In February 1917, after repeated failed attempts at peace negotiations, the German Empire embarked on unlimited submarine war, claimed to be the cause for the United States to later enter the war on the Entente side, in April. However, it was only at the beginning of 1918, that American troops were deployed on a large scale in France. The hope that England would give in within a few months as a result of the submarine warfare, remained unfulfilled. The war continued to be a standoff.
In the spring of 1917, the Austrian leadership feared that the Danube Monarchy would not be able to continue the war beyond the coming winter. Emperor Karl I. and the new Foreign Secretary Czernin, thus urged Berlin for new peace talks to be held. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, confirmed his preparedness for talks, but he also said that at that point, the war could only be ended by the Central Powers submitting to the will of the Allies in entirety, but they would have to wait and see how the ‘Revolution in Russia’ (Jewish overthrow) would progress. There had been “workers’ unrests” in March, the Czar had been forced to abdicate, his brother had renounced his right for succession to the throne and the new Republican government had continued the war… quite a timely progression for the Bolsheviks.
In mid-April, the ‘Russian Council of People’s Commissioners’ offered a general peace, without annexations and compensations. In Germany, the Social Democrats immediately supported this offer. Even Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party, who occasionally traveled abroad on behalf of the German government, supported it too. He was the main initiator of the resolution adopted by the Reichstag, on 19 July. With a clear majority, the Parliament expressed itself in favour of a peace of understanding, a lasting reconciliation of the peoples, against forced cessions of territory and, economic and financial rape… only an economic peace would enable a friendly coexistence of the peoples. The Reichstag also advocated the creation of international rights organisations, but the Supreme Army Command was against this resolution. Bethmann-Hollweg thought it inappropriate at that moment in time and thus lost the confidence of the parties advocating the resolution. On 13 July, he stepped down from office.
His successor, Georg Michaelis, avowed himself at the beginning of the debate about the resolution to the lasting reconciliation of the peoples and to a peace of understanding, but one which would have to safeguard Germany’s interests in Europe and overseas. Lloyd George, by then the British Prime Minister, called this speech “a sign of commitment to war and to achieving a false peace.”
On 1 August, Pope Benedict XV. called upon the warring parties to enter into peace talks. He advocated an obligatory arbitral jurisdiction for all international issues, the settlement of all territorial disputes in a spirit of conciliation, the mutual waiving of war reparations, disarmament and the freedom of the seas. This appeal had been agreed upon by ‘Nuncio Pacelli’ with the leadership of the Reich in late June. An official German comment was published only in mid-September, expressing the spirited hope that the Papal initiative be successful. This declaration was immediately handed over to the press. In doing so, the Reich government once again, like so many times before, made a public commitment to reconciliation. The Allies rejected the Papal proposition right away, Wilson did also – very decisively. On 1 November, Michaelis stepped down from office. The new Chancellor Georg Graf von Hertling, held no different attitude towards peace than its two predecessors.
In Russia, the Bolsheviks came to power following an uprising on 7 November. Vladimir Lenin (aka: Nikolai Lenin, Jacob Richter, Ilyin, Starik, Frei, Maier, Iordanov, Karpov, Mueller, Tulin etc.) the chairman of the now ruling Council of the People’s Commissioners, declared on 9 November in front of the Council Congress, that his government would offer peace to all warring nations on the basis of Soviet conditions, i.e. no annexations and contributions, and the right of self-determination to the peoples. This was also written in his decree for peace. The Central Powers agreed to his request for an armistice. On 4 December, a cease-fire went into effect to bring on a long-term and honourable peace for all parties and, the negotiations started on 22 December in Brest-Litowsk. During the session on 25 December, Czernin called the Russian principles a basis worth discussing. Should that happen, the governments of all warring nations would have to commit themselves to respecting them.
It was decided to ask the Allies for a statement in this sense within ten days. There was no response. The Western powers equally disregarded an invitation by the Russian Foreign Commissar to take part in the peace negotiations. A conversation initiated by Czernin, between an Austrian diplomat and the South-African politician, Jan Smuts, a member of the British Imperial War Cabinet, which took place in Bern in late December, also brought no results.
The Central Powers’ draft for a peace treaty with Russia was very succinct. It demanded that the Russian government take notice of the will of the people, to give full sovereignty to Poland, Lithuania, Courland, and parts of Estonia and Livonia (formally called the Riga Governorate before ceded to Russia and then prior to WWI, it had been administered independently by the local Baltic German nobility, through a Regional Council – now divided between the Republic of Latvia and the Republic of Estonia).. Further articles regulated to reinforce once again, the treaties that were in effect before the war, the mutual renunciation of the replacement of war losses and the restitution of war expenses. The Soviet leadership was not united in their stance on this treaty. Lenin was expecting a World Revolution anyway, so he thought that the treaty would not be valid for too long, so he might as well just sign it. Foreign Commissar, Leon Trotsky (aka Leiba Bronstein), proposed to simply abandon the war and a majority was in favour of this. After returning to Brest-Litovsk, he first tried to delay the negotiations and on 18 February 1918, he declared in the political commission that Russia would not sign the treaty, but rather leave the war and hope that other peoples would do the same, without any official agreement in place – thus no ‘Official Peace’ to be obliged to adhere to. The Central Powers correctly judged this as a cancellation of the armistice, according to international law – and restarted their military advance. Soon afterwards, the Central Committee gave in and signed the treaty, which included some new amendments regarding Central Asia and Armenia. Peace was concluded on 3 March.
From June to August, supplementary German-Russian agreements were negotiated in Berlin. There it was agreed that the Central Powers were to withdraw their troops from the Russian areas they had occupied. Ending the combat operations in the East, enabled the Supreme Army Command to deploy troops to the Western front. The German offensive which started there in late March, was particularly intended to hit British troops in order to make London more willing to talk. At first, the German army was very successful, but in early June, they came to a halt. Starting in July, the Allied forces successively pushed back the German troops. Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers in 1915 but in mid-September 1918, the Allied forces broke through the front there. By the end of the same month, the country had to surrender unconditionally. Now Hindenburg, the Head of the Supreme Army Command, demanded that the German government ask President Wilson to mediate an armistice. For this opportunity again, there was agreement in Berlin. The crown council decided on 29 September to introduce the parliamentary system in order to improve the odds for a beneficial peace.
Hertling was against this and stepped down… Prince Max von Baden then became the new Reich Chancellor. Thanks to his long-standing activities in caring for prisoners of war, he was well-regarded, even abroad. He had spoken publicly in favour of a League of Nations and in interior politics, he was ready to conduct reforms. On the very same day he was appointed, the evening of 3 October, he asked President Wilson, via Switzerland, for a peace treaty on the basis of the “Fourteen Points” of 8 January 1918; and in order to prevent further bloodshed, for the immediate conclusion of an armistice. The Danube Monarchy followed suit one day later, the Ottoman Empire soon after. However, Wilson delayed fulfilling this plea for an immediate armistice by five weeks, because the Allies first wanted to improve their military position.
On 5 November, U.S. Secretary of State, Lansing, declared that the Allies were now ready for an armistice which would secure them the absolute power to enforce the details of the peace, which had to be accepted by the German government. This five week delay, cost the lives of some 10,000 soldiers. During this period, the Danube monarchy collapsed and in Germany, a civil war broke out between National Germans and Alien Revolutionaries, in early November. A Council of the People’s Deputies took over government. The armistice signed in the early morning of 11 November stipulated that battles should end at noon, 11 am British time.
Appreciation to Hans Fenske, Professor of Contemporary History, at Freiburg University (1977-2001) for all his scholarly compiled research.
Der Anfang vom Ende des alten Europa (The Beginning of the End of Old Europe; The Allied Refusal of Peace Talks 1914-1919.)
N. Jones is a Writer, Researcher, Historian and Literary Critic.