|© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
|Deutschland und der Erste Weltkrieg(Germany and the First World War)
|Small Arms of theGerman Empire
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
During World War I, the German Empire was one of the Central Powers that ultimately lost the war.
It began participation with the conflict after the declaration of war against Serbia by its ally, Austria-Hungary.
German forces fought the Allies on both the eastern and western fronts, although German territory itself remained relatively safe from widespread invasion for most of the war, except for a brief period in 1914 when East Prussia was invaded.
A tight blockade imposed by the British Navy caused severe food shortages in the cities, especially in the winter of 1916-1917, known as the ‘Kohlrübenwinter’ (turnip winter)
The Sarajevo Crisis
|Arms of the Kingdom of Serbia
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
The causes of World War I, which began in central Europe in late July 1914, included intertwined factors, such as the conflicts and hostility of the four decades leading up to the war. Militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism played major roles in the conflict as well.
The immediate origins of the war, however, lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the Crisis of 1914, ‘casus belli‘ for which was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by Gavrilo Princip, an irredentist Serb.
The crisis came after a long and difficult series of diplomatic clashes between the Great Powers (Italy, France, Germany, the British Empire, the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Russia) over European and colonial issues in the decade before 1914 that had left tensions high.
In turn these diplomatic clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power in Europe since 1867.
The more immediate cause for the war was tensions over territory in the Balkans.
Austria-Hungary competed with Serbia and Russia for territory and influence in the region, and they pulled the rest of the Great Powers into the conflict through their various alliances and treaties.
|Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand
Wilhelm was a friend of Franz Ferdinand, Erzherzog von Österreich and he was deeply shocked by his assassination on 28 June 1914.
Wilhelm offered to support Austria-Hungary in crushing the ‘Black Hand’, the secret organization that had plotted the killing, and even sanctioned the use of force by Austria against the perceived source of the movement – Serbia.
He wanted to remain in Berlin until the crisis was resolved, but his courtiers persuaded him instead to go on his annual cruise of the North Sea on 6 July 1914.
Wilhelm made erratic attempts to stay on top of the crisis via telegram, and when the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was delivered to Serbia, he hurried back to Berlin.
He reached Berlin on 28 July, read a copy of the Serbian reply, and wrote on it:
‘A brilliant solution—and in barely 48 hours! This is more than could have been expected.
A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every pretext for war falls to the ground, and [the Ambassador] Giesl had better have stayed quietly at Belgrade.
On this document, I should never have given orders for mobilisation.’
|Kaiser Franz Josef
Unknown to the Emperor, Austro-Hungarian ministers and generals had already convinced the 84-year-old Francis Joseph I of Austria to sign a declaration of war against Serbia.
As a direct consequence, Russia began a general mobilization to attack Austria in defense of Serbia.
On the night of 30 July, when handed a document stating that Russia would not cancel its mobilization, Wilhelm wrote a lengthy commentary containing these observations:
‘For I no longer have any doubt that England, Russia and France have agreed among themselves—knowing that our treaty obligations compel us to support Austria—to use the Austro-Serb conflict as a pretext for waging a war of annihilation against us… Our dilemma over keeping faith with the old and honourable Emperor has been exploited to create a situation which gives England the excuse she has been seeking to annihilate us with a spurious appearance of justice on the pretext that she is helping France and maintaining the well-known Balance of Power in Europe, i.e., playing off all European States for her own benefit against us.’
| Helmuth von Moltke
When it became clear that Germany would experience a war on two fronts and that the United Kingdom would enter the war if Germany attacked France through neutral Belgium Wilhelm attempted to redirect the main attack against Russia.
When Helmuth von Moltke (the younger) (who had chosen the old plan from 1905, made by the former German general von Schlieffen for the possibility of German war on two fronts) told him that this was impossible, Wilhelm said: “Your uncle would have given me a different answer!“
Wilhelm is also reported to have said, “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it.“
In the original Schlieffen plan, Germany would attack the (supposed) weaker enemy first, meaning France.
The plan supposed that it would take a long time before Russia was ready for war.
Defeating France had been easy for Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
At the 1914 border between France and Germany, an attack at this more southern part of France could be stopped by the French fortress along the border. However, Wilhelm II got von Moltke (the younger) to not also invade the Netherlands.
|Geist von 1914 – Berlin
The German population responded to the outbreak of war in 1914 with a complex mix of emotions, in a similar way to the populations in other countries of Europe; often with enthusiasm known as the ‘Geist von 1914’ (Spirit of 1914).
The German government, dominated by the Junkers, thought of the war as a way to end Germany’s disputes with rivals France, Russia and Britain.
In Prussian history Junkers were members of the landed nobility in Prussia.
They owned great estates that were maintained and worked by Slavic peasants with few rights. They were a dominant factor in the Prussian and, after 1871, German military, political and diplomatic leadership. The most famous Junker was Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
|Geist von 1914 – Ausflug nach Paris
The beginning of war was presented in authoritarian Germany as the chance for the nation to secure ‘unseren Platz unter der Sonne’ – (our place under the sun) as the Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bulow had put it, which was readily supported by prevalent nationalism among the public.
The Kaiser and the German establishment hoped the war would unite the public behind the monarchy, and lessen the threat posed by the dramatic growth of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had been the most vocal critic of the Kaiser in the Reichstag before the war.
|Kaiser Wilhelm II
Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen; English: 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 to 9 November 1918. He was a grandson of the British Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe. Crowned in 1888, his ‘Neuer Kurs’ (New Course) in foreign affairs that culminated in his support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914 that led to World War I. His generals dictated policy during World War I with little regard for the civilian government. Towards the end of the war he lost the support of the army, and abdicated in November 1918, and fled to exile in the Netherlands.
Despite its membership in the Second International, the Social Democratic Party of Germany ended its differences with the Imperial government and abandoned its principles of internationalism to support the war effort.
It soon became apparent that Germany was not prepared for a war lasting more than a few months.
At first, little was done to regulate the economy for a wartime footing, and the German war economy would remain badly organized throughout the war.
Germany depended on imports of food and raw materials, which were stopped by the British naval blockade of Germany.
Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced.
The winter of 1916/17 was called “turnip winter” because the potato harvest was poor and people ate animal feed especially vile tasting turnips.
During the war from August 1914 to mid 1919, the excess deaths over peacetime caused by malnutrition and high rates of exhaustion and disease and despair came to about 474,000 civilians.
|German Uhlans (Lancers) – 1914
All the armies, at the commencement of the war, imagined that the conflict would be conducted in the traditional manner, with fast moving’ mobile armies indulging in cavalry charges and set piece battles.
Briefly, that was the case, but soon the fighting slowed down, and eventually, for much of the conflict, became static.
|Alfred Graf von Schlieffen
The German army opened the war on the Western Front with a modified version of the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, designed to quickly attack France through neutral Belgium before turning southwards to encircle the French army on the German border.
The Belgians fought back, and sabotaged their rail system to delay the Germans.
The Germans did not expect this and were delayed.
The plan called for the right flank of the German advance to converge on Paris and initially, the Germans were very successful, particularly in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August).
By 12 September, the French with assistance from the British forces halted the German advance east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September).
The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west.
|French Cavalry Leave for the Front 1914
The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mulhouse had limited success.
|Imperial Russian Troops 1914
In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia and when Russia attacked in this region it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front.
Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of Tannenberg (17 August – 2 September), but this diversion exacerbated problems of insufficient speed of advance from rail-heads not foreseen by the German General Staff.
|The Central Powers
The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts.
The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself.
Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.
German Zepplin Raids
|Zepplin Command Cabin
The first Zeppelin raid on England took place in January 1915.
From then until the end of World War I the German Navy and Army Air Services mounted over 50 bombing raids on the United Kingdom. these were generally referred to as “Zeppelin raids”, although both Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships were used.
From the beginning the airships had the advantage of flying at a higher altitude than could be reached by defending aircraft or anti-aircraft fire, and could carry a significant bomb-load; however, weather conditions and night flying conditions made navigation and therefore bombing accuracy difficult. Bombs could be dropped miles off target (one raid on London actually bombed Hull instead) and pin-point accuracy to hit military targets was impossible.
|Zepplin LZ 32
The airships made 20 raids in 1915, mostly Navy, mostly Zeppelins, and dropped 37 tons of bombs, killing 181 and injuring another 455 people.
In 1916 improved defensive measures, including the introduction of incendiary bullets, made raids more hazardous, and several zeppelins were destroyed.
Newer classes of ships with improved ceilings restored the advantage, but led to further flying and navigation problems; oxygen was needed to fly at high altitude, and provision for an observation car, for bombing through clouds, reduced the bomb load.
|German Gotha Bomber over London
Nevertheless, in 1916 23 raids dropped 125 tons of bombs, killing 293 and injuring 691 people.
In September 1916 the Army abandoned raids by airship in favour of developing a heavier than air alternative; in May 1917 saw the first ‘Gotha Raid’.
The Gotha G.V was a heavy bomber used by the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Air Service) during World War I. Designed for long range service, the G V series was used principally as night bombers.
The Navy, under FK Peter Strasser, continued with airships, though there were only six in 1917 and four in 1918.
|Peter Strasser (right) Ferdinand von Zeppelin (centre)
Hugo Eckener (left)
The last Zeppelin raid on Britain took place in August 1918 when four ships bombed targets in the Midlands and the North of England.
The raid also a saw the loss of Strasser when L70 was shot down in flames over the North Sea.
Zeppelins performed about 51 strategic bombing raids during World War I.
These raids caused numerous civilian casualties, killing 557 and injuring another 1,358 people. More than 5,000 bombs were dropped on towns across Britain, causing £1.5 million in damage. 84 airships took part, of these 30 were lost, either shot down by enemy action or lost in accident.
The raids, though disconcerting to civilian morale, were militarily ineffective.
1916 was characterized by two great battles on the Western front, at Verdun and Somme.
They each lasted most of the year, achieved minimal gains, and drained away the best soldiers of both sides.
Verdun became the iconic symbol of the murderous power of modern defensive weapons, with 280,000 German casualties, and 315,000 French.
At Somme, there were over 600,000 German casualties, against over 400,000 British, and nearly 200,000 French.
At Verdun, the Germans attacked what they considered to be a weak French salient which nevertheless the French would defend for reasons of national pride.
The Somme was part of a multinational plan of the Allies to attack on different fronts simultaneously.
The Battle marked the point at which German morale began a permanent decline and the strategic initiative was lost, along with irreplaceable veterans and confidence.
Enthusiasm faded with the enormous numbers of casualties, the dwindling supply of manpower, the mounting difficulties on the home-front, and the never-ending flow of casualty reports.
A grimmer and grimmer attitude began to prevail among the general population.
Morale was helped by victories against Serbia, Greece, Italy, and Russia which made great gains for the Central Powers.
Morale was at its greatest since 1914 at the end of 1917 and beginning of 1918 with the defeat of Russia following her rise into revolution, and the German people braced for what Ludendorff said would be the ‘Friedensoffensive’ (Peace Offensive) in the West.
In spring 1918, Germany realized that time was running out.
It prepared for the decisive strike with new armies and new tactics, expecting to win the war on the Western front before millions of American soldiers appeared in battle
General Erich von Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had full control of the army, they had a large supply of reinforcements moved him from the Eastern front, and they trained storm troopers with new tactics that raced through the trenches and attacked the enemy’s command and communications centers.
The new tactics would indeed restore mobility to the Western front, but the German army was too optimistic.
During the winter of 1917-18 it was “quiet” on the Western Front – British casualties averaged “only” 3,000 a week.
Serious attacks were impossible in the winter because of the deep mud.
Quietly the Germans brought in their best soldiers from the eastern front, selected elite ‘storm troops’, and trained them all winter in the new tactics.
With stopwatch timing, the German artillery would lay down a sudden, fearsome barrage just ahead of its advancing infantry.
Moving in small units, firing light machine guns, the storm troopers would bypass enemy strong-points, and head directly for critical bridges, command posts, supply dumps and, above all, artillery parks.
By cutting enemy communications they would paralyze response in the critical first half hour. By silencing the artillery they would break the enemy’s firepower.
Rigid schedules sent in two more waves of infantry to mop up the strong points that had been bypassed.
The ‘shock troops’ always frightened and disoriented the first line of defenders, who would flee in panic.
In one instance an easy-going Allied regiment broke and fled; reinforcements rushed in on bicycles.
The panicky men seized the bikes and beat an even faster retreat.
The storm-trooper tactics provided mobility, but not increased firepower.
Eventually – in 1939 and 1940 – the formula would be perfected with the aid of dive bombers and tanks, but in 1918 the Germans lacked both.
|Erich von Ludendorff
Ludendorff erred by attacking the British first in 1918, instead of the French.
He mistakenly thought the British to be too uninspired to respond rapidly to the new tactics.
The exhausted, dispirited French perhaps might have folded.
The German assaults on the British were ferocious – the largest of the entire war
At the Somme River in March, 63 divisions attacked in a blinding fog.
No matter, the German lieutenants had memorized their maps and their orders.
The British lost 270,000 men, fell back 40 miles, and then held.
They quickly learned how to handle the new German tactics: fall back, abandon the trenches, let the attackers overextend themselves, and then counterattack.
They gained an advantage in firepower from their artillery and from tanks used as mobile pillboxes that could retreat and counterattack at will.
In April Ludendorff hit the British again, inflicting 305,000 casualties – but he lacked the reserves to follow up.
Ludendorf launched five great attacks between March and July, inflicting a million British and French casualties.
The Western Front now had opened up – trenches were still there but the importance of mobility now reasserted itself.
The Allies held.
The Germans suffered as many casualties as they inflicted, including most of their precious storm-troopers.
The new German replacements were under-aged youth or embittered middle-aged family men in poor condition.
They were not inspired by the elan of 1914, nor thrilled with battle – they hated it, and some began talking of revolution.
Ludendorff could not replace his losses, nor could he devise a new method that might somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The British likewise were bringing in boys and men aged 50, but since their home-front was in good condition, and since they could see the Americans pouring in, their morale was stiff.
The great German spring offensive was a race against time, for everyone could see the Americans were training millions of fresh young man would eventually arrive on the Western Front.
The attrition warfare now caught up to both sides.
Germany had used up all the good fighters they had, and still had not conquered much territory. The British were out of fresh manpower, the French nearly so.
Berlin had calculated it would take months for the Americans to ship all their men and supplies – but the Americans came much sooner, for they left their supplies behind, and relied on British and French artillery, tanks, airplanes, trucks and equipment.
Berlin also assumed that Americans were fat, undisciplined and unaccustomed to hardship and severe fighting.
They soon discovered these supposedly soft, materialistic Americans really could fight.
The Germans reported that “The qualities of the Americans individually may be described as remarkable.They are physically well set up, their attitude is good… They lack at present only training and experience to make formidable adversaries. The men are in fine spirits and are filled with naive assurance.“
By September 1918, the Central Powers were exhausted from fighting, and the American forces were pouring into France at 10,000 a day.
|A7V ‘Sturmpanzer’ Heavy Tank
In contrast to World War II, Germany fielded very few tanks during World War I, with only 20 of the A7V type being produced during the war.
The first tank versus tank action took place on 24 April 1918 at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, France, when three British Mark IVs met three German A7Vs. Captured British Mk IVs formed the bulk of Germany’s tank forces during World War I; about 35 were in service at any one time. Plans to expand the tank programme were under way when the War ended.
|A7V ‘Sturmpanzer’ Heavy Tank
The A7V tank was introduced by Germany in 1918, near the end of World War I. One hundred vehicles were ordered during the spring of 1918, but only 20 were delivered. They were used in action from March to October of that year, and were the only tanks produced by Germany in World War I to be used in operations.
The A7V was 7.34 metres (24.1 ft) long, 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide, and the maximum height was 3.3 metres (11 ft). The tank had 20 mm of steel plate at the sides, 30 mm at the front and 10 mm for the roof.
The crew normally consisted of up to seventeen soldiers and one officer: commander (officer, typically a lieutenant), driver, mechanic, mechanic/signaller, twelve infantrymen (six machine gunners, six loaders), and two artillerymen (main gunner and loader).
|Wappen der Weimarer Republik
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
The decisive Allied counteroffensive, known as the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’, began on 8 August 1918 – what Ludendorff called the ‘Schwarzer Tag der deutschen Armee’ (Black Day of the German army).
The Allied armies advanced steadily as German defenses faltered.
Although German armies were still on enemy soil as the war ended, the generals, the civilian leadership – and indeed the soldiers and the people – knew all was hopeless.
They started looking for scapegoats.
The hunger and popular dissatisfaction with the war precipitated revolution throughout Germany.
By 11 November Germany had virtually surrendered, the Kaiser and all the royal families had abdicated, and the Empire had been replaced by the Weimar Republic.
The German Home Front
Germany had no plans for mobilizing its civilian economy for the war effort, and no stockpiles of food or critical supplies had been made.
Germany had to improvise rapidly.
All major political sectors supported the war at least at first, including the Socialists.
The “spirit of 1914” was the overwhelming, enthusiastic support of all elements of the population for war in 1914.
In the Reichstag, the vote for credits was unanimous, with all the Socialist joining in.
One professor testified to a “great single feeling of moral elevation of soaring of religious sentiment, in short, the ascent of a whole people to the heights.”
At the same time, there was a level of anxiety; most commentators predicted the short victorious war – but that hope was dashed in a matter of weeks, as the invasion of Belgium bogged down and the French Army held in front of Paris.
The Western Front became a killing machine, as neither army moved more than a few hundred yards at a time.
Industry In late 1914 was in chaos, unemployment soared while it took months to reconvert to munitions productions.
In 1916, the ‘Hindenburg Program’ called for the mobilization of all economic resources to produce artillery, shells, and machine guns.
Church bells and copper roofs were ripped out and melted down.
The German economy was severely handicapped by the British blockade, that cut off food supplies
The mobilization of so many farmers – and horses – steadily reduce the food supply.
Supplies that had once come in from Russia and Austria were cut off.
The concept of ‘totalen Krieg’ (total war) in World War I, meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces and, with German commerce being stopped by the British blockade, German civilians were forced to live in increasingly meager conditions.
Food prices were first controlled.
Bread rationing was introduced in 1915 but apart from Berlin it never worked well.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians died from malnutrition – usually from a typhus, or a disease their weakened body could not resist. (Starvation itself rarely caused death.)
Conditions deteriorated rapidly on the home front, with severe food shortages reported in all urban areas.
The causes involved the transfer of so many farmers and food workers into the military, combined with the overburdened railroad system, shortages of coal, and the British blockade that cut off imports from abroad.
The winter of 1916-1917 was known as the “turnip winter,” because that hardly-edible vegetable, usually fed to livestock, was used by people as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were increasingly scarce.
Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry people, who grumbled that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves.
Even the army had to cut the rations for soldiers.
Morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink.
The drafting of miners reduced the main energy source, coal.
The textile factories produced Army uniforms, and warm clothing for civilians ran short.
The device of using ‘ersatz’ materials, such as paper and cardboard for cloth and leather proved unsatisfactory.
Soap was in short supply, as was hot water.
All the cities reduced tram services, cut back on street lighting, and close down theaters and cabarets.
The food supply increasingly focused on potatoes and bread, it was harder and harder to buy meat.
The meat ration in late 1916 was only 31% of peacetime, and it fell to 12% in late 1918.
The fish ration was 51% in 1916, and none at all by late 1917.
The rations for cheese, butter, rice, cereals, eggs and lard were less than 20% of peacetime levels.
In 1917 the harvest was poor, and the potato supply ran short, and Germans substituted almost inedible turnips; the “turnip winter” of 1917–18 was remembered with bitter distaste for generations.
German women were not employed in the Army, but large numbers took paid employment in industry and factories, and even larger numbers engaged in volunteer services.
Housewives were taught how to cook without milk, eggs or fat; agencies helped widows find work.
Banks, insurance companies and government offices for the first time hired women for clerical positions.
Factories hired them for unskilled labor – by December 1917, half the workers in chemicals, metals, and machine tools were women.
Laws protecting women in the workplace were relaxed, and factories set up canteens to provide food for their workers, lest their productivity fall off.
The food situation in 1918 was better, because the harvest was better, but serious shortages continued, with high prices, and a complete lack of condiments and fresh fruit.
Many migrants had flocked into cities to work in industry, which made for overcrowded housing. Reduced coal supplies left everyone in the cold.
Daily life involved long working hours, poor health, and little or no recreation, an increasing fears for the safety of loved ones in the Army and in prisoner of war camp.
The men who returned from the front were those who had been permanently crippled; wounded soldiers who had recovered were sent back to the trenches.
Defeat and Socialist Revolution
|German Troops Returning Through the Brandenburg Gate 1918
Many Germans wanted an end to the war and increasing numbers of Germans began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party which demanded an end to the war.
The third reason was the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917, which changed the long-run balance of power in favor of the Allies.
The end of October 1918, in Kiel, in northern Germany, saw the beginning of the German Revolution of 1918–19.
Civilian dock workers led a revolt and convinced many sailors to join them; the revolt quickly spread to other cities.
Paul von Hindenburg
Meanwhile, Hindenburg and the senior generals lost confidence in the Kaiser and his government.
In November 1918, with internal revolution, a stalemated war, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire suing for peace, Austria-Hungary falling apart from multiple ethnic tensions, and pressure from the German high command, the Kaiser and all German ruling princes abdicated.
On 9 November 1918, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a Republic, in cooperation with the business and middle classes, not the revolting workers.
The new government led by the German Social Democrats called for and received an armistice on 11 November 1918; in practice it was a surrender, and the Allies kept up the food blockade to guarantee an upper hand.
The war was over; the history books closed on the German Empire
It was succeeded by the democratic, yet flawed, Weimar Republic.
Seven million soldiers and sailors were quickly demobilized, and they became a conservative voice that drowned out the radical left in cities such as Kiel and Berlin.
The radicals formed the ‘Spartakusbund’ and later the ‘Communist Party of Germany’ (KPD).
Germany lost the war because it was decisively defeated by a stronger military power; it was out of soldiers and ideas, and was losing ground every day by October 1918.
Nevertheless it was still in France when the war ended on Nov. 11 giving die-hard nationalists the chance to blame the civilians back home for betraying the army and surrendering.
This was the ‘Dolchstoß in den Rücken Legende’ (Stab-in-the-back legend) that re-emerged in German politics in the 1920s, and caused a distrust of democracy and the Weimar government.
Kaiser Wilhelm II and the ‘Grosse Krieg’
|Paul von Hindenburg – General Ludendorff
and Kaiser Wilhelm II
Wilhelm’s role in wartime was of ever-decreasing power as he increasingly handled awards ceremonies and honorific duties.
The high command foolishly continued with its strategy even when it was clear that the Schlieffen plan had failed.
By 1916 the Empire had effectively become a military dictatorship under the control of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff.
|Paul von Hindenburg
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, known universally as Paul von Hindenburg – (2 October 1847 – 2 August 1934) was a Prussian-German field marshal, statesman, and politician, and served as the second President of Germany from 1925 to 1934.
Hindenburg enjoyed a long career in the Prussian Army, retiring in 1911. He was recalled at the outbreak of World War I, and first came to national attention, at the age of 66, as the victor at Tannenberg in 1914. As Germany’s Chief of the General Staff from 1916, he and his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, rose in the German public’s esteem until Hindenburg came to eclipse the Kaiser himself.
Hindenburg retired again in 1919, but returned to public life one more time in 1925 to be elected as the second President of Germany.
|Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff
Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (sometimes referred to as von Ludendorff) (9 April 1865 – 20 December 1937) was a German general, victor of Liège and of the Battle of Tannenberg. From August 1916 his appointment as Quartermaster general made him joint head (with Paul von Hindenburg), and chief engineer behind the management of Germany’s effort in World War I until his resignation in October 1918.
After the war, Ludendorff became a prominent nationalist leader who was convinced that the German Army had been betrayed by Marxists and Republicans in the Versailles Treaty. He took part in the unsuccessful coups d’état of Wolfgang Kapp in 1920 and the Beer Hall Putsch of Adolf Hitler in 1923, and in 1925 he ran for president against his former colleague, Paul von Hindenburg,
Increasingly cut off from reality and the political decision-making process, Wilhelm vacillated between defeatism and dreams of victory, depending upon the fortunes of his armies. Nevertheless, Wilhelm still retained the ultimate authority in matters of political appointment, and it was only after his consent had been gained that major changes to the high command could be effected.
|Helmuth von Moltke
|Prinz Ruprecht and Wilhelm II
Wilhelm was in favour of the dismissal of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger in September 1914 and his replacement by Erich von Falkenhayn.
Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (23 May 1848, Biendorf – 18 June 1916), also known as Moltke the Younger, was a nephew of Field Marshal Count Moltke and served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1906 to 1914. The two are often differentiated as Moltke the Elder and Moltke the Younger. Moltke the Younger’s role in the development of German war plans and the instigation of the First World War is extremely controversial.
|Erich von Falkenhayn
Erich von Falkenhayn (11 September 1861 – 8 April 1922) was a German soldier and Chief of the General Staff during World War I. He became a military writer after World War I.
Falkenhayn succeeded Moltke as Chief of the General Staff of the German Army after the Battle of the Marne on 14 September 1914. Confronted with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan due to Moltke’s interference, he attempted to outflank the British and French in the “Race to the Sea”, a series of engagements throughout northern France and Belgium in which each side tried to turn the other’s flank until they reached the coastline. The British and French eventually stopped the Germans at the First Battle of Ypres (October–November 1914).
Falkenhayn preferred an offensive strategy on the Western Front while conducting a limited campaign in the east: he hoped that Russia would accept a separate armistice more easily if it had not been humiliated too much. This brought him into conflict with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who favored massive offensives in the east. Eventually – either in the hope that a massive slaughter would lead Europe’s political leaders to consider ending the war, or that losses would in the end be less harmful for Germany than for France – Falkenhayn staged a massive battle of attrition, as claimed in his post-war memoires, at Verdun in early 1916. Although more than a quarter of a million soldiers eventually died – for which Falkenhayn was sometimes called “the Blood-Miller of Verdun” – neither side’s resolve was lessened, because, contrary to Falkenhayn’s assumptions, the Entente was able to replace their dead.
After the failure at Verdun, coupled with several reverses in the east and incessant lobbying by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of Staff by Hindenburg.
In 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided that Bethman-Hollweg was no longer acceptable to them as Chancellor and called upon the Kaiser to appoint somebody else.
When asked whom they would accept, Ludendorff recommended Georg Michaelis, a nonentity he barely knew.
The Kaiser did not know Michaelis, but accepted the suggestion.
The Kaiser’s support collapsed completely in October–November 1918 in the army, in the civilian government, and in German public opinion, as President Woodrow Wilson made clear the Kaiser could no longer be a party to peace negotiations.
That year Wilhelm also became seriously ill during the worldwide 1918 flu pandemic, though he survived.
Wilhelm was at the Imperial Army headquarters in Spa, Belgium, when the uprisings in Berlin and other centres took him by surprise in late 1918.
|The Kiel Mutiny – 1918
Mutiny among the ranks of his beloved Kaiserliche Marine, the imperial navy, profoundly shocked him.
The Kiel mutiny was a major revolt by sailors of the German High Seas Fleet on 3 November 1918. The revolt triggered the German revolution which was to sweep aside the monarchy within a few days. It ultimately led to the end of the German Empire and to the establishment of the Weimar Republic.
On 7 November, the revolution had spread as far south as München, causing Ludwig III of Bavaria to flee.
After the outbreak of the German Revolution, Wilhelm could not make up his mind whether or not to abdicate.
Up to that point, he was confident that even if he were obliged to vacate the German throne, he would still retain the Prussian kingship.
|Socialist Revolution – Berlin – 1919
|Maximillian Prinz von Baden
The unreality of this belief was revealed when, in the hope of preserving the monarchy in the face of growing revolutionary unrest, Wilhelm’s abdication both as German Emperor and King of Prussia was abruptly announced by the Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, on 9 November 1918.
Prince Max himself was forced to resign later the same day, when it became clear that only Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SPD could effectively exert control.
Wilhelm consented to the abdication only after Ludendorff’s replacement, General Wilhelm Groener, had informed him that the officers and men of the army would march back in good order under Paul von Hindenburg’s command, but would certainly not fight for Wilhelm’s throne on the home front.
The monarchy’s last and strongest support had been broken, and finally even Hindenburg, himself a lifelong royalist, was obliged, with some embarrassment, to advise the Emperor to give up the crown, thus ending the Hohenzollern dynasty’s five-century rule.
The fact that the High Command might one day abandon the Kaiser had been foreseen in December 1897, when Wilhelm had visited Otto von Bismarck for the last time.
Bismarck had again warned the Kaiser about the increasing influence of militarists, especially of the admirals who were pushing for the construction of a battle fleet.
Bismarck’s last warning had been:
‘Your Majesty, so long as you have this present officer corps, you can do as you please. But when this is no longer the case, it will be very different for you.’
Subsequently, Bismarck had predicted accurately:
“Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this” – a prophecy fulfilled almost to the month.
On November 10, Wilhelm Hohenzollern crossed the border by train, as a private citizen, and went into exile in the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war.
Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles in early 1919, Article 227 expressly provided for the prosecution of Wilhelm “for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties“, but Queen Wilhelmina refused to extradite him, despite appeals from the Allies.
King-Emperor George V wrote that he looked on his cousin as “the greatest criminal in history (?)“, but opposed Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s proposal to “hang the Kaiser“.
President Wilson rejected extradition, arguing that punishing Wilhelm for waging war would destabilize international order and lose the peace.
|Wilhelm after his Abdication
The erstwhile Emperor first settled in Amerongen, where on 28 November he issued a formal statement of abdication.
He subsequently purchased a country house in the municipality of Doorn on 16 August 1919 and moved in on 15 May 1920.
This was to be his home for the remainder of his life.
From this residence, ‘Huis Doorn’, Wilhelm absolved his officers and servants of their oath of loyalty to him; however, he himself never formally relinquished his titles, and hoped to return to Germany in the future.
The Weimar Republic allowed Wilhelm to remove twenty-three railway wagons of furniture, twenty-seven containing packages of all sorts, one bearing a car and another a boat, from the New Palace at Potsdam.
Out of a population of 65 million, Germany suffered 2.1 million military deaths and 430,000 civilian deaths due to wartime causes (especially the food blockade), plus about 17,000 killed in Africa and the other overseas colonies.
The Allied blockade continued until July 1919, causing severe additional hardships.