What do we have to keep in mind, in the recapitulation, about the peculiarities of the Great War’s gestation? We may remind ourselves that neither politicians nor generals realized the sheer dimension of the disaster they unleashed. They understood that it was to be a huge war, but they still thought essentially in the dimensions of 1812 and 1870, big wars, to be sure, especially that of 1812, and destined to become even bigger by conscription, but that Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 1812 would easily be outsized by a factor of ten or fifteen and that ten million fatalities would eventually be counted nobody dared to suggest in 1914.
It was exactly because of the enormity of the conflagration that an intensive discussion was to ensue over the responsibility for its outbreak, the issue of “war guilt”. This topic remains intensively argued to this day, but in 1919, as we will see, it was quickly institutionalized by way of individual peace treaties, which tended to reflect the noble motives of the victors that so favourably contrasted to the evil schemes of the losers. As it was to be expected, the victors liked the results very much, the losers much less.
It took not much political savvy to doubt the usefulness of the blame game and the reparation demands which resulted – and would be so catastrophically exploited by Hitler’s propaganda – Marshal Foch himself famously called the Treaty of Versailles not peace but a “twenty-year armistice”, and was not far off: twenty years, nine months and nineteen days after the First World War had ended, the Second broke out. In retrospect, the motivations were simple – territorial demands, economic interests, and underlying psychological malaises, and in each case, the result – the decision for war – was a mixture of at least two of these elements.
France sought to regain Alsace-Lorraine – the defeat of 1871 had literally stunned the nation, and, perhaps even more urgently, she sought to renew the national unity that had been torn asunder by the Dreyfus affair. The Great War would provide the illusion of such unity for the time being – l’union sacrée, proclaimed by Poincaré in parliament on August 4 – yet that France could not truly regain this indivisibility proved itself for the worse in 1940 when the French Right opted rather to suffer German occupation than to allow a Second Commune. But since the country had succeeded since 1904 “to convince leading members of the Liberal government in London that France’s security was a British national interest,” (150) she was assured not only of the assistance of the greatest land power, Russia, in the impending war, but could also count on the support of the biggest sea power. A repeat of 1871 seemed to be out of the question.
Great Britain’s policy remained – obviously – the perpetuation of divide et impera, the prolongation of the concert-of-powers system that prevented the rise of a continental hegemony. It was a lucky happenstance, perhaps, that this coincided with a certain interest in the weakening of Germany’s industry as a competitor in global trade. England had no stated territorial interests, although she would be suspiciously quick in accepting, after the war, as “mandates” from the League of Nations the former German colonies of Namibia and Tanzania. A discussion remains whether Edward Grey’s, the British Foreign Secretary, three principal moves that ended in England joining the war, of whose acuity he seemed to have been well aware, were results of his bumbling or cunning. In his memoirs, Grey wrote: “I remember saying more than once, to colleagues inside or outside the Cabinet that it did not matter whether the decision was to go to war or to demand conditions from Germany. Conditions meant war just as surely as a declaration of war. Respect for the neutrality of Belgium must be one of the conditions, and this Germany would not respect.” (151) [FN 32] This argument can be made, of course, only in hindsight.
[FN 32] Albertini remarks: “This shows that Grey knew beforehand what would be the outcome of his three moves. The first was that of 31 July when though the situation was beyond repair [sic] he asked Paris and Berlin to ‘engage to respect the neutrality of Belgium so long as no other power violates it’. The second was on 1 August, when with Cabinet consent he warned Germany that ‘if there were a violation of the neutrality of Belgium by one combatant while the other respected it, it would be extremely difficult to restrain public feeling in this country.'”
Austria-Hungary’s motivations were almost entirely psychological – the Danube Monarchy dreaded Slavic nationalism as well as Hungarian separatism, had no concept for the integration of the numerous ethnic minorities, and was in shocking internal disorder – parliament had to be dissolved in 1907, and she essentially became a military dictatorship during the war. Only a great victory promised hope for the future – provided that it was possible at all to preserve “Kaiser Franz Joseph’s unique but anachronistic inheritance” – the breaking apart of which the European equilibrium could not – and did not – survive. (152)
Russia was in a similar political situation – the attempted revolution of 1905 was in no way forgotten – as the future was to tell – and any influx of patriotism the war was to bring figured hugely in her political computations, but her leadership had a truly strategic and territorial vision. To gain control of the Straits and hence access to the Aegean, Adriatic and the rest of the Mediterranean Seas would not only multiply her economical opportunities but also extend the influence of her navy – the budget of which since 1913 exceeded that of Germany – to the coasts of the Balkan and Asia Minor – the resurrection of an [Orthodox] Christian Byzantine Empire would reverse the progress of Islam into Europe.
Related Posts on the last phase of the war and the armistice negotiations:
But one day all was over, and in Spring and Summer 1919 the delegations of the belligerents met in Paris to conclude the peace treaties. The most important of these – with Germany – was to be signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, where on January 18, 1871, the victorious Germans had proclaimed the Second Empire.
Since all nations except the United States were completely exhausted from the war, everybody looked upon President Woodrow Wilson as Arbiter (and Saviour) Mundi, as the cartoonists were quick to notice.
In anticipation of the victorious conclusion of the war – through American supplies and troops – European politicians, pros and amateurs alike, had drawn up maps for the future. Most of those had as a common element the partitioning of Germany – a sort of time travel back to 1789 – as to disarm the German menace for all time. They all looked somewhat like this:
On the historical assessment of what finally transpired in the Treaty, there is a useful introduction on Wikipedia and, of course, stacks of literature – hence this post will not deal with details. A tentative agreement seems to form that the peace conditions were not as harsh as later German, especially Nazi German, propaganda made them out – which of course did not help in 1939.
As one would surmise, the German delegation was quite unhappy about the proposed treaty. Minister-President Philipp Scheidemann and his cabinet, the first German postwar government, resigned in opposition to the treaty on June 20, 1919. He was replaced by Gustav Bauer. The decisiveness of the hesitant German government was much improved when the Allies issued an ultimatum stating that Germany would have to accept the treaty or face an invasion of Allied forces across the Rhine within 24 hours. On June 23, Bauer relented and sent his plenipotentiaries.
The place of the signing was, as mentioned, fraught with history. The German National Assembly voted for the treaty by 237 to 138, and the result was wired to Clemenceau just hours before the deadline. German foreign minister Hermann Müller and colonial minister Johannes Bell travelled to Versailles to sign the treaty on behalf of Germany. The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 and ratified by the Weimar National Assembly on 9 July by a vote of 209 to 116. (see Wiki)
The eventual territorial changes are depicted below:
We present three lovely animated GIFs on the subject of WW I. You can download them and adjust their speed to your taste with https://ezgif.com/speed (works best with smaller files) or http://gifmaker.org/. Click on the pics for full size view.
File One: Overview
File Two: The Western Front August 4 to September 20
“Shocking!” was the unanimous opinion of the British Admiralty, when it became obvious, in the earl 1900s, that the development of diesel-electric propulsion would enable – sooner or later – the construction of serviceable submarines for warfare.
It was quite against the sense of fairness that guided this august body. After all, they had built, and were still building, rows and rows of expensive battleships – at a cost of a few million pounds each – which were to ensure Royal British supremacy on the oceans of the world.
Could the building of such cowardly weapons forbidden by means of an international treaty? Incomprehensibly, no volunteers among the navies of the competition could be found. It was suspected, that the mighty battleships were, due to their armour, perhaps not liable to become the prey of the ignominious new weapon, but the merchant ships, upon whose trade the British Empire depended, would be helpless victims. [FN1]
[FN1] The theory of the inviolability of the battleship to torpedoes and mines went – literally – to the bottom of the sea on October 27, 1914, less than three months into the war, when HMS Audacious was struck by a mine and capsized a few hours later.
Submarines had one excellent advantage – they could not be seen, and their guns, torpedoes and mines could sink any ship in sneak attacks. It was truly unfair. They were cheap, too, hence everybody could build them – and did.
While submarines could sink warships, these were rare cases. The two U-Boats – as German submarines were called after the German term “Unterseeboot” – most efficient at this particular task were U 9, which met the 7th Cruiser Squadron, comprising the Cressy-class armoured cruisers Bacchante, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, together with a few destroyers, and sunk Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue within a few hours in the Action of 22 September 1914. Three weeks later HMS Hawke fell prey to the same boat.
Yet the more imminent threat for England was, as mentioned, the severance of her trade lines. She imported about 70% of foodstuffs and intermediate goods, upon which the people and industry depended. There was a financial consideration as well – money had to be spent for the purchase of these goods, but if the transport was sunk, so much for the balance of payments. [FN2]
[FN2] It is not generally known, that by April 1, 1917, the British Empire was bankrupt, and the only hope for her main creditors, the US, to recover their loans was to join the war and help her debtors win. American loans to the Allies were but the cost of keeping up the Imperial shop, a fact that even the Encyclopaedia Britannica makes no qualms in admitting: “The entry of the United States was the turning point in the war, because it made the eventual defeat of Germany possible. It had been foreseen in 1916 that if the United States went to war, the Allies’ military effort against Germany would be upheld by U.S. supplies and by enormous extensions of credit. These expectations were amply and decisively fulfilled. The United States’ production of armaments was to meet not only its own needs but also France’s and Great Britain’s. In this sense, the American economic contribution was decisive. By April 1, 1917, the Allies had exhausted their means of paying for essential supplies from the United States, and it was difficult to see how they could have maintained the war effort if the United States had remained neutral. American loans to the Allies worth $7,000,000,000 between 1917 and the end of the war maintained the flow of U.S. arms and food across the Atlantic.” (16)
Hence, the major task of the U-Boats was commercial raiding. In the First World War, this meant an initial advantage for the hunter for the dearth of electronic countermeasures, which would be developed only much later. Essentially, U-Boats could only be found by hydrophones, which were still rather primitive and sensitive, especially during convoy operations. The only weapon against subs were depth charges.
Unlike in WW 2 movies, the main weapon of the time was the deck gun, of medium calibre, often 88 or 105 millimetres. The reason was that the boats carried a very limited number of torpedoes only and tended to save them, hence the gun became the more attractive alternative. The most famous commander of U 35, Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, used the deck gun in 171 of his 194 sinkings.
The great tactical difference in U-Boat warfare between the two wars lay in the area of communications, whose improvements allowed Germany’s Submarine Commander Karl Dönitz in the Second War the invention of the “Rudeltaktik”, in English called “Wolfpack”. Improvements, however, worked for both sides – U-Boats could be controlled and directed much tighter by tactical command, yet the enemy could meanwhile share their own information of sightings and locations. Hence, in World War I, each boat was on her mission alone. No Wolfpack of WW II, however, came close to the success of the “one boat wolf pack” that was U 35.
Thus, we arrive at the main point of our article, the performance of U 35 in WW I. U 35 was a pre-war construction ordered in 1912 [Design, see Wiki, and FN3]. She officially entered service on November 3rd, 1914, under the command of KapitänleutnantWaldemar Kophamel. Under his command, U 35 sunk no less than 38 ships until November 17, 1915.
The next day Captain de la Perière took over. He was to become the most successful submarine commander of history. His main area of operations was the Mediterranean Sea, and, in 14 or 15 patrols (sources differ), sank 189 merchant ships and five men-of-war for a total of 446,708 GRT. [Complete List of Sinkings and Damages caused by U 35]
[FN3] German Type U 31 submarines were double-hulled ocean-going submarines similar to Type 23 and Type 27 subs in dimensions and differed only slightly in propulsion and speed. They were considered very good high sea boats with average manoeuvrability and good surface steering. U-35 had an overall length of 64.70 m (212 ft 3 in), her pressure hull was 52.36 m (171 ft 9 in) long. The boat’s beam was 6.32 m (20 ft 9 in) (o/a), while the pressure hull measured 4.05 m (13 ft 3 in). Type 31s had a draught of 3.56 m (11 ft 8 in) with a total height of 7.68–8.04 m (25 ft 2 in–26 ft 5 in). The boats displaced a total of 971 tonnes (956 long tons); 685 t (674 long tons) when surfaced and 878 t (864 long tons) when submerged. U-35 was fitted with two Germania 6-cylinder two-stroke diesel engines with a total of 1,850 metric horsepower (1,361 kW; 1,825 bhp) for use on the surface and two Siemens-Schuckert double-acting electric motors with a total of 1,200 PS (883 kW; 1,184 shp) for underwater use. These engines powered two shafts each with a 1.60 m (5 ft 3 in) propeller, which gave the boat a top surface speed of 16.4 knots (30.4 km/h; 18.9 mph), and 9.7 knots (18.0 km/h; 11.2 mph) when submerged. Cruising range was 8,790 nautical miles (16,280 km; 10,120 mi) at 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) on the surface, and 80 nmi (150 km; 92 mi) at 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) under water. Diving depth was 50 m (164 ft 1 in). The U-boat was armed with four 50 cm (20 in) torpedo tubes, two fitted in the bow and two in the stern, and carried 6 torpedoes. Additionally, U-35 was equipped in 1915 with one 8.8 cm (3.5 in) Uk L/30deck gun, which was replaced with a 10.5 cm (4.1 in) gun in 1916/17. The boat’s complement was 4 officers and 31 enlisted.
Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, her second captain, was of French Huguenot descent, of the many families that fled France after Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, ending religious tolerance in France in favour of the Catholic Church. In reaction, Frederick Wilhelm, Duke of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, issued the Edict of Potsdam in late October 1685, encouraging the Protestants to seek refuge in Prussia, which many did and became an economic boom and elite in the (then) relatively backward country.
He strictly adhered to the Prize Rules then in effect, which makes his achievements all the more impressive. His fourteenth patrol (26 July to 20 August 1916) stands as the most successful submarine patrol of all time, in which 54 merchant ships totalling 90,350 GRT were sunk.
STAVKA (the Russian High Command) had prepared two plans for the eventuality of war against the Central Powers, Plan G for Germany and A for Austria-Hungary. Although the mobilization of the troops stationed in Russia was somewhat delayed by G and A’s colliding railway schedules, the Russian army eventually appeared in its deployment areas faster than anticipated by the enemy.
STAVKA had established two Army Group commands for her western forces, north respectively south of the Bug – Vistula line. Army Group “Northwest” was in charge of First and Second Armies, earmarked to deploy against Germany while Army Group “Southwest” commanded Third, Fifth and Eight Armies, sharing the task of invading Galicia, the Austrian part of former Poland.
Fourth Army was the Russian version of a “swing option”: much like Joffre had originally intended for Lanrezac‘s Fifth Army in France, Fourth Army could be sent into action either at the Austrian front south of Lublin, or back up, “en echelon”, First and Second Armies on their way into Germany.
The Russian post-1905 modernization program had suffered much due to arthritic Russian bureaucracy; improvements were delayed, never implemented or simply ignored; in some respects the Russian army could not meet international standards.
[First and Second Armies deployed] … nine corps to Prittwitz‘ [the German C-in-C] four, and seven cavalry divisions, including two of the Imperial Guard, to his one. Rennenkampf, commanding First Army, and Samsonov, commanding Second, were moreover both veterans of the Russo-Japanese War, in which each had commanded a division, while Prittwitz had no experience of war at all. [Not true, see link above]
Their formations were very big, [Russian] divisions having sixteen instead of twelve battalions, with large masses of – admittedly often untrained – men to make up losses. Though they were weaker in artillery, particularly heavy artillery, than their German equivalents, it is untrue that they were much less well provided with shells; all armies had grossly underestimated the expenditure that modern battle would demand and, at an allowance of 700 shells per gun, the Russians were not much worse off than the French, fighting at the Marne. Moreover, the Russian munitions industry would respond to the requirements of war with remarkable success.
Nevertheless, Russia’s forces were beset by serious defects. The proportion of cavalry, so much greater than that in any other army, laid a burden of need for fodder on the transport service, itself inferior to the German, which the value given by mounted troops could not justify; forty trains were needed to supply both the four thousand men of a cavalry division and the sixteen thousand of an infantry division.
There were human defects as well. Russian regimental officers were unmonied by definition and often poorly educated; any aspiring young officer whose parents could support the cost went to the staff academy and was lost to regimental duty, without necessarily becoming thereby efficient at staff work. As Tolstoy so memorably depicts in his account of Borodino, the Russian officer corps united two classes which scarcely knew each other, a broad mass of company and battalion commanders that took orders from a narrow upper crust of aristocratic placemen. The qualities of the peasant soldier – brave, loyal and obedient – had traditionally compensated for the mistakes and omissions of his superiors but, face to face with the armies of countries from which illiteracy had disappeared, as in Russia it was far from doing, the Russian infantryman was at an increasing disadvantage. He was easily disheartened by setback, particularly in the face of superior artillery, and would surrender easily and without shame, en masse, if he felt abandoned or betrayed. The trinity of Tsar, Church, and Country still had power to evoke unthinking courage; but defeat, and drink, could rapidly rot devotion to the regiment’s colours and icons. (1)
To this litany a failed artillery policy and communication problems might be added. Russian artillery officers tended to view the main task of heavy guns in defending the chain of fortresses which secured the Russian border perimeter and were very much averse of schlepping big guns over a battlefield. Thus, Russian armies were chiefly equipped with small and medium calibre guns, of lesser firepower and diminished range. As in the naval gun race, lighter guns became the victims of the enemy’s heavier ones; for lack of range unable to return the fire. Radio communications suffered from a lack of trained cipher clerks, which forced the radiomen to transmit many message en clair, especially in the heat of battle.
In the event of August 1914, Fourth Army marched south, to the Austrian border, and Army Group Northwest dispatched First and Second Armies to East Prussia. The plan envisioned a two-pronged manoeuvre of enveloping 8th Army. STAVKA directed Rennenkampf to attack north of the lakes and the Angerapp River east of Königsberg and to proceed along the Baltic Sea Coast in westerly direction. Samsonov was ordered to invade from the south-east – from the direction of Warsaw – and to march in north-westerly direction until he would meet Rennenkampf, coming from the other direction, somewhere on the Vistula, perhaps in the vicinity of Marienwerder or Marienburg. The defenders would be surrounded and once the Vistula was gained, the way into West Prussia and Silesia lay open.
The plan had two weaknesses: it was obvious, as a tarantula on the cheesecake, and it depended upon close cooperation and communication of the two armies, conduct neither Rennenkampf nor Samsonov were renowned for. The German General Staff had actually based pre-war games upon the premise of such a two-pronged attack and had established that the correct counter-strategy was to delay one prong while attacking the other. Such a strategy necessitated rapid troop movements between the two sides of the Lakeland, the north-eastern part around Insterburg and Gumbinnen, and the south-western side from Allenstein in the centre of the province to Thorn on the Vistula. A direct railway was built traversing the Lakeland for this exact purpose, running along a line Gumbinnen – Insterburg – Allenstein – Osterode – Deutsch-Eylau – Thorn.
The map below shows the early stage of the East Prussian campaign. The Russians appeared three weeks earlier than anticipated, Rennenkampf’s vanguard crossing the border and reconnoitring in westerly direction on August 15. Two days later, his III, IV and XX Corps marched on Gumbinnen, eighty miles east of Königsberg. They were screened by his 1st Cavalry Division on their southern flank and the Guards Cavalry Corps on the northern one. Their counting on strategic surprise, however, was nullified as early as August 9 on account of the German 2nd Aircraft Observer Battalion and the services of two dirigibles stationed at Königsberg and Posen. They informed Prittwitz of the Russian presence, but what worked for the Germans failed, inexplicably, for the Russians: their cavalry could not find any trace of the enemy, and Rennenkampf’s aerial reconnaissance unit, consisting of a fleet of 244 aircraft, mysteriously failed to spot a single German unit.
The most important information for Prittwitz was that Second Army seemed to be late. The German staff began to believe that they might have a shot at Rennenkampf first and Samsonov later.
Geography was to disrupt the smooth onset of the Russian combined offensive in space. Less excusably, timidity and incompetence were to disjoint it in time. In short, the Russians repeated the mistake, so often made before by armies apparently enjoying an incontestable superiority in numbers, the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by Darius at Gaugamela, by Hooker at Chancellorsville, of exposing themselves to defeat in detail: that is, of allowing a weaker enemy to concentrate at first against one part of the army, then against the other, and so beat both.
The way in which geography worked to favour the Germans’ detailed achievement is the more easily explained. Though eastern East Prussia does indeed offer a relatively level path of advance to an invader from Russia, the chain of lakes that feeds the River Angerapp also poses a significant barrier. There are ways through, particularly at Lötzen, but that place was fortified in 1914.
As a result, a water barrier nearly fifty miles long from north to south confronted the inner wings of First and Second Army, so tending to drive them apart. Strategically, the easier option was to pass north and south of the Angerapp position rather than to force it frontally, and that was what the commander of the North-Western Front, General Yakov Zhilinsky, decided to direct Rennenkampf and Samsonov to do.
He was aware of the opportunity such a separation offered to the Germans and accordingly took care to provide for the protection of his two armies’ flanks. However, the measures taken enlargened the danger, since he allowed Rennenkampf to strengthen his flank on the Baltic coast, which was not at risk, and Samsonov to detach troops to protect his connection with Warsaw, equally not threatened, while arranging for one corps of Second Army [II Corps] to stand immobile in the gap separating it from First. The result of these dispositions was a diversion of effort which left both armies considerably weakened to undertake the main task. Having commenced the deployment with a superiority of nineteen divisions against nine, Rennenkampf and Samsonov actually marched to the attack with only sixteen between them.
Worse, critically worse, the two armies arrived at their start lines five days apart in time. First Army crossed the East Prussian frontier on 15 August, a very creditable achievement given that the French and Germans were then still completing their concentration in the west, but Second not until 20 August. As the two were separated in space by fifty miles of Lakeland, three days in marching time, neither would be able to come rapidly to the other’s assistance if it ran into trouble which, unbeknownst either to Rennenkampf or Samsonov, was the way they were heading. (2)
The aviators’ intelligence initially paid off for Prittwitz. When Rennenkampf began offensive operations on August 17, Prittwitz knew that Samsonov was late and thus could momentarily afford to keep most of 8th Army in the north-east. A Russian probe which showed up at the small town of Stallupoenen, ten miles east of Gumbinnen, was quickly checked, but when Prittwitz ordered a counter-attack of General Herrmann von François‘ I Corps on August 20, the Russians had already prepared an entrenched position near Gumbinnen. I Corps was, as was the whole 8th Army, composed of East Prussian men defending their homeland, and their aggressiveness in assaulting a fortified Russian position cost them dearly.
By mid-afternoon, I Corps had come to a halt. Its neighbouring corps, XVII, commanded by the famous Life Guard Hussar, von Mackensen, who was encouraged by early reports of its success, was meanwhile attacking north-eastwards into the Russians’ flank.
It did so without reconnaissance which would have revealed that, on its front as on that of von François, the Russians were entrenched. From their positions they poured a devastating fire into the advancing German infantry who, when also bombarded in error by their own artillery, broke and ran to the rear. By late afternoon the situation on the front of XVII Corps was even worse than that on the front of I Corps and the Battle of Gumbinnen was threatening to turn from a tactical reverse to a strategic catastrophe.
To the right of XVII Corps, I Reserve, under von Bülow, counter-attacked to protect Mackensen’s flank against a Russian advance. At Eight Army headquarters, however, even the news of that success could not stay the onset of panic. There Prittwitz was yielding to the belief that East Prussia must be abandoned and the whole of his army retreat beyond the Vistula. (3)
The big red arrow on the map above shows the intended retirement to the west, beyond the Vistula, that Prittwitz thought unavoidable. The bold blue arrows in squares DE 3-4 symbolize Rennenkampf’s III, IV and XX Corps, moving westward, into the direction of the fortified zone of Königsberg. At its southern flank, First Army is protected by 1st Cavalry Division and in the north by the Guard Cavalry Corps. Squares BCD 1-2 show Second Army, composed of I, XXIII, XV, XIII and VI Corps, plus 15th, 6th and 4th Cavalry Divisions. Samsonov’s II Corps is located in the geographical middle of the Lakeland, square DE 2, in the act of being transferred to Rennenkampf on August 21. It is on the way north-west, to join First Army at Angerburg.
At OHL [Supreme Command] Moltke balked at the very thought of withdrawing 8th Army behind the Vistula. But for the margins of the operational plan being too narrow, Moltke had no troops available for an immediate reinforcement. To make the situation worse, the men of 8th Army had their roots and families in East Prussia; an order to retreat might cause a revolt. Moltke decided that a new broom was needed on the Eastern front. Two brooms, actually.
Moltke decided first that a director of operations of the first quality must be sent instantly to the east to take charge. He chose Ludendorff, who had twice so brilliantly resolved crises in Belgium. He next determined to dispose of Prittwitz altogether, judging his declared intention to retire behind the Vistula, even if subsequently reconsidered, to be evidence of broken will.
In his place he promoted Paul von Beneckendorff and Hindenburg, a retired officer noted for his steadiness of character if not brilliance of mind. As a lieutenant in the 3rd Foot Guards, Hindenburg had been wounded at Königgrätz in 1866 and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He claimed kinsmen among the Teutonic Knights who had won East Prussia from the heathen in the northern crusades, had served on the Great General Staff and eventually commanded a corps.
He had left the army in 1911, aged sixty-four, but applied for reappointment at the war’s outbreak. When the call from Moltke came, he had been out of service so long that he was obliged to report for duty in the old blue uniform that had preceded the issue of field-grey. He and Ludendorff, unalike as they were, the one a backwoods worthy, the other a bourgeois technocrat, were to unite from the start in what Hindenburg himself called “a happy marriage.” Their qualities, natural authority in Hindenburg, ruthless intellect in Ludendorff, complemented each other’s perfectly and were to make them one of the most effective military partnerships in history. (4)
On August 23, Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived at Rastenburg whither the HQ of 8th Army had been moved, and summoned the staff for a conference the very next day. The discussion began with an analysis of the situation by General Scholtz, commander of XX Corps which was, at the moment, the sole German unit opposing the slowly advancing Samsonov in the south. Strategically, the newcomers in command were much aided by a resolution Prittwitz had enacted just before he was relieved of duty. During his years at the Staff Academy, Prittwitz had participated in the aforementioned war games and hence was familiar with the East Prussian counter-strategy, which called to defeat the Russians “in detail”. Prittwitz had decided that, after the tie at Gumbinnen, as he saw it, Rennenkampf could be counted as checked, and that First Army would typically need a few days to regroup and redeploy. If he acted fast, he might beat Samsonov in the south before Rennenkampf, in the east, resumed the offensive. Ably assisted by his Chief of Staff, Colonel Max Hoffmann, he ordered von François’s I Corps from Königsberg whither it had retired, and von Mackensen’s XVII Corps, at the moment south-west of Gumbinnen, to entrain southward to meet Samsonov.
These movements are indicated on the map below by the thin dashed lines and bold red arrows, showing the early stages of the German movements. I Corps retired to Königsberg in order to board the coastal railway line while XVII and I Reserve traversed first westward, then south-west, into the direction of Allenstein. Scholtz’s II Corps was already in the vicinity, around the small towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.
Thus, Hindenburg and Ludendorff did not have to design a new plan, whose development might have cost precious time but were able to adopt Prittwitz’s strategy, which they pursued at best speed. To their aid came a few monumental errors in the Russian dispositions, chiefly by Rennenkampf. When First Army’s forward reconnaissance units, after the four days of the Battle of Gumbinnen, reported that the presence of German troops facing them was thinning out, Rennenkampf assumed that 8th Army had retreated to the fortified zone of Königsberg. Such a move might be reasonable, at some level, since it would compel First Army to a lengthy siege, which might give the Germans time enough to send reinforcements from the Western Front. Thus, Rennenkampf stopped the pursuit of I and XVII Corps, consolidated his territorial gains, and initiated preparations for the upcoming siege.
He reported his decision to STAVKA and asked for assistance with the investment of Königsberg, for which his troops, lacking heavy artillery, were ill prepared. But since the delay meant that he was, for the time being, incapable of keeping touch with the rest of the German army, he proposed to Zhilinsky to send Samsonov in the direction of the Vistula, i.e. north-west. Once First Army had reduced Königsberg, the planned envelopment of 8th Army could be reactivated. Army Group Northwest followed Rennenkampf’s suggestion and Samsonov was ordered to proceed in north-western direction, to the Vistula, but away from First Army.
Rennenkampf’s proposition was risky in itself – what if the siege failed? But what transpired in the event was worse. On the morning of August 25, First Army’s radio traffic with STAVKA and Army Group Northwest, which included the siege plan, was intercepted and deciphered by Ludendorff’s radio monitors. Moreover, the messages yielded the priceless information that First Army would halt and thus be unable to support Second Army in case it headed into trouble.
Rennenkampf’s decision to halt allowed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to concentrate against Second Army. They could afford to leave Königsberg essentially unprotected except for its entrenched garrison and a weak screen of 1st Cavalry Division [see map above, the red dots, C 3-4, west of Rennenkampf]. Now the railways came into play. The existence of two lines allowed 8th Army to route parts of XVII and I Reserve Corps southward, via the Insterburg-Allenstein line traversing East Prussia, and to convey I Corps by the coastal railway to Elbing, and then route them via Marienburg and Deutsch-Eylau to Seeben, into a position opposite the left flank of Samsonov’s I Corps which stood between Soldau and Usdau. Ludendorff even ordered the small Vistula garrison from Thorn to meet François’s I Corps near Lautenburg [Map above, square B 1]. By August 26, XVII Corps stood at Bischofstein [Map above, C 3], and I Reserve between Allenstein and Seeburg [Map above, C 2-3], opposing Samsonov’s northernmost unit, VI Corps at Bartelsdorf. The main body of Second Army still stood south of Allenstein [XIII, XV and XXIII Corps, Map above, BC 1-2].
The tactical situation on the map above depicts the advantage the Germans earned by the flexibility of their troop movements, which, in addition, almost completely evaded Russian detection. There were hardly any German troops left in the north-east, vis-a-vis Rennenkampf – except for the very light screen of 1st Cavalry – and the Russian II Corps, now detached to First Army’s southern flank, lingers in a completely uncontested area. Except for her cavalry, First Army remained almost stationary; by August 26 it had moved barely ten miles west – cautiously – through empty land. Second Army was still moving north-west but was spreading all over the Lakeland, from Zielun, 15th Cavalry in the south-west, to Sensburg, 4th Cavalry, in the north-east. This was when Hindenburg …
… was passed the transcript of a complete Russian First Army order for an advance to the siege of Königsberg which revealed that it would halt some distance from the city on 26 August, well short of any position from which it could come to Second Army’s assistance in the battle he planned to unleash.
Furnished with this assurance, he met von François, whose corps was just beginning to arrive at Samsonov’s flank, in confident mood. Distance was working for him, the distance separating Samsonov and Rennenkampf’s armies, and so now too was time, the self-imposed delay in Rennenkampf’s advance which, had it been pressed, would have put the First Army well behind the Lakeland zone in positions from which it could have marched south to Samsonov’s assistance. (5)
Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s plan were successive attacks into Second Army’s right flank, that is, to attack from Allenstein in south-western direction. François’s I Corps was to begin the offensive on August 25.
Then François, whose stubborn aggressiveness could take a wilfully uncooperative form, interrupted the smooth unrolling of a plan that should have brought his I Corps, XVII and XX successively into action against Samsonov’s flanks. Claiming that he was awaiting the arrival of his artillery by train, he was slow off the mark to attack on 25 August, and slow again the next day.
Ludendorff arrived to energize the offensive, with characteristic effect, but François’s hesitation had meanwhile had a desirable if unintended result. Unopposed in force to his front, Samsonov had thrust his centre forward, towards the Vistula against which he hoped to pin the Germans, thus exposing lengthening flanks both to François, now to his south, and to Mackensen and Scholtz, who were marching XVII and XX Corps down from the north. On 27 August François rediscovered his bite, and pushed his men on. Samsonov, disregarding the danger to his rear, pressed on as well. On 28 August his leading troops savaged a miscellaneous collection of German troops they found in their path and broke through almost to open country, with the Vistula beyond.
Ludendorff, seized by a fit of his nerves his stolid appearance belied, ordered François to detach a division to the broken units’ assistance. François, creatively uncooperative on this occasion, did not obey but drove every battalion he had eastward at best speed. With the weight of Samsonov’s army moving westward by different routes, there was little to oppose them. On the morning of 29 August, his leading infantry reached Willenberg, just inside East Prussia from Russian territory, and met German troops coming the other way [see map below]. They belonged to Mackensen’s XVII Corps, veterans of the fighting south of the Masurian Lakes, who had been attacking southward since the previous day. Contact between the claws of the two pincers – the units were the 151st Ermland Infantry of I Corps and the 5th Blucher Hussars of XVII – announced that Samsonov was surrounded. (6)
The map above portrays the situation on August 30. I Corps had begun its move at Seeben and marched east via Niedenburg, to Willenburg. Since Samsonov was marching in the opposite direction, north-west, none of his units encountered I Corps, and Second Army remained oblivious of the Germans’ presence in their rear. After I and XVII Corps had met at Willenburg, Scholtz’s XX Corps closed the trap on the western side. Except for VI Corps which escaped by retiring in south-eastern direction over the Russian border, the whole of Second Army was caught in a huge pocket east of the towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.
The bag amounted to approximately 50,000 Russian casualties and 92,000 prisoners, compared with losses of about 30,000 killed, wounded or missed on the German side. These numbers made the Battle of Tannenberg, as it was named according to Hindenburg’s wishes, a most particular event compared to the battles on the Western front which frequently caused wholesale destruction but so far had rarely yielded significant numbers of prisoners. For the moment, the danger to East Prussia and Silesia was averted, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff hailed as the saviours of the nation.
Rennenkampf, however, proved a tougher customer than Samsonov. When the Germans, now reinforced by the arrival of IX and the Guard Reserve Corps from France, attempted to repeat the encircling manoeuvre against First Army, Rennenkampf managed to evade the German pincers adroitly in what was called the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. On 13 September he was safely back in Russian territory, regrouped, and, reinforced by a new Russian army, the Tenth, conducted a counteroffensive which succeeded in re-establishing a Russian line near the Angerapp River, which was held until February 1915.
      Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 140-41, 142-44, 145, 145-46, 148, 148-49
The German army was still slowing down Allied progress in late October, but, clearly, their stand was the next-to-last act of the drama: something had to give. In the event, it was the Kaiser‘s favourite toy, the High Seas Fleet, the navy.
With the German empire in its death throes, two groups in the German navy, first the admirals, then the seamen, took matters into their own hands. The submarine weapon had been sheathed but the High Seas Fleet remained a powerful force. Enraged by the U-boat decision, Scheer and the Naval Staff decided to use the surface ships in one last offensive thrust, a bold variation on earlier unsuccessful attempts to lure the Grand Fleet over a U-boat ambush. The difference this time was that the Germans intended to fight a battle whether or not the U-boats had managed to reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority.
Further, the German admirals did not care whether the High Seas Fleet won or lost; they cared only that it inflict heavy damage on the Grand Fleet. Hipper agreed with Scheer that “an honourable battle by the fleet – even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.” Besides preserving honour, a battle that inflicted severe damage on the Grand Fleet might also influence the peace negotiations in Germany’s favour. (42)
Kept secret from the German government, the scheme devised to bring everything that floated to bear against the Royal Navy: eighteen Dreadnought-type battleships, five battlecruisers, twelve light cruisers and seventy-two destroyers. The tactical plan was to tempt the Grand Fleet to pursue the High Seas Fleet over a barricade of mines and U-boats, which would reduce the British numerical superiority enough to allow the Germans to win the day or die in glory. To entice the British admiralty’s attention, Hipper, promoted to Fleet Admiral, envisaged raids on British ports and bombardments of coastal cities. A special group of cruisers and destroyers was to rattle the British cage by sailing into the Thames estuary and attacking the local shipping. When the Grand Fleet descended to end the nuisance, the Germans would be ready. Scheer, now naval C-in-C, and Hipper both hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender.” (43)
This was either remarkable optimism or complete delusion. Scheer approved Hipper’s plan on October 27, and twenty-two U-boats headed out to set a trap. The rest of the fleet was called on to assemble in Jade Bay, where their unexpected presence caused ado galore. Instances of desertion had already occurred at Cuxhaven, and continued among the crews of the battleships that arrived in the bay during October 29. The concentration of all the big ships in one port could not mean anything but an operation being laid on, and the scuttlebutt soon confirmed that the next morning would bring the order to weigh anchor. No sailor had doubts as to for what purpose. The crews of the battleships “König“, “Kronprinz Wilhelm“, “Markgraf“, “Kaiserin“, “Thüringen” and “Helgoland” hoisted red flags and thus declared their insurrection; “on all these ships, seamen had no interest in ‘an honourable death for the glory of the fleet’; they wanted surrender, discharge and permission to go home.” (44)
Around 10 pm on October 29, Hipper found most of his fleet inoperative, and when, on the next morning, the mutiny spread to the battleships “Friedrich der Grosse” and “König Albert“, the sortie had to be aborted. To quench further insubordination, Hipper ordered the three battleship squadrons to separate and return to their home ports of Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel. “Thüringen” and “Helgoland”, however, did not move an inch, and Hipper called on a battalion of loyal marine infantry to have their crews arrested, shackled and imprisoned. (45)
Hipper’s attempts at enforcing discipline only stoked the fire, and by dividing the battleship squadrons to three harbours he only succeeded in spreading disobedience further. When the 3rd Squadron arrived at Kiel on November 1, carrying chained seamen by the hundreds, it was greeted by four thousand rebellious mariners and dock hands that had helped themselves to arms by breaking into the well-stocked arsenals and demanded the captives’ release. The next day saw the establishment of provisional sailors’ and workers’ councils, a call for a general strike by the unions, and the taking over of port and town by November 4. A posse of mutineers set out to arrest the commanding admiral, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, Wilhelm’s brother, who…
… was forced to flee for his life, hiding behind a set of false whiskers and the red flag flying on his car. Even so, the car was shot at several times, the driver was seriously wounded, and the Prince was forced to take the wheel himself in a mad dash for the Danish frontier at Flensburg. (46)
Soon the mutiny fostered open calls for revolution, and as coastal vessels spread the message to the smaller port towns, the railways spread the germs of revolt over the country. Committees of revolting sailors and soldiers brought their demands to the burghers of any town they entered: an immediate armistice, the abdication of the Kaiser and the formation of a new, democratic and republican government. Still, the news was sketchy in many places, and in an attempt to find out exactly had happened in Kiel, Chancellor Prince von Baden sent an embassy of two Reichstag deputies to the town: his friend Conrad Haußmann and the former butcher and journalist Gustav Noske, a representative of the Social Democrats. When the emissaries arrived at the town’s railway station, they were greeted by a crowd whose apparent revolutionary resilience convinced Noske to hold an improvised speech in which he essentially promised the listeners that their demands were soon to be met. The same evening he was able to inform Berlin about the details of the revolt, adding that the crowd had elected him to the post of revolutionary governor of Schleswig-Holstein. (47)
In the meantime, suffering on the Western Front was much increased by the return of the so-called Spanish Influenza, which, despite the name, seems to have originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. (48) [FN 1] There had been an early outbreak of influenza in the summer, subtracting about 400,000 soldiers from the already weakened German lines and perhaps a comparable number from the Allied trenches, but the second outbreak proved both more contagious and lethal. Arriving American troop ships brought the epidemic to the great debarkation ports; the soldiers infected the French, who in turn infected the British, and both their POW’s, in turn, infected the Germans.
[FN 1] The Influenza Epidemic of 1918/19 undoubtedly deserves its own blog entry. Please refer to the Wikipedia article in this context.
Oddly, the disease struck hardest at the fittest, particularly young men in their prime. Troopships laden with men packed closely together became floating pest holes. An American convoy arriving at Brest on October 8 in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne campaign had 4,000 men disabled by the flu, with 200 already buried at sea. Two hundred of the sick carried off the “Leviathan” died within days. …
The epidemic posed a dilemma for President Wilson. Since military camps had become hothouses for spreading the infection, orders for 142,000 men scheduled to report for induction late in September were cancelled. Should he, Wilson wondered, also cancel the embarkation of troopships?
On October 8, he met with the army’s gruff chief of staff, General Peyton March, to ask his guidance. Both men accepted that to cram soldiers into the ships was to pass a death sentence on thousands of them. But Pershing was pleading desperately for replacements, especially since he had 150,000 men down with the flu. Just two days before Wilson and March met, Prince Max had made his appeal to the president to bring about peace. Wilson and March recognized that the surest guarantee of defeating the Germans was to continue the deliveries of Americans to France, now swelling to an average of 50,000 weekly. How might the Germans react if they learned that the pressure was off because the American manpower pipeline had shut down? March told Wilson, “Every such soldier who has died [from influenza] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France. The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.” The troopships continued to sail. (49)
On October 27, Prince Max signalled President Wilson that all his demands were to be met. Technically, it was of course not his decision but his cousin’s Wilhelm, but Max had, cautiously, preferred not to inform the Kaiser of the clause in Wilson’s demarche of October 23, which seemed to demand the abolishment of the monarchy. He would cross this particular bridge when he met it. When Turkey asked for an armistice on October 30 and Austria on November 4, Germany was alone in the war. The front still held, miraculously, but in the air hung the smell of revolution. On October 29, Wilhelm left Berlin for the Supreme Command Headquarter at Spa, in the questionable belief that his presence close to the front would improve the soldiers’ panache. But it was the absence, not the presence, of the Imperial person that set things in motion, which set free a sort of rebellious entelechy in the capital, causing the final, decisive, and irreparable dissipation of the Ancien Régime.
“Reds are streaming with every train from Hamburg to Berlin,” Count Harry Kessler, socialite, diplomat and Social Democrat supporter, recorded in his diary on 6 November. “An uprising is expected here tonight. This morning the Russian Embassy was raided like a disreputable pot-house and Joffe [the ambassador] with his staff, departed. That puts paid to the Bolshevik centre in Berlin. But perhaps we shall yet call these people back.” (50)
By the first November week, the mutiny of the sailors had been followed by the insubordination of many garrisons, whose unwillingness to support the failing Prussian state eased the appearance of public uprisings. Local anarchists, Spartacists and Independent Social Democrats proposed various forms of revolution, and councils took over the administration of most big towns. In the first week of November, Red flags were carried through the streets of Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Frankfurt and München. But it was a curiously silent rebellion, the reports agree, that pervaded the streets; violence, nay, even overspirited discussion was strangely absent. That was to change soon enough. The Spartakusbund, German’s Bolsheviks in disguise, had quietly concentrated followers in the capital during the first week of November while their leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, prepared the German Revolution.
Liebknecht’s Father Wilhelm had been a personal friend of Karl Marx and achieved socialist sainthood by becoming a co-founder of the SPD and editor of its newspaper, “Vorwärts” [‘Ahead’]. His son studied law and economy in Leipzig and Berlin before becoming, essentially, a lawyer for the socialist movement. He was elected to the Reichstag for the SPD in 1912 and was the sole member of the socialist camp to vote against war credits in August 1914. When it became clear that the rest of the party would at least temporarily support the government, and hence the war, Liebknecht began to seek sympathizers outside of the party.
For this objective he founded the “Spartakusbund“, the League of Spartacists, named, of course, for the Thracian slave Spartacus who had led the uprising against Rome in 72-70 BC. The “Spartakusbriefe” (‘Spartacus Letters’), the league’s anti-war newspapers, were banned soon enough, and its founder and editor found himself at the Russian front, where he refused to fight and was consequently assigned to a burial detail. Released from service for reasons of health, he went straight back to anti-war propaganda and headed the Socialist Peace Demonstration on May Day 1916 through the streets of Berlin. This time he was charged with high treason and sent to prison for four years, but the sentence was commuted under Prince von Baden’s amnesty for political prisoners of October 1918. As soon as he was back on the streets, he “resumed his leadership of the Spartacists, in partnership with the Polish activist, Rosa Luxemburg.” (51)
Frau Luxemburg was an early apprentice in the business of insurrection; she had been active in the illegal socialist and anti-Czarist movements of pre-war Russia since she was a schoolgirl. (52) Timely escaping the attentions of the Okhrana, she wound up in Switzerland where an affluent lover allowed her to study at the University of Zürich and to subsidize the illegal socialist parties of Poland and Lithuania. She was perhaps the most extreme socialist outside of Russia in these years, advocating global and remorseless revolution. She became a German by marriage in 1903, joined the SPD, and began to throw her weight behind the radical wing. Eventually, she became known as the factotum of the world revolution and was regularly thrown in jail, rescued by her old Swiss flame, and jailed again. She joined Liebknecht immediately after her release by von Baden’s amnesty and began to organize the revolutionary bureaucracy of the Spartacists.
This poisonous pair, like Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, saw the moderate Socialists of the SPD as their principal enemies. “The party must be recaptured from below,” Luxemburg wrote, “by mass rebellion.” Their allies were the anti-war left-wingers who had split from the main SPD in 1917 and formed their own Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and who were only slightly less extreme than the Spartacists. The moderate Socialists responded by sneering at them in “Vorwärts”, contrasting the “pathological instability” of Spartacus with their own “clear-headed and sensible calm.” But while the moderate Socialists were maintaining their sensible calm, the Spartacists were meeting returning troop trains at the rail termini to beg for or buy rifles, pistols and machine guns. (53)
Meanwhile, Prince Max faced the problem of how to end the war and the monarchy without involuntary nurturing the revolution. He concentrated his final efforts on three decisive issues: the replacement of Ludendorff, the deputation of the executive power to a government able to guide the country peacefully through the many changes that were to follow and, a prerequisite for the latter, the abdication of his cousin Wilhelm. On November 9 he appointed General Wilhelm Groener, son of a NCO from Württemberg and a transportation and supply specialist, to Ludendorff’s former post of Chief of Staff and – quite unlawfully – transferred his own office and authority as chancellor of the Reich to the forty-seven-year-old former saddle maker and chairman of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. The remaining task was the most difficult. No civil, much less a government led by socialists, could exercise authority with the discredited emperor still in office.
At this point, Wilhelm was at Spa, the imperial head full of foolish fantasies of how, as soon as an armistice was signed, he would lead his loyal armies back to Germany and restore order. What Prince Max back in Berlin recognized was that, far from being a solution, Wilhelm’s return was the problem. In Metz, the Allies’ next target, 10,000 German soldiers had reportedly mutinied, formed a Soldier’s Council, and taken over the city. Similar overthrows of the old order were erupting all over Germany. … Peace seekers inside Germany accepted that the only act that would prevent the masses from swinging over to the radicals was the removal of the country’s discredited monarch. (54)
In the last ten days since his arrival at Spa, Wilhelm had successfully managed to avoid the intrusions of reality and maintained that abdication was out of the question. Not quite used to being contradicted, the Kaiser refused to listen to the explanations of Prince Max’s messenger Drews, Prussian Minister of the Interior. He had “no intention of quitting the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workmen. Tell that to your masters in Berlin.” (55)
Baden recognized that he had to talk to his cousin in person. On the evening of November 8, he called Wilhelm on the telephone and tried to cut through the Kaiser’s obstinacy by making clear that, in lieu of Wilhelm’s abdication, civil war was to ravage the country. The emperor did not believe a word. It was inconceivable, he riposted, that the army would refuse to follow him. In addition, since it was Prince Max who had asked Wilson for an armistice, not Wilhelm himself, he felt quite unconcerned. “You sent out the armistice offer,” he said, “you will also have to accept the conditions.” (56) On the next morning, November 9, the leadership of the army, Hindenburg and Groener, called at the Hotel Britannique in Spa to pay their sovereign a final, necessary visit.
In Spa, on 9 November, the Emperor met the leaders of his army, the institution through which the Hohenzollern dynasty had risen to power, and to which it had always looked to sustain its dignity and authority. Wilhelm II still believed that, whatever disloyalties were being transacted by civilian politicians in Berlin, whatever affronts to order disturbed the streets, his subjects in field-grey remained true to their oath of military obedience. Even on 9 November, he continued to delude himself that the army could be used against the people and the royal house preserved by turning German against German.
His generals knew otherwise. Hindenburg, the wooden titan, heard him out in silence. Groener, the workaday railway transport officer, son of a sergeant, who had replaced Ludendorff, found the sense to speak. He knew, from soundings taken among fifty regimental commanders, that the soldiers now wanted “only one thing – an armistice at the earliest possible moment.” The price of that, to the House of Hohenzollern, was the Kaiser’s abdication. The Kaiser heard him with continuing incredulity. What about, he asked, the Oath of Allegiance, on the regimental colours, which bound every German soldier to die rather than disobey? Groener uttered the unutterable. “Today,” he said, “the Oath of Allegiance is only a few meaningless words.” (57)
In the chancellery in Berlin, unable to follow events in distant Spa, von Baden consulted Ebert on the situation on the streets. Ebert warned that unless the abdication could be effected with speed, a coup d ‘état by Spartacists and USPD became more likely every hour. Since Prince Max was aware that the monarchy was finished willy-nilly, he dictated, in antecedence of actuality, to an employee of the Wolff Telegraph Office in Berlin a message stating that “The Kaiser and King has resolved to renounce the throne.” (58)
When the sensational cable was brought to the attention of the party in Spa within minutes, Wilhelm exploded in a diatribe against all traitors, civilian or military, but was forced to realize that the game was up. At 3:30 pm, on Saturday, November 9, 1918, he relinquished the throne, and the Second Empire had come to its end, forty-seven years and ten months after its inception in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. On Hindenburg’s advice, Wilhelm left for exile in the early morning hours of November 10, to Castle Amerongen in the Netherlands, the seat of Count Godard Bentinck, who would be his host for the next twenty-three years. (59)
Meanwhile, events in the capital precipitated head over heels. Philip Scheidemann, vice chairman of the SPD, had rushed from the chancellery to the Reichstag to inform his colleagues of Ebert’s appointment. Having a well-deserved lunch in the cafeteria, he was informed that Spartakus and USPD had summoned their followers to the Emperor’s town palace, ostensibly for the proclamation of the revolution and the launch of the German Socialist Soviet Republic. Speed was of the essence.
Scheidemann stormed to the terrace outside the Reichstag library where he was cheered by a crowd vacillating between hope and apprehension. Improvising, Scheidemann informed the people about the Ebert appointment and the creation of a new, republican and democratic government, and ended his brief address with the words: “The rotten old monarchy has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!” (60) Meanwhile, Spartacist delegations had appeared in factories, barracks and caserns and mobilized a crowd of thousands of supporters, who were marched to meet at the Royal Palace. Liebknecht greeted the revolutionary assembly from the balcony of the building, whence formerly the Kaiser had addressed his subjects:
“Comrades!” he cried. “The red flag flies over Berlin! The proletariat is marching. The reign of capitalism which has turned Europe into a graveyard is over. We must summon our strength to build a new government of workers and peasants, to create a new order of peace and happiness and freedom not merely for our brothers in Germany but for the whole world. Whoever is resolved not to cease from the fight until the Free Socialist Republic and the world revolution shall be realized, let him raise his hand and swear!” The crowd roared back “We swear!” But Liebknecht was two hours too late. (61)
Ebert had acted quickly and already persuaded the USPD, Liebknecht’s sole possible supporters, to enter into a coalition with the SPD by offering the smaller party an equal share, three of six posts, in the provisional government. The new executive power was named Council of People’s Commissars and was expected to share the administration with the workers’ and soldiers’ councils of the capital until a national assembly could enact a constitution and subsequently install a legitimate government. Ebert’s cautious manoeuvring also persuaded the liberal and Catholic interests in the capital and much of the country to support the formerly dreaded SPD as a mainstay of the new republic, and thus the government had at least the legitimacy of the popular backing.
That was, if the revolution could be kept at bay. This indeed seemed to be the case: except for a few skirmishes on Saturday evening and Sunday, November 10, Berlin remained quiet, and, the issue of a German republic now advanced from the realm of possibility to actuality, the eyes of the nation returned to the Western Front. The war was still going on, and the Allied Supreme Command had already scheduled the next offensive, against Metz, for November 14, and further attacks were planned far into 1915.
Pershing, now commanding close to two million doughboys, seemed to long for an augmentation of his military prestige by the conquest of Sedan, which was by far the most attractive target on the south-eastern part of the front. It was the town where the Prussian army had beaten the French in 1870 and taken Napoleon III and 100,000 poilus prisoners-of-war.
Meanwhile, Prince Max had dispatched a delegation for the negotiation of the armistice to the French trenches near Haudroy on November 7. The party was headed by Matthias Erzberger, chairman of the German Catholic Centre Party, which supported von Baden’s informal government. He was a known pacifist and the sole well-known face in the German deputation which, except for him, consisted of mid-level functionaries of the Foreign Service, Army and Navy. (62) The embassy was taken, by train, to a railway coach in the Forest of Compiègne, sixty-five kilometres north-east of Paris, and the expected gruff treatment delivered by Foch and General Weygand. The armistice conditions were laid out as follows:
All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany, must be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometres deep; German forces must be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. She was to be stripped of heavy armament, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 aeroplanes.
The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though their people already faced famine, the Allies intended to paralyse the country’s transportation by continuing the naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. Weygand droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded she pay reparations for all damage caused. (63)
The German delegation was given a seventy-two hours deadline and an opportunity to convey the Allied demands by radio to Berlin. Erzberger realized that the conditions imposed were far too acrimonious to be entrusted to the radio, which might be monitored, and only informed Prince Max that a courier was on the way. Then he asked for a preliminary suspension of combat until a reply was received, pointing out that four thousand lives or more a day could thus be saved. Foch refused, as a favour to Pershing, who, furious that his grand design of conquering Germany was being foiled, insisted on fighting to the last minute; to the greater glory of the American Expeditionary Forces and his own command.
The Erzberger mission overnighted in the Forest of Compiègne near Foch’s railway coach, drafting letters of protest they hoped might have a moderating influence on the Allied conditions. At 8 pm on November 10, they received a French report of an intercepted message from Berlin which confirmed Erzberger’s plenipotentiary powers and authorized him to sign the instrument of truce.
A second message was received, from Hindenburg, verifying the authenticity of the first signal and instructing Erzberger to try to have the naval blockade lifted, for the sake of the starving women and children. At 2 am the next morning, November 11, the German deputation was led back to the railway car for a second round of discussions.
Foch, however, remained intransigent, and the sole moderation of terms Erzberger achieved was that the Allies “would contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the Armistice as shall be found necessary.” (64) The cease-fire was signed just after 5 am, to take effect by 11:00 of the same day, six hours hence, and the meeting was adjourned. All that remained for the soldiers on both sides of the wire was to spend six more hours in their trenches and the slaughter would be over.
That is, for everyone except the AEF, which was directed by Pershing to continue the attacks scheduled for the day without regard of the armistice taking effect at 11:00. Since Foch had informed all Allied commanders, including Pershing, in advance of the conditions of the truce, it was clear that whatever ground could be gained in a last-minute offensive would be ground the Germans were obliged to give up within two weeks anyway.
Pershing did inform his regimental and division commanders that a ceasefire was to take effect on 11:00, but directed his chief of staff that, between 5:00 and 11:00, the AEF was “to take every advantage of the situation.” (65) Nine out of sixteen U.S. division commanders on the Western Front interpreted the absence of specific orders as an incentive to launch the scheduled attacks; seven refrained from further jeopardizing their men lives and limbs.
Thus, nine U.S. divisions attacked the enemy on the morning of November 11, and since the Germans were forced to defend themselves whether they wanted or not, almost 11,000 casualties were unnecessarily added to the total of the war’s losses. With more than 2700 men dead at the end of these few hours, the last day exceeded the average daily toll of 2,000 dead by far.
Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus, the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 per cent higher than those on D-Day. There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided. (66)
At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, the guns ceased fire along the Western Front. But it was only in the aftermath of the great conflict that the members of the old Imperial houses realized for how long, in truth, their relevance had diminished without their notice. For it turned out that the power of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynasties had not ended in February 1917 or November 1918, but in the summer of 1914 or even earlier – in their driving the old continent into war and pestilence they had, alas, overlooked the shadows of nationalism and socialism lingering in the rear mirror, forces eager to embrace the Imperial inheritance.
    Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 773, 775, 775, 776
 Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, p. 418-419
            Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, pp. 303, 304-5, 315-16, 316, 317, 318, 318, 306, 307-8, 323, 325, 378-9
    52]    Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32
Katharina Mathilde Krüger was born either November 9, 1912 in Cologne-Kalk or, as other sources claim, September 11, 1914 in Berlin, and went on to become an actress. Her best-known pre-war German movie showed her starring in the anti-Semitic UFA film Don’t lose Heart, Suzanne!, whereupon Joseph Goebbels, the “Buck of Babelsberg” (the studio town) became her patron and/or lover – Old Joe was not a believer in the accurate separation of business and personal affairs, as we know.
Although she acted in about a dozen other UFA productions, she went to Hollywood in 1940, living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel , where, as the gossip had it, her first American lover, J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, paid the bills. Getty was married five times and known as a ladies’ man, and Nazi sympathizer, too.
But the acting bombed. Her English left a lot to be desired, her acting perhaps as well. She quickly substituted Getty with Gert von Gontard, who, as heir to the Budweiser brewery, was suitably rich, and lived with him for a year.
We do not know what exactly happened thereafter – maybe the pair was bothered too much by the clumsy plots of the American police or perhaps there were relationship problems – but at some point in 1940, Hilde was recruited by the German “Abwehr” (Military Intelligence) and sent to Mexico, which was an interesting target for the German war economy because of its oil. Since Mexico’s President Lazaro Cardenas had nationalized all foreign oil companies in 1938 and the former owners, England, the USA and the Netherlands had subsequently imposed an embargo on Mexican crude oil, two-thirds of its production went to Germany.
So it came that Mrs. Krüger pulled up on February 9, 1941, at the border crossing Nuevo Laredo, in her luggage carrying a letter of recommendation from her good friend Mr. Getty. In no time she had settled in the high-society of Mexico-City and generals, business leaders and politicians in the country fell for the peroxide-blonde Nazi bombshell. Her first conquest was Ramón Beteta, Under-Secretary of the Treasury, but she became rather quickly the mistress of the Secretary of the Interior and subsequent Mexican President, Miguel Aleman. The besotted Mr. Alemán rented a love nest and visited her almost every night, as noted carefully by the FBI. Apparently, Hilde also snuggled with influential General Juán Almazán and Foreign Minister Ezekiel Padilla – the whole Mexican government had fallen hook, line, and sinker. As a quid pro quo, her patrons arranged a few roles for her in several Mexican films.
After being in business for a year, she was arrested at the instigation of the USA but soon was released by the intercession of her patrons. To avoid deportation, she quickly married a Mr. Nacho de la Torre, the grandson of former President Porfirio Díaz.
The spy business was great. The Secretary of the Interior issued about three hundred visas to German spies; mercury – important for the German war effort – was loaded on German submarines at the port of Veracruz and as much oil smuggled through Panama as the pumps could carry.
Until 1946 she lived with her playboy husband in the lap of luxury, but soon after her old friend Alemán became president, she exchanged Mr. Torre for a heavier calibre, the Venezuelan Julio Lobo Olavarría, sugar king of Cuba, with whom she went to Spain. But the subsequent marriage lasted only a year. In 1958, she appeared once again in German cinemas, in the Swiss comedy “Eine Rheinfahrt, die ist lustig.”
There is a documentation of Nazi espionage in Mexico on YouTube, “La red nazi en México” by Sebastián Gamba, Mexico in 2010, unfortunately only in the Spanish original (link).
She died in 1991 during a visit at home or 2008 in New York, no one knows for sure. Overall, she made fourteen films in Germany, four in Mexico and one in Switzerland.
Despite the deteriorating situation at the home front – over a million workers had participated in strikes as early as in January 1918, and hundreds of women and children succumbed each day to malnutrition – the German army regained much of its spirit in the late summer of 1918, and the subsequent Allied offensives launched in late September proceeded, “to Foch’s irritation,” (29) rather slowly. In the centre of the front, a combined Franco-British offensive advanced past the Hindenburg Line by the second week of October, but the attack in Flanders, around Ypres, struggled mightily against continuing resistance of Rupprecht’s Bavarians and it took three weeks to capture Lille, only ten miles behind the front. The American offensives around Verdun and the Argonne Forest remained inconsequential for the outcome of the war: while the First U.S. Army was able to make good a few miles in the direction of Sedan, without ever reaching it, the Second U.S. Army made practically no gains at all east of the Meuse against Army Group Gallwitz.
But whatever defensive successes the German army achieved, they could only delay the loss of the war, not avoid it. The numerical strength of the defenders had shrunk to less than 2.5 million men by October, and few replacements were available although the German army continued to draft in fresh recruits until November 6. (30) It seems that on September 28, Ludendorff could no longer defy reality. After a tormented philippic against the Kaiser, the government, the army, the navy, and the universe that conspired against him, he informed Hindenburg that the war was lost and an armistice had to be secured forthwith. On the next day, a second conference was called at Spa; present were Wilhelm, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Hertling and the new Foreign Secretary Paul von Hintze.
After protracted discussion, it was resolved that, in the face of the virtually unlimited American resources of men and materiel, the war could not be won. Germany’s allies were at the brink of disintegration – Bulgaria had already capitulated and Austro-Hungarian as well as Turkish troops refused to fight – and no hope remained to avoid defeat. In these circumstances, the conclave set out to go on a little fishing expedition, to identify the most desirable peace terms that might be obtained. It was remembered that, on January 8, 1918, the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had illustrated his ideas of peace and a new world order to the U.S. Congress and the world press in the famous “Fourteen Points”.
The points essentially propounded an international order in which relations between nations must be transparent, colonial peoples should determine how and by whom they would be ruled, the seas would be open, free trade was to prevail, and a world government, a league of nations, would be formed. The Fourteen Points also set the price Germany must pay for peace. It must give up every inch of territory taken in this war as well as Alsace-Lorraine, seized from France nearly half a century before. (31)
The participants of the conference perused with alacrity Wilson’s words regarding the most decisive issues, those of financial consequences and of loss or gain of territories.
There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages. … National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self-determination” is … an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril. (32)
Wilson’s suggestions were deemed quite acceptable, but the Kaiser and the generals still entertained the hope that Alsace-Lorraine and Poland could be retained. However, as a public demonstration of Germany’s instant peacefulness, the Kaiser accepted the resignation of seventy-five years old chancellor Hertling and, on October 3, appointed in his stead his fifty-one year old cousin, Prince Max von Baden.
Most histories depict the new chancellor as a “liberal” because Ludendorff called him that; but Prince Max was a liberal only in the sense that Nero and Caligula were liberals if compared to Attila the Hun. He was, of course, a staunch monarchist and had zero sympathies for liberal or, worse, socialist reforms, but he was not, like his brother-in-law Wilhelm, ignorant of reality. (33) He had, it was true, once served on the committee of the German Red Cross and in 1917 publicly mentioned the possibility of a negotiated peace, and thus he was far less compromised when contacting Wilson than, say, Ludendorff or Wilhelm himself would have been.
Prince Max understood the urgency of decorating the German government with a few democratic faces; by yesterday, if possible. He approached the major parties of the Reichstag, and, by appealing to their patriotism, secured the support of the Liberals, the Catholic Centre and, for the first time in history, the SPD, two of whose deputies joined the Baden government. (34) The new administration set out to work on minor democratic changes to the old Imperial constitution and on October 5, von Baden notified the American government, via Switzerland, that Germany sought an armistice based on the Fourteen Points.
The first reply was received on October 8 from Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who imposed, on his president’s behalf, the immediate withdrawal of German troops from the occupied parts of Belgium and France as an initial condition for an eventual armistice. Baden promised to fulfil the demand in his reply of October 12, and German evacuations began the very next day.
On October 14, a second note, this time by Wilson, demanded the end of the “illegal and inhuman practices,” (35) of the German submarines, and Baden managed to shut down the U-boats by October 20, against the bitter resistance of the admiralty. It must be noted, however, that neither Wilson nor any other U.S. representative ever demanded to shut down the, apparently legal and humane, continental blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.
A third note was received on October 16, and it did put the new chancellor into a quandary. Since it seemed to imply his cousin Wilhelm, Prince Max faced an awkward predicament. The memorandum demanded that the “arbitrary powers” which threatened the “peace of the world” were to be disposed of before formal negotiations could be initiated, which von Baden and his cabinet interpreted as demanding the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm at the very least, perhaps even the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a German republic. This diagnosis was supported by another missive that reached Berlin on October 23, and explained that if the United States “must deal with the military masters and monarchical autocrats of Germany, it must demand, not peace negotiations, but surrender.” (36)
This clumsy message, quite unprecedented in diplomatic custom, was a political bomb of the biggest magnitude and occasioned consequences greater than perhaps any other diplomatic document of the 20th Century. At the time Wilson penned his note, diplomatic convention regarded the inner affairs of a sovereign country as a taboo which might be commented on, perhaps, in private whispers from ambassador to ambassador at informal functions, but not become the subject of an official note to the head of a government. For every German monarchist or nationalist, and there were still lots of them around, Wilson’s note was an insult of epic proportion, an affront to the country’s sovereignty and a pique to all those who had lost loved ones in the war. It was, literally, unheard-of.
The catastrophic consequences of the note can hardly be exaggerated. Whether President Wilson had composed the missive in blissful American naiveté or in an ill-starred miscue, perhaps merely intending to strengthen the liberal and democratic elements in Germany cannot now be ascertained, but the results of his note provided, as we will see, a fantastic pretext and absolution to the guilty while the future German republic was fatefully tainted from her inception by having to shoulder the burden of a lost war she was not in the least responsible for.
The outcome of Wilson’s note, without which the republic could not have been born in the same confused way, facilitated the creation of the two most resilient phantoms of subsequent nationalist, right-wing and finally Nazi propaganda, the myths of the “Stab in the Back” and the legend of the “November Criminals”. As soon as the armistice was signed, the men responsible for the disaster disappeared: Wilhelm went to exile in the Netherlands, Ludendorff fled to Denmark, disguised in mufti and a false beard, and Hindenburg and the other prominent generals took to diving stations. The innocent representatives of the new republic which signed the armistice and, eventually, the peace treaty, were vilified as traitors and some of them subsequently murdered.
The unfortunate consequences of Wilson’s note not only proved that the USA were “not quite as magnanimous as they had promised,” (37) they created arguments which were to lead from the First directly to the Second War. It was uncalled-for one state to dictate policy to another: we have seen how much the trifling matter of allowing a few Austrian detectives or not into Serbia to investigate Francis Ferdinand’s assassination had become a raison de guerre. To make it worse, Wilson’s procedures were deceptive and might be called extortionate – certainly not an auspicious start into his golden age of peace, love and understanding. His tactic of negotiation was mala fide from the beginning: designed to get the opponent’s most important concessions right from the start, and to get cheaply what otherwise would have to be obtained at great cost: the withdrawal of the German army from France and Belgium and the cessation of the U-boat campaign.
The problem was that Wilson’s demands later allowed nationalists, monarchists and militarists alike to claim that the war had not really been lost: that the German army had “never been defeated in the field”, since no foreign soldier, with the exception of Rennenkampf’s and Samsonov’s Russians in East Prussia 1914, had ever set foot on the Fatherland’s soil. Hence, the armistice was unnecessary and treasonous, as was the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, signed by the “November Criminals”, i.e. the government of the German Republic that had stepped in after Wilhelm and his cronies had absquatulated themselves. Thus, the right-wing clamoured, the republic had signed away the nation’s honour.
Prince Baden realized that the dismissal of Ludendorff, who, despite his deceptively spurious rank of First Quartermaster General was the real military dictator of the country, was priority number one, especially since the general had brazenly overstepped his authority. The day after Baden received Wilson’s calamitous message, Ludendorff sensed an opportunity to prolong the war and hence his own authority. Since, against expectations, the German front had not collapsed after the “Black Day” at Amiens and the military situation had somewhat improved in the meantime, Ludendorff took the opportunity to address his troops in an order of the day. The bulletin defined the Fourteen Points and Baden’s request for an armistice based thereon as a hidden “demand for unconditional surrender. It is thus unacceptable to us soldiers. It proves that our enemy’s desire for our destruction, which let loose the war in 1914, still exists undiminished. It can thus be nothing for us soldiers but a challenge to continue our resistance with all our strength.” (38)
An unknown staff officer moved quickly to suppress the circular, but one copy escaped destruction to reach OBEROST, the Eastern command, where the signal officer on duty, a Social Democrat, secured it and forwarded it to the party’s headquarter in Berlin, whence it found its way to the press. Ludendorff’s unauthorized note was foul play at the very least, perhaps outright treason, and von Baden realized that any basis for peace negotiations would be compromised as long as the quasi-dictator remained in office. The broad support Baden enjoyed in the Reichstag enabled him to call upon the Kaiser and to make it clear that it was either Ludendorff or himself. On October 26, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were ordered to Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where Ludendorff was forced to tender his resignation, which the emperor thanklessly accepted. Baden, who knew a double-dealer when he saw one, had prior to the meeting elicited Ludendorff’s written admission that no chance remained to win the war by military means and hence could avoid the simultaneous firing of both the leading generals. When Hindenburg offered his own withdrawal from command, Wilhelm ordered him to remain. (39) The story goes, perhaps apocryphal, that when Ludendorff returned to his hotel room in the evening, he told his wife that: “In a fortnight we shall have no Empire and no Emperor left, you will see.” (40)
He was right. It took exactly fourteen days.
(29) (38) (40) Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 413, 414, 414
(30) (32) (34) (37) Weitz, Eric, Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-01695-5, pp. 16, 15, 15, 16
(31) Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 290
(33) Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 26
(35) (36) (39) Massie,Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003 ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 772, 772, 773
The cardinal difference between the Great War of 1914 and earlier European wars lay in its objective, which in turn changed its scale. For no longer were wars waged for the gain of a slice of territory somewhere, or like Bismarck’s, for specific aims and with limited means: the war of 1914 was for “all or nothing.” Germany, it was alleged, challenged Great Britain’s status as the dominant power in the world save the Americas, and there was no consolation prize. The totality of a country’s resources had to be subordinated to the goal of eventual victory, and in this sense the war of 1914 was the first “Total War”, although the phrase itself would not be coined until twenty-nine years later. The winner-takes-all approach also accounts for the extensive lists of “war aims” that the contenders put together for the sake of convincing the public that the prize was worth the slaughter.
The final chapter of the cataclysm began with the German offensives of Spring 1918. Read PDF …
In early January 1918, a few industrial workers in Berlin began to strike for an end of the war, and their protest forced the SPD (the Social Democrats) to reconsider her position somewhat. In the initial enthusiasm of August 1914, the party had accepted Kaiser Wilhelm’s appeal for national unity in times of peril and voted for war credits, but the rigours of rationing, the vicissitudes of war production and the growing inflation gnawed at their supporters’ loyalty. In many factories, work days of twelve to fourteen hours were the norm, seven days a week. Had the wages been adequate, or, rather, had there been goods to be purchased in the first place, the hardships might have been obliged with more tolerance, but under the trauma of a fourth winter at war, even moderate socialists felt a need for action. Their displeasure at the economic conditions, which were largely the consequence of Hindenburg’s and Ludendorff’s neglect of the agricultural sector, was shared by the liberal bourgeois parties, which also objected to the arrogance with which the generals ran the country. A mood of protest slowly emanated from the trenches of France and Belgium but soon…
… spread to Germany itself, which had been under a virtual military dictatorship for several months, and on Monday, January 28, 1918, workers throughout Germany went on strike. Peace was their main demand, but they also insisted on workers’ representation in negotiations with the Allies, increased food rations, the abolition of martial law, and a democratic government throughout Germany. In Munich and Nuremberg only a few thousand workers marched through the streets petitioning for immediate peace without annexation, but in Berlin 400,000 workers walked out of their shops to organize a strike committee.
Within a week they were forced back to work but a spirit of rebellion had come alive in the capital and it seemed only a question of time before full-scale revolution would break out. News of the general strike was received with mixed feelings at the front. Many of the soldiers were as war-weary and disgusted as those back at home but almost as many felt they had been betrayed by their own civilians.
Hitler called it “the biggest piece of chicanery in the whole war.” He was incensed at the “slackers and Reds.” What was the army fighting for if the homeland itself no longer wanted victory? For whom the immense sacrifices and privations? “The soldier is expected to fight for victory and the homeland goes on strike against it.” [John Toland, Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992, ISBN 0-385-42053-6, p. 69]
Hitler’s first visit to Berlin had occurred a few weeks before the strike, but when he paced through the capital for the second time, on November 19, 1918, the commotion of the previous week had already subsided, but the massacre of December 6 was more than two weeks in the future. In this incident, a demonstration by Spartacists turning around a street corner suddenly faced a line of machine guns manned by soldiers from the Maybug barracks [FN1], who fired at everything that moved for five minutes before retreating to the safety and anonymity of the garrison and leaving the dead, wounded and dying to their fate. It was never found out who the killers were. Between these revolutionary hiccups, Hitler returned safely to Munich in but found, to his astonishment, that much had changed since November 7.
[FN1] “Maybugs” was the name for the Garde-Füsilier-Regiment, the marksmen regiment of the Prussian Guards, for their insignia.
During the war, the Bavarian socialist movement had split, as in most other German states, into a large moderate wing which retained the name of SPD and a smaller radical group, the USPD (“U” for unabhängig, i.e. independent). In Bavaria, this split had occurred under the orchestration of a Bavarian delegate to the SPD convention at Gotha in April 1917, Kurt Eisner. At this convention, arguments over the support of the war resulted in schism and when Eisner returned to München, he was elected chairman of the Bavarian USPD. Both parties were represented in the Bavarian Diet, which existed since 1819 but lacked effective legislative authority, which remained with the king. Bavaria was a mostly rural country in the first half of the 19th Century, but with the flourishing of the German industry in the next sixty years, and especially when munitions, vehicle and ironware factories multiplied during the war, so did the influence of the socialist parties. More daringly than their comrades in Berlin, the Bavarian Socialists introduced a reform bill proposing wide-reaching demands in September 1917: the abolition of the Senate, the parliamentary playground of the nobility, and of nobility itself, the introduction of general suffrage, legislative emancipation of the Diet and the separation of Church and State.
The bill died quick by royal veto, but in the country-wide strikes of January 1918, the Bavarian USPD was able to mobilize the streets to a degree the government judged far too dangerous. The USPD’s public faces were subsequently arrested, among them the free spirit of Kurt Eisner.
For most of his working life Eisner had been a drama critic. During the war he founded the Independent Socialist Party in Bavaria, and in January 1918, he took a leading role in the strikes that plagued München. Arrested and thrown into prison, he was released during the last days of the war. His friend Ernst Toller [the playwright] described him as a man who had been poor, self-sufficient, and detached throughout his life. He was small and slight; grey hair that had once been fair fell in a confused tangle to his coat collar, and an untidy beard straggled over his chest; short-sighted eyes looked out calmly from his deeply lined face. He had a sense of drama, a caustic wit, and was totally without arrogance. [Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers 1973, Lib. Con. 72-92891, p. 122]
He was accused of being a Bolshevik, which he certainly was not. He was what his party card stated, an independent socialist: less of a follower of stringent doctrine than a man perceiving the incompetent rule of the nobility and a system breaking apart under social injustice and the privations of four years of war. When the right-wing press denounced him of being a Bolshevik activist who had received ten million gold roubles, from Lenin himself, in furtherance of the German revolution, he took the reporters to his bank and presented a copy of his expense account: his out-of-pocket disbursals for the “Bavarian Revolution” amounted to seventeen marks. The annals of man know not a cheaper revolution.
King Ludwig III had been aware of the portents of turmoil in the dying days of the war. In a belated attempt to save the monarchy, the king consented to a reform bill which brought a few liberal but largely cosmetic changes. Five days later, on the morning of November 7, 1918, representatives of the SPD, the Catholic Farmers and the Democratic Party joined the Royal Bavarian government for the first time.
Although the Bavarian police had warned of revolutionary conspiracies, the Munich magistrate permitted, on the same afternoon, a joint demonstration of SPD and USPD (the Independent Social Democrats) on the Theresienwiese, the great expanse which accommodates the annual Oktoberfest. The numerous troops of the Munich garrison were believed to be reliably monarchist and patriotic enough so that public safety seemed assured. The event began at 3 pm and soon more than 80,000 listeners filled the great oval. At the conclusion of the occasion, two hours later, the moderates left the grounds to march to the city centre, while the more extreme elements, in particular Kurt Eisner’s USPD, remained, joined by many radical soldiers and sailors who had already dumped their imperial cockades.
Eisner recognized an opportunity. His followers were at the northern end of the venue, in proximity to the garrison barracks in the north-west of the town, whither he headed, followed by perhaps 2,000 men. It soon became a revolutionary lindworm, more and more soldiers joining along the way to the major army depots. There was a minute of confusion and shooting at the big casern at the Türkenstraße, but when the majority of the troops stationed there declared for the revolution, Eisner had won. The throng he led back to the town centre was by now perhaps 5,000 men strong.
Around 7 pm, revolutionary soldiers appeared at the plaza of the Residence, the Wittelsbach town palace, and an anxious royal family was informed by the War Minister, Philipp von Hellingrath, that, since a large majority, perhaps all, of the Munich garrison troops had declared for the rebellion, no loyal units were available to protect the throne. The Palace Guard had mysteriously disappeared in the early evening, and the King’s Own Guard Regiment lingered passively in their barracks despite having been urgently alarmed. At around 10 pm, the king, his family and trusted retainers left the capital, on the advice of Court Minister Ritter von Dandl, to seek refuge at the family castle of Wildenwart at the Chiemsee Lake. A few miles south of the city, the king’s car slid off the road and mired itself in a potato field. It was a fitting end for the House of Wittelsbach.
Meanwhile, delegations of revolutionary soldiers proceeded to seize the city’s strategic assets without encountering resistance: by late evening the central railway station, the telegraph office, the Bavarian army command and other important military and municipal buildings as well as the parliament and the newspaper bureaus were in Red hands. Those units of army and police that had not gone over to the rebels remained passive and allowed the revolution to organize itself by means of mass meetings in the late hours of the day. A preliminary gathering of rebels was held in the Franziskaner beer cellar, but the second, more decisive meeting took place, in the heart of the city, at the gigantic Mathäserbräu tavern that could seat five thousand guests easily but in this night perhaps saw more than twice that number.
Soldiers and sailors convened on the first floor and elected a council, while the workers met on the ground floor and elected their own representatives. The delegates of both councils then merged and formed a general “Workers’, Soldiers’ and Farmers’ Council“, initially chaired by Franz Schmitt of the SPD. At around 10 pm, Eisner, Schmitt and the councillors plus a small armed guard moved over the Isar River to the parliament building. Chairing the improvised meeting, and without formal ado, Eisner took the office of Minister President of Bavaria, and, in the wee hours of the morning of November 8, 1918, proclaimed theFree Bavarian Socialist Soviet Republic. A few hours later, the burghers of Munich, who had gone to bed in a kingdom, awoke in a republic, and a socialist one to boot.
In the afternoon of the same day, November 8th, the parliament building hosted the first session of the temporary National Council, which was to establish a provisional government. The assembly included the councillors, the former members of parliament of the SPD and the Bavarian Farmer Party and three former liberal deputies. The plenum faced initial objections from the delegates of the SPD. The Social Democrats had been loyal, to a degree, to the Ancien Régime and favoured reforms, not revolution; a protracted debate was necessary to convince their members to join and support the provisional government. On the next day, Minister President Eisner and his newly minted ministers took over the executive power in Bavaria. Not a single act of insubordination occurred: all state servants, government employees, police and military acquiesced to the orders of the new government without reserve.
Munich set the standard for the country.
The flames of orderly revolution were igniting spontaneously throughout Germany. In Friedrichshafen workers at the Zeppelin plant formed a council. The factory workers in the Stuttgart area, including the vast Daimler motor works, struck and, led by socialists with views similar to Eisner’s, made similar demands. Sailors engineered revolt in Frankfurt am Main. At Kassel, the entire garrison, including a commanding officer, revolted without the benefit of bullets.
There were a few shots fired in Cologne when the garrison of 45,000 went Red, but order quickly settled over the city. A civilian revolt in Hanover succeeded even though authorities ordered troops to use force; instead the soldiers joined the rebels. It was the same in Düsseldorf, Leipzig and Magdeburg. Government after government throughout Germany collapsed as workers’ and soldiers’ councils took control. [Toland, p. 72]
Eventually, the eyes of the nation turned to Berlin, in the anticipation that the success or failure of a German socialist republic would be decided there. Unlike in Russia, where Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had split over the question of reform vs. revolution well ahead of the war, the German socialists had not separated until 1917, when the revolutionary wing split off and formed the USPD. Still, even if counting in their cousins of the Spartacus League, they represented probably less than ten per cent of the socialist spectrum, but their clamour portended a schism of the socialist government in Berlin. Potentially worse, countrywide elections giving the women of the nation full suffrage for the first time were scheduled for January 19, 1919, and the radical wing had no illusions of the possible outcome. No, if they wanted power, they had to try the coup d’état.
But things were not quite there yet. In these November and December days, most of the workers, soldiers and sailors were less interested in dogmatic quarrels but in the end of war and hunger, reunion with families and loved ones, and the vagaries of getting a job. Since the Imperial government had collapsed, self-organization was the motto of the moment, and so it came that …
Berlin remained in a state of confusion … with various groups all claiming authority: Friedrich Ebert’s Council of People’s Commissars in the Chancellery [the government recognized by the Allies], the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the Reichstag, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Berlin in the Prussian Landtag building, Eichhorn’s [the self-proclaimed (USPD) police commissioner of Berlin] 3,000 strong “Security Service” in police headquarters on Alexanderplatz, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and, of course, Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s alternative Spartacist government in the Royal Palace, supported by a volunteer force of about 2,000 Red sailors based in the Royal Stables and calling themselves the Peoples’ Naval Division.
There were daily street demonstrations, mass meetings and spasmodic gunfights, and virtually every day until Christmas another returning division from the regular army marched back through the Brandenburg Gate and up the Unter den Linden before dissolving into the crowds. [Anthony Read, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 47]
Irrespectively of the political transience of the times, the majority of these bodies went on to implement socialist aspirations they had demanded in vain from the German princes. The workday was limited to eight hours, labour unions were granted unrestricted rights of organization and bargaining, workplace accident coverage was raised, retirement plans expanded, sickness and unemployment insurance premiums lowered or services augmented. Many of these programs were still in their toddler stages, but they became the stepping stones of proletarian emancipation. Political prisoners were released and the censorship of press and theatre abolished. Against the warnings of capitalist Cassandras, of which there were quite a few, it turned out that this could all be paid for, once normality was restored, by enforcing the existing tax code with the proviso that the tax privileges of the Junkers and the nobility were to be revoked. German social legislation became the envy of the workers of the world.
Hitler confessed later that he respected the social reforms, which he considered inevitable in the long run, and some of his ensuing dicta leave us with the strong suspicion that he sympathized considerably with the Social Democrats in these days. “For what I am grateful to the Social Democrats,” he said, “is that they got rid of the interests of court and nobility.” [Anton Joachimsthaler, Korrektur einer Biographie, Langen Müller 1989, ISBN 3-7766-1575-3, p. 181]
But the confused but largely harmless designs of the various socialist governments-to-be and their committees and councils could flourish only as long as true revolutionary groups could be held at bay. Ebert understood that the executive power of his government remained questionable without armed support, and he knew his former comrades who had gone over to the Spartacists too well to believe they would relinquish the revolutionary option, given that they could not hope to win the election. But they had guns, and if they attempted the coup d’état against unarmed opponents, by whom could they be stopped? The only apparent alternative was support from the regular army.
The Social Democrats had always maintained a critical distance to the military, which, after all, had often enough been used in their suppression. Now, that the war had been lost instead of ending in the expected triumph, the mood of the army and their sympathy for socialists could not be hoped to have improved. On December 10, the first returning army units arrived in Berlin, welcomed by Ebert, who had the difficult obligation to explain to the soldiers the changes that had transpired in the meantime. Demobilization in Berlin was the same haphazard affair as everywhere else, perhaps sloppier: many soldiers forgot to turn their guns in, some units even forgot to turn in their machine – or even field guns, or claimed they had been lost in transit. There was no shortage of weapons anywhere in the new republic but the supply in the capital was by far the richest and the Spartacists had been collecting ever since: Ebert was outgunned.
On the second day of his chancellorship, November 10, he received a telephone call on the direct line from the General staff building. His summoner was Wilhelm Groener, the new Quartermaster General and successor of Ludendorff: in effect the military supremo of the day-old republic. The general knew exactly what was at stake, and offered Ebert that “the Army would put itself at the disposal of his regime, in return for the regime’s support for the Field Marshal [Hindenburg,¶] and the officer corps, through the maintenance of order and discipline in the Army.” (Read, p. 43) In civil parlance, it meant that the army would support Ebert and the Republic – quite unexpectedly – for the price of keeping the army, in the Prussian tradition, out of politics and to let it govern itself. There was one more condition: “The officer corps demands of the régime a battle against Bolshevism, and is ready for such an engagement.” [Read, p. 43]
Ebert was in a bind, caught between the Spartacist left and the reactionary, military right like Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis. In the end, he went with Groener, perhaps somewhat duped by a very clever manoeuvre of the general, who had his own plan how to control the councils. Groener knew that loyal troops and officers returning from the front would begin to trickle in from the second week of December, and thus he had to survive the rule of the councils for only about a month. His plan was to give the councils licence enough to hang themselves: he ordered that every unit was to elect a council: every platoon, company, battalion, regiment and so forth, a procedure that created the instant chaos that gave Groener the time he needed. Soon the bulk of the army was to return, and while most of the units would demobilize on their own recognizance, some would not. Some men, Groener knew, could not go back to civil life, for the experience of war had forever deformed their souls. Such men formed the “Freikorps”, the ‘Free Corps’.
Before the war, the Imperial draft boards had preferably conscripted farm boys, for they were held less infused with socialism than the sons of the city workers. Thus, the draftees chiefly represented the pastoral element of the German society, in contrast to the city backgrounds of many NCOs and regimental officers. They were by and large men of petty or middlebrow bourgeois descent, better educated, and hopelessly romantic. They formed the pool from which the Freikorps were to draw their wolves.
The sudden end of the war prompted withdrawal symptoms – civilian life appeared drab, lacklustre, and trivial. Moreover, nothing had prepared this deeply romantic and passionately patriotic brotherhood to find the Fatherland imperilled by a Bolshevik revolution. They had become eternal warriors, in search of a duty to fulfil, and none could be more glorious or important than to recoup the strangely altered homeland from a communist abyss.
The Freikorps of 1918 and 1919 were … freebooting private armies of embittered ex-servicemen, mainly composed of former officers and NCOs who refused to disband, determined to maintain military discipline and organisation in the face of what they saw as the disorder of the soldiers’ councils. Steeped in the harsh traditions of the Prussian army, they were fiercely nationalist and violently anti-Bolshevik.
Their formation was encouraged if not actually initiated by Groener, both as a means of keeping alive the ethos of the officer corps during those uncertain times and of providing tough, trained units of loyal troops who could be relied on to fight the revolutionary forces of the extreme left. Their relationship with the army was kept deliberately vague, but they were equipped by it with machine guns, mortars and even field guns as well as rifles and pistols, and there is little doubt that their pay came from army funds. Many of their commanders were regular serving officers.
The Freikorps’ first function was to police Germany’s eastern frontiers with the new Baltic States and the newly independent and deeply hostile Poland, which after centuries of German, Russian and Austrian oppression could be expected to try to grab as much territory as it could get away with.
Protection against Bolshevism spreading from the east was a secondary consideration in this area, but nonetheless it was a real consideration, especially when Russia went to war with Poland in 1919. In Berlin and the rest of Germany, however, the battle with Bolshevism in all its forms was the Freikorps’ very raison d’être. [Read, p. 45 – 46]
When making his offer to Ebert, Groener had recommended that the political supervision of the armed forces should be entrusted to the former SPD MP Gustav Noske, the same man who had shown during the naval revolt in Kiel that he could deal with a mob. It was high time to organize troops loyal to Ebert’s Council of Peoples’ Commissars, because the Spartacists were already mobilizing their own forces in anticipation of the first session of the national Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. This body, comprising representatives from all parts of the country, was to meet at the Reichstag building beginning Monday, December 16. In support for the confidently expected revolution, Liebknecht and Luxemburg organized a mass demonstration the same day on the plaza in front of the building, and when that failed to impress the delegates, dispatched a crash commando three days later with instructions to hijack the building and take the deputies hostage; a plan that was thwarted in the nick of time by one of Noske’s local guard platoons.
The decisions of the congress, clearly wishing to establish a semblance of order as soon as possible, much disappointed the radical Left: for not only did the delegates fail to transfer “all power to the soviets” as per the Spartacists’ request, but also confirmed the legitimacy of Ebert’s government and resolved to phase out the councils in favour of transferring all further legislative and executive authority to the new National Assembly, the election of which was fixed for January 19, 1919, four weeks in the future. [Read, p. 47]
These setbacks at least gave the Spartacists a deadline, for they needed to seize power before Election Day – for win could they not. On December 23, under the pretext of seeking a Christmas bonus, their Naval Division stormed and occupied the Arsenal (the military HQ) and the chancellery, where they arrested the cabinet. In this situation “Ebert decided that the time had come to call in Groener’s promise.” [Read, p. 48]
Army HQ in Potsdam sent a battalion of troops as pledged, and on the morning of December 24, a strange hybrid of military and propaganda battles developed around the Royal Palace and the stables. Actual fighting was sporadic if emphatic but was frequently interrupted by negotiations, or Liebknecht’s exhortations for revolution addressed to the thousands of spectators, who, after watching the action, proceeded on to the Christmas market or the nearby shopping district where business went on as usual. It was perhaps the lack of attention that lead to the battle ending, in early afternoon, by the disappearance of both sides’ troops in the Christmas crowds. An irate Groener, however, decided that he needed more dependable troops next time and sent the word to the leaders of the nascent Freikorps. [Read, p. 48]
Christmas Day brought the regular Spartacus League demonstration, whose activists seized the building where the SPD-owned newspaper VORWÄRTS was printed and created their own Christmas issue, naturally on red paper. After the police had arrived and the occupiers expelled, VORWÄRTS gave up all remnants of socialist solidarity it had kept until that day and became decisively anti-Spartacist.
Undeterred, Liebknecht ended the year by inviting about a hundred Spartacists to a conference starting on 29 December in the banqueting hall of the Prussian Landtag. After two days of typically fractious argument, they voted to make a complete break with Social Democracy and align themselves unequivocally with Soviet Russia, renaming themselves the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Among the guests was Karl Radek, who had been smuggled into Germany to help foment the civil war that was an essential part of a Bolshevik revolution. In a long speech, he denied that the regime in Russia was a reign of terror, and asserted that civil war was not as awful as was sometimes thought: a whole year of civil war in Russia, he claimed, had killed fewer people and destroyed less property than a single day of international war.
“What we are now carrying out in Russia,” he declared, “is nothing but the great unperverted teaching of German Communism. The Council of Peoples’ Commissars of Europe will yet meet in Berlin. Spartacus will conquer. It is destined to seize power in Germany.” Liebknecht responded enthusiastically with a call to arms: “We do not want a lemonade revolution. We have to hasten the internationalisation of civil war.” [Read, p.49]
Groener’s and Ebert’s spies reported the results immediately to their masters, and, during the eclipse of the year, both sides prepared for the clash they knew was to occur before Election Day, January 19.
The persistent enmity between social democratic, i.e. reformist, and communist parties all over the world in the seventy years between 1919 and 1989, resulted from this split in Berlin 1918 and the happenings shortly thereafter. From 1914 to 1918, the SPD had supported the Ancien Régime by approving Wilhelm’s war credits in the Reichstag, with the sole exception of Liebknecht, while an outer-parliamentary, grass roots opposition of pacifists shaped up, broadened and finally broke off the mother party in 1917. The offshoot, the USPD, appealed to the international solidarity of the working class, which could render war impossible simply by refusing to produce armaments, and was the only faction in Germany to speak out publicly against the war.
They accused the moderates of treason, of being corrupted by capitalist interests, and when Ebert called in the reactionary Freikorps, he was accused of fratricide and of betraying the legacy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. From this day on communist parties were to regard social democrats as the worst enemy: while the resistance of capitalists was expected and could be understood, the poison of moderation had destroyed the solidarity of the brotherhood of workmen. In remembrance of the Jacobins, there could be no quarter for the enemies of the revolution.
Meanwhile, the government of the Bavarian Socialist Republic was consolidating its power and began to organize the post-war economy. It was perhaps the greatest surprise for Minister President Eisner that the regular Bavarian Army cooperated without too much ado; while clearly disliking the confusion of council policies, the military realized that order was the demand of the day and the senior officer, General Max Freiherr von Speidel appealed to the troops “to serve the people’s state.” (Joachimsthaler, p. 183) On November 13, King Ludwig’s written declaration of abdication was received in the council, and the same day saw the investiture of Albert Rosshaupter (SPD) as the first-ever civilian Minister of Defence in the history of the country.
Thus, the Bavarian Soviet Republic developed in a much less revolutionary way than it had begun. To a degree, Eisner’s government regarded itself only as a provisional administration and delayed decisive reforms for the time after the January 12 elections, which they hoped would give them a parliamentary majority and hence an indisputable mandate for the creation of a true socialist state. Hence, Eisner’s public address on November 15 by and large avoided revolutionary rhetoric: the essential demand of socialization of industry was postponed. There were a few modifications in unemployment aid and the introduction of the eight-hour work day, but nothing was done to replace the employees and functionaries of the state, who continued to administrate the country in the old-fashioned, monarchical ways. Neither was the economy reformed: industry, banks, and insurances operated as usual. The sole notable change was the secularization of the schools by the abolition of the Catholic Church’s supervisory authority.
The election turned out a catastrophe for the Radical Socialists. Winners were the Bavarian People’s Party, the successor of the Catholic Centre Party (BVP, 35%, 66 seats) and the SPD (33%, 61 seats). More or less in the expected range came in results for the liberals, the DVP [DPP in the Palatinate], which carried 14% and 25 seats and the right-wing German National People’s Party [DNVP, as “Mittelpartei” in the Palatinate], which received 6% of the vote and 9 seats.
The losers were the parties of the revolution. The Bavarian Bauernbund, something akin to Russia’s Social Revolutionaries, received 9% of the vote and 16 seats, but the results for the USPD were pitiful: 2.5% and three seats. Eisner, however, was not easily persuaded to give up his governmental responsibilities, since, as he pointed out, he was still the president of the Council of Soldiers, Workers and Peasants, which he regarded as the true government of socialist Bavaria. Alas, he had not exactly increased his popularity in recent weeks.
Everyone had a reason to hate him – they said he was a Galician Jew, a Berliner, a café intellectual, a left-wing Socialist, a betrayer of true Socialism, too radical, not radical enough, he was ineffectual and incompetent, the list seemed endless. Above all, he was blamed for the collapse of the economy – Bavaria was virtually bankrupt, suffering like so many other places from a huge loss of jobs as ammunition production ceased and soldiers were demobilized, and yet he had vastly increased spending on unemployment benefits.
Eisner finally managed to infuriate just about everybody in Bavaria when he attended the first post-war conference of the Second Socialist International in Berne. As the only head of government there, he was held in great respect and listened to with some reverence, particularly when he publicly acknowledged German responsibility for the Great War and named Wilhelm Hohenzollern, the former Kaiser, as the one man most to blame for four and a half year of carnage. Speaking calmly and quietly, he lambasted all aspects of Prussianism, condemned Germany’s harsh treatment of French civilians and Allied prisoners of war, and appealed to German prisoners to help rebuild the devastated regions of France and Belgium. All this was well-received by the comrades in Berne, but in Munich it was regarded as treason, and he was branded a traitor. [Read, p. 113 – 114]
Meanwhile, in Bavaria the rift between revolutionaries and reformers broadened, and SPD leader Erhard Auer used his authority as Eisner’s deputy and Eisner’s absence to summon the Landtag, the Bavarian parliament, for a constituent session on February 21, 1919, in which a new government backed by a parliamentary majority was to be elected. In expectation of counteraction from the radical wing, Auer had Max Levien, leader of the KPD in Schwabing, arrested, and urged Defense Minister Rosshaupter to do everything possible to form a quasi-military Home Defense Army loyal to the future government, which was expected to be the one or other coalition of the SPD with the Catholics and liberals and would easily enjoy the backing of 70% or more of the Landtag deputies.
The Left struck back on February 15, with the ad-hoc creation of the “Revolutionary Workers’ Council“, an eccentric body composed of the most radical members of USPD, Spartacists and Bolsheviks under the leadership of the anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam. The august body’s first resolution directed a mass demonstration of workers and soldiers to occur on the Theresienwiese the very next day, and it is rather likely that Corporal Hitler marched on this day in the ranks of the socialists. His 2nd Infantry Regiment’s Order of the Day for February 15 read:
“Tomorrow, Sunday, February 16, 1919, a demonstration of the whole workforce and all garrison units will take place. The Regiment, including the Demobilization Battalion, will assemble at 12:15 noon in the casern square of 1st Battalion, on the Oberwiesenfeld. Council members will blanket the troops to insure discipline and order. The company commanders will verify that all off-duty personnel participate in the gathering.” [Joachimsthaler, p. 197 – 198]
Hence, around noon on February 16, about 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Munich. Eisner, back from Berne, Mühsam and Levien, the latter released from jail, addressed the public with demands to establish a Soviet, i.e. Councils’ Republic. It turned out that very few Munichers shared this desire, but only three days later, Eisner delivered a defiant gesture. In what became the last session of the Congress of Bavarian Councils, he demanded a second revolution.
“The second revolution will not be plundering and street fighting. The new revolution is the assembling of the masses in city and countryside to carry out what the first revolution has started. … The bourgeois majority is now to implement bourgeois politics. We shall see whether they are capable of ruling. In the meantime the Councils should do their job: to build the new democracy. Then perhaps the new spirit will also arrive in Bavaria. Tomorrow the Landtag begins – tomorrow the activities of the Councils should also begin anew. Then we shall see where are to be found the force and vitality of a society consecrated by death.” [Read, p. 115]
Eisner then secured the assembly’s declaration that they would not disband or otherwise renounce their authority unless the future Bavarian Constitution expressly acknowledged their prerogatives. This was an obvious attempt to block the formation of the parliamentary government the Landtag was poised to enact the next day. For his cryptic insinuations regarding a Second Revolution, the cabinet later demanded Eisner’s resignation.
The basic difficulty for Eisner proved the management of essential services and the cooperation of the countryside, in particular the regular supply of food. He was criticized by members of his own cabinet for organizational shortcomings – one of his ministers told him: “You are an anarchist … You are no statesman, you are a fool … We are being ruined by bad management.” [Richard J. Evans, “The Coming of the Third Reich”, Penguin, NY, 2003, ISBN 0-14-303469-3, p. 158 ff.]
Having lost parliamentary support, Kurt Eisner had composed, on the morning of February 21, a notice of resignation and a short accompanying speech in his office and made his way, on foot, to deliver his message at the Landtag’s opening session. He dismissed his aides and the two armed guards and set out alone.
Typically, he refused to take a different route from his regular one, dismissing his aides’ concerns for his safety with a blithe: “They can only shoot me dead once.” As he turned the corner into the Promenadenstraße, a young man in a trench coat ran up behind him, pulled out a pistol and shot him at point-blank range in the head and back. The first shot smashed his skull, the second pierced a lung. He fell to the ground dead, amid a spreading pool of blood.
Eisner’s assassin was Count Anton von Arco auf Valley, an aristocrat who had served as a lieutenant in the Bavarian cavalry during the war, and who had, like most returning officers in Munich, suffered the indignity of having his badges of rank torn from his uniform by revolutionaries in the street. His exact reason for killing Eisner was never made clear: he was filled with bitterness at being rejected for membership of the ultra-right Thule Society because his mother was Jewish, his girlfriend had taunted him as a weakling, and he hated the revolution. But why he should have chosen to kill Eisner, at the precise moment when he was stepping down, remains a mystery. [Reid, p. 115 – 116] (In recent years references have surfaced that a conspiracy may have been at work, see the German Wiki entry.)
This was only the start of the party. Arco-Valley was gunned down by a bodyguard, but eventually saved by a heroic operation executed by Professor Ferdinand Sauerbruch, at the time the most eminent surgeon of the world. When the news reached the Landtag in its opening session, it was adjourned, and Erhard Auer, head of the Bavarian SPD, whose erstwhile friendship with Eisner went back decades, began an improvised eulogy. He had not talked five minutes when a member of the aforementioned Revolutionary Workers’ Council, the butcher Alois Lindner, broke into the plenum, revealed a rifle that he had hidden under his coat and shot Auer, at close range, in the chest. Then he fired at the BVP delegates, and after killing a guard who tried to disarm him, escaped unhampered. He was replaced by a second shooter in the gallery, who aimed at the same deputies, slaying one man and injuring a few others. The commotion was immense, and an air of South America hung over the venerable Landtag building. [Read, p. 116]
Eisner, intensely disliked by many only hours before his death, was instantly canonized a Socialist saint, and, with the Landtag out of order, the councils quickly filled the legislative and executive void, declared martial law and called in a three-day general strike which – as Anthony Read observed – “fell conveniently over the weekend“, (40) as well as a 7 pm curfew. On the following morning, a hastily convened meeting of the councils elected a supreme committee, the “Zentralrat” or “Central Council“. Its eleven members represented a miscellany of socialist beliefs from reformist to revolutionary, included representatives of rural, not only urban councils, and were to govern not only Munich but Bavaria as a whole. The chairmanship of the commission, and thus the office of quasi-Minister President fell to the twenty-eight year-old schoolteacher Ernst Niekisch, who, as a left-wing member of the SPD, was a good compromise candidate for the position.
Niekisch aimed to draw support by calling for socialist unity and the convocation of a Congress of Bavarian Councils, which was to determine the future form of the government: either parliamentary or by councils, i.e. a Soviet Republic. This congress opened on February 25, but was compelled to adjourn on the next day without having accomplished anything for the occasion of Eisner’s funeral.
Whatever the citizens of Munich had thought of the living Eisner, his funeral drew 100,000 mourners who followed the coffin as it was solemnly driven through the streets of the town in a former royal carriage. The next day, the radical Left used the public outpouring of sympathy for Eisner to call on the Congress to declare the “Second Revolution” and announce the establishment of the Soviet Republic. When the motion failed by a large margin, Spartakists, USPD and anarchists left the Zentralrat in order to prepare for the beneficial transformation alone. Without leadership, the Congress scattered, and for a few weeks, after so much ado, Bavaria quieted down.
Yet the memory of Kurt Eisner lives on in the Free State he founded – three memorials are to be found in Munich’s inner city and one at the Eastern Cemetery.
That is, until things got worse in a renewed fight between the Left and the military …
The opening battles of the Great War had made it plain to see that this conflict of industrialized nations had no resemblance to the short, victorious and honourable war patriots cheered for and generals had promised. Not only had the latter, in every country, gravely underestimated the expenditures of modern war in regards to ammunition, gear and victuals, it became shockingly clear that, in the age of mechanized war, infantry attacks over open fields would produce casualties in numbers never beheld before. Poison gas was soon to add one more horrific dimension to the suffering. One of the great contrasts that this war produced was that of ages. While the industrialized countries of Europe conscripted their young men by the age of twenty, in war below that age, the chief generals of the Great War were of, comparably, biblical ages.
On the German side in 1914, Moltke was 66 years old, Hindenburg 67 and Kluck and Bülow both 68. On the side of the Allies, Joffre and French were 62 and Gallieni 68. Their advanced age was not a matter of chance, but the expression of the pre-War belief in “experience”, the preeminent value in what Stefan Zweig called the ‘World of Security’ before the war.
The world about and above us, which directed all its thoughts only to the fetish of security, did not like youth; or rather it constantly mistrusted it. … Austria was an old state, dominated by an aged Emperor, ruled by old Ministers, a State without ambition, which hoped to preserve itself unharmed in the European domain solely by opposing all radical changes. … So arose the situation, incomprehensible today, that youth was a hindrance in all careers, and age alone was an advantage. Whereas today, in our changed state of affairs, those of forty seek to look thirty, and those of sixty wish to seem forty, and youth, energy, determination and self-confidence recommend and advance a man, in that age of security everyone who wished to get ahead was forced to attempt all conceivable methods of masquerading in order to appear older. The newspapers recommended preparations which hastened the growth of the beard, and twenty-four- and twenty-five-year-old doctors, who had just finished their examinations, wore mighty beards and golden spectacles even if their eyes did not need them, so that they could make an impression of “experience” upon their first patients. Men wore long black frock coats and walked at a leisurely pace, and whenever possible acquired a slight embonpoint, in order to personify the desired sedateness; and those who were ambitious strove, at least outwardly, to belie their youth, since the young were suspected of instability.
It didn’t occur to anybody’s mind that this was the first mechanized, “World War”, for any rank, corporal and general alike. But as long as the generals insisted on sending unprotected men to attack, over open fields, other men, who had the advantages of being protected in entrenched positions, secured by barbed wire and supported by rapid-fire arms, casualties were to mount. This was “the simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare.” What rankled the troopers was the Olympian aloofness shown by some of the principal commanders.
The impassive expressions that stare back at us from contemporary photographs do not speak of consciences of feelings troubled by the slaughter over which those men presided, nor do the circumstances in which they chose to live: the distant chateau, the well-polished entourage, the glittering motor cars, the cavalry escorts, the regular routine, the heavy dinners, the uninterrupted hours of sleep. Joffre’s two-hour lunch, Hindenburg’s ten-hour night, Haig’s therapeutic daily equitation along roads sanded lest his horse slip, the STAVKA’s diet of champagne and court gossip, seem and were a world away from the cold rations, wet boots, sodden uniforms, flooded trenches, ruined billets and plague of lice on, in and among which, in winter at least, their subordinates lived.
Sooner or later, inevitably, the soldier will seek responsibility for the conditions he is exposed to not only with the enemy but his own higher-ups. All of the three early C-in-C’s on the Western front of 1914 were eventually replaced, Moltke in September 1914 [his successor Falkenhayn at the end of 1916, ¶], Sir John French in December 1915, and Joffre, who was promoted to the honourable but hollow position of “Marechal de France”, in December 1916.
Alas, their replacements tended to be not much younger either of age or intellectual freshness. The British press coined the expression of describing the BEF as “Lions, led by Donkeys,” and nobody mistook the generals for the lions. War, to paraphrase Yeats, is “no country for old men”, but, over most of its duration, the Great War was.