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Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

By 1918, even with the withdrawal of Russia, things weren’t exactly going as planned for the Central Powers. The reinforcement of the European troops with fresh, energetic American soldiers spelled doom for the Central Powers. Germany’s Spring Offensive, the last attempt to salvage the war, got the Germans very close to Paris, but they stalled just short. In July and August, the Entente’s troops made big surges and the Germans retreated each time. By October, German leadership faced a tough decision: fight until Germany was annihilated or sign a peace treaty. Rumors of German defeat spread through the German ranks and mutiny became a legitimate possibility everywhere; some of the German High Sea Fleet did mutiny. German public opinion ran in favor of an end to the fighting. On November 8, 1918, at Germany’s most desperate hour, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and gave way to the new Weimar Republic in Germany.

Bulgaria became the first Central Power to capitulate. They gave up in September 1918. The Ottomans then signed an armistice on October 30, followed by the Austrians on November 4. Germany finally signed an armistice agreement, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, poetically at the eleventh hour, too.

The terrible war that saw the first use of chemical weapons and air combat, tragic trench warfare, and millions dead had finally drawn to a conclusion. With the final tallies done, fully 9 million men lost their lives in the war. Germany lost over two million, Russia lost 1.7 million, and France and Austria-Hungary also lost over a million lives. Surely this would be the war to end all wars.

As a Matter of Fact

One of the technological advances made during the war was the development of the modern tank. Introduced into combat in 1916 for the first time, the British D1 tank rolled into action at breakneck speeds of up to four or five miles per hour on level ground. Intended to break the stalemate created by trench warfare, the tanks proved very unreliable and high-maintenance on the uneven battlefields.

The Treaty of Versailles

In 1919, the representatives of “the Big Four” met at the Paris Peace Conference to work out the formal details of a treaty. Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) represented France, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) represented Britain, Vittorio Orlando (1860-1952) represented Italy, and President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) represented the United States. Germany was represented but had no say in the proceedings. Russia, busy dealing with domestic problems, was not represented. Bulgaria and Turkey, home of the Ottomans, weren’t involved at Versailles but signed the Treaty of Neuilly and the Treaty of Sevres, respectively, which dealt harsh blows to the small nations and forced them to cede much land.

Would You Believe?

The Big Four met immediately with ideological problems. Wilson pushed the idea of national self-determination but France and Britain had no intention of letting go of their colonial empires.

Most of the delegates to the conference had their own agenda. Clemenceau hoped to exact revenge on Germany and deliver a crippling blow to it as a European power. Lloyd George also wanted Germany to pay for its crimes, but did not want blood like Clemenceau did. Wilson approached the meetings idealistically hoping to promote his idea for a League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization. The League was part of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a plan that called for arms reductions, free trade, and more. In the end, Clemenceau and Lloyd George got their way.

Continental Quotes

“I don't know whether war is an interlude during peace or peace is an interlude during war."

—Georges Clemenceau

The Treaty of Versailles required that Germany accept all responsibility for the war, fairly or not. Germany lost huge amounts of land to other nations, perhaps most notably the hotly contested region of Alsace-Lorraine to France. Germany found itself with a bill for 132 billion gold marks, a figure actually reduced from over 200 billion gold marks. The sum was still unrealistically high. The treaty placed serious limitations on the German military. The treaty limited Germany’s army to 100,000 men and no draft, no tanks, and no heavy artillery. Likewise, the treaty limited the German navy to 15,000 men and no submarines. The treaty also created a DMZ, or demilitarized zone, along the Rhine to serve as a buffer between the two rival states. Though the Treaty of Versailles served as the major peace settlement after the war, other treaties dealt with the smaller nations involved in the war. The other treaties redrew political boundaries and resulted in the creation of new nations like Finland, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, to name a few.

Failings of the Treaty

The harsh treaty crushed Germany emotionally as well as fiscally. Britain and France were pleased with the outcome, but Wilson was disappointed. The Treaty of Versailles left Germany as the sole guilty party, a fact that would create deep resentment in Germany. Furthermore, the treaty did not address the very things that caused the war in the first place. In the end, the United States was the only one of the powers that did not sign the treaty.

The Treaty of Paris provided for the League of Nations to intervene in military aggression. Members in the League were to be obligated to defend other members who were attacked in the future. Because the American Congress had the sole constitutional power to declare war, the Congress refused to give that power away by signing such a treaty. Britain eventually backed out of its alliance with France, so Britain, France, and Germany were all left feeling relatively isolated. Germany felt wronged. Austria lost its empire. Some nationalists got their wish in Europe, but not all of them. Tensions were almost as high at the end of the war as they were at the beginning.

An Exhausted Europe

As if the loss of more than nine million lives wasn’t enough for Europe, probably twice that number suffered some kind of physical injury as a result of the fighting. Buildings, factories, homes, farms, churches, and even entire villages and towns were completely destroyed. In France alone, 750,000 families lost homes as a result of the war. With that kind of destruction, the European economy also lay in rubble. Many nations ran up huge war debts through deficit spending and by taking loans to finance the war effort. After the war, though, they had no way to repay their debts.

The death and destruction of the war left a lasting impression on everyone involved. The threat of war hadn’t been much of a deterrent when trouble brewed in the Balkans, but now war seemed like the worst thing imaginable. Man had created weapons of such destructive power that no one alive at the end of the war ever wanted to go to war again. Unfortunately, Europe’s determination not to fight would actually lead to more fighting by mid-century.

One of the most profound and lasting effects of the war was one that no one really considered at the time. The collective psyche of Europe was almost irreparably damaged. The total destruction and chaos of the war led many to question and doubt all they had ever known or believed. These questions and doubts became apparent during the years after the war in areas including art, religion, psychology, and philosophy.

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