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A Separate Peace with Russia? (November 19, 1914)

Late in 1914, General Falkenhayn (1861-1922), then the head of the Supreme Command, told the chancellor that he believed that Germany could not win the war militarily. He was convinced that a military decision on the eastern front was impossible. England, he believed, was Germany’s most dangerous foe, and to persuade it of German invincibility, Falkenhayn envisaged a massive German offensive in the west, coupled with submarine warfare against British commerce. The success of these ventures depended, in turn, on a separate peace in the east. With the aid of diplomacy, Falkenhayn hoped that a limited offensive would achieve a “moderate defeat” of the Russian army. The full force of the German military could then turn toward the west. The conclusions that Falkenhayn drew from these military calculations, however, were tortuous and politically ill-conceived; they offered no resolution to the strategic dilemma. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was skeptical of his plan as were Falkenhayn’s two main military rivals, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1936) and Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937).

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General von Falkenhayn judged the situation in this way: As long as Russia, France, and England held together, it would be impossible for us to defeat our enemies in a way that would bring about a proper peace. In fact, we would be in danger of slowly exhausting ourselves. Either Russia or France must be separated from the coalition. Should we succeed in concluding a peace with Russia, as we should attempt to do first of all, we would be in a position to bring France to its knees to the point where we could dictate peace, even if the Japanese were to cross the sea in France’s support and even if England were to keep sending reserves into the field. It is certainly to be expected that if Russia were to make peace, France, too, would give in. Then, were England unwilling completely to accede to our will, we would, supported by Belgium, force the country to give in by starving it out with a blockade, even if the effort were to take months. [ . . . ]

After the effort failed to defeat France in the first stage of the war, and in view of the course of our military operations in the west during the present, second stage of the war, I, too, have to doubt whether it is still possible to defeat our opponents militarily, as long as the Triple Entente holds together.

Should Hindenburg remain victorious, we will in any case be able to keep Prussia, Posen, and Silesia free from Russian invasion this winter. – It is absolutely impossible to anticipate how things will play out in the Galician theater. – As long as strong army divisions must remain in the east, we will succeed in holding on to the area that we presently occupy in the west, perhaps even in expanding it to a small degree, eventually taking Verdun and thus forcing the French to retreat from the Aisne to positions on the Marne. The complete defeat and destruction of our enemy in a decisive battle appears, however, to be out of the question to judge from the always reserved reports of the General Staff. This situation will obtain throughout the winter; in fact, we can tolerate it as politically entirely advantageous, but it does not offer any chances for a decisive military victory. as a consequence. As far as I can judge the situation, we can only hope for such a victory if we can commit our army that is in the east to France. In this event we could, if we believed it to be proper, even reject a future peace offer from France and defeat France militarily, with a little luck, to the extent that France would have to accept any kind of peace that we desire – and at the same time, if the navy holds out, which it has promised to do, to impose our will on England. Thus by accepting the price that the situation with respect to Russia will remain basically as it was before the war, we can create appropriate conditions toward the west. And this outcome would represent the elimination of the Triple Entente. [ . . . ]

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