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)

26/10/1918 As Allied leaders discuss armistice terms, the Kaiser sacks Ludendorff

After discussing possible armistice terms with the Western Front commanders yesterday, Foch today reports to Clemenceau and Poincaré, France’s prime minister and president respectively. Foch follows the other generals by suggesting armistice terms that will effectively make it impossible for the Germans to return to war. If they refuse then the Allies should continue fighting until the Germans are obliged to surrender.

Meanwhile in Germany a rift has opened up between the Chancellor, Prince Max, who wants to continue negotiations towards an armistice, and Ludendorff, the army’s Quartermaster-General, who now favours an end to negotiations and military resistance to the outmost. In defiance of Prince Max, Ludendorff has had Hindenburg, the army’s commander, issue a proclamation condemning the armistice negotiations. Now Hindenburg and Ludendorff return to Berlin to meet the Kaiser, where they threaten to resign unless Prince Max is sacked and a more pliant Chancellor appointed; Max meanwhile has also threatened to resign unless Ludendorff is sacked.

By now Ludendorff’s star has fallen and the Kaiser is afraid his own star will fall with it. Instead of sacking Max, the Kaiser sacks Ludendorff, hoping that this will placate both President Wilson and the increasingly restive German people. Hindenburg’s offer of resignation is not accepted; the Kaiser needs him to continue leading Germany’s army in the nation’s hour of need. Ludendorff’s replacement meanwhile will be Groener, whose previous work directing the German war economy should make him more acceptable to the Social Democrats than any other general.

Ludendorff’s removal shocks many in the army, even those who were deeply critical of his leadership. But the way is now clear for Prince Max to pursue more substantive negotiations with Wilson.

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Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

24/10/1918 A developing rupture between Prince Max’s government and Ludendorff’s army #1918Live

In their last note to Wilson the Germans disputed his assertion that the retreating German army was laying waste to France and Belgium and denied that the U-boat campaign was a particularly beastly undertaking. They also asserted that political reforms in Germany mean that the German government is now effectively responsible to the Reichstag. As a concession the Germans nevertheless agreed to immediately recall the U-boats to port, in advance of a general armistice.

The Germans hoped that their concession would lead to Wilson’s agreeing to proceed immediately to substantive armistice negotiations. However the reply from Washington that arrives today is disturbing. Secretary of State Lansing writes on the President’s behalf that the United States is willing now to arrange with the other Allies for armistice talks to begin. However the note makes clear that the terms offered will be such as to make it impossible for the Germans to renege on the armistice and resume the war. Wilson still sees the Kaiser as the ultimate director of German policy and does not trust any guarantees made by the German government. He offers the prospect of real negotiations with a truly representative German government, but so long as real power remains with the Kaiser and the generals then the United States must demand “not peace negotiations, but surrender”.

To the Social Democrats in Prince Max‘s cabinet, the American note means that the Kaiser will have to be removed from office. The position of Hindenburg and Ludendorff is now also under question. Ludendorff has changed his mind on the armistice issue and now wants the army to fight to the bitter end.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff today depart Berlin for the army’s field headquarters in Spa. From they issue a proclamation to the army denouncing Wilson’s proposals and urging the continuance of resistance to the Allies. The two generals are now trying to continue the war in defiance of Germany’s government.

The text of Lansing’s note.

3/10/1918 Germany requests an armistice

Germany is preparing to request an armistice from the Allies. In order to spread responsibility for defeat in the war (and hopefully save the Kaiser), a new government is being formed, one that will have majority support in the Reichstag and include a broad range of parties, including the Social Democrats. Hertling, the outgoing Chancellor, is informed of his resignation over lunch with the Kaiser. His replacement is Prince Max, heir to throne of Baden. He seems like an ideal choice: a progressive who nevertheless sees the need for royals and aristocrats like himself to retain positions of influence.

Max proves more troublesome than expected. He is shocked when the true scale of the military disaster is revealed to him, so much so that he seriously considers declining the chancellorship, but a sense of duty obliges him to accept the post. He is also opposed to the idea of an immediate armistice request, thinking instead that time is needed to prepare the German public for the reality of defeat. But the Kaiser overrules him, insisting that if the army says an armistice in needed then one must be sought immediately.

Today Max is formally installed as Chancellor. He is still dragging his feet on the armistice and demands that the army must issue a statement saying that an immediate armistice is required. Hindenburg obliges, stating that any delay will lead to unnecessary loss of life. Late this evening Max gives in and despatches a formal note to President Wilson, requesting an immediate armistice on the basis of his Fourteen Points.

29/9/1918 Germany’s “Revolution from Above”

Germany’s position is unravelling. The Allies are pressing hard on the Western Front while its allies are being picked off: Bulgaria has thrown in the towel, Turkey is being battered in the Middle East and Austria-Hungary looks like it might be on the brink of disintegration. Ludendorff has come to the conclusion that an armistice must be secured at once before the situation deteriorates further. Now he and Hindenburg meet with Hintze, the foreign minister, and demand an immediate request to the Allies for an armistice.

Hintze however fears the political consequences of an armistice request. The German public have largely been shielded from the facts of the disastrous situation at the front and are still under the impression that victory is within Germany’s grasp. A sudden revelation of the true situation could lead to an explosion of anger against the regime. To prevent a domestic crisis, Hintze proposes that the German government be reformed by bringing in parties from across the political spectrum, in order to spread the responsibility for defeat. This “revolution from above” might just prevent a revolution from below.

Ludendorff and Hintze’s case is put to the Kaiser. He agrees to the government’s reformation and the subsequent request to Wilson for an armistice on the basis of his Fourteen Points. Then they all go for lunch.

28/9/1918 Ludendorff cracks and demands an immediate armistice

The Germans are being hard-pressed in the Argonne, in front of Cambrai and now in Flanders, with heavy artillery fire suggesting that an attack on the St. Quentin Canal and the Hindenburg Line itself is imminent. At the German army headquarters in Spa, Ludendorff is frantically trying to manage his army’s crisis. Some generals give broad instructions to their subordinates and leave them to proceed as they see fit, but not Ludendorff, who spends his time continuously telephoning his army commanders, looking for updates on their situation and issuing new orders. Delegation seems impossible to him and he has taken on himself the entire task of managing the resistance of the German army to the Allied juggernaut.

Today the effort proves too much for him. He is simply overwhelmed by reports of the collapse in Flanders. There are rumours, never confirmed, that he experiences some kind of mental breakdown, collapsing in his office and foaming at the mouth while suffering a seizure. That may be an exaggeration, but he appears nevertheless to have finally lost any belief that defeat can be avoided. He goes to Hindenburg, the army’s commander-in-chief, and says that a request for an armistice must be made immediately before the German army is destroyed and Germany consumed by revolution. He proposes a direct approach to Wilson, believing that better terms can be obtained from him than from Foch, the Allied Western Front commander.

Hindenburg agrees with Ludendorff. They will put the case for an armistice to the politicians and the Kaiser tomorrow.

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Hindenburg and Ludendorff in happier times (Wikipedia: Erich Ludendorff)

17/9/1918 US victory at St. Mihiel see the Germans shaken and Pershing disappointed at missed opportunities #1918Live

The Americans have successfully eliminated the St. Mihiel salient, capturing more than 8,000 German prisoners and some 400 artillery pieces. The defeat at St. Mihiel has shaken the Germans. Hindenburg, the German commander-in-chief, is normally imperturbable but now he sends a furious telegram to Gallwitz, the local German commander. Hindenburg refuses to see the Americans as constituting a serious military force and rails against Gallwitz for allowing himself to be defeated by what he sees as a half-trained rabble.

Pershing had wanted his troops to exploit the success of St. Mihiel by pressing on towards Metz. Foch however has insisted that they be redeployed further to the west to take part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, scheduled to start later in the month. Pershing is angry, feeling that an opportunity is being squandered and that his men will not have enough time to prepare adequately for the new offensive. Foch insists because fears that a further advance towards Metz would see the American advancing on a divergent axis from the rest of the Allies. The Meuse-Argonne offensive is to be one of several converging assaults, intended to break the Germans on the Western Front.

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(WW1HA — Fightin’ Friday: Mon Plaisir Farm)

14/8/1918 Hindenburg and Ludendorff block peace talks

The disaster at Amiens has forced the Germans to take stock. Yesterday Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the army’s chief of staff, met with senior German politicians; Hindenburg remained confident but Ludendorff was pessimistic. Today the generals brief the Kaiser, in the company of Chancellor Hertling and Hintze, the foreign minister. Ludendorff now recovers his poise somewhat, admitting a reverse on the battlefield but blaming it on agitations by socialists and malcontents in Germany. The generals insist that German forces are still well-placed to fight a successful defensive war on the Western Front, hoping that the Allies will just give up and let Germany keep Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine and some territory captured from France. The Kaiser and Hintze suggest some kind of peace overture, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff reject this as an admission of weakness. The German army will have to first win an impressive military victory so that Germany can enter peace talks from a position of strength.

The Kaiser is notionally Germany’s supreme warlord but for now he defers to the generals. Despite the recent defeats, there will be no serious attempt to seek an end to the war.

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Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (in 1916) (Wikipedia: the Hindenburg Programme)

23/3/1918 The Kaiser and Hindenburg visit the scene of victory #1918Live

As Germany’s spring offensive continues to hit the British, Hindenburg and the Kaiser visit the rear area of the battle zone. Nominally these two men are the leaders of Germany’s war effort, the Kaiser the supreme warlord and Hindenburg the army’s chief of staff, but both have been shut out of the offensive’s planning by Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General. Nevertheless both are happy to bask in the success of the offensive’s gains, which promise to end the war on German terms. The Kaiser even finds time to address a column of British prisoners: “Well gentlemen, you have fought very bravely, but… Gott mit uns!

Success has emboldened Ludendorff, who now sets Hutier, leading the attack in the southernmost sector, the task of pressing on to the south-west to separate the British and French armies. But he also orders his other commanders to advance to the west and north-west, dispersing German strength on divergent assaults.

The Allies meanwhile are shaken. But although the British have been thrown back all along the battle line, they have not yet suffered a total collapse. Meanwhile Pétain, the French commander, has promised to send 14 divisions to their aid. Help is on its way, if only the British can hold on.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II and Paul von Hindenburg (Wikipedia Commons)

26/12/1917 Brest-Litovsk: Trotsky spins out the peace talks #1917Live

The Germans and Russians are conducting peace-talks at Brest-Litovsk. The Germans are eager to conclude a settlement as quickly as possible so that they can redeploy their Eastern Front armies to the West. The Russian delegates are in less of a hurry. Because of the imbalance between the two powers, they know that any final peace terms will be harsh and are seeking to put off the day of reckoning. They also hope that if they play for time then revolution will spread across Europe, bringing the war to an end and ushering in an era of socialist peace.

While the German delegation is comprised of career diplomats and military officials, the Russians are a much more motley crew. Led by Bolsheviks catapulted to prominence by their seizure of power, the delegation also includes representatives of a cross-section of Russian society: soldiers, sailors, women, and industrial workers. The Bolsheviks had initially forgotten to include a peasant in their party, but on their way to the talks they picked one up from the streets of Petrograd. The rustic manners of this Roman Stashkov have charmed his German counterparts, who are particularly amused when he is asked at a formal dinner whether he wants red or white wine and replies “which is stronger?”.

Trotsky has taken over as head of the Russian delegation, his rhetorical flights of fancy ideally suited to the task of preventing the talks reaching any definite conclusion. Kühlmann, the German foreign minister, seems only too happy to oblige. The two men spend their time discussing Marxist philosophy and abstract points of principle, much to the chagrin of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who want the talks concluded as quickly as possible.

Trotsky cannot however keep the talks in the lofty realm of abstraction indefinitely. When discussion turns to the post-war borders between Russia and Germany, he is on much shakier ground. The Bolsheviks have called for a peace without annexations or indemnities, but the Germans are determined to hang onto their gains in the east. Talks now break down on this point. But again, to the German high command this looks like another of Trotsky’s delaying tactics.

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Bolshevik leaders being greeted by German officers, as depicted in the Illustrated London News (The Illustrated First World War: Russian Armistice signed)

Trotsky greeted by German officers (Wikipedia: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk)

Note: Roman Stashkov’s bizarre adventure is worth reading about in detail. The first edition of Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy covers it on pages 540 to 541. If you do not have that to hand, a useful summary is included here. Stashkov was originally brought along to the negotiations that led to an armistice on the Eastern Front and may have been sent home by the time the full negotiations on a peace treaty were taking place.