THE GREAT WAR: by Jeffry BabbNews Weekly
How the war to end all wars ended
, October 1, 2011
The dictum that “things rarely happen by accident in politics” applies even more so to diplomacy, where negotiators will argue for days over a single comma.
The Americans, when they demanded on July 4, 1918, that Kaiser Willhelm II abdicate, that the German monarchy be abolished and that the German war leader General Ludendorff be dismissed, must have understood the date’s significance — it was the anniversary of when Americans threw off their oppressors, the British.
The key to understanding the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Great War and provoked its disastrous aftermath, was that it was based on the Fourteen Points produced by United States President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, president of Princeton University at a young age, was a brilliant public speaker, a renowned scholar and, while he retained the services of his confidante Edward M. “Colonel” House, a very effective politician.
Wilson was also a good hater, believed he alone was right on everything (unless persuaded otherwise by House), and was unable to delegate authority or take advice from anyone. He committed acts of incredible stupidity and betrayal, including ensuring a Republican majority in the Senate which was almost certain to (and eventually did) vote down American membership of the League of Nations, which Wilson envisioned, with his usual stunning naivety, to be the answer to the world’s problems. Wilson was also in poor health and incapable of withstanding the nervous and physical strain imposed by the Armistice negotiations.
Although the Americans and the British were now fighting the same enemy, the Germans, Wilson was adamant in stipulating that the U.S. was participating in the war not as an Ally but as an “Associate” of Britain and France.
Without doubt the Americans had come just in time. In terms of Great War casualties, France was being bled white. Verdun, said to be the most deadly battle in history, and other horrors, cost France millions of soldiers. France suffered over six million casualties during the Great War, more than the British Empire, Italy, Japan and the U.S. combined.
The Doughboys rapidly increased their presence. In March 1918 there were 300,000 American troops in France; in July 1918 there were 1.2 million, and by November 1918 there would be 2 million.
The Americans’ hand was strengthened when Wilson announced his Fourteen Points in the U.S. Congress in January 1918. This would be the end of the “old diplomacy” — no secret treaties, no behind-closed-doors negotiations — and everything would be clear and easy to understand.
When people looked closely, they realised the Fourteen Points weren’t that clear after all, necessitating the Four Principles and the Five Particulars as elaboration.
Wilson’s most famous principle was that peoples should be free to form their own nations on the basis of “self determination” — and that meant the end of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. And self-determination? When it came to drawing maps, who “the people” were wasn’t always entirely clear. The new state of Poland, for example, was to have an opening to the sea, but the international port city of Danzig had a very inconvenient German majority.
When on the morning of October 7, 1918, the Swiss minister to the United States called on the State Department in Washington, he had a personal message for President Wilson. The Germans called for an immediate Armistice and accepted the Fourteen Points as the basis for negotiations. Wilson’s response was that he would not hand over the initiative to the Allies (the U.S. were “Associates”) with the “old (needless to say, corrupt) diplomacy” of the Europeans.
If Wilson had conducted the initial negotiations, which everyone agrees he did expertly, and then handed over further negotiations to the indispensible Colonel House as his personal representative, things might have turned out better.
Though no one knew it, the German front was close to collapse despite an infusion of experienced troops from the Eastern Front. Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive had brought the refreshed German army perilously close to Paris and the English Channel, but it then began to be pushed back past the Hindenburg Line. An Allied offensive in Picardy included 500 tanks. The Germans had good anti-tank weapons but virtually none of the new wonder weapon. The Australian Corps had counter-attacked, almost breaking the German front.
Prince Max of Baden, appointed Chancellor in the last weeks of the war, was desperate to conceal the true state of the German war machine and the fact that Germany was on the verge of starvation so that he could retain some bargaining power. But it was too late. Although Max was a man of undoubted intelligence, political and diplomatic skills, and character, not to mention the first truly democratic German Chancellor, he could only buy time to prevent a disastrous war on German soil.
Thus arose the myth of the “stab in the back”. Any rational person might conclude that a combination of the tank, the blockade of Germany and the millions of Doughboys made German defeat inevitable, but not so Hitler, who promised to “fight Communism, eliminate the Shame of Versailles and give ‘Work and Bread’ to Germany’s unemployed”.
And the rest, as they say, is history.