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)

11/11/1918 The armistice is signed #1918Live

In Compiègne Forest German and Allied negotiators have been trying to conclude an armistice that will end fighting on the Western Front. The Germans have been shocked by the severity of the terms the Allies are offering. Yesterday though Erzberger, the lead German negotiator, was directed by Ebert, Germany’s new Chancellor, to sign whatever terms he can get. Revolution is now spreading through Germany and the army is disintegrating; if the war continues then chaos and anarchy will be the result.

Ebert’s authorisation led to an intense burst of negotiations. Finally just after 5.00 am today the two sides reach an agreement. The Germans were unable to persuade the Allies to significantly improve their terms, though they did win some concessions. Foch and the Allied negotiators now accept that Germany will not have to surrender more U-boats than it actually possesses. They allow the German army to retain a very small amount of its military capacity in order to combat internal disorder. The Germans also win a slightly longer window in which to evacuate their troops from occupied territory.

Fundamentally though the armistice terms are dictated to the Germans by the Allies and are designed to prevent any resumption of hostilities by them. The German army is to surrender almost the entirety of its artillery pieces, mortars and machine guns, as well as huge numbers of trucks, locomotives and train carriages. The Germans have 15 days to withdraw from Belgium, Luxembourg and France (including Alsace-Lorraine) and must then withdraw their forces 40 kilometres east of the Rhine. The Allies will occupy the west bank of the Rhine and bridgeheads across it, with the right to seize any property they need from the local population. Germany’s navy will completely disappear, its warships and U-boats sailing to Allied ports for internment, pending a final decision on their fate.
The armistice nullifies the unequal treaties Germany signed with Russia and Romania earlier this year. German troops are also to be withdrawn from all the territories it has been occupying in the east. And Lettow-Vorbeck‘s army in Africa is to surrender. All prisoners of war held by the Germans are to be repatriated.

The Germans had hoped that the armistice would mean the end of the blockade of their ports, but this is not to be. The armistice states that the blockade will continue until a final peace settlement is agreed. For Erzberger this is a particularly egregious provision. He reads out a formal note of protest before signing the armistice, warning that the terms will unleash famine and anarchy in Germany. Yet his concluding words are defiant: “A nation of seventy million people suffers, but it does not die”.

Erzberger had wanted the armistice to take effect immediately but Foch insisted on a six hour gap. The fighting will end at 11.00 am. Messengers race off to tell frontline units that the war is ending. Foch meanwhile travels to Paris to present the armistice terms to Clemenceau. “My work is finished,” the generalissimo tells his Prime Minister. “Your work begins.”

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Painting of Erzberger protesting, by Maurice Pillard Verneuil, and the Allied armistice negotiators

9/11/1918 Erzberger remonstrates with Foch, in vain #1918Live

On the Western Front the Allied advance continues. The Germans are mostly retreating rather than fighting and the Allies are being slowed more by the booby traps and destruction the Germans have left behind than by German resistance. Nevertheless the recovery of Belgium continues, with Tournai and Ghent today liberated by British and Belgian troops respectively.

In the forest of Compiègne armistice negotiators are trying to bringing the war to an end. The German team is still reeling from the unexpected harshness of the terms presented by Foch yesterday. Now Erzberger, the lead negotiator, asks again for an immediate ceasefire so that the German army can be deployed home to prevent revolutionary chaos. Foch brushes him off once more: German disorder is a problem for Germany and there can be no ceasefire until all the terms are agreed. Erzberger for his part is still waiting for word from Berlin as to whether the terms can be accepted, so he is unable to agree the Allied terms. The war therefore will continue.

8/11/1918 Showdown at Compiègne: Foch presents the Allies’ armistice terms to the Germans #1918Live

Led by Erzberger of the Centre Party, the German armistice negotiators have crossed the lines and boarded a special train. Now after a long journey that seems calculated to show them the devastation their army has wreaked on France they arrive in a forest clearing where Foch, Weygand and the Allied negotiators are waiting for them. The armistice negotiations will take place in these woods near Compiègne.

Proceedings begin with Foch reading the terms the Allies have agreed. They require the Germans to surrender large quantities of military materiel and to completely evacuate France and Belgium. The German fleet and its U-boats will also have to sail for internment to Allied ports. And the Allies will occupy Germany up to Rhine, as well as bridgeheads across the river. The British navy’s blockade of Germany will not be lifted until a final peace settlement. The terms are clearly intended to make it impossible for the Germans to treat the armistice as an opportunity to rest and regroup before continuing the war.

Erzberger nevertheless asks for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, so that the German can be deployed at home to restore order in a country where revolution is on the march. But Foch rebuffs him; the war will continue until the armistice terms are agreed in full. One of the Germans leaves to bring the Allied terms back to army headquarters at Spa. Foch then leaves the German delegation to their deliberations.

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Different trains: the one on the left is Foch’s while the one on the right houses the German negotiators (Roads to the Great War: Armistice Glade at Compiègne)

7/11/1918 Germany’s armistice negotiators cross the lines #1918Live

Wilson‘s latest note told the Germans that Foch had been authorised to present armistice terms to a German delegation. The way is therefore clear for the war’s conclusion. Prince Max, the Chancellor, was initially wary of seeking an immediate ceasefire but his mind has been concentrated for him by the revolutionary chaos spreading in Germany. Groener meanwhile has warned that the army is on the brink of collapse. French and American troops have finally reached Sedan; without this vital rail hub the entire German position in France becomes untenable. The ability of the German army to continue resistance is ebbing away by the day.

Prince Max persuades Erzberger to head the armistice delegation. Erzberger is the leader of the Centre Party, which represents Catholic interests. He had previously called for an end to the war, so Prince Max hopes that the Allies will treat him more favourably.

Today under a white flag of truce Erzberger and his delegation cross the Allied lines. They are brought to a train that will transport them to meet Foch and his team.

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Matthias Erzberger (Wikipedia)

6/7/1917 The U-boat war denounced in the Reichstag #1917Live

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to bring the war to a swift end. Instead it has brought the USA into the war against Germany and shows no sign of starving Britain into submission. Now there is increasing disquiet and a sense that the U-boat campaign has been a terrible mistake. This disquiet has penetrated to the ranks of parliamentarians who had previously been supportive of the government. Speaking before the Reichstag’s Steering Committee, Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party today argues that the navy and the government sold the country a pup with the U-boat campaign, underestimating Britain’s resilience in the face of submarine warfare and peddling the false notion that the U-boats could force Britain out of the war in six months.

Erzberger’s U-boat scepticism is significant. His party, which represents Catholic interests, had backed the U-boat war on the strength of the navy’s assurances. With the Centre Party swinging against the U-boats the government of Bethmann Hollweg is now in trouble. To make matters worse, the Centre Party is now lending its support to those parties calling for a compromise peace to end the war.

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Matthias Erzberger (Spartacus International)