Richard Stumpf

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Richard Stumpf

Born 1892

German seaman

"This hitherto unknown sailor had filled the most conspicuous gap in German war literature by describing for the first time the response of the great masses of men in the army, the navy, and in industry to the social, economic, and political upheaval caused by the war."
—From Daniel Horn, ed. and trans., War, Mutiny and

Richard Stumpf was an ordinary German soldier, but he wrote an extraordinary diary. Unlike the officers and politicians who wrote memoirs for publication, Stumpf only wrote for himself. Instead of writing so that the world would remember him well or to "set the record straight," Stumpf wrote to amuse and entertain himself, to vent his anger, and to record what he knew about the war. He wrote daily and sometimes hourly to stave off the boredom of being an enlisted seaman from 1914 to the end of World War I. His diary stands as the best description of the life of a regular enlisted German during the war and the collapse of the Ger man Empire in 1918. No other account so accurately cap tures the little man's perspective. Stumpf's diary was the only personal history used by the Reichstag Investigating Com mittee in 1926 as it researched the causes of the two German navy mutinies (sailors not following the orders of their com manding officers) in 1917 and 1918 and the ensuing Ger man revolution. (The Reichstag was Germany's lower legisla tive house.)

An Ordinary Sailor

As with most ordinary soldiers in history, little is known about Richard Stumpf's personal life. Born in 1892, Stumpf became a tinsmith and joined a Christian trade union. Stumpf was a devoted Catholic and, at the start of World War I, a self-proclaimed "fanatic patriot" with conservative political opinions. Stumpf joined the German navy in 1912, and according to his diary, he tried to live up to the example set by his father, who had spent thirty years as a professional soldier. Stumpf served as a seaman on the Helgoland for six years and was transferred to the Wittelsbach and then the Lothringen in 1918. He spent much of the war loading tons of coal, scraping paint, and doing tiresome military drills. He saw little action, and so his diary is composed of his attempts to make sense of his daily existence as an idle sailor and the stories and rumors he heard about distant battles. Although his life and thoughts during the war are known in great detail, almost nothing is known about him after the war. He moved to Nuremberg, Germany, to work as a tinsmith, but like many other enlisted men, he slipped into obscurity.

Stumpf did not present his diary to the public until 1926, when the Reichstag Investigating Committee began its investigation into the causes of the German revolution of 1918. He had never thought to publish the six large notebooks he had filled, but he felt compelled to share them with the committee as records of German sailors' experiences during the war. The committee was immediately impressed with Stumpf's work. His diary spanned the entire war, recording Stumpf's enthusiastic war fever at the onset, his boredom as the years wore on, and his growing anger at superiors who acted callously toward the enlisted men and seemed to live richly while he and his comrades survived on smaller and smaller rations. Interestingly, Stumpf's diary also recorded his transformation from an ardent supporter of the kaiser (the German term for emperor) to a mutineer. Furthermore, Stumpf's personal memoirs were written in such a way that they represented "all the thousands of sailors who never kept diaries of their own," according to Daniel Horn, who edited Stumpf's diary and translated it into English. Stumpf's broad knowledge of German, French, Russian, and British history and his keen observation made it possible for him to describe the experiences of thousands of unknown soldiers.

Strong Evidence

With Stumpf's diary as evidence, the committee could throw out the theory that the mutinies were caused by a propaganda campaign and subversive actions masterminded by radical socialists. (Socialism is a social system based on shared or government ownership and administration of the means of the production and distribution of goods.) According to Horn, Stumpf's diary provided the committee with unique information about "why the enlisted men of the German navy revolted against their officers, why Germany lost the war, why the Empire collapsed, and why it was overthrown by revolution." Stumpf's account proved that even the most patriotic enlisted men could not remain devoted to the war in the face of the terrible treatment they suffered. Stumpf pinned the downfall of Germany on the troops' "hunger and starvation" and "their mistreatment by the officers, and their intense desire for peace." Moreover, his diary revealed that most enlisted men had little knowledge of the activities carried on by radicals and no sympathy for them in any case.

At the beginning of the war, Stumpf related how life changed on board the Helgoland, the ship he was assigned to in 1912. During the first few months of the war, Stumpf wrote enthusiastically about Germany's victories on the Western Front, and he sounded optimistic about defeating the infamous British navy. But as the war wore on, he described the boredom of inactive duty and the anxious desire of the soldiers to battle their enemies. Importantly, he also noted the behavior of his superiors. "[O]fficers treat the common seaman with inconceivable cruelty," Stumpf wrote on November 8, 1915. "Each day twenty to thirty men are made to run around with their rifles. My greatest ambition in life is to get away from all this stupidity and harassment! Although I was happy when I entered the navy, I have now come to detest it!" Stumpf wrote that the crew was "constantly harassed by these petty pinpricks," and he described some of the silly rules that the enlisted men were forced to follow:

[W]e are strongly forbidden under penalty of imprisonment to wear anything but a white uniform by day or night. (Note: The Captain has promised to punish any violators with five days of imprisonment.) Secondly, we are not allowed to bring coats, newspapers or books into the gun turrets. (To illustrate how insane this rule really is, it must be noted that we are not allowed to place our coats anywhereelse either.) Thirdly, the Captain gave two of the men seven days of arrest for failing to wear their life jackets. Fourthly, we are forbidden to hang our hammocks even where there are no guns. (I cannot fathom the reason behind this. Only deliberate nastiness could conceive of such a thing.)

Life On Board Ship

By 1916, life on board the Helgoland had deteriorated further. In September, Stumpf recorded the first mutinous behavior of German sailors. "On our ship we have ample cause for complaint and reflection," he wrote. "Our miserable food and ill-treatment had already resulted in open refusals to obey orders (on the part of the first division). Indeed our morale has deteriorated so badly that someone removed the safety pin from one of the guns and cut through one of the lines amidship [at the middle point of the ship between the bow and the stern]. Consequently all the guns are now guarded day and night. Although the identity of the culprit remains unknown, our food has improved remarkably. And after all, this was the aim of the action."

But things did not improve for long on Stumpf's ship. Within a month, he marked the anniversary of joining the navy with a gloomy entry: "Exactly four years ago today, I arrived here as a new recruit. At that time my heart was still filled with high hopes and expectations. I wanted to be a good, efficient sailor. I would never have thought it possible that so many obstacles would be placed in the way of my good intentions. Nevertheless, I had decided that I would allow nothing to deter me. I was determined not to abandon my principles, even for the navy. I now realize how badly I have failed. I encountered such a great lack of understanding and ill will on the part of my superiors that I was at last compelled to give up the struggle. I grew tired, embittered and resigned. I was forced to look on without complaint while men with decidedly inferior minds practiced the vilest cruelties." Stumpf noted that he himself refused to salute certain officers, even when he knew he would suffer punishment for his disobedience. Without remorse, Stumpf admitted that by that time he was regarded as a "Red" rather than the patriot he had always been.

On November 17, 1916, Stumpf described how little respect he had for the military system he once so admired. "[M]y hatred for the navy keeps growing," he reported. "I now realize better than ever before, how stupid we really are to do all the work while those who merely look on get all the pay. We live in an unjust and evil world. Should the opportunity ever arise, I will be only too happy to make it better. Damn the officers! Never again shall they be allowed to drag us into war! Let them either practice some honorable profession or drop dead! They shall no longer earn a living from our stupidity and grow fat on our money." Stumpf was keenly aware that he was not the only German losing faith in the government and the upper classes. He observed the discontent of civilians as well as soldiers. In 1917, rations were cut throughout Germany, and Stumpf noted the news of workers' strikes in Berlin, Leipzig, and other cities. When two hundred thousand workers in Berlin left work demanding more food, he wondered if Germany would lose the war as a result of starvation. He was aware that the workers' strike in Leipzig involved demands for voting rights and withdrawal from the war. He also commented favorably about the workers' revolution in Russia at the time.

A Shift of Faith

Stumpf could no longer see how people like him, proletariats (people who own no property and who earn a living by working for wages), would benefit at all from the war. He had shifted from being a monarchist (supporter of the kaiser) and decided that a representational government like that found in America would be better for Germany. He grew angry at the German government for denying people the chance to represent themselves with a vote. "It almost makes me die for shame when I consider that even now our overconfident landed gentry [people of high social standing] deem it possible to deny the right to vote to the very people who protect their property with their lives," he raged. "Do the Conservatives think that they alone would have been capable of rolling back the invading Russian hordes? What a shame that we cannot lay down our arms for at least a day and allow the Indians and the New Zealanders [soldiers from the British colonies of India and New Zealand] to run amuck on the estates of the Junkers [wealthy German landowners]. Maybe that would make them understand why the working classes are much less interested in our victory than the propertied classes."

Others had similar reactions to the war, and Stumpf wrote often about the growing revolutionary feelings of the soldiers. "In truth no dark foreign powers are needed to drive the most patient and the most disciplined people in the world to desperation," Stumpf noted in November 1917. "I have often wished that our officers would carry their madness to such a point that we could overcome our reluctance to stage an uprising. So far, however, they have always been clever enough to relieve the pressure before it reached the breaking point. Thus far the pressure has not risen high enough to set off a liberating explosion." But the pressure continued to build throughout the German navy, and in 1917 the sailors mutinied. Another mutiny occurred in 1918, which led to the German revolution that same year (see sidebar).

Stumpf's intense patriotism had never left him, so he was horrified at his transformation into a mutineer by November 1918. "My God, why did we have to have such criminal conscienceless officers? It was they who deprived us of all our love for the Fatherland, our joy in our German existence and our pride in our incomparable institutions," he wrote. He closed his diary on November 24, 1918, with a sorrowful note: "My Fatherland, My dear Fatherland, what will happen to you now?"

For More Information


Horn, Daniel. The German Naval Mutinies of World War I. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Horn, Daniel, ed. and trans. War, Mutiny and Revolution in the German Navy: The World War I Diary of Seaman Richard Stumpf. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1967.

Mutiny: Soldiers and Citizens Pushed to Despair

Feeling unfairly burdened by the stresses of the war effort, German sailors of the High Seas Fleet protested in August 1917, refusing to obey their superiors' orders. This first mutiny was quickly subdued when navy officials issued harsh punishment; but a second mutiny, in November 1918, inspired the German population and sparked the German revolution. That month, the enlisted sailors took over the German ships and naval bases at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, ousting their superiors from power.

The sailors' success prompted German workers to rebel against the government. The German people wanted relief from wartime stresses: To supply the German military with weapons, food, and other supplies, they had worked long hours, had little to eat, and donated much of their personal savings to the war effort. Feeling that the kaiser and others in power had little regard for the wishes of common folk, workers revolted against the German monarchist state in 1918 and eventually established a new representative government.

Although the Germans succeeded in setting up a new government, they did not escape harsh punishment for their part in World War I. Germany reeled from the devastating aftereffects of the war. It had to give up the territory it held during the bloody battles, it had to send its enemies large parts of its sophisticated weaponry, and it was forced to pay extremely high sums to the Allied forces for damages. For the average person, life in Germany after the war was not much better than life during the war: Food was scarce; work was hard; pay was low. In the years to come, these conditions contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), and fueled tensions that would lead to a second world war in 1939.