A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two episodes of this series we examined the chain reaction triggered by the capture of classified German military documents in 1914 and how that chain reaction culminated in Kaiser Wilhelm’s psychological breakdown three years later as the Allied armies inexorably marched towards Berlin. In this chapter we’ll recall the final German surrender, Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to create a League of Nations, and the postwar worldwide influenza pandemic that decimated much of Europe and North America.
The German government was in an awkward position when its diplomatic representatives at the Geneva peace talks first met with their Allied counterparts at 11:00 AM London time on December 19th, 1917. The Michaelis administration was beset by domestic foes on both the left and the right wings of the German political spectrum; Allied troops controlled most of the Fatherland and were ready to resume their march on Berlin should the peace negotiations break down; the Kerensky government in Russia, in accordance with a friendship pact with anti-German rebels in Poland, had ceded East Prussia to the Polish people;1 and Germany’s economy was just as badly ruined as her major cities if not more so.
Yet the German negotiators dared not give away too much too quickly at the bargaining table; already ominous grumblings were being heard back home that Germany was losing the war not because of Allied military superiority but because of an alleged "stab in the back"2 by unspecified traitors. An immediate capitulation to Allied demands would only serve to reinforce such suspicions, and worse it might provoke the Imperial General Staff to make a revolt against the civilian government.
The Allied representatives at the Geneva peace talks were under Considerable pressure themselves. They were torn between differing sets of expectations about how Germany should be treated after the war was over; Woodrow Wilson was seeking what he called "victorious but just peace"3, meaning a treaty that would satisfy the interests of the Germans as well as the Allies and avoid any inclinations toward vengefulness, while David Lloyd George wanted to "squeeze the German orange until the pips squeak"4-- i.e., impose the harshest possible terms on the German government. As a result, the American representatives were frequently at odds with their British (and in some cases French) counterparts as to what the Allied position ought to be on questions like territorial claims in Europe and German war debts.
But on one point all the Allied negotiators-- including the Russian delegation that arrived in Geneva on December 21st --were in total agreement: Germany’s surrender had to be secured as quickly as possible. Not only was a harsh winter approaching, but the major European Allied belligerents were reaching the verge of economic exhaustion; even the United States, safely on the other side of the Atlantic, was feeling a bit of a strain in some sectors of its economy. Wilson’s Treasury secretary, William G. McAdoo, had warned the President that if the war lasted another year or even six months it would bring a 15% decrease in the United States’ gross national product-- a prospect Wilson heartily disliked.
One of the bedrock principles of the Allied negotiating position at Geneva was that Germany must accept primary responsibility for starting the Great War. Lloyd George wanted to go even farther and make the Germans take all the blame for the war; it was the least they deserved, he felt, given the thousands of British lives which had been lost over the past three and a half years. Lloyd George’s fellow prime ministers, Georges Clemenceau of France and Vittorio Orlando of Italy, agreed with him wholeheartedly on that score and relentlessly pushed the idea much to the dismay of Woodrow Wilson and Alexander Kerensky, who both rightly feared that excessively harsh surrender terms would foster feelings of resentment among the German people in the postwar era.
The Geneva peace talks recessed for the Christmas holiday with very little change in either side’s negotiating position; the chief of the Russian delegation telegraphed Kerensky that he feared the fighting between the Allies and Germany would resume by New Year’s Day. But the cease-fire continued to hold, and peace negotiations resumed on December 28th. For a few days the German delegation would continue to hold out hope their Allied counterparts might yet be persuaded to drop the "war guilt" clause from the final draft of the surrender agreement; when the negotiations recessed again for New Year’s celebrations, however, it was clear such hopes were fated to go unrealized.
On January 5th, 1918 Chancellor Michaelis received word from his foreign minister that if Germany surrendered immediately the Allies would lift their naval blockade of the German coast that same day; Michaelis, despite his concerns over how German conservatives would react to such a decision, agreed to send an official notification of surrender to the Allied delegations in Geneva at 1:30 PM Berlin time that afternoon. Making good on their promise, the Allies terminated the blockade an hour later; by 7:00 PM that evening the last Allied land positions on the Western Front had acknowledged orders to stand down from combat duty and Russian forces on the Eastern Front had taken the surrender of the remnants of the Imperial German Army in Pomerania. The First World War was over at last-- and both sides had a long hard recovery job ahead of them.
The formal signing of the peace treaty between Germany and the Allies happened five months later on the grounds of what had once been the French royal estate at Versailles. The only belligerent nation not present at the ceremony was the United States, where a dispute over Wilson’s proposed global peacekeeping body, the League of Nations, was preventing the treaty’s ratification by the Senate; the Americans would conclude a separate pact with Germany in June of 1919.
At first blush the League appeared to be essentially a glorified debating society; Wilson and other League advocates, however, saw it as much more than that. Wilson in particular envisioned the League as a kind of "super-parliament" that would legislate for the benefit of large and small nations alike and work out peaceful resolutions to international disputes that in ages past had inevitably led to war. Wilson was convinced the League would usher in a millennium of unbroken worldwide peace between nations if given the opportunity to work.
However, Wilson’s domestic critics weren’t especially eager to grant that opportunity. To them the League of Nations looked like a dangerous intrusion on American sovereignty, and they made up their minds that they wouldn’t stand for it. Isolationist elements of the Senate and the House of Representatives began a no-holds- barred campaign to kill Wilson’s bid to get the US into the League; they were aided in their struggle by anti-Wilson elements of the mainstream American press as well as prominent businessmen who felt that the proper focus of the American people was on their domestic affairs in general and their domestic economy specifically.
Determined not to let his dream of United States membership in the League die, Wilson embarked on a cross-country whistle stop tour defending his vision of the League and the role America could play in it. His advisors and his wife Edith, seeing the strain that the tour was placing on his health, urged him to cut back on his speaking engagements, but the President declined; that, he said, was effectively handing the isolationists in Congress a psychological victory.
All too soon, Wilson would find himself faced with an even greater crisis....
...as would Russian premier Alexander Kerensky. But in July of 1918 the anti-imperialist leader of Russia was riding high; his land, economic, and political reforms had strengthened his support among the masses, and he was enjoying considerable respect and admiration among liberals overseas for his decision to back the establishment of a modern independent Polish state-- a marked contrast to the czars’ ruthless insistence on keeping Poland as part of the Russian Empire. Even the more conservative elements of the Russian population had to concede that he was making great strides in improving the country’s industrial base.
Then, on July 18th, as Kerensky was preparing to accept the credentials of the new Polish government’s first ambassador to Moscow, the Russian embassy in Madrid telegraphed an urgent warning that a deadly and previously unknown strain of influenza had started to make its way across western Europe. Dubbed "the Spanish flu" by the American press, the new virus was soon spreading like wildfire; by the second week of August cases of Spanish flu had been reported as far north as Paris, and in early September outbreaks were also being reported in Belgium, Holland, and Germany. By October it would reach the British Isles and loom at the borders of Austria.
Even the United States and Canada wouldn’t be spared the ravages of Spanish flu. In Canada the virus brought travel and commerce on the St. Laurence Seaway to a screeching halt and forced the National Hockey League to cancel most of its 1918-19 season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs; in the United States outbreaks of the virus struck New York, Boston, and Chicago, killing thousands of people and leaving thousands of others bedridden. President Wilson was confined by doctor’s orders to the White House, dealing a further blow to his already quite weakened efforts to get America into the League of Nations.
The normal health care and sanitation mechanisms of continental Europe, highly strained (and in some cases destroyed) by the war, were highly inadequate to cope with the Spanish flu pandemic. By New Year’s Day 1919 one out of every four human beings was infected with the virus, and of those infected one out of every two died from their illness. By the time the pandemic finished running its course in the summer of 1919, a quarter of the world’s human population had been killed by the virus with the greatest number of those deaths coming in Germany and France.
Even after the pandemic was over the economic disruption it had caused continued to affect global trade; though few people noticed it at the time, the aftershocks from that disruption were already sowing the seeds for the depression which would rack the world ten years later.
Under other circumstances the combination of economic hardship and social panic brought on by the Spanish flu pandemic might have provided an ideal opportunity for the Bolsheviks to exploit mass discontent in the cause of revolution. But with Lenin killed and Stalin and Trotsky in prison, the party’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb; Russian Marxists would have to wait until the early 1930s to seize the reins of power in Moscow; in the meantime, the party continued to operate underground, rebuilding the cell networks that had collapsed in the aftermath of Lenin’s assassination.
In Italy and Germany, there was also underground revolutionary activity going on, but it was of the right-wing variety. There were thousands of Italian servicemen who felt Italy’s Allied partners had cheated her out of the spoils of victory; Benito Mussolini became the de facto spokesman for these discontented veterans and organized many of them into a political party whose logo, a bundle of axes called a fasces in Latin, gained them the nickname "Fascists". In speech after speech Mussolini, who ironically had before the war been a socialist and disdained all forms of patriotism, pledged to his followers and the world that the Fascist Party would restore Italy to her rightful place among the world’s great nations.
Restoration of national honor was an even greater part of the ideological agenda espoused by the National Sozialistiche Deutschen Arbeiter Partei5(NSDAP), or "Nazi"6 Party. Like Kaiser Wilhelm II had once done, the fledgling party believed Germany had only lost the war because of a "stab in the back" by traitors; Adolf Hitler, who joined the NSDAP shortly after his discharge from the German army in September of 1918, was an especially passionate advocate of that notion, and this passion along with a late-blooming gift for rhetoric would see him rise to the leadership of the party by 1920.
Wilson’s dream of American membership in the League of Nations finally died in May of 1920 when the US Senate deadlocked for the third and last time on ratification of the Versailles-Geneva peace accords. Just over two months later and one month after the United States made its separate peace with Germany, the League convened for the first time at its provisional headquarters in Zurich. Those who feared the League would be just a glorified debating society would soon find to their dismay that this assessment of Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild had been wildly optimistic-- far from helping avert new wars, the League’s actions, or lack thereof, seemed at times to guarantee them. Even as the organization was moving into its new permanent headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland in August of 1919, old ethnic vendettas were being renewed with a vengeance in the Balkans and Ireland was in the grip of a bitter rebellion against British rule; in China, warlords were battling the Nationalist government in Chungking-- and each other-- for the right to rule the world’s most populous country.
Americans paid little attention to these conflicts, or the popular dissatisfaction simmering in Germany and Italy; for that matter even the endless series of revolutions and counterrevolutions plaguing their neighbors in Mexico didn’t excite much interest now that Pancho Villa was dead. Their concentration was focused largely on their own prosperity and on the underworld gangs that had been started to exploit the demand for illegal liquor after the sale and manufacture of alcoholic drinks was banned by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The victories of isolationist Republicans in three consecutive presidential elections seemed to validate the popular consensus that America should focus inward on herself rather than outward on foreign troubles...
To Be Continued
1With the exception of Danzig, which declared itself a "free city of the Reich" in protest of the concession and would later be turned into a League of Nations trusteeship.
2This was to become a persistent theme of Adolf Hitler’s speeches during his rise to power as chancellor of Germany in the postwar era.
3Quoted from a speech before a joint session of Congress on November 20th, 1917.
4Quoted from an address before Parliament on December 2nd, 1917.
5German for "National Socialist German Workers’ Party".
6An abbreviation of the first two words in the party’s name.