Skirmish of the Berlin Schloss

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Stadtschloss, Berlin on a postcard, between 1890 and 1900.

The Skirmish of the Berlin Schloss (German: Weihnachtskämpfe or Weihnachtsaufstand) was a small skirmish between the socialist revolutionary Volksmarinedivision and regular German army units on 24 December 1918 during the German Revolution of 1918–19. It took place around the Berlin Schloss also known as "Stadtschloss" in the centre of Berlin, Germany.

Around 70 people were killed and the event marked the point at which the hitherto largely bloodless revolution turned more violent. The fighting was the immediate cause for the more radical members to leave the revolutionary government and caused resentment among the workers against the Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert. This set the scene for the much larger-scale violence of January 1919, known as the Spartacist Uprising. Since the revolutionary sailors defeated the regular army force sent against them, the engagement was also an important episode in the rise of the right-wing Freikorps on which the government increasingly relied.

Background[edit]

Machine gun position of the Volksmarinedivision in front of the Neptunbrunnen at the Stadtschloss, November 1918.

On 11 November 1918, the Volksmarinedivision was created, initially numbering several hundred revolutionary naval troops from Kiel who had been arrested on arrival in Berlin but released on 9 November. They were joined by several hundred sailors from Berlin and another 2,000 requested from Kiel on 12 November by Stadtkommandant Otto Wels, the military commander of Berlin. Numbering more than 3,000 at peak the division was considered the elite force of the revolution. After the Berliner Stadtschloss, the former city residence of the Hohenzollern family and Emperor Wilhelm II had been plundered the division was based there on 15 November. The division staff moved into the Schloss, the troops were billeted in the Marstall.[1]:139-140 Their task was to guard the government quarter. Politically, the division was close to the radical left, the Independent Social Democrats of the USPD and the "Spartacists".[2]:14

However, having been the backbone of the revolution, over the next four weeks the unit found itself in a significantly different position. It is unclear whether this was due to the fact that it failed to cooperate with the military putsch planned for 6 December and had deposed its commander who was a part of it. Or whether the division was an obstacle to Quartermaster General Wilhelm Groener's plan to restore law and order to Berlin. From the middle of December, Wels seemed to be working towards the dissolution of the unit. There were complaints about art treasures having been stolen from the palace. The temporary government of the Rat der Volksbeauftragten (Council of People's Deputies) now ordered the division to move to new quarters outside of Berlin and to reduce the number of soldiers to 600 from the current level of around 1,000.[3] To force them to comply, Wels held back their pay. During the week before Christmas the division and Wels negotiated in the Kommandantur, but failed to resolve the situation.[1]:141

23 December 1918[edit]

Council of the People's Deputies after 30 December 1918, when the USPD members were replaced. From left: Otto Landsberg, Philipp Scheidemann, Gustav Noske, Friedrich Ebert, Rudolf Wissell.

On 23 December, losing patience, the leaders of the division went to the Reichskanzlei (Chancellery). By that point, the government, the six-man "Council of People's Deputies" that had been in office since 10 November, was on the verge of breaking apart with increasing differences emerging between its USPD and SPD members. The Volksmarinedivision encountered support from the former but mostly hostility from the latter. The soldiers were ordered to hand over the keys to the Schloss and left. In the afternoon the soldiers' leaders returned, with the keys but also with a group of armed troops that took position in front of the building. According to historian Sebastian Haffner what happened then was as follows: The soldiers' leaders under one Lieutenant Heinrich Dorrenbach gave the keys to Emil Barth, a People's Deputy of the USPD. Barth called Wels and told him that he had received the keys and asked him to hand over the outstanding pay. Wels refused, arguing that he only took orders from Friedrich Ebert who was joint chairman of the "Council of People's Deputies" and had also been handed the authority of government by the last Imperial Chancellor, Maximilian of Baden. When Barth sent the soldiers to Ebert, Ebert refused to see them. On Dorrenbach's orders the troops now closed all access to the Reichskanzlei, occupied the room with the telephone switchboard and cut the lines. The Volksbeauftragten were thus under house arrest.[1]:142

Otto Wels, at the time military commander of Berlin.

Some of the soldiers then marched to the Kommandantur where the guards resisted. Three members of the Volksmarinedivision were killed. Otto Wels and two of his officers were abducted, brought to the nearby Marstall and physically abused. The soldiers also took their outstanding pay.[1]:143

In response to the occupation of the Chancellery, Friedrich Ebert used a secret telephone line that did not go through the switchboard to call for help from the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL), the High Command of the German Army, situated at that time in Kassel. This marked the first time that the Ebert–Groener pact of 10 November between Ebert and General Groener of the OHL was put into action.[3] Ebert talked to Major Kurt von Schleicher, who promised to have loyal troops from the environs of Berlin come to Ebert's help. He also expressed his hope that this would be a chance to "finally strike a blow against the radicals".[1]:143 Regular troops from Potsdam and Babelsberg were mobilised and marched towards Berlin. They were the last remains of the ten divisions the government and OHL had originally brought to the capital to "restore law and order" between 10 and 15 December. Numbering just 800 men they nevertheless had some batteries of field artillery whilst the Volksmarinedivision had just side arms and machine guns.[1]:144

There is some uncertainty about what happened during the remaining hours of 23 December; for example, whether the house arrest for the People's Deputies was cancelled. Between 5 and 7 pm there was a cabinet meeting in which Ebert failed to inform the USPD members of the approaching army units. The three USPD members of the Council then left the Chancellery. At some point, the Volksmarinedivision found out about the advancing troops for they also marched towards the Chancellery and got there first. Dorrenbach met Ebert and asked him to remove the army troops. At the same time, the officers of these units arrived in Ebert's office and asked him for his orders and whether they should open fire. Nothing is known about the ensuing conversation, except that Ebert promised to resolve the situation on the next day by a Kabinettsbeschluss (cabinet decision). The result was that both sides pulled back. The Volksmarinedivision returned to the Marstall, the army to the Tiergarten. However, at 2 am Ebert did order the troops to attack the Marstall in the morning.[2]:14[1]:144-145

Later, Ebert argued that he had done so to save the life of Wels. However, according to Philipp Scheidemann, another People's Deputy, Wels appeared in the Chancellery at around 3 am, an hour after the order was given but several hours before the attack started. According to a different version, there had been another telephone conversation between Ebert and Groener in which the latter had threatened to end their cooperation unless stern steps were taken against the revolting unit.[1]:145-146

24 December 1918[edit]

Soldiers of the Volksmarinedivision during the fighting on 24 December in the Pfeilersaal of the Stadtschloss.

Shortly before 8 am the army units on the Schlossplatz opened fire with their artillery. Although there are just confused and contradictory accounts of the actual fighting, it was a victory for the Volksmarinedivision. The initial barrage of machine gun and artillery fire from several sides was without serious effects, except for significant damage to the buildings. In the first hour of fighting, around 60 shells hit the Stadtschloss and the Marstall. Between 9 and 10 am masses of unarmed civilians including women and children gathered and urged the army troops to stop fighting.[1]:146

At around 10 am, there was a pause in the fighting to allow the women and children to be removed from the vicinity of the fighting. At 10:30, the fight resumed with increased ferocity and the Volksmarinedivision now was on the offensive. According to reports, some government troops switched sides. In addition, the Sicherheitswehr, part of the Berlin police force commanded by Emil Eichhorn of the USPD, as well as armed and unarmed civilians joined the division and opposed the regular troops.[2]:14[1]:146

Around noon, the skirmish ended. The army troops promised to leave and were offered a chance to withdraw. The Volksmarinedivision held the field but agreed to return to their quarters. Since both sides took their dead and wounded with them there were no independent estimates of casualties.[1]:146 But according to reports, the regular troops, untrained in civil warfare, suffered 56 dead against just 11 from the Volksmarinedivision.[3]

Consequences[edit]

Friedrich Ebert in 1925.
Freikorps supporting the Kapp Putsch in March 1920, at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

As a direct result of the confrontation, which was seen as a political defeat for Ebert, Wels had to resign his post as commander of the city's forces (Stadtkommandant). The division had to leave the Schloss and the Marstall but was not dissolved.[2]:14 Their demands for pay had to be satisfied and the reduction in size was postponed.[3]

A more important consequence of this event, which the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht called "Eberts Blutweihnacht" ("Ebert's Bloody Christmas"), was that the USPD members left the Rat der Volksbeauftragten on 29 December. The next day, SPD members Gustav Noske and Rudolf Wissell took their place.[1]:151-152 That same day, the Spartacists severed their remaining links with the USPD and set themselves up as the new Kommunistische Partei (KPD).[1]:152 They were joined by some USPD members from Hamburg and Bremen.[2]:14 Thus the more radical elements had been pushed out of the revolutionary government. Rather than working inside it alongside the "Majority" SPD members, the USPD now joined the Spartacists in opposition to the SPD. None of those who had really wanted the revolution were still in power. Moreover, the radical left was deeply divided and there was no sign of a Lenin-type leader emerging.[1]:152-153

However, when the fallen members of the Volksmarinedivision were buried in Friedrichshain thousands of embittered people attended the funeral. They carried placards saying: "Als Matrosenmörder klagen wir an: Ebert, Landsberg und Scheidemann" (Charged as murderers of sailors: Ebert, Landsberg and Scheidemann) and shouted "Down with the traitors!".[1]:153-154 This foreshadowed the events of January 1919. When Emil Eichhorn refused to accept his dismissal as president of the Berlin police—resulting not least from his support for the revolting sailors—the people took to the streets en masse in his support. This would lead to what has become known as the Spartakusaufstand or Spartakuswoche, but is more accurately referred to as the Januaraufstand ("January Uprising"), since it was mostly an attempt by the revolutionary workers of Berlin to repeat their feat of 9 November and to regain what they had won then and subsequently half lost.[1]:155

The renewed failure of regular troops—after the disintegration of the forces assembled in Berlin for the planned restoration of order on 10 to 15 December—also gave support to those within the military who argued in favour of increased reliance on hard-core volunteer troops.[1]:147-148 Since the middle of November, the OHL had supported the creation by some officers of so-called Freikorps, voluntary units of soldiers who were mostly nationalistic, monarchistic and anti-revolution, even while the demobilisation of the regular (conscripted) army was ongoing. As a result of the Weihnachtskämpfe, the government—in particular Noske—now joined the OHL in these efforts. These new military forces were intended both to secure the eastern border (e.g. in Posen) and protect the newly formed Baltic states against the Red Army, but also to restore law and order within the Reich.[2]:14

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Haffner, Sebastian (2002). Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19 (German). Kindler. ISBN 3-463-40423-0. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Sturm, Reinhard (2011). Weimarer Republik, Informationen zur politischen Bildung, Nr. 261 (German). Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. ISSN 0046-9408. Retrieved 17 June 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Weihnachtskämpfe (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 17 June 2013.