A short account of Albin Köbis and the first stirrings of revolt at the Kiel naval base.
“I perish a victim of military justice. It is, of course, not easy to die so young, but I die with a curse on the German-militarist state.” - Albin Köbis in a letter to his parents before his execution.
Alongside the revolutionaries who have been at the forefront of struggle among the “toilers of the sea”, whether sailors in the merchant navies or the armed fleets, the name of Albin Köbis should be remembered alongside the likes of Afanasy Matiushenko, the Zhelezhniakov brothers, and Ernst Schneider. He was born in the working-class district of Pankow-Niederbarnim in Berlin on 18th December 1892. He joined the Navy as a volunteer in 1912 and served as a stoker on the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold anchored at the North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven.
Conditions in the German Navy were not that much different from that which reigned in the Russian Navy and which had led to the Potemkin mutiny. There was harsh discipline, poor food and a distinct contempt from the officer class, in large recruited from the German upper classes, who regarded the rank and file sailors as at the best sub-human.
With the First World War and the February Revolution in Russia revolt began to simmer in the fleet. The hard “turnip winter” of 1916-1917 had led to serious food shortages. Workers in the naval yards at Kiel had gone on strike in March 1917 as a response to the lowering of flour rations. Sailors in the fleet were similarly effected, whilst officers were seen to have plenty to eat. On June 6th 1917 stokers on board the Prinzregent Liutpold refused to eat the food given them, turnips, in a gesture similar to the one that had started the Potemkin mutiny, saying that it was unfit for human consumption. They also refused to work. Only the promise of better food made them call off their actions. As a result the government in Berlin authorised Menagekommission - food supervisory committees of ratings and petty officers. The High Seas Fleet commanders, however, were in an intransigent counter-revolutionary mood. Some had joined the rightist Fatherland Party and the Baltic Naval Command at Kiel had ordered a ban on the distribution of left wing and revolutionary literature within the Fleet. The authorisation of the Menagekommission was in general ignored.. The sailors first heard about concessions of the government whilst drinking beer in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven.
Willy Sachse, a twenty two year old petty officer of the stokers, had been in a Social Democratic youth organisation before the war. Max Riechpietsch was a seaman of the same age, had been in the Navy for five years and was a member of the USPD. Both were serving on the Friedrich der Grosse. Together they formed a food commission. Reichpietsch used leave owed to visit USPD MPs in Berlin, hoping to gain support for the food commission. One of the USPD MPs, Wilhelm Dittmann, fobbed him off with vague promises of support but Reichpietsch took this to mean that the USPD had given its full backing.
However Albin and another anarchist stoker Johann Beckers were suspicious of the USPD and wanted something more radical than a Menagekommission. At their urging a food committee was not set up but a sailors’ council - as Albin said, as a counter-action to the officers “Pan-Germanic propaganda”. Albin then accompanied Sachse on a visit to the Berlin where Dittmann avoided meeting them, made various excuses in regards to support for the sailors, confirming Albin’s anarchist outlook that even left sounding politicians could not be relied upon.
Now an ideological struggle between the anarchists and the USPD supporters broke out. At a sailors’ meeting in a Kiel tavern Beckers put forward a written constitution to sort out abuses in the Navy calling for and for immediate peace. When Sachse and Reichpietsch tried to link this to support for the USPD, both Albin and Johann fiercely objected.
On 31st July the 47 stokers on the Prinzregent Luitpold were told that their rest time and promised cinema show had been cancelled and that they must do infantry duty instead. Their suppressed anger exploded and they walked off the ship. Captain von Hornhardt had eleven randomly arrested. That evening at a meeting held in a freight car, Albin and Johann Beckers were among those calling for a walk-out the following day, gaining the support of sailors on other ships. When they returned from their meeting in the afternoon, they were arrested. In response more than 600 sailors left the battleship the next day. They raised demands for the end of the war. Police and navy patrols turned out almost immediately and the sailors were encircled. The dissent had spread to other vessels but the commanders acted quickly and brutally, arresting 75 of those they thought had been instrumental in the unrest.
Admiral Scheer, the High Seas Commander – known as the Man in the Iron Mask because of his stern expression - felt that there had been outside agitation among the sailors and was determined to make an example. Those seen as leaders were harshly interrogated and apparently threatened with death. Sachse then said that he had been led astray by left-wing politicians. Days later Reichpietsch admitted to his meetings in Berlin with the USPD. This was followed by admissions from Köbis and Beckers. Albin was condemned to death on 26th August 1917 as a "main ringleader" on the charges of “treasonable incitement to rebellion” along with Max Reichpietsch and Sachse, Weber Beckers and three others. The sentences on the last six were commuted to long prison sentences, but Köbis and Reichpietsch were executed by a twenty man firing squad at dawn on 5th September 1917 at the Wahr firing range training grounds near Cologne. Sentences on others involved amounted to 360 years imprisonment.
As for Dittmann and the other USPD leaders they rapidly distanced themselves from the sailors saying that “We have tried to channel the justified indignation of the masses into legal political action.” For their part the sailors had employed peaceful means perhaps without realising how savage the reactions of the German militarist state would be. The positions of Köbis and Beckers were correct in regards to the USPD, as so graphically illustrated by its quick desolidarisation. However the agitation about better food and conditions, to which was quickly appended a call for peace, did not seem to envisage either the murderous reaction or the need to go beyond peaceful agitation towards seizure of the ships and their arsenals.
These executions were denounced as "naval judicial murders" by socialist organisations and papers and helped trigger the mutinies in the Navy in 1918, a key factor in the collapse of the German monarchy. In fact Scheer’s actions backfired drastically as the executions contributed to the unrest in the Navy. When news leaked out that Scheer and his cronies planned to take on the British Fleet in one last suicidal battle on the North Sea, this brought on the mutinies that swept through the German Navy. In the ensuing unrest throughout Germany, The Spartacus League called on German workers to fight like the sailors had in a leaflet entitled Take Their Lead.
After World War II the name of a Berlin street near the German Navy headquarters was changed to Köbisstrasse in honour of Köbis as was one in Cologne. The libertarian novelist Theodor Plievier wrote a novel about the affair called Des Kaisers Kulis (The Kaiser’s Coolies). A television play about the case, Marinemeuterei 1917, was shown on West German television in 1969.
Sachse was executed in 1944 for his alleged involvement in a plot to kill Hitler.
Sources: Guttridge, Leonard F. (2006) Mutiny: a history of naval insurrection
Bell, C. Naval mutinies of the twentieth century: an international perspective