22/6/1919 Germany struggles with the Allied peace terms

The Allies have issued an ultimatum to the Germans: accept the proposed peace terms by tomorrow or face the renewal of war. This has caused a convulsion in the German body politic, where the terms are seen as dishonourable (in particular the requirement that Germany accept responsibility for starting the war) and harsh (notably the reparations that will have to be paid to the Allies). Groener, the army’s quartermaster general, has warned that renewal of the war would be a disaster and that Germany’s total defeat would be inevitable, but Hindenburg, the chief of staff, states that he would prefer “honourable defeat to a disgraceful peace”. Right-wingers and elements within the army’s officer corps support Hindenburg, some even fantasising that it might be possible to prevail over an Allied invasion. Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German foreign minister, meanwhile believes that if Germany stands firm then the Allies’ unity will break and they will be forced to moderate the their terms.

Erzberger is the main advocate for accepting the Allies’ terms. He was the head of the delegation that signed the armistice in November and since then has been Germany’s representative on the commission overseeing the armistice’s operations. Erzberger accepts that the proposed terms are invidious, but he argues that if they are accepted then Germany will be able to put the war behind it and start rebuilding its economy. If the terms are rejected then Germany faces ruin and will end up either being partitioned or succumbing to Bolshevik revolution.

The government is split. President Ebert himself comes close to resigning but is persuaded that duty requires him to stay in place and accept responsibility for the grave decision that must be made. His government falls but today he manages to put a new cabinet together (without Brockdorff-Rantzau). The national assembly authorises him to accept the Allied terms, but with the proviso that Germany rejects responsibility for starting the war. But the Allies are firm. Germany must accept the peace terms by tomorrow, in full and without reservation. If they fail to do so then the war will begin again.

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Matthias Erzberger (Wikipedia)

14/5/1919 Germany mulls the Allies’ unsavoury peace terms

The Allies have presented their peace terms to the German delegation at Versailles. They have in turn communicated the terms back to their government in Berlin, where their perceived harshness causes consternation. The loss of territory, the crippling reparations and the identifying of Germany as being responsible for starting the war all being very upsetting. True, the peace terms are much less harsh than those the Germans imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk or Romania at the Treaty of Bucharest. However, those treaties were the diktats of authoritarian Germany; since then Germany has undergone a democratic transformation and its leaders had believed President Wilson‘s promises that the peace would be guided by his liberal principles, only now apparently to have their faith shattered.

Scheidemann, Germany’s Chancellor, denounces the peace terms. There is talk of rejecting them, but doing so would mean having to restart the war. The German army was on the brink of collapse when the armistice was signed in November 1918 and its situation is worse now, after its demobilisation and the transfer of heavy equipment required by the armistice. But some think nevertheless that honour requires that Germany reject the peace and launch a desperate battle for national survival.

Brockdorff-Rantzau, the foreign minister, is one of the leading proponents of rejection, even if it means that Germany will be invaded. The advocates of resistance believe that they will be able to hold out in eastern Germany even if the west of the country comes under foreign occupation. It falls to Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to dismiss such fantasies. He makes clear to Ebert and Scheidemann that the German army would be unable to mount effective resistance to the Allies. Any attempt to renew the war would lead to Germany’s occupation, dismemberment, and ultimately “the total capitulation of the German people”. The Germans may not like the peace terms, but they will have to go along with them.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia: Ebert–Groener pact)

18/3/1919 Disputes over the Rhineland and Germany’s fleet

Allied leaders in Paris have now broadly agreed the military terms that will be imposed on Germany. To prevent its future aggression, Germany will be allowed to maintain only a small army. British preferences for this to be an army of long-serving volunteers rather than short-term conscripts have carried the day. The army will have no heavy equipment and should be able only to assist with the maintenance of internal order. The Germans will be obliged not to allow veterans’ clubs or other private associations turn into surrogate military organisations. They are also required to dismantle all fortifications on both banks of the Rhine.

The future of the German navy meanwhile has led to serious disagreements among the Allies. They are broadly agreed that Germany will no longer be allowed to maintain an ocean-going fleet, but there is still the vexed question of what to do with the German ships currently interned at Scapa Flow. The French and Italians have called for these ships to be divided out among the Allies, but the British fear that doing so will undermine their own naval dominance. Lloyd George has proposed the ceremonial sinking in the Atlantic of the German fleet, but Wilson sees this as wasteful. Mistrust on naval matters is building between the British and Americans, with the British afraid that the United States is about to embark on a naval building programme that will hand control of the world’s seas to it.

Another area of tension remains the Rhineland. France has sought the permanent occupation or separation from Germany of this region, but Britain and the United States have instead offered security guarantees to the French against aggression from a resurgent Germany. Now Clemenceau replies to the Anglo-American offer. He accepts that the Allies will not permanently occupy the Rhineland but demands a temporary occupation of at least five years. Furthermore, he requires that afterwards the Rhineland be permanently demilitarised.

Clemenceau’s response irks his allies. Balfour, the British foreign minister, fears that the French are making a terrible mistake, concentrating on weakening Germany instead of reforming the international order to make future wars less likely. But for now Clemenceau is insistent.

14/3/1919 Keeping Germany weak and France strong

President Wilson is now back in Paris after his brief trip back home, so the conference can once more engage with its more difficult problems, chief among which is how to prevent Germany threatening European peace in the future. To the French, this particularly means their protection from a revived Germany. Foch has argued that Germany should effectively be permanently demilitarised, allowed to maintain only a tiny army of conscripts with no tanks, aircraft or general staff. The British however think it better that Germany instead maintain a small army of longer-serving volunteers. Their argument is that even a small conscript army would mean that Germany would over time have a considerable body of trained men available for war; Foch however fears that a professional force could provide the nucleus around which the German army could be greatly expanded.

The French are also seeking to reduce Germany in size. Unlike the British, they look favourably on the more grandiose claims Poland is advancing on German territory. They also support neutral Denmark’s claims to ownership of Schleswig-Holstein, absorbed into Germany in the last century. And Foch is arguing that the Rhineland (German territories on the west bank of the Rhine) should be either permanently occupied by the Allies or even detached from Germany and turned into a French client state.

Wilson and Lloyd George are particularly wary of French plans regarding the Rhineland. Wilson fears that a permanent occupation there will make the peace treaty harder to sell domestically. They reckon that plans to turn the Rhineland into a buffer state are doomed to failure, given the Rhinelanders’ signal lack of interest in independence from Germany. They also fear that detaching the Rhineland will simply create another Alsace-Lorraine, poisoning relations between France and Germany and laying the seeds for future conflict. So now they make an alternative proposal to Clemenceau. Instead of a Rhineland occupation, they offer France security guarantees, promising that Britain and the United States will come to its aid in the event of a German attack. The proposal intrigues Clemenceau, who is recovering well after the recent attempt on his life. He retreats to consider the matter with his closest advisors.

24/12/1918 Berlin’s Christmas Eve Battle #1918Live

It is Christmas Eve. Across Europe people are preparing for the season of goodwill to all men. But not in Berlin, where rival groups of men are today trading gunshots.

The German revolution first stopped the German navy from launching a suicidal attack on the British fleet, before overthrowing the Kaiser and hastening the end of the war. Now Friedrich Ebert leads a coalition government of his own Social Democrats (the SPD) and the slightly more radical Independent Social Democrats (the USPD). Preparations are underway for fully democratic elections to be held early next year.

No one really knows whether the German revolution is now essentially over, with the future being one of gradual reforms improving the lives of the SPD’s working class supporters, or if this is just a transitional phase akin to the rule of Kerensky‘s Provisional Government in Russia. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League hope that Ebert’s government will soon be replaced by a government based on workers’ councils, as supposedly is the case in Soviet Russia. Ebert meanwhile fears that any sign of unrest has been whipped up the Spartacists as a prelude to a coup attempt by them.

The Volksmarinedivision (People’s Navy Division) is a unit of revolutionary marines that were stationed in Berlin in the early days of the revolution, currently billeted in the former royal palace. Now a dispute has arisen between them and the commander of the city garrison, Otto Wels. Wels held back the marines’ pay; in return they have now mutinied, abducting him and roughing him up.

Ebert fears that the marines are preparing to spearhead a Spartacist putsch. He may also be coming under pressure from Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to do something about the unruly marines. So he orders regular troops to attack the palace and suppress the marines.

The assault on the palace begins with an artillery bombardment and then a fire fight erupts between the two sides. However the attack turns into something of a fiasco. The marines easily repel the army’s assault. They find themselves being assisted by armed civilians and members of the police force. There are even reports of soldiers switching sides and joining the Volksmarinedivision.

At the end of the day Ebert’s attempt to crush the marines has proved an embarrassing failure. His coalition partners in the USPD meanwhile are furious, as he launched the attack without consulting them. But the Volksmarinedivision makes no move to overthrow Ebert’s government; perhaps they are not actually in league with the Spartacists after all?

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Soldiers of the People’s Navy Division (LeMo – Lebendiges Museum Online: Die Weihnachtskämpfe 1918)

Members of the Volksmarinedivision defending the Neptune Fountain (Wikipedia: Skirmish of the Berlin Schloss)

16/12/1918 German troops evacuate Finland; Friedrich Karl of Hesse renounces the Finnish throne #1918Live

Earlier this year, with the support of German troops, Finnish conservatives defeated socialist revolutionaries in a short and brutal civil war. Since then the country appeared to falling ever closer into the German orbit, with German troops remaining in the country and a treaty signed binding Finland to Germany. The Finnish government even went so far as to invite Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse, the Kaiser‘s brother in law, to become their king.

Germany’s defeat has sundered its link with Finland. The armistice obliged it to evacuate its troops from all occupied territories and today the last German troops leave Finland. With the Kaiser now overthrown and in exile in the Netherlands, his brother in law has become less appealing as a ruler. Seeing the way the wind is blowing, Friedrich Karl renounces his throne, without ever setting foot in his Finnish kingdom. In Finland Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the victorious commander in the civil war, is appointed as regent while the country’s leaders ponder whether to formally establish a republic.

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Karl Friedrich of Hesse (Almanach de Saxe Gotha: Kingdom of Finland)

Carl Gustav Mannerheim (Wikipedia: Finnish Civil War)

10/12/1919 Ebert hails the undefeated German army #1918Live

As per the terms of the armistice, German forces have now withdrawn from all the French and Belgian territory they occupied at the start of the war; Luxembourg‘s independence has also been restored. Now Allied forces are moving into western Germany, occupying the Rhineland and preparing to establish bridgeheads across the river.

In Berlin meanwhile German troops evacuated from the Western Front today march through the city. The event almost has the characteristics of a victory parade, with Chancellor Ebert greeting the returning soldiers with the words “No enemy has vanquished you! You return undefeated from the field of battle.”

Any German soldier who has fought this year on the Western Front knows that the German army has been defeated by the Allies, who first contained Ludendorff‘s spring offensives and then broke the Germans’ ability to resist in the hundred days of offensives that preceded the armistice. Ebert knows this too, but he has his reasons for indulging the army’s pride. He fears that the fragile new republic is under threat from leftist extremists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and from reactionary elements who want to establish a conservative dictatorship. If flattery is the price of the army’s support for his government, then so be it.

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Rhineland occupation zone map (Big Think: The Free State of Bottleneck, a Bizarre By-product of Allied Occupation)

Ebert waves his hat (deutschland.de, how Germany ticks – Germany’s greatest revolution: Why the German November Revolution has often been underestimated)