The Great War

Great war, gas attack, poppy
Great war, gas attack, poppy

At the beginning of the 20th century, two blocks all armed to a maximum stood against each other: England, France and Russia („Triple Entente“) on one side, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy („Dreibund“) on the other. Austria-Hungary, the Habsburg Empire, the multi-ethnic-state, was quite an anachronism, and about to fall apart. In the East, the Balkans were a „powder keg“ that could explode any time.


The assasination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo (Bosnia) by a Serbian Nationalist eventually led to the outbreak of a war. Also in Germany, patriotism rose above all other feelings, and all parties.

The following World War I was the most terrible war the Europe had seen so far. It was devastating and millions of people lost their lives.

After a quick march through Belgium into France, German troops were halted on the Marne River, north of Paris. The front lines in France changed little until the end of the war. The two friends August Macke and Franz Marc had volunteered to the front. Macke died in September 1914 in Champagne, Marc was killed during the battle of Verdun in March 1916.

The High Command takes over

At that time, Emperor William II was no longer in control. All decisions were de facto taken by the German High Command leaders, General Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. They convinced William to declare unrestricted submarine warfare against all foreign ships. In vain, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg warned that in that case the USA would enter the war on the Allies’ side.

In 1917, when Germany took up unrestricted submarine warfare and US merchant ships were attacked and sank, the USA declared war on Germany. Still the German war propaganda continued promising victory, and the High Command as well as right wing parties kept pursuing expansionist and offensive war goals.

The longer the war lasted and the more victims it claimed, the more people at home suffered, social tensions broke out again and general strikes in armament factories occurred. People had to work very hard 12 hours a day, for minimal wages, and they had almost nothing to eat due to a British naval blockade in the North Sea.

No peace resolution

The Social Democrat faction in the Reichstag split over the question of further credits to finance the war. Those who were against them were excluded and shortly after formed the Independent Social Democratic Party. Politicians around Matthias Erzberger of the Catholic Center Party demanded a truce of understanding, and with the votes of Social Democrats, the Center Party and the Progressive People’s Party the Reichstag passed a peace resolution in July 1917. The High Command considered it an admission of weakness and enforced Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s dismissal. From now on, General Ludendorff dictated German policy.

Peace through victory in the East

In the east, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had defeated the Russian army. After the October Revolution in Russia, Lenin offered peace in November 1917. For month the High Command and the Bolsheviks negotiated while fighting continued until the very hard “peace through victory” was imposed upon Russia in March 1918 at Brest-Litowsk.

After the victory in the east, the High Command ordered a new offensive in the west to bring about a decisive turn in favor of Germany. They outright rejected the “Fourteen Points” set out by the American President Woodrow Wilson on January 8, 1918. Wilson wanted peace on the basis of “self-determination of peoples” without victors or conquered.

However, in July 1918, the last reserves were burnt up, military defeat of Germany was inevitable. At the same time, the multi-ethnic state of Austria-Hungary was falling apart and had to ask for armistice. On August 8, 1918, Canadian, Australian and French tanks broke through the German lines.

Democratization form above

In October, the High Command informed Wilhelm II that there was no more hope, and that Germany had to ask for an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”.

However, it was clear that President Wilson would not negotiate with the Imperial authorities, so the High Command suggested that the Government should be democratized from above, and that the democratic political parties should participate in the new government. That was nothing but cynical political calculation, because that way the democratic parties would have to face the disastrous consequences of the defeat, whereas nobody would hold the Imperial authorities and the High Command responsible. Later, Ludendorff and Hindenburg would pretend that the army had been undefeated in combat, but “stabbed in the back” by revolutionists and strikers at home.

By the “October reforms”, Germany became a constitutional monarchy whose Chancellor, Max von Baden, was responsible to the Reichstag. For the first time, Social Democrats got into the government. Only now did the High Command reveal the full truth to the Government: the situation was hopeless, armistice had to be made at any conditions. On November 11, 1918, armistice was signed in Compiègne, France.


The following picture is from the German Wikipedia. Die folgende Bild stammt aus der freien Enzyklopädie Wikipedia und stehen unter der Creative Commons Lizenz 3.0. Es wurde im Rahmen einer Kooperation zwischen dem Bundesarchiv und Wikimedia Deutschland aus dem Bundesarchiv für Wikimedia Commons zur Verfügung gestellt: Deutsche Infanterie während eines Gasangriffs in Flandern, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05923 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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