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Rushing to Peace
By Thomas Richardson
Europe experienced a level of death, carnage, and destruction unlike any war ever fought before. The Great War mounted millions of casualties, governments were overthrown, economies were crippled, and civilians were suffering nearly as much as the soldiers dying in the trenches.
By 1918 with the entry of the United States, Germany had begun seeing the writing on the wall for their army and country. German armies had stagnated in their offensives and were running low on supplies. They faced a dire situation, but military leaders like Gen. Erich Ludendorff and Gen. Paul von Hindenburg took desperate measures to keep the German war effort alive. As Germany continued to fight, a civil conflict broke out internally; a revolution that brought down the old monarchy and would pave the way for Germany’s turbulent interwar years.
German armies conducted large scale offensives from January 1917 to September 1918 but were unable to dislodge or break out from their trenches and gained little ground. While French, German, American, Belgian, and other armies clashed, there was a power struggle at the highest levels of the German government.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose military skills were being increasingly questioned by the General Staff, had relinquished most of his power to the two top generals, Ludendorff and Hindenburg. For nearly two years, Germany was managed equal to a military dictatorship between the two generals with the Kaiser serving in a more honorific capacity.
Ludendorff believed sharply that Germany could not secure military victory, but could at least sue for an armistice and negotiate a peace settlement. Ludendorff and other General Staff officers did not see it as a defeat, but did so to retain some form of dignity and cohesion.
Simultaneously, German civilians who suffered from the extreme pressures of wartime began organizing and formed political parties focused on toppling the German government. Social Democrat Party (SDP) members demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and looked at the example set by the Russian Revolution in 1917.
In early November 1918, the German Revolution began, and all 21 German princes and monarchs were forced to resign.
Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellors faced a dire situation. Combined with the threat of mutiny under the military dictatorship of Ludendorff and civil unrest throughout Germany, the Kaiser abdicated on November 9, 1918 and afterwards fled to Holland, where he would spend the remainder of his life. Abdication did not have the desired impact he hoped as revolutionary councils were established and Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SDP, became the de facto German Chancellor. Two days later, November 11, the armistice was announced, and all combat ceased in Europe.
The killing had stopped, but Germany would face another decade of economic, social, and political strife. The 1920s saw some of the worst inflation, job crises, and revolutionary fervor in Germany as they were penalized heavily by Allied powers in the Treaty of Versailles. That same anger and belief of being ‘stabbed in the back’ by traitors would serve as a powerful tool for the rising Nazi party and its malevolent leaders.
Thomas Richardson works for the National Archives and Records Administration. In graduate school, he taught U.S. history and world geography. He also worked on the World War II veterans’ oral history project at the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Thomas volunteers with the Midwestern History Association helping with their social media outreach as a contributing editor. He lives in St. Louis and spends much of his time with the Scottish St. Andrew Society.
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