The End of Germany’s WWI in Europe

As the year 1917 drew to its close, the Allied war effort rested almost solely on the shoulders of the United Kingdom and its empire — a situation serious enough to persuade the British prime minister to once again address the question of peace negotiations. His speech to the British Trade Union Congress of 5 January 1918 followed a peace feeler by the German secretary of state, Richard Kühlmann. Under what came to be known as the ‘Kühlmann Peace Kite’, the Berlin government was willing to accept terms favourable to Britain. Belgium and Serbia were to be restored, Alsace-Lorraine to be returned to France, and there would be colonial concessions to Britain. As there was no reference to Russia, the Germans obviously expected compensation at Russia’s expense. The Kühlmann Peace Kite soon turned out to be another diversionary manoeuvre, like the German peace talk a year earlier, but the possibility of peace in the east offered a way out of Britain’s difficulty.

Referring to the German-Bolshevik peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, Lloyd George expressed his regret that the current Russian rulers had withdrawn from the war and had commenced negotiations with the enemy without consulting the Allies. Thus the latter had ‘no means of intervening to arrest the catastrophe which is assuredly befalling their country. Russia can only be saved by her own people’. Lloyd George did not call for the destruction of Germany or Austria-Hungary; nor did he want Germany to lose her former position in the world. Only her quest for world domination was to be abandoned. The demand for a democratic order in Germany, it was hoped, would strengthen the position of moderate elements in German politics against the OHL. The independence of Belgium, of course, had to be restored, and Alsace-Lorraine returned, but his reference to Russia offered Germany a chance of peace with gains in the east.

Lloyd George’s speech, which also aimed at securing the support of the British workforce for a further year of war, was almost immediately overshadowed by a move that was to have enormous consequences for the peacemaking of 1918–19 and the rest of the century: president Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Announced by the president on 8 January 1918, they played a key part in the evaluation of the post-war peace treaties, and in particular the Treaty of Versailles. Since the signing of the treaty, accusations have been made that international guarantees allegedly made by the president in the Fourteen Points were not honoured. The losers were deceived and treated in a dishonest manner. As will be shown below, according to post-war German political and historical accounts, this failure to follow ‘Wilsonian principles’ was the chief injustice imposed on the German nation in 1918–19. Over the years, this interpretation has also gained considerable support in some in the former Allied nations. The importance of this issue for the subsequent discussion in this book calls for a brief analysis of the Fourteen Points.

Wilson made his proposals in January 1918, at a time when U.S. troops were still to arrive in Europe in significant numbers. They were another attempt by the president to stop the slaughter and to establish peace. No doubt he also hoped that the success of his initiative would spare the Americans major combat and loss of life. That some of his points later became part of the peace treaties, and were incorporated into the charter of the League of Nations, did not make them post facto into a binding legal document or a set of immutable laws for the peacemaking process. They did not and could not constitute more than another step on the part of the president towards finding a way to end the war; nor were they meant to. Any serious peace negotiations could only commence in collaboration with the Allies — above all, Britain and its empire, France, and Italy, who had borne the brunt of the war on various fronts for three-and-a-half years.

The first five of Wilson’s points dealt with general issues: (1) open covenants and abandonment of secret diplomacy; (2) freedom of the seas in times of war and peace; (3) freedom of trade; (4) reduction of armaments; and (5) a fair settlement of colonial issues.

Of these, the first two had a short life. Article 2 was not accepted by Britain. The first demand, to establish open covenants, was also abandoned before the peacemaking process proper commenced. Wilson himself acknowledged that open diplomacy, which would involve media access to the negotiations, would allow the deleterious effect of public opinion to influence the proceedings, rendering meaningful negotiations impossible. As the subsequent century has shown, noble as are the goals of abandoning secret diplomacy, no government lays bare its security and surveillance policies.

Articles 6 to 13 contained demands affecting specific countries involved in the war. There was to be withdrawal of foreign troops from Russia (Article 6); from Belgium (Article 7); from France, which included Alsace-Lorraine (Article 8); and from Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro (Article 11). The peoples of the multinational empires of Austria-Hungary and Turkey were to be given the freest opportunity for autonomous development (Articles 10 and 12), the frontiers of Italy were to be adjusted along recognisable lines of nationality (Article 9), and there was to be an independent Polish state with free and secure access to the sea (Article 13). Last but not least was the formation of an association of nations to secure international stability and order (Article 14).

The Allies’ enthusiasm for Wilson’s latest peace initiative was lukewarm. Officially, the British, French, and Italian governments backed his proposals. After all, they included some of the Allies’ key demands — withdrawal of German troops from France, Belgium, and large parts of south-eastern Europe, free access to the sea for Poland, and adjustment of Italian frontiers — and, of course, the last thing they could afford at the beginning of 1918 was to put off the U.S. Behind the scenes, however, they held fears that the ‘holier than thou’ president Wilson, with his Presbyterian idealism and his belief that it was his God-given task to secure world peace and democracy, would monopolise the peacemaking process and might give away at the peace table what the soldiers had been fighting for so bitterly — a settlement that would put an end to future German aggression.

Their concerns were soon laid to rest. Little more than two weeks after Wilson’s proposal of the Fourteen Points, the new German chancellor, Georg Friedrich von Hertling, who had succeeded the ousted Bethmann-Hollweg in November 1917, rejected both peace moves on behalf of the German government and military. Germany’s military leaders remained firmly committed to the fight for realisation of their maximalist war aims, and all political parties with the exception of the Independent Socialists rejected the Allies’ proposals outright, despite the fact that acceptance would have left the German empire in a far stronger position in the peacemaking process than was the case at the year’s end.

The OHL, and in particular Ludendorff, obviously buoyed by their victory in the east, would ensure that there were rich pickings. Negotiations with the new Bolshevik government started on 22 December in the Belo-Russian city of Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky, who led the Soviet delegation, tried his best to avoid a catastrophe for Russia. In mid-January, the chief German negotiator, Max Hoffman, presented the German demands. These included the establishment of independent states in the Polish and Baltic regions formerly belonging to the Russian empire, and in the Ukraine.

For a month, Trotsky tried various tactics to stall the negotiations, in the hope that the revolution would spread to Germany or that Germany might be defeated in the west. But when the Germans, tiring of his efforts, resumed their military offensive on 18 February, the Soviets had no alternative but to surrender. This time, the terms were much harsher. Russia ceded more than 290,000 square miles of land and around a quarter of its population. This territory effectively contained the countries of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Belarus, where the Germans immediately set out to establish client states. Russia, in addition to its population losses, lost half of its industries, nine-tenths of its coal deposits, one-third of its railway network, one-third of its agrarian lands, and its complete oil and cotton production. The treaty, which achieved the maximalist war aims spelt out by the German establishment as from September 1914, aroused the sort of popular euphoria that had greeted the outbreak of war, and was supported with great enthusiasm by the middle-class parties in the Reichstag. As the SPD had always maintained that Germany was fighting a defensive war and was not bent on achieving territorial gains, its caucus members officially abstained from voting. Again, only the Independent Socialists voted against Brest-Litovsk.

To most Germans, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk seemed to confirm that the stand taken by the war leadership was the correct one, further enhancing the prestige of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The German victory in the east had the effect of consolidating the social, economic, and political system of Wilhelmine Germany, rather than hastening its demise.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk did not end German expansion in the east. Their forces continued to push into southern Russia, occupied the Crimea, and, after reaching the Black Sea, advanced into Trans-Caucasia. In August 1918, the Soviets signed a further treaty that forced them to cede Georgia, surrender all of Russia’s gold to Berlin, pay six billion marks in reparations, and leave the full exploitation of the Donetz Basin coal-fields to Germany. As German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler aptly comments, ‘[T]he constellation in the East in the summer of 1918 make the goals of Hitler’s Russian politics in no way appear as the megalomaniac visions of a fantasist, a foreigner who imposed himself on German history, but as the concrete continuation of the state of affairs already established a generation earlier’. The jubilation of the OHL over their conquests in the east was to be ephemeral: dark clouds had massed in the west.

Imperial Germany’s final attempt to defeat the Western Allies began on 21 March 1918. Backed up by artillery fire from 2,800 guns and 1,400 heavy mortars, a force of close to four million men, attacking on a front of 50 kilometres, managed to penetrate 60 kilometres into enemy territory. It was Ludendorff’s last hoorah. ‘Operation Michael’ ran out of steam on the second day. As in the summer of 1914, inadequate transport ensured that the advancing troops could not be properly supplied with reinforcements, ammunition, and, this time in particular, food. Allied forces were able to regroup, and managed to push back all subsequent attempts to break through. At the end of April, Ludendorff had to admit that the attack had failed. He continued for another two months with various efforts (‘hammer-blows’) to bring about a change in the fortunes of war, but 1.5 million casualties had brought Germany’s fighting capacity close to its end. In mid-July, the Allies started their counter-offensive. Because of the losses Germany had incurred in Operation Michael, the Allies had the advantage in manpower. Moreover, 100,000 motor trucks ensured that there would be no supply problem (the German army at its peak could boast only 20,000 motor cars). The Allied advance was supported by 1,500 British and French tanks, while the sum total of German tanks was 80, most of them out of action. France and Britain had also gained control of the air: France alone was able to put 3,440 aircraft into the sky.

The French commenced the offensive, and succeeded in pushing back the Germans at a rapid rate. They were joined at the beginning of August by British, Australian, and Canadian forces who, on 8 April at Amiens, broke decisively through the trench-line for the first time in the war. The breakthrough was supported by 500 tanks, which this time made easy work of the barbed wire. Now there was no halting the advance. On 29 September, British and Australian troops broke through the well-fortified Hindenburg Line, which rapidly collapsed, and the German war effort was suddenly in free fall. The soldiers, undernourished, and physically and mentally exhausted, deserted in droves. The OHL was forced to admit that the war had been lost and that the government should seek armistice negotiations.

It speaks to the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the supreme command that they blamed everyone but themselves for Germany’s defeat. On 1 October, Ludendorff, who more than anyone had been responsible for the mindless prolongation of the slaughter, instructed the Kaiser ‘to bring those people into the government [the Reichstag members — in particular, the Social Democrats] who are largely responsible for things having turned out as they have. We shall therefore see these gentlemen enter the ministries, and they must now make the peace that has to be made. They must now eat the soup that they have served us’.

The view that the German military had fought bravely and well to the end, and would not have faced defeat but for the civilian government and the political left, was widely shared by the German officer corps. They were to despise the Republic that emerged from the war. Ludendorff’s shifting of responsibility was the beginning of a legend that was to bedevil Weimar democracy from the beginning. The alleged breaking of the Wilsonian promises and the ‘stab in the back’ legend would play a key role in the rise of National Socialism.

Götterdämmerung (The End)

The news that Germany’s war effort had collapsed was received by the Reichstag, politicians, the media, the civilian administrators, and the public at large with the greatest incredulity. The OHL had continued to maintain that Germany’s victory was imminent until they stared defeat in the face. However, there was no time to procrastinate about the responsibility and the reasons for defeat. The Supreme Army Command had insisted that armistice negotiations commence immediately. A hastily convened new government under Prince Max of Baden, to date an unknown political quantity, which included Reichstag members and even Majority Socialists, approached the U.S. president on 4 October to commence negotiations based on his Fourteen Points. It must be pointed out, however, that the formation of this government was seen by the OHL and its political and economic backers as a temporary measure intended to solve Germany’s hopeless military situation. With peace established, the generals were confident and determined that there would be a return to — what was to them — the state of political normality: the traditional Kaiser system with its inequality, class system, and social discrimination.

On 5 October 1918, French intelligence detected that the newly formed government had secretly approached Wilson for an armistice. The realisation that the president was considering a response to the German request without consulting his Allies stung the Entente leaders, who angrily informed Wilson that they would not negotiate an armistice agreement on the basis of the Fourteen Points. Wilson’s note of 15 October to the German government, which stressed that armistice conditions could only be worked out in full consultation and co-operation with his Allies, and that they would commence only after serious constitutional changes had been implemented (which included the abdication of the kaiser), did little to pacify the governments in London and Paris.

Wilson’s note immediately brought cries of foul play from the German establishment. They claimed that, by attempting to dictate the peace (Friedensdiktat), the Allies were playing a cheating game. In the meantime, the conflict between those who tried to save as much as possible of the old imperial system and proponents of a constitutional monarchy dragged on until the end of October, when the latter carried the day. All attempts to establish a workable political solution were cut short by the consequences of the decision of the German admirals to sail their ships from their anchorage at Kiel to challenge the Royal Navy. Apparently it was more important to save their honour and that of the German navy than to go on living since, given the vast superiority of the British battleships, it would have been nothing more than a suicide mission. The sailors, on hearing the news, decided that they preferred life, and mutinied. They were joined within a day by workers in the city, where on 2 November a Soldiers and Workers Council was formed. This had a snowball effect throughout Germany, and little more than a week later the once mighty Imperial Germany was overthrown by revolution.

In the midst of this revolutionary turmoil, the Allies finally agreed on a reply to the German request for an armistice. Following three weeks of acrimonious confrontation — at one point, Lloyd George angrily announced that if the Americans wanted to make peace with the Germans, they should do so, but that the British nation would then continue the war itself — the victorious powers drafted the armistice conditions, which they handed to a German delegation on 8 November at Rethondes in the forest of Compiègne. Peace was to be based on president Wilson’s Fourteen Points, with the following addendum, drawn up by U.S. secretary of state Robert Lansing on the insistence of Lloyd George, and since referred to as ‘Pre-Armistice Agreement’ or the ‘Lansing Note’:

Further, in the conditions of peace laid down in his address to the Congress of January 8, 1918, the President declared that invaded territories must be restored as well as evacuated and freed. The Allied Governments feel that no doubt ought to be allowed to exist as to what this provision implies. By it they understand that compensation will be made by Germany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea and from the air.

The public was not made aware of this addition, and one of the many stratagems used by the subsequent German government to undermine the Versailles Peace Treaty was to claim that they had been made to believe that peace was to be based on what were to be called Wilson’s ‘original points’.

Then followed the other armistice conditions (also largely concealed from the public eye): German armies were to withdraw to the right bank of the Rhine, and three military bridgeheads were to be established by the Allies at Cologne, Mainz, and Koblenz, extending 30 kilometres to the east of the river. There was to be the surrender of huge quantities of military material and transport equipment, the immediate release of prisoners of war without reciprocity, the destruction of Germany’s U-boats and the internment of the bulk of the German naval assets, and the renunciation of the treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest.30 The Fourteen Points, along with the Lansing Note and the armistice conditions, were to be binding — that is, there were to be no negotiations. There was no alternative to acceptance of the armistice conditions. At 11.00 a.m. on 11 November, the armistice was signed at Rethondes.

Two days before the signing, Kaiser Wilhelm II left Berlin for the Netherlands to seek political asylum, which was granted by the Dutch royal family. On 9 November, a revolutionary government was formed in Germany, which immediately announced Wilhelm’s abdication as German Kaiser and King of Prussia.

To summarise, the signing of the armistice was not an act of preparation for a mutually negotiated peace agreement. It was an unconditional capitulation on the part of the German empire. But this was not how the events of 11 November were presented to the German people — nor, if it had been, would they have believed it.