The Great War

The German Supreme Army Command (OHL) fought the war from the outset with the utmost brutality, both in regard to the waste of their own human resources and the treatment of the civilian population in the occupied countries. Convinced that the war on the Western Front would take five, or at most six, weeks — ‘You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees’, Kaiser Wilhelm II had promised — the armies proceeded in their task without mercy.

The storming of the Belgian bastion-city of Liege was a grim foretaste of the kind of warfare that lay ahead. The OHL had expected that the occupation of Belgium would not involve serious military action, but their brigades got stuck at the four easternmost forts of the city. The shells they used were too light to penetrate the fortifications, and the Belgians had little difficulty in pouring fire into the German troops, slaughtering row upon row. The dead piled up in ridges a metre high, but the assault continued. Lives were spent like bullets in the knowledge that there were plentiful reserves to make up the losses.

American historian Barbara Tuchman, in her acclaimed August 1914, quotes a Belgian officer’s account of the bloodbath. He watched stunned as the German soldiers marched wave after wave into the machine-guns. The wall of dead and wounded grew so high that the Belgians did not know whether to fire through it or crawl out to clear openings with their hands. Unbelievably, the Pickelhaubens kept coming, sheltering behind the barricade of their own dead and dying to charge up the glacis, only to be mowed down.1 Tuchman makes the point that the over-lavish waste of human lives by all sides throughout the war began at Liege on the war’s second day. It was a grim portent of the Somme, where hundreds of thousands fell, and of the apocalypse at Verdun.2

Belgian forts were not taken until ten days after the Germans had moved in a number of huge artillery pieces produced by arms manufacturer Krupp in Essen and the Austrian firm Skoda. Krupp’s 420mm howitzer was the largest siege weapon ever produced: eight metres long, weighing 98 tons, needing a crew of 200 to operate. Equipped with a 42-centimetre calibre barrel, ‘Big Bertha’, as the gun was nicknamed, could fire a shell weighing 800 kilograms over a distance of 15 kilometres. One Krupp 420mm and several Skoda 305mm guns blasted the Belgians into submission within several hours.

The advance into France was marked by a wave of atrocities directed against alleged francs-tireurs that resulted in the massacre of thousands of civilians in both Belgium and France.3 For Belgium, German occupation meant that for the next four years the country was stripped barer than by a plague of locusts.4

Appalled by the viciousness of the German attack, the Allies, by the end of August 1914, were convinced that they faced an enemy that had to be beaten, a regime that had to be finished off, and a war that had to be fought to the end. On 4 September, the Russian, French, and British governments signed the Pact of London, which stipulated that they would not conclude a peace separately.

Although contemporaries believed that the German advance had been held up for two weeks by Belgian resistance, in reality the timetable to take Paris was delayed by only four days. Still, this was sufficient for almost 200,000 British soldiers to join the French in their efforts to halt the invasion. The inadequacy of the Supreme Army Command’s planning became obvious, however, when only two weeks after the outbreak of war, two tsarist armies invaded East Prussia. The OHL’s perception that it would take six weeks for the Russian military to reach combat strength was now disproved.

Immediately, retired General Paul von Hindenburg and his assistant, Erich Ludendorff, were dispatched to the east to take command of the Eighth German Army, the only force not involved in the west. The ensuing battles at Allstein (today’s Olszlyn, Poland) and the Masurian Lakes saw the slaughter of tsarist soldiers; 40,000 were left dead or wounded, four times the German casualty list. This decisive victory, however, was to have fatal consequences. The popularity of Hindenburg and Ludendorff rocketed sky-high, further enhancing the prestige of the army. As the political power-base in Germany was soon to shift from the civilian administration to the military, Germany’s fate was eventually to end up in the hands of a military die-hard and an ambitious careerist and unscrupulous warmonger.

In the west, the Germans had speedily advanced to the River Marne, where they were halted and pushed back to the River Aisne by the British and French. The Schlieffen Plan had failed. By the end of the year, the Western Front had stabilised into a line stretching from Ypres in Belgium to the south of Alsace, marking the start of four years of trench warfare that would take the lives of four million soldiers. The chief of the general staff, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, was blamed for the plan’s failure because of the alterations he had made. As stated above, the plan’s designer, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, had envisaged a decisive strike through the Netherlands and Belgium to encircle Paris. Cut off from the capital and from its source of supplies, the French army would have to surrender, after which Germany could turn its entire military might on tsarist Russia. It was said that Moltke’s alterations weakened the force of the onslaught by confining the attack to Belgium. Furthermore, by withdrawing divisions from the invading armies to protect south-western Germany, and by placing one army on the Russian border, a rapid defeat of the French had been frustrated. The result was trench warfare, with Germany committed to fight in both east and west.

German mythology is one side of the story; the reality of the situation is another. The truth is that the Schlieffen Plan was mistake-ridden and bound to fail from the outset. As had become immediately clear, the assumption that the tsarist war machinery would take weeks if not months to get into action was based on unsound speculation. An invasion of the Netherlands would not only have further outraged neutral countries — in particular, the United States — but would also have demanded additional army units that were not available. In this respect, Moltke had judged the situation correctly, and his decisions were justified. Nevertheless, it was he who was blamed for the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and he was subsequently removed from the army leadership. A bitter and broken man, he died in June 1916.

It was irrelevant that troops were diverted to the east and south-west. The German plan to paralyse Paris and finish the war in the west was unrealistic. There was a discrepancy between the strategies of the military leaders and the reality of twentieth-century warfare. The military, and not only in Germany, was still thinking in terms of nineteenth-century warfare: quick movements and speedy actions made possible by brisk cavalry charges and the deployment of light artillery and relatively small armies. Their plans failed to take account of transport infrastructure. Over a million troops had to be shifted, and many artillery weapons could not be carried by men or horses, at least not over long distances. Railways were important but geographically limited, and could be destroyed by the retreating enemy.

As the German armies moved deeper into France, men scheduled by the plan to advance over 40 kilometres a day began to tire, and supplying them chiefly by horse-drawn transport became more difficult. The design of motorcars and trucks had not advanced far enough to provide a more flexible and efficient means of transport; nor was there capacity to produce such vehicles in large numbers. Tanks entered the war in its later stages and, indeed, played a key part in the outcome — but on the wrong side, from the German point of view.

Frustration with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan to provide the expected speedy defeat of the French led the German army to look for other means to win the war. Military action resumed after the winter of 1914–15, when the commander-in-chief of the British army, Field Marshal Sir John French, sent this disturbing cable to London:

Following a heavy bombardment the enemy attacked the French Division at about 5pm … Aircraft reported that thick yellow smoke had been seen issuing from the German trenches between Langemarck and Bixschoote … What follows almost defies description. The effect of these poisonous gases was so virulent as to render the whole of the line held by the French Division … practically incapable of any action at all. It was at first impossible for anyone to realise what had actually happened. The smoke and fumes hid everything from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition …5

The instigator of poison gas and its use in warfare was Fritz Haber, a German chemical scientist who had garnered an international reputation through his development of synthetic ammonia. Aged 46, he could not be called up for military service at the front and, as a Jew, he would not qualify for a home-front commission. Nevertheless he was a deeply patriotic fatherland supporter, and most keen to play his part in the war effort. He was one of the signatories to the Fulda Manifesto, an imperious statement signed by many intellectuals that denied any German responsibility for the outbreak of war, and which claimed that the country’s military stance prevented the destruction of its entire civilisation. When approached by the chief of the German War Raw Materials Office, Walther Rathenau, to look for possible solutions to break the stalemate at the front, he set keenly to work. Poisonous chlorine gas was the outcome.

The use of poison gas had been forbidden under the Hague Convention of 1907, which stipulated that warring nations ‘agree to abstain from the use of projectiles the objective of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’. The treaty had been signed by Germany, although, as stated above, the German signature had always been a half-hearted one. There was little subsequent hesitation when it came to subordinating ethical principles to military necessity. On 22 April 1915, the first gas attack was launched. The result was devastating:

Within a few seconds the throats, noses and eyes of the unprotected soldiers in the Allied trenches were smarting agonisingly. Shortly thereafter the men began to cough and vomit blood, their chests heaving as they tried to draw breath, but only managing as they did so to suck more of the deadly poison down into their lungs … By sunset an estimated five thousand Allied troops had died and another ten thousand or so were barely hanging on to life in field medical stations.6

The panic brought about by this gas attack allowed the Germans to breach Allied defences, but — much to Haber’s disgust — they had not assembled sufficient troops to drive the advantage home. A counterattack by Canadian forces closed the gap again. The dilettantism that surrounded so much of Germany’s military planning soon marked its efforts to change the course of the war by the use of poison gas. The French and British speedily developed their own gas and, as the wind in Western Europe blows mainly from the west, German soldiers copped much more gas than did their counterparts, and they had no hesitation in voicing their anger.

When confronted in later years with questions about the ethics and morality of his wartime conduct, Haber claimed that to be killed by gas was no worse — in some cases, it might be even better — than being blown up and mutilated by explosives, or mowed down by machine guns. He had only done his patriotic duty. He was at odds with his wife, Clara Immerwahr (the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Breslau University), who committed suicide after the gas attacks of spring 1915. The Allies attempted to try him for war crimes, but he escaped to Switzerland, where he was able to hide until he could safely return to Germany. Much to the disgust of British and French scientists, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of synthetic ammonia in late 1918. During the 1920s he participated in the reconstruction of the nation’s chemical industries, but his luck ran out in 1933 when the Nazis took power. They had no interest in his achievements for the fatherland, and because of his Jewish background he was forced to flee to England. Not surprisingly, given his role in the development of poison gas, the British scientific community gave him a rather hostile reception. He took up a position at the Hebrew University in Palestine, but died unexpectedly in January 1934 while visiting his family in Basel, Switzerland.

Germany’s inability to defeat the Allies on land was paralleled by their lack of success at sea. With the outbreak of war, both Germany and the United Kingdom instituted blockades, but with the superiority of the British fleet the German declaration was an empty gesture. The consequences of the Kaiserreich’s naval inferiority were clear by the beginning of 1915. The nation had depended heavily upon international trade. Half of its raw materials and about one-third of its food were imported before the war; almost two-thirds of its manufactured goods were sold abroad. The imposition of the British blockade deprived Germany of all but 20 per cent of its export market. Although there was initially strong opposition from the civilian government — the torpedoing of merchant vessels without prior warning was a further violation of the Hague Convention — the ever-deteriorating military situation soon removed all opposition to moving maritime warfare below the surface. The unlimited U-boat warfare that began in February 1915 soon proved another nail in the coffin of the German empire. The damage done to Allied shipping by U-boat warfare was limited, but that done to Germany’s international reputation was huge.7 In particular, the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania on 7 May 1915 led to outrage in neutral countries — above all in the United States, as 120 of the 1,200 dead were U.S. citizens.

Public opinion in the United States had largely supported the Allies after the outbreak of war. Since the abortive attempt by the British empire to bring the disloyal North American colonies back into the camp in 1814, British-American relations had been cordial. In particular, trade between the two states had flourished for a century, and the bulk of the States’ population was of British descent. In addition, most politicians and media commentators believed that the responsibility for the slaughter that had broken out in Europe had to be borne by the Central Powers.

The sinking of the Lusitania raised, for the first time, the real spectre of America entering the war. After the sinking of the British vessel Arabic in August 1915, when again a number of U.S. citizens lost their lives, submarine warfare was halted temporarily. It was resumed at the beginning of 1916, the German war leadership hoping perhaps that there had been a softening of American attitudes. When this proved a miscalculation after the sinking of the cross-channel steamer Sussex (which caused another massive outcry in the United States), unlimited submarine warfare was again called off in May 1916.

On 31 May 1916, the German navy challenged the British in a massive encounter off Jutland, which ended in a decisive defeat. The father of the German navy, Admiral von Tirpitz, had been forced to resign two months earlier. His grandiose design to achieve German global hegemony by building a huge battle fleet had proven a huge failure and a waste of money. For the German empire at sea and on land, the writing was on the wall.

War aims

From the beginning, German war aims lacked moderation. This was in part because the Germans had persuaded themselves that they were victims of Allied aggression, and consequently would gain generous compensation for having been forced to fight, and in part because they needed to secure their empire’s future military position. With their armies advancing on Paris in the second half of August, and the capitulation of France seemingly only weeks away, key sections of the German economic, political, and military establishment saw the alleged injustice done to the German nation as a licence to rob and plunder. As the Reichstag deputy of the Catholic Centre Party, Matthias Erzberger, put it in a three-point program to the German chancellor on 2 September:

The slaughterous struggle … makes it an obligatory duty to take advantage of victory … Germany’s military supremacy on the [European] continent has to be secured for all time so the German people are able for at least the next 100 years to enjoy unmolested peaceful development … the second goal is the removal of Germany’s unbearable subordination to England’s perpetual domination in all matters of world policy, the third the break-up of the Russian colossus. It is for this price that the German people went into the war.8

In this spirit, the leading Rhenish-Westphalian industrialist August Thyssen developed his plan for the future shape of Europe in late August 1914. In the west, Germany would incorporate Belgium and the French departments of Nord, Pas-de-Calais (including Dunkirk and Boulogne), Meurthe-et-Moselle with its belt of fortresses, and, in the south, Vosges and Haute-Saône. France would have lost virtually all of her iron-ore regions. In the east, Russia would have had to cede her possessions in Poland, all the Baltic provinces, the Don region with its capital, Odessa, the Crimea, and a large part of the Caucasus, which would enable Germany to spread her sphere of influence into Asia Minor and Persia. The realisation of these aims would lift Germany to the rank of a world power equal to the British empire.

With minor variations, these views were widely shared by other influential members of heavy industry, East-Elbian conservatives, and the Pan-German League. The leaders of the banking sector, the shipbuilding industry, and the newer electrical and chemical industries refrained from demanding large-scale outright annexations, preferring an economic and political European union under German military leadership.

Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg also saw as an aim of the war ‘… not to restore the European balance of power, but precisely to eliminate for all time that which has been termed the balance of power and to lay the foundation for German predominance in Europe’.9 He ordered his secretary, Kurt Riezler, to streamline the various demands into a provisional outline of German war aims. Known as the ‘September Program’, its chief demand was the establishment of German hegemony in Europe. France was to be weakened to such an extent that it would cease to be a leading power. In addition to its territorial losses (the annexation of Belfort, the western Vosges, the coastal region from Dunkirk to Boulogne, and the iron-ore region of Briey being the minimum demands) France was to pay an indemnity large enough to cripple its armament production for the next 18 to 20 years. This was part of the overall goal to make the country economically dependent on Germany. Luxembourg was to become a federal state within the empire, and Belgium to be given the status of a vassal state. In the east, the non-Russian nationalities were to be liberated from ‘Russian oppression’. Instead there was to be a ‘cordon sanitaire’ of small states under direct or indirect German rule.

The chief aim of the September Program, however, was the foundation of a central European customs union (Mitteleuropa) incorporating Austria-Hungary, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Poland. Although the union was to have no constitutional government, and although the principle of equality among members was to be presented to the outside world, the intention was that Mitteleuropa would secure German economic (and hence political) predominance in Europe. Overseas, there was to be the creation of a German empire in Central Africa.

The halting of the German advance at the River Marne and the subsequent failure to break through Allied defences at Ypern led to a moderation of war aims. This was temporary. Because the government and the military leadership had concealed from the public the consequences of the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and as German losses by the end of 1914 already amounted to hundreds of thousands, demands for massive compensation from France and other enemy countries were soon being voiced again with renewed vigour. In fact, rather than weakening as the war progressed, they became ever more radical.10 In the later debate about German war guilt and German expansionism, these war aims were dismissed by apologists of the Kaiserreich’s role in the disaster of 1914–18 as the fantasies of ‘expansionist dreamers’, and not to be given any credibility,11or seen as the last utterings of reactionaries who were wedded to a moribund political system and who thus could not be taken seriously.

German peacemaking in 1917 and 1918 was to show there could be no more serious misinterpretation of the reality of the situation.12 In fact, when chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg urged moderation because of the need to secure the continuous support of the German labour movement, he soon lost his position.

The German Social Democratic Party

The outbreak of war in 1914 took the Social Democratic German labour movement by complete surprise. The assassination of the Austrian crown prince and his wife at Sarajevo on 28 June was condemned by the party and its media as a mindless act orchestrated by fanatical supporters of a Greater Serbia. No one foresaw a danger to international peace in the action. This view changed on 24 July when the outside world heard the news of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, and its insistence that the government in Vienna carry out the investigation into the assassination. After this, the party called mass demonstrations against the impending war, in which hundred thousands of workers participated. Leadership and newspapers protested against the policies of the Vienna government towards Serbia, which seemed bent on bringing about war. They also lodged an appeal with the German government to refrain from any military intervention and to put pressure on Vienna to maintain peace. A meeting held at the office of the Socialist International at Brussels on 29 July, in which Rosa Luxemburg, Hugo Haase, Karl Kautsky, Jean Jaures, and other leading socialists participated, merely asked for further peace demonstrations and for renewed demands upon the governments in Berlin and Paris to pressure tsarist Russia and the Habsburg empire to de-escalate the worsening international situation.

The SPD’s attitude to the situation changed completely with the declaration of tsarist Russia’s partial mobilisation later that day, widely seen as an act of imminent war against the German empire. Behind the decision of the party to unanimously vote for the granting of war credits on 4 August stood the perceived need to defend the nation against attack from Russia, always viewed by German Socialists as the symbol of reaction and the arch-opponent of democracy and social progress.

The bulk of the party leadership and the rank and file accepted the state of ‘civic truce’ (Burgfrieden) declared by the kaiser — that all citizens, regardless of their political leanings, should now fully support the German war effort — without any qualification, and they supported the war until the end. This is in part explained by the fact that most members were content with the reformist approach the party and union leadership had been pursuing since the abolition of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1890. Progress in bettering workers’ wages and conditions was slow, but progress there had been.

The year 1912 saw the SPD emerge as the largest party in the Reichstag, and membership and voters’ support continued to rise. By the outbreak of war, the party could count on over one million members, and the affiliated Free Union movement over two-and-a-half million members. Policies that might endanger the organisations through confrontations with the state, or other radical actions such as general strikes, were not popular. The workers themselves, notwithstanding their humble social and political status, felt greater loyalty to the Wilhelmine state than they did to their fellow workers in other countries. The party still maintained its Marxist theoretical program of aiming to establish a socialist order, but the advocacy of radical policies before the Great War was confined to a small left wing made up chiefly of intellectuals.

There was another reason why gradualism and moderation, and not class warfare or confrontation, determined party and union policies. Because of their organisations’ growth, salaried officials had to be appointed to run and administer the enterprises. These officials, who were chosen for their presumed administrative skills rather than their political views, soon dominated key positions at local, regional, and national levels. This meant that a great deal of power and influence was in the hands of professional administrators — bureaucrats who were bent on avoiding risk and accommodating the powers that be. Managing finances, improving the efficiency of agitation, and conducting election campaigns became the sole occupation of many administrators. So the growth of a major bureaucracy had a very conservative impact upon the German socialist movement in the years before 1914.

It was not only for altruistic reasons — love for the fatherland, and duty to the kaiser in times of crisis — that influenced many party and union leaders to support the war unswervingly. If Germany’s workers helped in the successful defence of the nation, surely there could be no more obstacles in the path to major political reform that would make the country more democratic and allow the working class, too, to participate in governing. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg told party and union officials repeatedly that their part in the nation’s war effort would be rewarded. So whether by unqualified conviction, or by pragmatism, the majority of the leadership viewed as a luxury any discussion about who had started the war or what the aims of the imperial government might have been. Germany had to avoid defeat at all costs; their contribution must be to keep the workers attached to the national cause, and partisan political activity had to be suspended. To deviate from this position was heresy.

It did not take very long, however, before the official position of the party and union leadership in support of the German war effort was challenged by an initially small but rapidly growing opposition. Although the party had voted unanimously for the granting of war credits on 4 August, there had been dissent in the SPD’s Reichstag caucus the night before, when 14 of the 92 members implied that they would vote against it. This was not because they refused to believe the official explanation for the declaration of war — that a Russian attack was imminent — but because they wanted to uphold the traditional Social Democratic principle of not supporting the imperial system with a single penny. In the end they buckled, and for the last time the SPD’s vote was unanimous.

The reason given for the outbreak of war was first challenged by an outspoken member of the SPD’s left, Karl Liebknecht. He had gone to Belgium in the autumn of 1914, returning convinced that Germany was waging an aggressive war — a view that was hardened by his growing realisation that German war aims envisaged that, in the event of a victorious war, continental Europe would become, more or less, a greater Germany. In a rare act of civil courage, Liebknecht was the sole Reichstag member who in December 1914 voted against the further granting of war credits.

During 1915, opposition to the war within the workers’ movement grew rapidly. As the German armies advanced far into enemy territory, and the threat to the fatherland diminished, the question was raised why no attempts were being made to bring the war to an end. When a third vote for war credits was taken in March 1915, 30 SPD deputies left the chamber, and Otto Rühle joined Liebknecht in voting against the bill. Two months later, a resolution drafted by Liebknecht proclaiming that the policies pursued by the party since August 1914 were violating party principles was signed by close to 1,000 officials. On 19 June 1915, the oppositionists published an article in the Leipziger Volkszeitung entitled ‘The Command of the Hour’, which maintained that Germany was pursuing expansionist aims, and asked all members to demand an end to the Burgfrieden and to refuse further support for the war effort. On 21 December, the number of SPD deputies voting against new credits rose to 20; 22 had left the chamber beforehand, and the pro-war faction was thus reduced to 50. Three months later, those who again defied discipline by voting against war credits were expelled from the party. The dissidents responded by forming a Socialist Working Alliance (Sozialistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft, or SAG). Throughout 1916, the conflict spread to regional and local branches, reaching an initial peak on 28 June when 55,000 workers in Berlin staged the first political strike of the war in protest against the trial of Karl Liebknecht. With harshly worded attacks on the party’s stance pouring in from many influential district executives, the confrontation between the majority and the dissidents became ever more embittered. This was particularly obvious in the struggle for control of the party press. Supported by the strong arm of the law, supporters of the war wrested many affiliated newspapers from opposition editors, and ousted party functionaries. The majority of the leadership stuck to their guns. As the losses at the front reached staggering proportions, it took courage and conviction to admit that the death toll was due not to the need to defend the home-country, but to the expansionist aims of Germany’s leaders. Most lacked this courage. To doubt the defensive nature of Germany’s war effort was a mortal sin.

A last bitter confrontation within the party occurred over the Auxiliary Service Law (ASL), which was introduced in December 1916 to solve Germany’s severe labour shortage. Neither the movement of soldiers from the front nor the employment of prisoners of war or foreign workers brought into Germany achieved the numbers of labourers needed to meet the industrial requirements of the war. The result was increasing job mobility, as most workers naturally preferred higher-paid work, especially in ammunition plants. This endangered production in other industries where pay was lower, and threatened important public services such as the railways. The ASL placed restrictions upon the movement of workers for the duration of the war, but employees were still able to change jobs, provided they could prove to an arbitration committee that their new employment would constitute a marked improvement on their previous position. These arbitration committees were made up of representatives from labour and the employers. The pro-war SPD leaders and the unions were satisfied with the ASL because, for the first time, German industrialists were compelled to sit down in joint meetings with them. On the other hand, the ASL met considerable resistance from employers who participated reluctantly and often only after pressure from government authorities.

The oppositionists in the SPD feared that the ASL would be a means of coercing the workforce into unconditional support for the war. When they held a separate meeting on 7 January 1917, all who attended were suspended from the party. In response, on 6 March 1917, the day the United States declared war on the Central Powers, the dissident party members founded the Independent Social Democratic Party (USP). The spirit of the Russian March Revolution, which broke out two days later, on 8 March, greatly influenced the gathering. Hugo Haase, one of the two party leaders, opened the conference:

The storms of March roar through the world. The red dawn shines across the Russian borders into this hall. All who have gathered are filled with admiration for the Russian brothers’ fight for feedom and peace. They also feel solidarity with all like-minded in the International.13

The newly founded party was not an homogenous organisation. USP membership ranged from the chiefly intellectual left, centred around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (who were demanding revolutionary proletarian action to change the imperialists’ war into a class war), to leading reformists such as the party’s chief revisionist theorist, Eduard Bernstein, and the Neo-Kantian journalist and party editor, Kurt Eisner. These various factions came together for the duration of the war in their desire for peace and their opposition to the continuation of the mass slaughter. They protested against the ever-worsening living conditions suffered by the bulk of the population, against the shameless annexation demands, against the failure to achieve any social or political reforms, and against the remorseless oppression of the workers and their leaders under the state of siege imposed at the outbreak of war and subsequently by the Auxiliary Service Law. Their membership increased rapidly: 120,000 members had gone over to the USP by the end of 1917, and the SPD’s membership had fallen from almost one million to 240,000.

Dwindling numbers notwithstanding, the SPD did not waiver in its loyalty. The party continued to remind members of their duty to support the defence of the fatherland, and they promised that there would be rich rewards in the end. Not that they had grounds for optimism as far as political or social reforms were concerned: as prominent German historians have argued persuasively, German victory in war would have meant the consolidation of the existing political, economic, and social order, not its demise.14Whether gains made by the unions under the ASL would have survived once the pressures of war had disappeared is equally doubtful.

Without the untiring efforts of the SPD and affiliated union leaders to keep production going, Germany’s war effort would have collapsed much sooner. This was to have two fatal consequences. In the short term, it ensured that the slaughter continued until, bled dry by the Allied advances in the west, the front finally collapsed — though not before hundreds of thousands more soldiers had fallen. In the long run, the SPD joined the bulk of German society in its conviction that the acceptance of peace terms that did not specifically free Germany of responsibility for the outbreak of war, and make an adequate allowance for the suffering of the German people, would amount to a mortal sin.

The changing fortunes of war

It would be wrong to suggest that the military blundering and the massive waste of human lives due to arrogant, careless, and incompetent planning was confined to the German side. The British secretary of state for war over the first two years, Lord Herbert Kitchener, was not up to the task of providing effective military leadership. He was uncertain about Britain’s role in the war, and he was perplexed by the trench warfare that had developed on the Western Front after the battle of the Marne. ‘I don’t know what is to be done’ he is often quoted as remarking, ‘this isn’t war’.15Nor were the British army commanders much more competent. An Australian officer summed it up when he observed that the training manuals of the British army were as much use for the conduct of war as were the ‘cuneiform inscriptions of a Babylonian brick’.16 In a war that soon depended on engineers and artillery officers, the British army was dominated by horse soldiers: five of the nine army commanders were cavalrymen. In particular, General Sir Douglas Haig, who together with Sir William Robertson had taken command of Britain’s war effort by the beginning of 1916, continued against all advice (and all evidence) to maintain that the cavalry had a vital role to play in modern warfare.

The Entente’s blunders began in the spring of 1915 with the decision to attack the Turkish empire (which had entered the war on the Central Powers’ side on 29 October 1914) at the Dardanelles. With the war in Western Europe at a stalemate, a group of ministers — including David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer; Sir Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty; and Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the War Council — had started to argue that a successful Dardanelles attack would bring decisive advantages to the Entente. The opening of the Dardanelles Straits and subsequent capture of the Turkish capital Constantinople would enable shipping to assist the Russian war effort, Serbia might be saved, and the Balkan countries might be mobilised against the Habsburg empire’s southern flank. Without any scrutiny as to the military and strategic feasibility of the plan, a naval onslaught was launched in mid-March 1915.

When this was easily rebuffed by the Turks, it was decided to launch an amphibious landing of British, Indian, French, Australian, and New Zealand divisions — amounting initially to 75,000 soldiers — at the Gallipoli peninsula. The commander-in-chief of this operation, British General Sir Ian Hamilton, had little knowledge of the peninsula’s geography, which, marked by a continuous succession of steep hills along the entire coast, was a defender’s dream. Virtually all beaches were exposed to fire from surrounding cliffs and hills that provided ideal cover for the Turks to inflict heavy casualties upon the invaders.

The difficulty had become obvious by the first day of the campaign, on 25 April 1915, when Australian and New Zealand forces landed at a small beach near Gaba Tepe in the north of the peninsula. They managed to dig in and establish trenches at a number of beachheads over the next weeks, but it was soon apparent that attempts to break through the well-fortified Turkish lines were bound to fail. The attempt to invade the Ottoman empire from the Dardanelles was a waste of men and money. Ships needed to carry war supplies to Russia were not available, Serbia had already been defeated by Austria-Hungary and, with the exception of Romania, no Balkan country showed any inclination to join the Entente powers. Even so, the Gallipoli campaign was prosecuted until January 1916, leaving 200,000 casualties on both sides.

The campaign was the only major victory for the Turks in the 1914–18 war, and is regarded as a defining moment in the nation’s struggle to transform itself from Ottoman empire to Turkish Republic. The date of the first landing at Gallipoli became one of major importance to Australia and New Zealand. Anzac Day, as it was soon named, was to stand as a national symbol, not only for the commemoration of the fallen and the veterans in these two countries but also as one important step towards the birth of a national consciousness — a move away from rule by Britannia.

But in terms of military casualties, the battle for the Dardanelles ranks among the also-rans. Leading these sad statistics is the battle of Gorlice-Tarnow in Galicia in May 1915, where Russian troops had managed to invade the Polish part of the Habsburg empire. The army command of the latter was forced to ask for German assistance, and the ensuing offensive saw the Central Powers’ largest victory. The Russian front collapsed under the enormous losses: 743,000 casualties, and 895,000 soldiers taken prisoner.

Frustrated by the continuous failure to break through Allied lines in the west, the German army leadership decided to attack the French fortress of Verdun in late February 1916. The declared purpose of this enterprise was to bleed the French forces to death. Relentless fighting raged for five months, with every metre of ground fought for. The French withstood all attacks, and the OHL had to call off the battle in July. French casualties amounted to 317,000 soldiers; German casualties, to 280,000. For the Germans, Verdun became a symbol of senseless slaughter, undermining the nation’s fighting spirit.

In the second half of June 1916, the British and French launched an attack on the Somme. For one week, their artillery pounded each square metre of the German positions with a ton of shells. Then the infantry divisions attacked and pushed back the 50 kilometre-long German front line by two kilometres. The cost of this meagre gain amounted to 400,000 dead and injured for Britain, and 200,000 for France. The German defenders lost 400,000 soldiers. When the campaign was called off by the Allies in November, the battle of the Somme had consumed over one million lives.

Notwithstanding their defeat in Galicia the year before, the Brusilow Offensive, launched in June 1916, brought tsarist Russia’s largest success. Austria-Hungary’s losses amounted to 250,000 casualties, while 370,000 of their soldiers were either taken prisoner or deserted. The disaster of the Brusilow Offensive greatly strengthened the position of the forces working towards the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and marked the beginning of the end for the Habsburg monarchy, which for nearly half a millennium had provided stability in Europe’s most unstable region.

Although time should have been on the side of the Allies because of their superior resources in manpower and ammunition, poor military planning meant that by the beginning of spring 1917, the Entente powers were in strife. Failure to achieve success on the battlefield was matched by dire economic conditions.

A great deal of hope now rested on the United States entering the war. There was widespread support in leading U.S. political and military circles to go to the aid of the Allies, but one person steadily resisted all efforts to abandon American neutrality. Unfortunately for the Allies, that person was the only one who could make the decision: the U.S. president, Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson

This man, on whom so many hopes and expectations rested, and on whom so much responsibility was to fall, was born on 28 December 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, the son of Presbyterian Minister Joseph Ruggles Wilson and his wife, Jessie Janet. During the Civil War, his father was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia. Woodrow graduated from Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School, gaining his doctorate at John Hopkins University. Thereafter he pursued an academic career, becoming professor of political science at Princeton, where in 1902 he was appointed as the University’s president. In 1910, he was persuaded by the Democrats to contest the governorship of New Jersey, which he did successfully.

In 1912, he was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Democrats, scored a convincing victory in the election, and introduced a number of economic and social reforms in his first term of office. A person of firm moral convictions, a staunch believer in American principles of freedom and democracy, Wilson held deeply religious beliefs. Gossip had it that his greatest regret was that there had been room for only one on the Cross. These elements combined in the foreign policies Wilson formulated and pursued following the outbreak of the European war in 1914. If disorder and usurpation of rights provoked war, then ordered relationships and obligations fostered a moral sense of community among nations; if Christianity brought about the brotherhood of men, then there should also be brotherhood among nations; if the weight of popular opinion and institutions of free debate and representation were allowed to prevail, then human progress would triumph over autocratic destructiveness and repression. The establishment of a community of free nations with free citizens at the end of the war was to become Wilson’s great goal.

In January 1915, Wilson sent his closest confidant, Edward Mandel House, commonly referred to as Colonel House, to London in a six-month attempt to persuade the French and British governments to accept U.S. mediation. Colonel House was not successful, but he developed sympathies for the cause of the Entente during that time, almost costing him his influential position in the president’s team. On a second mission to Europe in January 1916, he brokered with the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, what virtually amounted to an ultimatum to Germany: submit to American mediation, or face U.S. military intervention. This went far beyond anything the president wanted, and House was spared a breach with Wilson only because the British government itself disavowed what became known as the ‘House-Grey Memorandum’.

In May 1916, the president for the first time outlined officially a scheme for the creation of a League of Nations in a speech given to the United States ‘League to Enforce Peace’. Such an organisation was to be based on a model of collective security aimed at preventing a future renewal of war. His suggestion failed to make an impact anywhere, but this did little to dissuade the president from embarking on more serious efforts to stop the slaughter.

On 19 December 1916, the belligerents, in a so-called ‘Appeal for Peace’, received a note from president Wilson setting out the terms upon which war might be concluded. Wilson presumably felt that once they had committed themselves to moderate terms, negotiations could begin. The note stressed that he was not offering to mediate, and he certainly wanted to maintain an impartial position. In Wilson’s opinion, the objectives of both sides as stated by their leaders seemed virtually identical: to secure the rights and privileges of weak peoples and small states, and to put in place a lasting peace and security against aggression or selfish interference. In claiming that the objectives of both sides were virtually the same, the president obviously hoped that the peace terms put forward by the warring nations would not be excessive.

The president’s move was as ill-timed as it was ill-conceived. Wilson’s assumption about each side’s objectives aroused London, Paris, and Petrograd, and in all three places his action was received with anger and consternation. The note had been sent out only one week after German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had offered a peace note on behalf of the Central Powers, and consequently the Allies suspected the U.S.A. of acting in co-operation with Germany. The French ambassador in Washington expressed Allied vexation at a meeting with U.S. secretary of state Robert Lansing. Lloyd George called the American note an insult, and the Foreign Office tried its best to calm an angry press.

Nevertheless, the Allies had to step carefully. The British war effort depended greatly on American supplies. The country still had enough general resources for a further six months, but any cut-off of American nitro-cellulose after June 1917 might have been catastrophic. The Food Controller estimated that Britain depended upon America for 40 per cent of its flour supplies. The director of army contracts admitted that there was no alternative source for the supply of lubricating oil, without which Britain’s war machinery could not keep running. He also indicated that Britain’s war effort was almost as dependent on the U.S. for petrol. Beyond these essentials, there was a large range of important commodities that it would be difficult to obtain outside America in sufficient quantities.17 Finally, the Allies’ war effort was heavily dependent on U.S. loans.

The German peace proposal was easily dealt with. It had been drafted a few days after the psychologically important capture of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, on 6 December 1916. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had insisted on the boastful tone; but, as far as its content was concerned, the proposal amounted to little more than empty rhetoric. In a conglomeration of commonplace and non-committal phrases, the Central Powers announced a ‘candid and loyal endeavour to enter into discussion’. They proclaimed their ‘love of peace’, and asked the Entente to disclose its terms — although they failed to state any terms themselves. The peace note lacked sincerity, and constituted a diversionary manoeuvre; it had probably been intended mainly for domestic consumption. There might also have been hopes that the move would favourably influence world opinion, particularly among the neutrals.

It was on the basis of the absence of any terms that the Allies dismissed the German proposal. Lloyd George gave the official rejection in a House of Commons speech on 19 December. He stated that Britain would not negotiate without hearing Germany’s terms, that Germany was dangerous and could not be trusted, and that any terms would have to be more unfavourable to Germany than the status quo ante bellum.

To deal with Wilson’s note, however, was not so easy. Although the Allies must have been tempted to return a negative reply because they felt angry and insulted, it would have been dangerous to offend Wilson and endanger neutral opinion. After much discussion, they finally agreed on a mutual response, which they handed to the American ambassador in Paris on 10 January 1917. They recognised the plight of neutrals, for which the Allies were not to blame, having in no way provoked the war, and they stressed that Allied governments were trying to minimise neutral losses to the extent their defence against the enemy allowed. Then followed an expression of satisfaction that the president’s note was not associated with that of the Central Powers. Again the Allies protested at Wilson’s implication that the aims of the belligerents were the same.

Listing the many misdemeanours committed by the Central Powers, the Allies stated their terms. There was to be restoration and reparation for Belgium, Serbia, and Montenegro. France, Russia, and Romania were to be evacuated, with reparations. Moreover there was to be liberation of the Italians and Slavs, and the creation of a free and united Poland. The terms ended with the declaration that the Allies did not seek the ‘extermination or political extinction of German peoples’,18 but that they were determined to seek victory to ensure a safe and prosperous future for civilisation in the post-war era.

To the Entente, the president’s note had clearly shown how little the American public was aware of the nature of the war, its causes, and its likely consequences. Hence the British government decided to give the Allies’ reply plenty of publicity: there was to be widespread publication not only in the principal cities of the United States, but also in the provincial press, including the Sunday and local ‘boilerplate’ newspapers, resulting (it was hoped) in greater understanding by the American public. The British government was able to use Wilson’s ‘peace note’ for effective propaganda against peace without victory, and the president’s initiative had to be ranked a flop. The German government replied evasively, still refraining from stating any terms, and there were no signs that the OHL would accept a return to the status quo ante bellum. Under these circumstances, to threaten the Allies with cutting off supplies was unwise, as his advisers told Wilson.

Yet the president’s peace efforts were not to be derailed so easily. On 22 January, he gave his famous ‘Peace without Victory’ speech to the U.S. Senate, largely a repeat of his note of 19 December. Before the Allied governments could recover from a wave of consternation and frustration caused by this renewed mediation attempt, they received vital and decisive assistance from the enemy’s military leadership. On 1 February, chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, at the demand of the OHL, announced the recommencement of unlimited submarine warfare. It was the first of two acts of great folly. On 3 February, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.


If the United Kingdom was facing a host of difficulties by the beginning of 1917, Germany’s situation was worse. Admittedly, they had had the better of it on the battlefield in the preceding year. They had gained control of the Balkans, pushed the tsarist forces back on the eastern front, and had withstood Allied attempts to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front. On the other hand, their own attempts to gain the upper hand in the west had failed as miserably as had those of the Allies, and the British blockade was having an ever more serious impact.

Particularly hard hit was the food supply. German agriculture was not prepared to withstand the effects of prolonged warfare. In pre-war years meat, wheat, poultry, eggs, fish, and various vegetables had to be bought on a large scale from abroad, predominantly from nations that had now been cut off by the blockade. This was also the case with concentrated fodder and artificial manures, especially Chilean saltpetre and raw phosphates. German agriculture was also severely handicapped by the lack of labour. Rural districts had lost as much as 40 per cent of their population through call-up, a loss that could not be compensated for by the labour of women or prisoners of war. The civilian population had also suffered from the priority given the military in food distribution. Partial failure of the potato crop led to the notorious ‘turnip winter’ of 1916–17, when the weekly potato ration declined to 500 grams, supplemented by 1 kilograms of turnip. Meat had fallen to 400 grams, and butter was replaced by margarine.

Other problems were caused by the lack of raw materials. Thus civilians faced a severe shortage of heating, clothing, fuel, and hygiene products, and in its wake came physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and lack of concentration caused by undernourishment. As all industries associated with war production had to rely on a large intake of unskilled women and juveniles, the rate of accidents caused by negligence and inexperience soared, rising by ten times between 1914 and 1917. The number of strikes was increasing. In addition, all the forced measures introduced to overcome the shortage of labour failed. Neither the Auxiliary Service Law, nor the employment of POWs, nor the forced recruitment of labour in occupied countries could prevent the German war effort from running out of manpower by the beginning of 1917. If the war was to be won it had to be soon, and this meant the British blockade had to be broken — by hook or by crook.

The resumption of unlimited submarine warfare was almost certain to bring the United States into the war — a disastrous prospect, as a number of military and political leaders (including the chancellor) warned. But the proponents of renewed total submarine aggression won the day. They argued — correctly — that it would take the best part of a year before the U.S. would be able to put sufficient troops into the field; by then, they said, Britain would have been brought to its knees. They also doubted — incorrectly — that American soldiers would make a significant military contribution.19 Initially, all seemed to go well for the OHL. Although Wilson had indeed broken off diplomatic relations with the German empire on 3 February, and although the recommencement of unlimited submarine warfare had put an end to Wilson’s rhetoric about peace without victory, as yet there had been no American declaration of war.

A month later, the March Revolution of 1917 disposed of the tsar. Although the Russians remained in the war, the chief force that drove the uprising — the extreme war-weariness of both soldiers and civilian population — was not eased. The German war leaders were already designing schemes aimed at finishing off the Russian empire.20

In the submarine war, German U-boats were inflicting massive damage: 840,000 tons of Allied shipping were sunk in April 1917 alone. A continuation of such losses might indeed have forced the Allies to sue for peace. This did not eventuate, because the German leadership obliged with a second disastrous decision.

On 17 January 1917, in Whitehall’s Room 40 — the most secret chamber of the British Secret Service — two cryptographers, the Reverend William Montgomery and Nigel de Grey, a young publisher the service had borrowed from William Heinemann — were routinely working through intercepted telegrams when Grey noticed an unusually long message comprising more than a thousand row of numerals. Because Britain already knew how to decipher German diplomatic codes, the pair realised, after hours of painstaking work, that they were looking at telegrams sent by the state secretary of the German foreign office, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador in Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorf.

In what could easily have been a routine message, the decoders were struck by the word ‘Mexico’ and later by the word ‘alliance’. They worked out that the message fell into two parts. The first announced that German submarine warfare was to recommence on 1 February, a decision the Allies had long been expecting (and dreading). The second, which was to be passed on to the resident minister for the German empire in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, was much harder to understand. They made out words proposing an alliance, joint conduct of war, and joint conclusion of peace, but it was only after days of work that they understood the full implications of the telegram: Germany was promising to assist Mexico ‘to regain by conquest her lost territories in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico’.21

The cryptographers were aware of the great importance of their discovery: here at last was the instrument to puncture U.S. neutrality. They informed their superior, the director of naval intelligence, Admiral Sir William Reginald Hall, who also realised the complexity of the problem. How could the Zimmermann telegram be revealed to the Americans, and above all to president Wilson, without revealing how it had been obtained? The U.S. would not believe it to be genuine if it came from a British source, but Hall was fearful about the risk of disclosure. If the Germans realised that British security had cracked their code, the British advantage would be ended.

Admiral Hall waited until 1 February, the date the Germans proposed for the recommencement of unrestricted submarine warfare. He had assumed, like almost everyone else in the United States and among the Allies, that such resumption would inevitably mean the U.S. declaration of war against Germany. Alas, having broken off diplomatic relations with Germany, president Wilson gave no hint that he intended to go further. Hall decided to act. On 5 February, he informed the secretary of state for foreign affairs, Arthur Balfour, of the telegram. By now he had also worked out how to make the telegram’s existence public without revealing that the British had deciphered the German code. What was needed was to obtain a copy of the telegram that had been sent by von Bernstorf to Mexico. The von Bernstorf telegram would have small but vital differences in date, address, and signature from the original. This copy, when published, would lead the Germans to believe that the interception had been accomplished somewhere on the American continent. Convinced of the inviolability of their code, they would assume that an already decoded copy of the telegram had been stolen or leaked after reaching Mexico, and that there must have been spies or betrayers in Washington or in Mexico. Hall proved right in all of his assumptions.

It was several days before the British contact in the Mexican Telegraph Office managed to secure the desired copy. When obtained, it was found to differ in the essential points that Hall had hoped for. It took a further fortnight to complete the decryption of the Zimmermann telegram. Balfour and Hall decided that the admiral should reveal the telegram to Mr. Edward Bell, the U.S. chief intelligence officer, on 22 February. Bell’s reaction was the same as that of many Americans who subsequently saw the telegram — it was a fraud. How could anyone in his right mind plan to dispossess the United States of a huge part of its territory? However, after Hall had convinced Bell of the authenticity of the document, his doubts were settled, and he assured Hall that publication of the telegram would certainly mean war. At 1.00 p.m. on 24 February, Balfour formally sent the full text of the telegram to Walter Hines Page, American ambassador to the United Kingdom, who forwarded it to the White House, along with a note explaining how the document had been obtained.22

Realising he had been deceived by the Germans, the president was outraged, as was the majority of the American public when the text was passed to the media on 28 February. At the same time, both Houses in Washington were considering the so-called ‘Armed Ship Bill’ — a bill to equip merchant ships with navy gunners who were empowered to shoot on sight. The bill was widely seen as a last warning to Germany that U.S. entry into the war was imminent if submarine warfare were resumed, and it had thus met hefty opposition from pro-German and pacifist organisations. The House of Representatives was so outraged by the newspaper reports about German perfidy that it passed the bill virtually unanimously. Not so the Senate, where a small but vociferous section of pro-German senators and a group of equally vociferous pacifist members questioned the authenticity of the telegram and demanded convincing evidence that the document was not a hoax.

This meant that state secretary Robert Lansing, who was officially in charge of handling the affair, faced the difficulty that had earlier hampered Page and Hall — how to make it public enough to convince, but not so much as to give away the source. The attack upon the genuineness of the telegram gathered momentum inside and outside the Senate over the next 24 hours, and the State Department was expecting that the situation would be further complicated should Zimmermann deny sending it. To the stunned amazement of all involved, however, the problem was solved the next day when the German foreign secretary, for reasons known only to himself, admitted sending the telegram. This effectively ended pro-Germanism in the United States, although the Senate still refused to pass the Armed Ship Bill. On 9 March, using his executive authority, Wilson gave the order to arm the ships anyway. On 18 March, three American vessels were sunk without warning by German submarines. Two days later, Wilson reconvened Congress for 2 April to hear a matter of grave national importance. On 6 April, the United States entered the war. On that day, Zimmermann was dismissed.

As Hindenburg and Ludendorff had correctly predicted, U.S. entry into the war was not followed by the speedy arrival of large numbers of American troops, but it did give the Allies an immediate boost in morale, and it meant that there was no longer a threat that the president would cut off supply or loans. By May 1917, the British had also found ways to blunt the German submarine attacks. The re-introduction of the convoy system — a group of merchant or troopships travelling together with a naval escort — had immediate results. Convoys had been widely used in the age of sailing vessels, but had been discarded in the age of steam. Now, aircraft helped to make the new convoy system particularly effective: from June 1917 until the end of the war, only 138 of 16,539 vessels convoyed across the Atlantic were sunk, 36 of these because they were stragglers.23

Under these circumstances, and in the light of the disastrous battles of 1916, the Allies’ best strategy would obviously have been to wait and see, avoiding further massive loss of human lives, as time was on their side. This time, however, the French army leadership felt sure that the German war effort in the west could be broken without too many losses. Robert George Nivelle, head of the French military since December 1916, designed an attempt to break through German defences on the River Aisne in the spring of 1917. The British leadership initially held great reservations about Nivelle’s plan, but as the bulk of the attack was to be carried out by French forces, they consented. Nivelle launched his offensive in mid-April. Within a month, the French had suffered such heavy losses that parts of the French armies began to mutiny, and his campaign collapsed. In the end, it was not the German but the French war effort that had been brought to the brink of collapse.

By now, one might have expected even the thickest of army commanders to have realised that trench warfare created serious disadvantages for attacking forces seeking to overcome entrenched defending troops — but not so the commander-in-chief of the British army, Sir Douglas Haig. Haig ordered a renewed attempted to break the German lines in Flanders in August 1917, against considerable opposition — in particular from Lloyd George, who had replaced Herbert Henry Asquith as prime minister in December 1916 (and who regarded Field Marshal Haig as ‘dull witted’).24 The ill-fated enterprise, which reached its nadir in the bloodbath at Passchendaele in November 1917, left the U.K.’s war effort, as the year drew to its close, once more in a dire position. The French were still licking their wounds after the failure of the Nivelle offensive, and the Italians had been repeatedly mauled in their unsuccessful and costly attempts to invade Austria. Then came the news from St. Petersburg that Russia was pulling out of the war.

The March Revolution had sent a clear message that the Russian war effort was not likely to survive much longer. The provisional government tried its best to avoid the collapse, but opposition to the war was increasing by the day. The most outspoken radicals in the anti-war movements were the Bolsheviks, but virtually all of their leaders were in exile, mainly in Switzerland. If the exiles, particularly their chief theoretician, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, could be brought back to Russia, they would surely hasten the process of disintegration. With the aid of the Social Democrats, the German government struck a deal: on 9 April 1917, Lenin and all of the Bolshevik exiles in Switzerland were put onto a sealed train at Zurich and carried through Germany to the Baltic port of Sassnitz, where they boarded a ship to Sweden. From there they made their way by train to Petrograd’s Finland Station, where they arrived at midnight on 16 April. They were greeted by crowds of workers, sailors, and soldiers singing ‘La Marseillaise’ and waving red flags. Lenin gave a short speech heavily criticising the Petrograd Soviet, which he described as a stinking corpse. He demanded that the Petrograd government and capitalism be overthrown, that Russia withdraw from the war, and that all lands be given to the peasants; in short: peace, bread, land — all power to the Soviets. It took the Bolsheviks all of six months to take government in the October Revolution of 1917. They immediately withdrew from the war.

The showdown

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.25

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’.26 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.27 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’.28 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.29

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.

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