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)

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)

10/11/1918 Ebert tells Erzberger to agree the Allied armistice terms #1918Live

Germany is in a state of flux. Ebert is now the Chancellor of a republic, the Kaiser having fled to Netherlands this morning. In the Chancellery he receives a telephone call on a secret line from Groener at army headquarters in Spa. Groener promises to support Ebert’s government; Ebert in turn promises to suppress the more extreme revolutionary elements and to respect the prerogatives of the army’s officer corps.

Ebert also receives the armistice terms that Foch presented to Erzberger in the Compiègne forest. The terms are harsh but Ebert knows that Germany cannot continue the war. He authorises Erzberger’s signature of an armistice on whatever terms he can obtain. The armistice negotiations now enter their final lap.

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)

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)

16/8/1917 Hindenburg & Ludendorff sack the head of Germany’s Supreme War Office #1917Live

As part of their effort to militarise the German economy, Hindenburg and Ludendorff created the Supreme War Office, headed by General Groener. Groener’s responsibilities are broad, extending beyond the production of military supplies to encompass food and industrial production generally.

Part of Groener’s brief is to minimise industrial unrest in Germany. Groener’s policy in this regard is relatively subtle, attempting to conciliate unions while also being willing to threaten repression if they step out of line. Nevertheless, this summer has seen many strikes in Germany, as workers attempt to protect their living standards from erosion by inflation.

These strikes unnerve Hindenburg and Ludendorff who fear that Groener’s conciliatory policy has emboldened the unions. They also heed the complaints of industrialist that Groener’s work has been affecting their profits. So now Groener is dismissed as head of the Supreme War Office; he returns to the army to take up an operational command.

Ludendorff believes that industrial unrest is the result not of workers trying to defend their interests but of agitation by socialists and foreign spies. He hopes that harsh measures will stamp out this nonsense.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia)

Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)