Woo­drow Wilson

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.

The war was raging on ...

After 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”.

Text of the Address of the Pres­id­ent of the United States, delivered at a joint ses­sion of the two houses of Con­gress, Janu­ary 8, 1918

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.

Right side: Col­on­el House, the unof­fi­cial mas­ter of the United States ...

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 Four­teen Points as PDF

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 piqué 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

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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