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Arnold Brecht on the Final Weeks of the War (Retrospective Account, 1966)

In September 1918, after months and years of propagating Germany’s military victories, the Supreme Army Command suddenly demanded the negotiation of an armistice with the Allies and the formation of a new government on the basis of parliamentary principles. Its motivation was two-fold: while the command wanted to ensure that the army remained intact, Erich Ludendorff also calculated that including representatives of the Reichstag majority parties (the Social Democratic Party, the Center Party, and the Left-Liberal Party) in the government would allow him to shift the responsibility for an armistice onto them. Prince Max von Baden was appointed Reich chancellor on October 3, 1918; thereafter, he appointed representatives of the majority parties to his cabinet in order to facilitate a ceasefire on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. A slow democratic transition ensued, stimulated both by the demands of the United States and the democratic inclinations of the major parties. On October 28, 1918, the German constitution was amended to make the country a more robust parliamentary democracy.

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At this time [end of September 1918] the action moved into a new phase. Whereas the High Command had originally wanted diplomatic steps towards a peace settlement postponed until the military position was consolidated, they now requested that an offer of peace should go out immediately because of acute danger in the military situation. On October 1st a series of telegrams and telephone conversations issued from general headquarters with the same content: “Troops hold the line today; what might happen tomorrow not foreseeable.” The offer of peace “should be sent off at once and not wait until the formation of the new government which might be protracted.” “Front line kept intact today and we are in a worthy (würdigen) position, but a break-through could follow at any time and then our offer would come at the most unfavorable moment.” And later in the evening: “General Ludendorff told me [Baron von Lersner] that our offer must go out immediately from Berlin to Washington. The army cannot wait another 48 hours. ... The General emphasized that the offer must be in the hands of the Entente at the latest by Wednesday evening or Thursday morning and requests your Excellency to take all possible steps.” On the same afternoon Hindenburg sent word to Vice Chancellor von Payer that, if it was certain by seven or eight o’clock the same evening that Prince Max would form a government, they could wait until the following morning; if, however, the formation of the new government seemed to remain in any way doubtful, then he advised issuing the peace offer that same evening.

Prince Max of Baden objected that in this form and at the moment of a hard-pressed military position the peace move would clearly have a very unfavorable influence on the German situation in the negotiations. He reported, October 11: “On the evening of October 1 the position as Chancellor had been offered him along with the demand that he immediately requested Wilson’s mediation; that he had opposed this and had wanted to wait at least one week, in order to consolidate the new government and avoid the impression that we were making our request for mediation merely because of a military collapse.”

On October 2 General Ludendorff asked for a draft of the note and in the afternoon himself had a wording telephoned through, which on the whole coincided with the final text. Prince Max, however, still had misgivings. On October 3 he drew up a written list of preliminary questions, including the following: “Is the High Command aware that the commencement of peace moves while under the pressure of a military situation of no free choice (Zwangslage) could lead to the loss of German colonies and German territory, in particular Alsace-Lorraine and areas in the eastern provinces with chiefly Polish population?” On the same day Hindenburg, then present in Berlin, sent the Chancellor once again the written statement: “The High Command reaffirms its demand for the immediate dispatch of an offer of peace.” Under this pressure the note was sent off on the night of 3rd to 4th October. In the course of the 3rd, Hindenburg and Prince Max had also discussed the dispatch of the note orally. (In the appendix to this book a letter from Prince Max to me on this conversation is published for the first time.)

Before the answer arrived the Chancellor reported to his Cabinet on October 6, as the minutes show: “I have resisted note, firstly because I considered the moment too early, secondly because I wanted to appeal to the enemy in general. Now we must consider the consequences calmly. Now ... the situation on the front must be ascertained by experienced officers ... the leaders of the [several] armies must be listened to.” The Cabinet members expressed similar opinions. They obviously suspected that Ludendorff might have misjudged the military situation because of a nervous breakdown. Ludendorff, however, saw in consultations with other generals a sign of distrust and threatened his resignation, from which the Cabinet feared an acceleration of the collapse. A plan for a levée en masse, allegedly proposed by Walther Rathenau in Vossische Zeitung, was discussed, but dropped because military leaders, especially Ludendorff, did not expect much of it.*

* The words levée en masse are in fact not used in Rathenau’s article (“A Dark Day,” Vossische Zeitung, Nr. 512, October 7, 1918). What he recommended was that, in the case of an unsatisfactory answer from Wilson, troops should be methodically regrouped, soldiers on leave or serving at home be sent to the Western Front, older volunteers should replace soldiers in physically less demanding positions, and General Ludendorff should be replaced. The article contains a remarkably accurate forecast of Wilson’s reply and of the final results. Cf. Walther Rathenau, Briefe, vol. 2, nos. 435, 438, 450, 452, 467, 480, 518, and 580 on this article.

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