World War I (1914–1919)
The Collapse of the Central Powers
Germany and Austria Surrounded
By October 1918, although France and Belgium were still far from being free of German troops, it was clear to all sides that the western front was slowly collapsing. At the same time, Allied forces were steadily advancing northward from the south, liberating much of Serbia and putting pressure upon Austria-Hungary. Neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary was yet ready to surrender, but Germany’s government was undergoing a revolution, and Austria-Hungary’s army was collapsing amid mass mutiny.
Revolution in Germany
Germany’s first revolution was a quiet one that happened in two stages. On September 29, 1918, Germany’s top two generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, pressured Kaiser Wilhelm II into establishing a constitutional monarchy, because the Allied forces refused to negotiate with the kaiser and insisted upon dealing with representatives of the German people instead.
On October 2, the kaiser relinquished all of his authority regarding military decisions to the new Parliament—an act that, for all practical purposes, reduced the kaiser to a figurehead. His cousin, Prince Max von Baden, was named chancellor and effectively assumed leadership of the country. Although Prince Max immediately began to make inquiries to the Allies about an armistice, he was not ready to surrender unconditionally, as he believed that he could negotiate favorable terms for Germany, despite continuing losses on the battlefield. A lengthy exchange of diplomatic notes went on for the next month.
Independence in Eastern Europe
Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to surrender, signing an armistice in Salonica on September 29, 1918. On October 7, Poland declared itself an independent state, which immediately sparked fighting between Poland and Ukraine over the possession of the border territory of East Galicia. On October 14, the provisional government of Czechoslovakia came into existence. On October 25, a Hungarian National Council was established in Budapest in preparation for an independent Hungary, separate from Austria.
The Elusive Peace
As the war petered out, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States became the primary Allied representative for handling the peace negotiations. Earlier in the war, when the United States was neutral, Wilson had repeatedly attempted to broker peace among the fighting powers and made sincere efforts to work out an agreement that would be fair to all sides. By 1918, however, Wilson’s position had changed considerably. American soldiers were now fighting and dying against the Germans in France, and both Germany and Austria had considerably less leverage than before. Wilson was now determined that neither country would gain peace cheaply.
The Central Powers’ Attempts at Diplomacy
On October 3–4, 1918, the first joint German-Austrian diplomatic note was sent to Wilson, requesting an armistice and suggesting that all hostilities end without any penalties for either side. Wilson rejected the note on October 8, stating that he would not even discuss the idea of an armistice until France, Belgium, and Serbia were completely free of German and Austrian forces.
On October 12, the German government announced that it had accepted Wilson’s requirement and that it would withdraw its forces from France and Belgium. Despite the announcement, however, the fighting on the western front continued without letup. On October 21, Germany announced that it would cease all submarine warfare. On October 25, Allied military commanders met at Senlis, France, to discuss formal terms for an armistice. Although they disagreed over matters of detail, all concurred that Germany must be rendered unable to make war again.
The Dissolution of Austria-Hungary
By the end of October, Germany was still actively trying to broker a favorable way out of the war, but Austria could no longer afford to wait, because the country was already falling apart. On October 27, 1918, Austria approached the Allies independently for an armistice and ordered the Austrian army to retreat the same day. On October 29, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes proclaimed the establishment of a southern Slavic state to be called Yugoslavia.
On October 30, an Austrian delegation arrived in Italy to surrender unconditionally. That same day, Hungary formally declared its independence. On November 3, all the terms of the Austrian armistice were in place, and on the following day, Austria-Hungary formally ceased to exist.
The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire
On October 14, 1918, Sultan Mehmed VI of the Ottoman Empire, having suffered heavy territorial losses over the past year and facing a British invasion of Turkey proper, requested peace terms. An armistice was signed on October 30. One of its terms was that the Dardanelles be opened immediately to Allied ships. In the coming months, most of the territory of the Ottoman Empire would be redistributed under the trusteeship of various Allied forces and eventually reorganized into independent countries.
The Collapse of Germany
In the early days of November 1918, the situation in Germany deteriorated from unstable to outright chaotic. Prince Max von Baden proved ineffective at negotiating favorable terms for a German armistice, and unrest within the military grew, especially in the navy, where mutinies were becoming widespread. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who by this point was in hiding in the Belgian resort town of Spa, found himself under rapidly increasing pressure to abdicate, which he stubbornly refused to do.
On November 7, Max dispatched a group of German delegates by train to the secluded location of Compiègne, France, to negotiate an armistice. The delegation arrived on the morning of November 9, and negotiation promptly began. That same day, Prince Max took the step of announcing Wilhelm II’s abdication of the German throne—without the now-delusional kaiser’s agreement. Prince Max himself then resigned, and separate left-wing political groups respectively proclaimed the establishment of a German Soviet Republic and a German Socialist Republic, though neither would actually come to be.
Finally, on November 11, at 5:10 a.m., the armistice with Germany was signed. Hostilities officially ended at 11:00 a.m. that day. Thus, the end of World War I is generally reported to have come on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It would be more than seven months, however, before formal peace treaties would finalize the arrangements among all the various warring nations.
The Treaty of Versailles
Just as it had begun, World War I ended with complicated diplomatic negotiations. It took many months, but the treaty defining Germany’s present and future existence was signed at Versailles on June 28, 1919.
For Germany, it was a day of complete humiliation. The country was required to accept losses of territory, including Alsace-Lorraine and much of present-day Poland. Germany would retain the border region of the Rhineland but was strictly forbidden to develop the area militarily. Germany also had to agree to pay massive war reparations that would require half a century to fulfill. Finally, Germany was forced to publicly acknowledge and accept full responsibility for the entire war. This stipulation was a hard pill for many Germans to swallow, and indeed it was a blatant untruth.
The Legacy of the War
World War I began with a cold-blooded murder, diplomatic intrigue, and overconfident guesses about what the other side would do. Contemporary accounts report that there was even a sense of excitement and adventure in the air, as some seemed to envision the war more as a chance to try out the newest technological innovations than anything else. Five tragic years later, the reality of the war was unfathomably different: tens of millions dead, entire countries in ruins, and economies in shambles. Millions of soldiers had been drawn into the war, many from faraway colonies and many with little more than an inkling of what it was they were fighting for.
The Treaty of Versailles, rather than fix these problems, imposed bewilderingly harsh terms upon Germany, forcing that nation to accept full financial and diplomatic responsibility for the entire war. In the peace treaties ending most previous European wars, each side had accepted its losses, claimed its spoils, shaken hands, and then moved on. After World War I, however, the German people were humiliated, impoverished, and left with nothing to hope for but more of the same. Internally, Germany became a tumultuous place, teetering on the brink of violent revolutions from both the right and the left and vulnerable to takeover from extremist elements like the Nazi Party. Indeed, just a few decades would prove that the Allies had gone overboard with the punishments they inflicted on Germany—a misjudgment that created precisely the conditions required to launch Europe into the center of an even more horrible war.