WWI ended slightly over one hundred years ago, but the repercussions of this conflict were long lasting and immense. One little known example is the German government’s final WWI reparations payment that was made in October, 2010.
Germany has always felt a deep sense of injustice regarding the betrayal of the 1918 Armistice terms which were replaced by the very harsh 1919 Versailles Treaty. The 14 Points decreed by President Wilson as terms for an Armistice never became reality. The Versailles Treaty incorrectly decreed that Germany bore sole responsibility for WWI. The Treaty also gave away large parts of the German nation and made German citizens minority residents of foreign countries. All German colonies were taken away. And finally, it forced Germany to make crippling reparation payments that were not scheduled to end until 1988.
Ironically, Germany was winning WWI until summer 1918. On the Western Front, German territorial gains were being held and the French and British home fronts were so weak that they already needed food and money from the USA just to continue the war. On the Eastern Front, the Russian Empire lost huge amounts of territory while starvation and food shortages forced the Czar to abdicate in February 1917. A German poster from July 1917 therefore posed the question…. “Who is the Victor?” ….The answer was the German side in every year from 1914 to July 1917, the date of this poster.
In particular, impressive German victories were won on the Eastern front, where battle lines were much more fluid and spread over a huge area from the Baltic to the Black Sea. German victories in the east were a major catalyst that led to Russia’s home front collapsing in February 1917. Although the Czar abdicated, fighting continued until the October 1917 Revolution resulted in a complete German victory. The result was that Germany no longer had to split its forces in a dangerous two front war and could concentrate almost fully on the Western Front. I say almost because 1 million German soldiers had to stay in the east to administer the newly acquired states of Russian Latvia, Russian Lithuania and Russian Poland.
The German military was in a strong position in March 1918, launching a major offensive that reached close enough to Paris to bombard it and very nearly end the war. The German attack was the biggest breakthrough in three years of warfare on the Western Front. Despite this, on the German home front there was increasing socialist and communist unrest, including a mutiny of idle sailors in the Navy. Nevertheless, France and Britain also had problems. France had a very extensive mutiny in their front line Army and a home front that was troublesome. In England war attitudes were very negative and morale low. This was due to so many men dying on the battlefield that the conscription age had to be raised to age 51, and due to income taxes going from 6% to 36% and by inflation and food rationing. In fact Britain already ran out of money earlier in 1916. They were being saved by loans, food and goods from the USA.
The tide started turning against Germany in summer 1918, when the USA finally moved one million fresh new troops to the battlefield, with 3 million more scheduled. Additionally, President Wilson publicized his 14 Points Statement which outlined reasonable peace terms. The text of the Fourteen Points was widely distributed in Germany as propaganda to end the war and was well known by the Germans. Because the Americans were saving Britain and France, Germany did not anticipate that these two countries would later ignore President Wilson’s 14 points, making the Americans guilty of deception.
By November of 1918 widespread food shortages in Germany had increased home front turmoil to the point that the Kaiser was forced to abdicate. Field Marshall Hindenburg, now effectively the leader of Germany, took this and the influx of American troops and the proposed reasonable 14 Points into account and thus Germany agreed to a cease fire on November 11, 1918.
Unfortunately, President Wilson’s 14 Points were ignored by France, Britain and Italy. Most of Wilson’s 14 Points were scuttled and the differences between Wilson’s document and the final Treaty of Versailles was a betrayal of the terms of Armistice and fueled great anger in Germany. There was general outrage over huge reparations demanded, large scale theft of German territory and colonies, and over the War Guilt Clause.
Although America’s support of Britain and France ended the war, Wilson’s failure to assert himself allowed for British and French overreach which led directly to the rise of a strong nationalist leader in Germany. The Versailles Treaty ensured that the “war to end all wars” would continue in 1939.
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