A harsh sentence

They were young, far too young to die, but their lives came to a sad end. They were executed one hundred years ago. They died with a heart full of hope and longing, it says in a farewell letter.

We are talking about Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis. They were executed on 5 September 1917. World War One had been raging for three years and had claimed many lives not only on the battlefields across Europe but also on military bases at home.

At the proving ground near Cologne (Germany) the artillery was training for military operations: war gases were being tested and air defence strategies exercised to ward off airships and combat aircrafts. A POW camp had also been set up for an estimated 10,000 prisoners of war. As a result of a mutiny on a German battleship in the summer of 1917, Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis were executed here.

They were young. One was a stoker, the other a sailor. They were two of many. The war years had brought great misery and poverty, malnourishment, illness, and death. The civilian population and many soldiers were war-weary. One’s own death had become the biggest enemy.

Morale was low. And political and social conditions continued to deteriorate. Crews who had been confined on their ships for the long winter months became restless. The quality and quantity of the food in the crew quarters, especially, had deteriorated dramatically, while the officers’ mess was still well stocked. Official complaints were lodged but were sharply rejected. The German naval authorities obviously wanted to nip possible Communist and Socialist activities in the bud.

The drama unfolds

The year 1917 was to become a fateful year for many sailors. At the beginning of the year already, there was open insurrection on board the battleships docked at their home ports of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. Poor food and short leave—there were plenty of reasons to protest. And then this: on 31 July 1917 the crew of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold was informed that the next days’ showing of a movie would be cancelled. Out of protest, fifty stokers went ashore for a few hours. They were arrested upon their return.

But this provoked even more resistance: this time several hundred sailors left the ship. The Commander, Karl von Hornhardt, had them all brought before a war tribunal. They were charged with political insurrection and mutiny. There was a deluge of prison sentences. Stoker Willy Sachse, the sailors Wilhelm Weber and Max Reichpietsch from the SMS Friedrich der Große, and Stoker Albin Köbis and the sailor Hans Becker from the Prinzregent Luitpold were sentenced to death. Admiral Scheer, the commander-in-chief of the fleet, had three death sentences commuted to a long prison term. But the 25-year-old Köbis and the 23-year-old Reichpietsch were executed. Two for many.

Reichpietsch, a New Apostolic war opponent

Max Reichpietsch was born into a New Apostolic family on 24 October 1894 in Berlin-Charlottenburg (Germany). Barely 18 years of age, he applied for the Navy in 1912. His war experiences, especially the infamous Battle of Jutland in May/June 1916, as well as the injustices aboard the ships of the Imperial Fleet had turned him into an opponent of the war. His fight for better food and his involvement in the anti-war movement within the fleet he paid for with his life. An eye-witness of the trial described him as a bright and fresh young man, but “politically completely unskilled and inexperienced”.

In his farewell letter to his parents he wrote: “Dear Parents! I would have written to you a long time ago already to tell you what is going on, but I wanted to await the verdict. It was pronounced today, and it is far worse than I thought it would be. I have been sentenced to death. Whether it is going to be enforced or whether the emperor will have mercy and pardon me lies in God’s hand … My heart is so heavy that I cannot continue to write. It is so sad to have to die in the bloom of one’s youth with a heart full of hope and longing, and then to have to die because of such a harsh sentence.”

The insurrection of 1917 triggered something far greater a year later. The next mutiny in November 1918 led to a general revolt, the November Revolution, and to the collapse of the monarchy.

Memorial für Max Reichpietsch

A monument was erected in memory of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis at the execution site—today a German airbase near Cologne. Several cities in Germany have streets named after the two men. Since 1947 one of Berlin’s suburbs, Tiergarten, has a road named Reichpietsch Shore Drive. And a little way down the road you come upon Köbis Street.

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Peter Johanning
Germany, People/Personalities