The failure of compromise: 

We know about the terrifying human cost of the war in the front lines and — more indirectly — at home. All European warring nations went more or less bankrupt during the war, and in the Central Powers, in particular, civilians suffered severe losses due to the shortage of food and many basic commodities of life. Seeing masses of soldiers attacking, defending, and counter-attacking at an enormous blood toll makes the war look absurd to us, and two questions arise again and again: first, why did this terrible slaughter go on for so long? Second, how come that many peoples — and in our case, the Germans — held out for the full duration of the war?

As mentioned before, a military stalemate developed as early as September 1914, and neither side could force a decisive victory for four years. Already after a few months of bloody and costly fighting it seemed impossible for any government to advocate a return to the status quo of 1914. The Entente could wait and let its superiority decide the war, while the Central Powers over and over believed that they could win before the enemies’ material resources would become decisive. Several peace initiatives nevertheless materialized. The German government tried to arrive at a separate peace with the Russians, but the chances were bad, as the Central Powers (being the prime targets of Russian expansionism) could not promise the Russians nearly as much as the Entente had done. The German generals, moreover, insisted on the annexation of so-called security zones in the Russian border areas.

When a separate peace with Russia seemed out of reach, Bethmann issued an appeal for general peace in December 1916, but he failed to hint at any concessions Germany would be willing to make. Hindenburg and Ludendorff tolerated this move only because they wanted to use its expected failure as a pretext to start unrestricted submarine warfare. In July 1917 the left-to-center Reichstag majority issued an appeal for peace without major annexations and reparations. But again, the German generals refused to back such an initiative. After the breakdown of Russia German diplomats once more called for general peace negotiations, but again no official reaction occurred. In informal contacts the British and Germans recognized that even their most modest war aims were incompatible (even letting aside the French war aims). On the Russian side, Lenin called for general negotiations too, but his appeal was propaganda. Lenin discredited the Bolshevist government, moreover, when he published the secret treaties the Tsarist government had concluded with the western powers.

After the Russian defeat the Germans maybe had a slim chance at least to keep a longer stalemate: they could have declared the war in the west as strictly defensive while continuing to exploit their eastern conquests. Maybe it would have been possible for Germany to get away with this at the price of withdrawal from Belgium and, if worst came to worst, Alsace-Lorraine. It was certain that the Allies with American help had the greater reserves to win the war, but would they have continued the bloody struggle to the very end if the Germans had made significant concessions in the west?

On the other hand, the situation was very intricate because of the numbers of allies on each side. Even if Germany had come to an understanding with the western powers, what would have happened to Austria-Hungary and Italy? Admittedly, the chance for peace was slim, but the German government certainly did not go a long way to sound it out. One constant problem was that the German military leaders would hardly have consented to compromises in the west as long as a chance for general victory seemed to exist. To convince the military and the rightists to cede Alsace-Lorraine before the situation was entirely hopeless was impossible.

In any case, every government in the war was reluctant to make peace offers because they were likely to be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the other side. Instead of encouraging peaceful attitudes, they could boost the enemy’s morale and determination to hold out until victory. Attempts by neutrals to mediate peace all failed. The Pope made several attempts , and so did the American government. The problem with the United States was that it was hardly a strictly neutral country even before it entered the war. It sent armament shipments and much-needed loans only to the Entente and tolerated the British blockade. When President Wilson encouraged peace negotiations in 1916 he demanded that the Germans cede Alsace-Lorraine even before negotiations started. It was impossible for a German government to give up German regions as a unilateral precondition for a peace conference as long as the war was not lost.

We have seen that war aims and the enormous human and material cost of the war made it nearly impossible for governments and armies to agree to a compromise peace, particularly since mutual hatred of entire peoples grew from year to year. But the second question remains: how could peoples hold out for so long? A modern, industrial war could only be fought over an extended period if the whole society cooperated. This was the same problem in every warring nation, and they all resorted to similar methods to ensure national cooperation until victory.

The home front:
Propaganda was one strategy to hold the home front together. It worked in different ways:

  • vilification of the enemy;
  • extreme nationalism (sense of national mission and scientific legitimation of one’s own national superiority, professorial propaganda, often rife with pseudo-Darwinistic themes, intensification of prewar tendencies);
  • military optimism (embellishment of military setbacks, as in the following German statement: “our Austro-Hungarian allies are retreating in good order and will not hesitate to surprise the all too optimistically advancing enemy in due course,” and suggestion of imminent victory);
  • war aims (more or less explicit promise of large gains after the war).

But more than propaganda was needed in all countries. One of the most daunting tasks was the organization of the war economy. Work force and production shifted to industries that were essential for the war. If possible, factories tried to produce goods that were needed by the army. Peace goods and consumer goods became rare and thus expensive. Huge state investment went to heavy industry, particularly to the largest enterprises, as they seemed more efficient and had stronger lobbies. This created much bitterness among smaller entrepreneurs and all those businessmen and artisans who could not participate in the armaments production. Here a group of unsatisfied people grew that later on supported the Nazis. Disgruntled lower middle-class people found that the state seemed to neglect them and that the workers were better off than they, because the workers had large interest groups. Among these people, anti-Semitism would find a powerful, though in the end not decisive, demagogic resonance.

The draft created shortages of workers. Women and youngsters joined the labor force. Farmers resorted to hoarding and were one of the few groups that won during the war. Deputy military commanders ruled Germany under emergency legislation. They tried to be mild and competent, but the system according to which they had to rule was totally antiquated. There were twenty-three generals ruling their various areas, which were military districts that differed from administrative districts. A chaos of overlapping competencies was the consequence. The generals at home also had to administer censorship, which was usually mild, but sometimes arbitrary against the Left.

For the people at home the war was a depressing experience. Poverty was exacerbated in Germany unlike in England or France, where government help and an adequate supply situation even improved standards of living for the poorer classes. Long queues for food and coal became increasingly normal in Germany and other Central Powers. Since many women worked, it often was the children who went shopping and stood in front of stores during cold winter mornings, frequently to find out that there was no bread left. Poor people in the cities sent their children into the countryside to find whatever they could, some wheat spelt, a few potatoes, or some pieces of coal.

Every government made some concessions in social legislation in order to support the poor and the workers. In Germany the wartime governments steered a middle course, trying to appease the lower classes and, in particular, the workers, by promising gradual reform of the German and Prussian constitutions. Moderate politicians felt that it would be unfair to deny the workers respectability and full political rights after they had so willingly supported the nation state in danger.

National enthusiasm and solidarity, however, quickly faded in the face of severe shortages and famine.

Go on to C.4.