counterintelligence bureau1 at 12:20 PM London time2 on the afternoon of December 8th. Like Chancellor Michaelis, Prime Minister Lloyd George quickly convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet to determine how Britain should respond; the PM also sent a note to Buckingham Palace requesting an audience with King George V in order to debrief the king on the Dresden situation. By 1:30 PM the British embassies in Paris and St. Petersburg had sent special secret couriers to French premier Georges Clemenceau and Russian prime minister Alexander Kerensky to apprise them of what was happening.
Later that day the news of the uprising was duly passed on to President Woodrow Wilson via the military attaché’s office at the US embassy in London, and Wilson summoned his top national security aides to the White House to get their take on what was happening in Dresden. It was clear even from Wilson’s distant vantage point that something of earth-shaking proportions was taking place within the walls of the Dresden garrison...
In Berlin, meanwhile, the debate over how to resolve the Dresden crisis continued to rage. Chancellor Michaelis was still holding out a sliver of hope that it might yet be possible to end the mutiny without bloodshed, but his more hard-line advisors insisted that force was the only means for bringing the revolt under control. These hard-liners asserted that by waiting as long as he had already to take action, the chancellor was increasing the risk of a nationwide rebellion at a time when Germany could least afford it.
The argument would finally be resolved early on the afternoon of December 9th, when Michaelis received a secret message from an Imperial German Army counterintelligence operative reporting that the Dresden mutineers had executed their garrison commander after a special court convened by the garrison’s enlisted men had convicted him of what that court’s presiding judge described as "crimes against the well-being, dignity, rights and honor of the ordinary German soldier". It was at this point the German chancellor, despite his reservations about using force of arms to suppress the Dresden uprising, came to the conclusion that he had no other choice but to send in the troops if he wanted to avert nationwide anarchy.
Within minutes of getting that message, Chancellor Michaelis telephoned the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army’s Potsdam reserve garrison and advised him of the grim situation in Dresden; wearing what one of his aides would later remember as "a look of agonized death" on his face, Michaelis ordered the Potsdam garrison C-in-C to put the mutiny down at all costs. Sharing his chancellor’s distaste at what had to be done, the Potsdam commander nonetheless assured Michaelis order would be restored in Dresden.
Late on the afternoon of December 9th, the Potsdam garrison C-in-C rounded up a reserve infantry battalion and telegraphed Dresden police headquarters to advise them that he was on his way to assist them in restoring order at the Dresden Imperial Army garrison...
....where the mutineers’ nerves were beginning to fray. The execution of the garrison commander had uncovered growing divisions within their ranks; Sgt. Heinrich Witzleber feared that his comrades in the uprising were starting to lose the sense of unity which had made the mutiny possible in the first place. Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Vanaker shared Sgt. Witzleber’s concerns and tried as best he could to preserve the sense of camaraderie that had first bonded the mutineers together at the start of their uprising against the Kaiser.
This was no small task given that many of the garrison’s most vital supplies had been starting to run low even before the mutiny erupted and much of its food stores were still contaminated despite Witzleber’s best efforts to secure fresh foodstuffs for his men. But as terrible as the mutineers’ situation had been before, it was about to get exponentially worse: at 9:30 AM local time on the morning of December 10th, 1917 sentries posted outside the gates of the Dresden garrison spotted the advance column of the reserve infantry battalion Chancellor Michaelis had dispatched from Potsdam to end the uprising.
Accompanying the garrison troops was a sizable contingent of armed Dresden civilian police whose primary task was to keep townspeople at bay for their own safety while the Potsdam soldiers arrested the men who’d instigated the Dresden garrison mutiny.
Sergeant Witzleber and Lieutenant Colonel Vanaker immediately ordered their troops to take up firing positions on the perimeter of the Dresden garrison. The reserve troops from Potsdam fanned out into the streets immediately surrounding the garrison, awaiting orders to attack; those orders came at 10:15 AM. But even as he was giving those orders, the commander of the reserve battalion from Potsdam felt a genuine and deep twinge regret that things in Germany had deteriorated to this point; in spite of all the misfortunes that had befallen the Second Reich during three-plus years of war, he still believed in the ideal of a united German Empire, and the notion of German soldiers firing on one another was to him to an indescribable tragedy. But he knew he couldn’t afford to let the uprising go on much longer: the Reich was teetering on the brink of anarchy, and if the Dresden mutiny wasn’t stopped soon Germany might well be pushed over that brink.
One of the first men killed in the firefight between the Dresden mutineers and the reserve troops from Potsdam was Stefan Panier, the man whose original conviction for insubordination had been the seminal act which touched off the mutiny. He was part of a platoon of men who were defending the Dresden garrison’s main gate and was helping them to fend off the Potsdam battalion’s attempts to storm that gate when a stray bullet(who fired that shot remains a mystery even to this day) caught him just below the left temple and blew his head off. One can only wonder if, in his last moments, he was even briefly aware of the irony of being saved from prison only to wind up being shot dead in the heat of battle.
As soon as the police detail heard the first gunshots fired, they redoubled their efforts to keep civilians out of the line of fire. But sadly, it would turn out that those efforts were not enough...
To Be Continued
1The counterintelligence chief had, in turn, learned of the mutiny from a mole working for him inside the Imperial German Army’s headquarters in Berlin.
21:20 PM Berlin time; there’s approximately one hour’s time difference between Germany and the UK.