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 two chapters of this series we remembered the outbreak of the famous Dresden garrison mutiny of December 1917 and German chancellor Georg Michaelis’ reluctant decision to dispatch troops to quash the rebellion. In this segment, we’ll look back at the shockingly violent climax of the Dresden mutiny and the postwar German government’s inquiry into the high number of civilian deaths incurred as a result of the firefight between the mutineers and the forces of the Michaelis administration.
All hell seemed to break loose after Stefan Panier was shot. The Dresden mutineers and the reserve detachment from Potsdam fired on one another with the same ferocity their comrades in the regular Imperial Army had displayed just a short time before on the Western and Eastern fronts. Civilian bystanders who had the misfortune to still be in the vicinity of the Dresden garrison in the middle of this fusillade were wounded or killed in numbers that scandalized the German public; many of the 500 people who died during the Dresden mutiny were civilians, a harsh fact not lost on Chancellor Michaelis-- or on the demagogues of both the far left and the far right who would seek to make Germany a dictatorship in the years after the Second Reich collapsed. Nobody who was in the vicinity of the Dresden garrison that day and survived to tell the tale would ever forget hearing the harsh staccatos of rifle and machine gun fire in the cold December air as the Dresden mutineers defended their garrison against the Potsdam reserve battalion’s dogged efforts to breach the garrison’s walls.
Nor would they ever be able to erase from their minds the images of blood running in the streets outside the garrison or soldiers from both sides frantically dragging wounded comrades to safety. Corpses of dead mutineers and government troops piled up like stacks of cordwood, and eventually some men involved in the firefight started to wonder if this clash might not be a sign that the world was coming to an end....
There was a brief lull in the fighting between 2:30 and 3:15 PM, during which time the mutineers debated among themselves what to do with the remaining senior officers they had imprisoned at the start of the uprising. The garrison commander and most of his senior staff had long since been executed, but a few officers loyal to the Kaiser were still in the mutineers’ custody and they were confronting Sgt. Witzleber and his men with a major ethical dilemma-- not to mention exacerbating the mutineers’ already serious morale problems by telling their guards over and over that the mutiny would be crushed and the mutineers would all be hanged.
In the end it was decided to cut the remaining officers loose, but not before instructing them to bear messages to the government forces outside the garrison walls that the mutineers would fight to the last man. These officers fled the garrison as fast as their legs could carry them and urged the commander of the Potsdam reserve unit to kill the mutineers without hesitation or delay; they were convinced that if the mutiny wasn’t put down soon the mutineers would march out from the Dresden garrison and lay siege to Berlin.
Marching on the Imperial capital, however, was the furthest thing from the mutineers’ mind just then. They had all they could do to hold the garrison, never mind mounting an offensive on Berlin. And if they had been inclined to march on the Second Reich’s capital, they wouldn’t have had the supplies to get very far; their food and fuel stocks were continuing to dwindle, and much of their ammunition stores had been used up in the initial firefight with the government troops.
At 3:20 PM on the afternoon of December 10th the soldiers from Potsdam resumed their assault on the Dresden garrison, braving a hail of machine gun fire in their efforts to storm the garrison’s walls. The government forces managed to reach the outer parts of the garrison compound but were frustrated by the mutineers in their efforts to get to the compound’s inner sections; by 6:00 PM that night the mutineers had driven them back out onto the streets of Dresden. During this part of the mutiny, one of the uprising’s original leaders was killed when Colonel Ernst Vanaker was shot twice by government snipers.
Vanaker’s death stunned the mutineers; they had seen him as one of the iron men among their number, and he had also been an eloquent spokesman in their dealings with the Berlin government. With Vanaker gone, Sergeant Witzleber and his comrades-in-arms felt at sea as they struggled to figure out what to do next.
For that matter the government forces were unsure as to how the colonel’s demise would affect the mutineers’ morale. Would Witzleber and his cohorts give up and capitulate to the government? Or would he and his men choose instead to sacrifice themselves in one final do-or- die charge against the troops for the Potsdam garrison? The fate of anation hung on the answer to those questions.
At 6:30 PM on the evening of December 10th another cease-fire was declared as both sides retired from the field of battle to ponder their next move. Back in Berlin, Chancellor Michaelis nervously paced in his office, uncertain about whether the crisis was finally drawing to a close....or about to escalate even further.
On both sides of the Dresden crisis there was considerable argument about what to do to end the clash between the Michaelis government and the mutineers at the Dresden garrison. Within the ranks of the mutineers, sentiment was starting to build in favor of negotiating with the Berlin government for their surrender. Sergeant Witzleber was sharply opposed to this idea, convinced that if they gave themselves up now they would all be lined up a wall and shot for treason; he felt it would be better to fight on to the last man. But many of his comrades-in-arms were coming to feel otherwise. Supplies were running low of just about anything one cared to name and in all likelihood many vital items, including food and ammunition, would be gone before the next day; half the men who’d joined Sgt. Witzleber and the late Colonel Vanaker in launching the rebellion were dead and many of the other half were physically and mentally exhausted. On top of those two stark facts, there was the added grim detail that a number of Witzleber’s men were in urgent need of medical attention which they could only get at government hospitals.
In Michaelis’ cabinet a vehement debate raged over whether to wait the mutineers out or smash them with one final crushing blow. It was an even more contentious debate than the original argument over the question of sending troops to the Dresden garrison; popular legend has it two of Michaelis’ cabinet ministers actually got in a fistfight at one point and had to be separated by Michaelis personally.1 Those men in the cabinet who favored waiting the mutineers out argued that Sgt. Witzleber and his men were effectively beaten and the government only need wait for them to formally lay their arms and surrender.
Those in the cabinet who argued for mounting a final attack to quash the mutiny warned that though the mutineers might seem to be on their last legs, there was still an outside chance that other Imperial Army units sympathetic to Witzleber’s cause might throw in their lot with the men of the Dresden garrison. There were even rumors that some disaffected ex-Imperial Navy men might join the mutiny; therefore, the advocates for an attack said, it was vital to move as fast as possible to end the rebellion before it had a chance to spread.
The argument lasted through the rest of the night of December 10th and the early part of the morning of December 11th; the advocates for a final attack on the Dresden garrison eventually won the day when Chancellor Michaelis received word from Imperial Army scouts in the vicinity of the garrison that the surviving mutineers appeared to be making preparations for a do-or-die final stand inside the garrison’s walls. The veracity of that information has been a source of bitter controversy for decades; some think the warning may have been based on an inaccurate reading of the mutineers’ movements inside the garrison compound, while others charge that it was intentionally fabricated by hard-liners in the Michaelis cabinet in hopes of forcing the German chancellor’s hand.
In any case, the die was cast the moment the scouts’ dispatch reached Chancellor Michaelis. At 8:30 AM on the morning of December 11th, Michaelis-- who in his postwar autobiography would recall the moment as one of the darkest of his life --authorized government army units to unleash one final assault on the Dresden garrison. Thirty minutes later, the reserve troops from Potsdam started their attack.
Despite the fact they were now seriously outnumbered and down to their last handfuls of ammunition, the remaining mutineers would not give up quietly. When their stock of hand grenades ran out, they took empty bottles and filled them with oil to make Molotov cocktails out of them; some of the more daring men among their ranks rushed out into the street to seize rifles and bullets from the bodies of fallen government soldiers.
Sergeant Witzleber, though half-starved as were many of his men by now, would not relinquish his place at the barricades without a fight. Only when two slugs from a government machine gun position hit Witzleber in the arm did he finally consent to relinquish his post in order to receive medical treatment for his wounds. While he was being worked on, he learned that his forces had less than 90 minutes’ worth of ammunition left before government troops overwhelmed the garrison and killed or arrested every remaining man inside its walls. Rather than condemn any more of his comrades to die in a fight that they were clearly losing, Witzleber sent a courier with a truce flag out to the government lines to deliver a message that he was surrendering.
At 11:30 AM on the morning of December 11th, 1917, Sergeant Witzleber and the surviving mutineers from the Dresden garrison laid down their arms and surrendered to the commander of the government troop contingent from Potsdam. The Dresden mutiny was over; however, the repercussions from the uprising had just gotten started.
After World War I ended in January of 1918, one of the first tasks confronting the postwar German government was to compile an accurate account of the Dresden mutiny and its aftermath. The most critical aspect of this investigation was determining why so many of the 500 people who died during the uprising had been civilians. When the full extent of the carnage at the Dresden garrison had become public, a fresh spasm of outrage swept through the German populace; Michaelis was turned out of office by a no-confidence vote in the Reichstag just days after the Allies accepted the German government’s final surrender.
The Allied powers took a rather keen interest in the German government’s inquiry into the Dresden mutiny; they wanted to see if it truly would be a full account of that tragic event or just a self-exonerating whitewash of Berlin’s harsh response to the mutiny. British prime minister David Lloyd George cynically expected it to be the latter, making a £10 wager with one of his political colleagues that the inquiry would put all the blame for the bloodshed on Sergeant Witzleber and his comrades.
The inquiry into the Dresden mutiny started in early February of 1918; originally the senior investigators in charge of the probe expected to finish their inquest no later than early August, but the Spanish flu epidemic which began to ravage Europe in July of that year would severely disrupt the investigators’ work. In fact, many of those taking part in the inquiry would later succumb to the disease, and so would some of the key witnesses. Indeed, Sergeant Heinrich Witzleber was one of the most notable casualties of the epidemic; he died on October 11th, 1918, precisely ten months to the day after the Dresden mutiny ended.
The investigation of the mutiny would not be completed until late March of 1920, nearly two years after the flu epidemic started. When the full summary of the inquiry’s findings was published in early April, Lloyd George would find to his astonishment that he’d lost his £10 bet-- the report placed most of the responsibility for the tragic events of December 8th-11th, 1917 on the Michaelis government and its predecessors. The chief author of the report declared that there had been too much emphasis on asserting Berlin’s power and too little on finding a way to resolve the mutineers’ grievances without bloodshed.
As Germany struggled to rebuild herself in the postwar era, a curious phenomenon ensued in regard to the Dresden mutineers: both the far left and the far right embraced those tragic men as martyrs. Left wing demagogues painted them as the victims of bourgeois warmongering capitalism, while rightist agitators proclaimed that the mutineers had been casualties of what Adolf Hitler would later call "a stab in the back" by defeatist elements within the population. Neither of these viewpoints was wholly accurate, but just the same they reflected the impact the 1917 Dresden mutiny had made on the German national psyche.
In late 1920 and early 1921 another phenomenon manifested itself in relation to the Dresden mutiny and its aftermath: there were a wave of suicides among the former government troops who’d been involved in quashing the uprising. While the precise details of each suicide were different from one individual to another, the men who took their own lives all shared two common traits-- depression over their inability to readjust to civilian life and guilt over the fact they hadn’t been able to do more to prevent civilian bloodshed...2
To Be Continued
 Evidence that the fight actually happened is circumstantial at best; nonetheless, the story reflects the touchy atmosphere that existed in the ranks of Michaelis’ chancellery during the final hours of the Dresden Mutiny.
 In fact, the first of these suicides were committed by ex-government troops who blamed their own panic at a critical moment under fire for the high civilian death toll.