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 a protracted discussion, it was resolved that, in the face of the virtually unlimited American resources of men and matériel, 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 not 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 inhumane 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 headquarters 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
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)