WILSON’S RETURN OPENED a period of intense work on the German treaty that ended only at the start of May, when the terms were finally agreed. The delay—the war had been over for four months by this point—raised the awkward question of what the German defeat really meant. How much power did Germany still have? How strong were the Allies? In November 1918, the victors had possessed an enormous advantage. If they had been ready to make peace then, if they had realized the extent of their victory, they could have imposed almost any terms they wanted.
The German army, despite what Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg—and Corporal Hitler—later claimed, had been decisively defeated on the battlefield before the German government asked for an armistice, and before the old regime was toppled inside Germany. In the summer of 1918, as fresh troops and tons of equipment were pouring in from the United States, the Allies had attacked. On August 8, 1918, the “Black Day” to the German army, they smashed through the German lines. For four years, shifts in the lines on the Western Front had been measured in meters; now the Germans went back kilometer by kilometer, leaving behind guns and tanks and soldiers. Sixteen German divisions were wiped out in the first days of the Allied attack. On August 14, Ludendorff told the kaiser that Germany should think of negotiating with the Allies; by September 29 he was demanding peace at any price. The Allies were moving slowly but inexorably toward Germany’s borders and there was little the German High Command could do to stop them. Germany was near the end of its manpower and its supplies, and the public was losing its appetite for the war. In the streets of Berlin, housewives marched with their empty pots and pans to show they could no longer feed their families; in the shipyards and factories, workers put down their tools; and in the Reich-stag, deputies who had once submissively voted for the war demanded peace. One by one Germany’s allies dropped away: Bulgaria at the end of September, Ottoman Turkey a month later, and then Austria-Hungary. By November, insurrections were breaking out in Germany. When the armistice was signed in a French railway carriage on November 11, Germany was reeling under the combination of its wartime losses and political upheaval. The terms left no doubt as to the extent of the Allied victory. Hindenburg collapsed into depression. Ludendorff, disguised in false whiskers and tinted glasses, fled in a panic to Sweden.
Germany relinquished all the territory it had conquered since 1914, as well as Alsace-Lorraine. Allied troops occupied the whole of the Rhineland as well as three bridgeheads on the east bank of the river. Germany also handed over the greater part of its machinery of war—its submarines, its heavy guns, its mortars, its airplanes and 25,000 machine guns. (This brought an anguished cry from the German negotiators: “Why, we are lost! How shall we defend ourselves against Bolshevism?”) The great high seas fleet, which had done so much to alienate Britain from Germany, sailed out of port one last time. On a misty November day sixty-nine ships, from battleships to destroyers, passed between lines of Allied ships on their way to Scapa Flow in the British Orkneys. It was a surrender and the Allies treated it as such.1
The French ambassador saw Lloyd George the day after the armistice was signed: “The Prime Minister said that he had never hoped for such a rapid solution nor envisaged such a complete collapse of German power.” Among the Allied leaders only General Pershing, the top American military commander, thought the Allies should press on, beyond the Rhine if necessary. The French did not want any more of their men to die. Their chief general, Marshal Foch, who was also the supreme Allied commander, warned that they ran the risk of stiff resistance and heavy losses. The British wanted to make peace before the Americans became too strong. And Smuts spoke for many in Europe when he warned gloomily that “the grim spectre of Bolshevist anarchy is stalking the front.”2
The mistake the Allies made, and it did not become clear until much later, was that, as a result of the armistice terms, the great majority of Germans never experienced their country’s defeat at first hand. Except in the Rhineland, they did not see occupying troops. The Allies did not march in triumph into Berlin, as the Germans had done in Paris in 1871. In 1918, German soldiers marched home in good order, with crowds cheering their way; in Berlin, Friedrich Ebert, the new president, greeted them with “No enemy has conquered you!”3 The new democratic republic in Germany was shaky, but it survived, thanks partly to grudging support from what was left of the German army. The Allied advantage over Germany began to melt.
And the Allied forces were shrinking. In November 1918, there were 198 Allied divisions; by June 1919, only 39 remained. And could they be relied upon? There was little enthusiasm for renewed fighting. Allied demobilization had been hastened by protests, occasionally outright mutiny. On the home fronts there was a longing for peace, and lower taxes. The French were particularly insistent on the need to make peace while the Allies still could dictate terms. The Germans, Clemenceau warned, could not be trusted. They were already becoming “insolent” again; in Weimar, the constituent assembly had concluded its deliberations by singing “Deutschland über Alles.” It was madness for the Allies to say to them, “Go on. Do as you like. Perhaps we shall some day threaten to break off relations; but just now we will not be firm.” What would it be like by April, when American troops had gone home? “France and Britain would be left alone to face the Germans.”4
While his pessimism was premature, it is true that by the spring of 1919 Allied commanders were increasingly doubtful about their ability to successfully wage war on Germany. The German army had been defeated on the battlefield, but its command structure, along with hundreds of thousands of trained men, had survived. There were 75 million Germans and only 40 million French, as Foch kept repeating. And the German people, Allied observers noticed, were opposed to signing a harsh peace. Who knew what resistance there would be as Allied armies moved farther and farther into the country? They would face, warned the military experts, a sullen population, perhaps strikes, even gunfire. It was very unlikely that the Allies could get as far as Berlin. 5
The great Allied weapon of the blockade was also starting to look rather rusty. Although it still remained in force in 1919, and although Allied ships still patrolled the seas looking for contraband cargo heading for Germany, the blockade was increasingly halfhearted. In Britain, whose navy was primarily responsible for enforcing the ban on trade with Germany, the public was starting to ask awkward questions about the sufferings of German civilians. The general in charge of British troops in Germany told Frances Stevenson that “he could not be responsible for his troops if children in Germany were allowed to wander about the streets half starved.” The admirals worried about the mood of their men. “If the final terms could be fixed at once,” the first sea lord told the Supreme Council, “the Navies would no longer be tied down to their present employment as instruments of the blockade. The spirit of unrest did not leave the Naval Services untouched. A very calming influence on sea-faring folk as a whole would be effected by the settlement of naval peace terms at the next renewal of the Armistice.” 6
The terms of the armistice in fact allowed food to be shipped in to Germany, although Allied military advisers warned that Germany would build up stockpiles which might make it less willing to sign a peace treaty. The French, too, had been unenthusiastic. “It was proposed,” said Clemenceau sarcastically, “to buy the good will of the Germans by offering them food and raw materials. A state of war still existed, and any appearance of yielding would be construed as evidence of weakness.” Wilson and Lloyd George were more inclined to worry about a desperate Germany sliding further toward anarchy and Bolshevism, “a pool,” said Lloyd George, “breeding infection throughout Europe.”7
Food shipments to Germany moved slowly, something for which many Germans never forgave the Allies. Part of the problem was a shortage of shipping. The Allies insisted that Germany provide the ships, not as unreasonable a request as it might seem: much of the German merchant marine was safely in German ports. The German government, urged on by powerful shipowners, dragged its feet, fearing that if it let the ships go it would never get them back again. Germany also tried to get guarantees from the Allies about the quantities of food to be supplied and, with the lack of realism that was to mark its attitude toward the Allies in this period, suggested that it could pay for its food purchases with a loan from the United States. When it was made clear that there was no hope of getting such a loan through Congress, the German government agreed to use its gold reserves. This, however, alarmed the French, who wanted the German gold to go for reparations. It was only after a heated debate in the Supreme Council, enlivened by Lloyd George waving a telegram he claimed to have just received from the British army in Germany warning that the country was on the edge of a famine, that the French reluctantly backed down. By late March 1919, the first food shipments were arriving. 8
The delay in drawing up the peace terms worked to the Allies’ disadvantage in another way, too. Wartime coalitions usually fall apart in peacetime as the thrill of victory gives way to the more permanent realities of national interests and rivalries. By the spring of 1919, it was public knowledge that there were differing views among the Allies on what needed to be done with Germany. (The Germans studied the Allied press with close attention.) It was not, as has often been portrayed, a matter of the vindictive French against the forgiving Americans, with the British somewhere in between. Everyone agreed that the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which France had lost to Germany in 1871, must be French again. And by a tacit understanding, no one raised the awkward issue of self-determination; there was no question of consulting the locals, many of whom might have disobligingly preferred to remain German. Everyone agreed that the damage done to Belgium and the north of France must be repaired. Everyone agreed that Germany, and the Germans, deserved punishment. Even Wilson, who had insisted during the war that his only quarrel was with the German ruling classes, now seemed to blame the whole of the German people. “They would be shunned and avoided like lepers for generations to come,” he told his intimates in Paris, “and so far most of them had no idea of what other nations felt and didn’t realize the Coventry in which they would be put.” 9 Everyone agreed that Germany must somehow be prevented from dragging Europe into war again.
Almost everyone in Paris in 1919 believed that Germany had started the war. (Only later did doubts begin to arise.) Germany had invaded neutral Belgium, and German troops, to the horror of Allied and American opinion, had behaved badly. (Not all the atrocity stories were wartime propaganda.) Germany had also done itself great damage in Allied eyes by two punitive treaties, often forgotten today, which it imposed in 1918. The Treaty of Bucharest turned Rumania into a German dependency. And with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the new Bolshevik government of Russia gave Germany control of a huge swath of Russian territory stretching from the Baltic down to the Caucasus mountains and agreed to pay over a million gold rubles in reparations. Two decades later, Hitler set his sights on the same goal. Russia lost 55 million people, almost a third of its agricultural land and the greater part of its heavy industry and iron and coal. The Bolsheviks were also obliged to pay over millions of gold rubles. Germans might talk of peace, said Wilson in April 1918, but their actions showed their real intentions. “They nowhere set up justice, but everywhere impose their power and exploit everything for their own use and aggrandisement.” Lloyd George and Wilson, both from religious backgrounds, both good liberals, believed firmly in chastising the wicked. They also believed in redemption; one day Germany would be redeemed. 10
Punishment, payment, prevention—on these broad objectives there was agreement. It was everything else that was the problem. Should the kaiser and his top advisers be tried as war criminals? What items should be on the bill presented to Germany? War damages (whatever those were)? Civilian losses? Pensions to the widows and orphans of Allied soldiers? And there was also the related question of how much Germany could pay. What sort of armed forces should it have? How much territory should it lose? Were the Allies dealing with the old Germany or a new one that had emerged since the end of the war? Was it fair to punish a struggling democracy for the sins of its predecessors?
Punishment, payment, prevention—all were interconnected. A smaller Germany, and a poorer Germany, would be less of a threat to its neighbors. But if Germany was losing a lot of land, was it also fair to expect it to pay out huge sums? Striking a balance between the different sets of terms was not easy, especially since Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George did not agree among themselves, or, frequently, with their own colleagues.
What made these questions even more complicated was that there were no clear principles to go on. It had been more straightforward in the past. The spoils of war, whether works of art, cannon or horses, went to the victor while the defeated nation paid an indemnity to cover the costs of the war and normally lost territory as well. At the Congress of Vienna, France had lost most of Napoleon’s conquests and been liable for 700 million francs as well as the costs of its occupation. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, which many in Paris still remembered vividly, France had paid 5 billion gold francs and lost its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. But 1919 was supposed to mark a new sort of diplomacy. “No annexations and no punitive peace” had been the cry from liberals and the left; and statesmen from Washington to Moscow had taken it up. Self-determination, not power politics, was supposed to settle borders.
Public opinion, that new and troubling element, was no help. There was a widespread feeling that someone must pay for such a dreadful war; but there was an equally strong longing for peace. The Allied publics spoke with loud and contradictory voices. In December 1918, the British public had wanted to string the kaiser up; four months later, it was not so sure. The French wanted to bring Germany low, but did they want to hand it over to Bolshevism? The Americans hoped to destroy German militarism but also to rehabilitate the German nation. The statesmen were feeling their way in Paris, trying at once to pay attention to their voters, stay true to their principles, and work out a deal they could all accept. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that they spent so much time in the early days on a relatively simple but highly symbolic issue: the fate of the kaiser.
In 1919 Kaiser Wilhelm, the third and last leader of the empire built by Bismarck, was a fidgety man in his early sixties living in a comfortable castle near Utrecht. At the end of the war, his armies melting away, he had uttered a few last boastful remarks about dying with his troops around him and then slipped away into exile in the Netherlands. Even his most loyal generals had been glad to see him go. His sudden enthusiasms and his equally sudden rages had always been hard to bear. Wilhelm had never grown up; the unloved, restless child had turned into a man who loved dressing up and playing cruel practical jokes. His erratic behavior and wild statements had done much to unsettle Europe before the Great War. He may have been clinically mad; from time to time before 1914 there was talk in Germany of declaring a regency.11 Queen Victoria had other difficult grandchildren; none, perhaps, did so much damage as he did. Under the “operetta regime,” as one critic put it, which ran Germany, the kaiser had a dangerous amount of power, especially over the military and foreign affairs. With a different personality, things might have turned out differently; as it was, the most powerful nation on the continent of Europe lurched and bullied its way toward the explosion of 1914.
The kaiser always made it clear that it was his Germany, his army and his navy. “He has utterly ruined his country and himself,” wrote his cousin George V of Britain in November 1918. “I look upon him as the greatest criminal known for having plunged the world into this ghastly war which has lasted over 4 years and 3 months with all its misery.” 12 The king spoke for many people. As a shattered world looked for someone to blame, who better than the kaiser, together with his weak, womanizing son and his military leaders?
In Britain, the coalition had started out the postwar election campaign in high-minded fashion. “We must not allow,” said Lloyd George, “any sense of revenge, any spirit of greed, any grasping desire to over-rule the fundamental principles of justice.” It rapidly became clear that the electorate preferred talk of hanging the kaiser. Lloyd George himself seems to have deplored the language but shared the sentiments. He amused himself, annoyed colleagues such as Churchill and infuriated the king by thinking up elaborate schemes for trying the kaiser publicly in London, or perhaps at Dover Castle, and then shipping him off, after the inevitable guilty verdict, to the Falkland Islands. A Foreign Office official commented to his diary: “The papers write the greatest rubbish about hanging the Kaiser. They are as mad about him as they once were over Jumbo the Elephant. We ought to have better things to think about.”13
Sonnino, who had made and then abandoned Italy’s treaty with the Central Powers, raised repeated objections. It would not do to establish precedents. Clemenceau had little patience for such arguments. “What is a precedent? I’ll tell you. A man comes; he acts—for good or evil. Out of the good he does, we create a precedent. Out of the evil he does, criminals— individuals or heads of state—create the precedent for their crimes.” There were no precedents for Germany’s crimes—“for the systematic destruction of wealth in order to end competition, for the torture of prisoners, for submarine piracy, for the abominable treatment of women in occupied countries.”14
In the London meetings before Wilson’s arrival, talk of punishing the kaiser and his subordinates took up much time but all that was agreed in the end was that they should wait and see what Wilson thought. The American president was not sure. He loathed German militarism, of which the kaiser was such a potent symbol, but was it possible that Wilhelm had been coerced by his own general staff? The American experts, led by Lansing, were uneasy about the legality of proceeding against the Germans.
Wilson eventually agreed, unenthusiastically, to a commission to investigate responsibility for the war and appropriate penalties for the guilty. Its American members, who included Lansing, refused to agree that the Germans should be tried for crimes against humanity. Wilson warned his fellow peacemakers in the Council of Four that it would be much better to leave the kaiser alone with his disgrace: “Charles I was a contemptible character and the greatest liar in history; he was celebrated by poetry and transformed into a martyr by his execution.” In a spirit of compromise (and perhaps to get the amendment on the Monroe Doctrine that he wanted in the League covenant), Wilson finally agreed to a clause accusing Wilhelm of “a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties” and invited the government of the Netherlands to hand him over. The lesser German criminals were to be tried by special military tribunals once the German government had surrendered them. “The rabbit must first be caught” was the opinion of one of the American experts.15
By the spring of 1919, the public appetite for the chase was waning. When the Netherlands refused to give up the kaiser, the Allies, who could scarcely be seen to be bullying a small neutral country, acquiesced. On June 25, shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Council of Four discussed the matter one last time. The mood was jovial rather than vindictive. The kaiser should be brought to England, said Lloyd George. “Be careful not to let him sink,” said Clemenceau. “Yes, judgement in England, execution in France.” Where shall we send him afterward, wondered Lloyd George. Canada? Some island? “Please don’t send him to Bermuda,” cried Wilson. “I want to go there myself!” 16
The kaiser lived on until 1941, writing his memoirs, reading P. G. Wodehouse, drinking English tea, walking his dogs and fulminating against the international Jewish conspiracy which, he had discovered, had brought Germany and himself low. He thrilled to “the succession of miracles” when Hitler started the war in 1939, and he died just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Allies eventually gave up the idea of trying any Germans themselves. They sent a list of names— including those of Hindenburg and Ludendorff—to the German government, which set up a special court. Out of the hundreds named, twelve were tried. Most were set free at once. A couple of submarine officers who sank lifeboats full of wounded received sentences of four years each; they escaped after a few weeks and were never found.17