Society, Fin de Siecle

Germany, 1914-1918

Administration . Foreign Policy . Domestic Policy . The Economy . Demography . Cultural History

Administration . Kaiser Wilhelm II. (1888-1918). Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1909-1917), Gerg Michaelis (1917), Georg von Hertling (1917-1918), Prinz Max von Baden (1918). Chief of the OHL Helmuth von Moltke (1914), Erich von Falkenhayn (1914-1916), Hindenburg and Ludendorff (1916-1918), Hindenburg and Groener (1918).

Foreign Policy
A.) Military Strategies . The German Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, Army High Command) had anticipated a war in which Germany and Austria-Hungary would face France and Russia; this constellation had been obvious ever since the German-Russian Treaty of mutual aid was not prolonged in 1891. The OHL was concerned about Russia's rapidly growing population, which also meant a strengthening of it's army. It was expected that by 1916 the Russian army would gain a dangerous numerical superiority. France had established a tight chain of strong fortifications along it's border to Germany.
General Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (chief of staff 1891-1905; he died in 1913) authored a plan, according to which the German army, bypassing the French lines by marching either through Belgian or Swiss territory, would achieve a quick military victory in the West and then turn it's attention on the east - the Schlieffen Plan. In order to achieve victory in the west, two thirds of Germany's forces were to be stationed along the western front, while one third should hold back the invading Russian forces as long as possible, until reinforced by the forces from the west.
The German side hoped that Britain and the USA stayed out of the conflict; Italy was regarded Germany's ally, Europe's minor states were given little attention in these plans.
B.) Political Goals . At the beginning of the war, Germany's political goals were ill-defined. The war was fought because the enemy was there and it was regarded opportune to do it now rather than later.
During the war, which demanded a high price both in effort and suffering, demands were defined in case of a German victory : Flanders, the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, and Courland (with it's dominating German minority) were to be annexed, as was the mineral-rich region around Longwy in French Lorraine (iron ore). Germany also expected colonial gains in the Congo basin region. Plans were to establish an economic zone in central and eastern Europe dominated by Germany. Russia was to be weakened by granting independence to Finland, Russian Poland, Ukraine etc., which were to become German satellites.
C.) The War . When Austria-Hungary declared War on Serbia on July 28th 1914 and Russia mobilized, the German OHL (Oberste Heeres-Leitung, Army High Command) had little doubt that the long anticipated situation had come, and the Schlieffen Plan immediately was put into action. Violating Belgian neutrality, German forces crossed Belgium and penetrated into northern France. Meanwhile, the Russians made more progress than expected in the east. Some forces had to be removed from the west to the east which might have made the difference. The German advance now was halted 40 km off Paris, and the French, aided by the British, made some ground until the frontline stabilized in what was called Trench Warfare.
German disregard of the neutrality of smaller countries had added to the numbers of German enemies (Belgium, later Portugal) and alienated others, which also chose sides against Germany (Britain, later the USA). The new strategy was to have the enemy bleed to death in Battles of Materiel. It worked against the Russians in the Battle of Tannenberg, where 40.000 Germans faced 160.000 Russians, of whom 60.000 fell, another 90.000 were taken prisoner; the Russian commander committed suicide. It did not work on the western front in the Battle of Verdun, where both the Germans and French lost about 340.000 men each (the numbers include both wounded and killed); the Battles of the Somme, at Ypres and Langemarck were similarly bloody. Because the Germans failed to exhaust their French opponents, the battle was regarded lost.
Meanwhile, the British navy imposed a Blockade on Germany, which made little use of it's cherished fleet. A few vessels scattered over the world's oceans were hunted down by the British, the colonies, regarded indefensible, quickly lost (with the exception of German East Africa, where commander Lettow-Vorbeck did not surrender until 1918). Germany responded by declaring U-Boat Warfare, which strained Britain's imports, as the country lost considerable ship tonnage due to German submarines.
During the war, German diplomacy attempted to draw neutral countries into the war as German allies; the Ottoman Empire (Oct. 1914) and Bulgaria (Oct. 1915) responded to the call.
Germany's allies, especially Austria-Hungary, were a mixed blessing. With German aid they managed to hold out, the Ottoman army, with German advisors, being able to repel a number of allied invasions.
In 1915 Russia's weakness became evident, and the OHL now hoped for a quick victory in the east, so that the eastern forces could be utilized in a last effort to force victory in the west. The strategy was to wear out the Russian forces; German forces advanced only reluctantly into Russian territory. In 1917 Germany helped Lenin cross from Switzerland to neutral Sweden (from where he proceeded to St. Petersburg) and secretly financed the Bolsheviks with a credit of 40 million Gold Marks. On Dec. 9th 1917 Romania signed the Treaty of Focsany (armistice; factual surrender). Germany and Lenin agreed that peace should be signed quickly; the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3rd 1918. Now Germany's forces were transferred to the west and the Spring Offensive was launched, which failed to achieve it's goal to break through. Germany, running out of options, surrendered.

Domestic Policy . When World War I broke out, Germans of all political directions declared their solidarity with Emperor and government. This included the Social Democrats, which until the last moments had opposed militaristic policy and propagated international cooperation instead; when the war started, the party majority had a change of heart and approved the war credits. The nation was grasped by a spirit of war enthusiasm. Volunteers signed up, the army having the option to select those regarded fit and mature enough. The war turned out to be much different from the wars which led to Germany's unification, a quick victory, much expected, proved unrealistic and the country had to adapt to a long confrontation.
A new government of national solidarity was formed, which included representatives of all political parties, including the SPD and the Zentrum, which hitherto constantly had opposed imperial policy.
During the war some came to realize that exaggerated nationalism would not be the answer, that a peaceful solution had to be sought.
Moderate politicians were willing to consider US President Woodrow Wilson's suggestion of a Peace without Victors (21. 12. 1916); however the German government could not agree on such peace conditions, and the war continued.
The SPD (Social Democratic Party) was a wide movement representing the nation's working class. It consisted of several wings; the moderate Revisionists (Friedrich Ebert) supported the war effort, while radicals such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, began to openly agitate against the war and the Kaiserreich.

By 1917 the situation became tight. There was no movement on the fronts in the west, little movement in Italy and on the Russian front, but on both fronts the gains were not big enough to justify the effort. The government needed a victory, and it needed it fast. In 1918, with the Peace of Brest-Litowsk, the political goals in the east had been achieved and the OHL played it's last trump, attempting to penetrate the French frontline in the Spring Offensive. When this did not work and the Entente forces began a counteroffensive, Germany had no option but to surrender.
In the days preceding the surrender, the fleet was ordered to take to the sea, to fight a final battle. Germany's sailors mutinied, taking control of the harbour cities, establishing Workers' and Soldiers' Councils - the German Revolution had begun, quickly spreading from harbour cities to cities all over the Empire.

The War Economy . Walther Rathenau introduced the War Economy : Germany's supply of vital raw materials was placed under state administration, it was to be allocated according to priority; industrial production was focussed on war essentials such as ammunition, army supplies etc.; German research facilities were asked to find replacements for vital imports from overseas, such as rubber, salpeter, natural fertilizer, all of which now seized to arrive because of the British blockade. Germany's reserves of gunpowder in August 1914 lasted only 4 months. By the time it ran out, Germany's chemical industry produced Synthetic Gunpowder. Attempts to develop Synthetic Fertilizer on industrial scale did not result in satisfactory results until after the war.
The lack of fertilizer and the absence of a considerable part of the countryside workforce led to a significant drop in the nation's agricultural production. With insufficient food, as well as other vital consumer goods such as fuel (coal), clothing, shoes available, a Coupon Economy was introduced insuring that the scarce goods would not become unaffordable and that they were justly distributed. The system was called Wartime Socialism. Of course there was a Black Market; those who frequented risked severe punishment.
As many men were wearing uniform, they left their workplace. In order for the economy to continue, many women had to be employed, in factories, offices etc. Many sources describe a Weiberwirtschaft (women's economy). The German administration attempted to deal with the lack of qualified labour by bringing in workers from occupied Belgium (Forced Labour).
Although the economy was streamlined in order to focus the nation's energy on the war effort, the farming sector was struggling to provide the nation with the food needed. Germany went through Hunger Winters. Flower gardens were turned into petty potato or vegetable fields to provide a little extra nutrition, people kept rabbits etc (Victory Gardens).

Demography . Jan Lahmeyer gives population estimates for Germany as 66.9 million in 1913, 67.1 million in 1914, 67.8 million in 1915, 67.5 million in 1916, 67.1 million in 1917, 64.5 million in 1918; the census of 1919 (in a smaller Germany) counted 60.3 million. The Wikipedia gives Germany's war casualties at 2,03 million military dead and 426,000 civilian dead.

Cultural History . The war enthusiasm, the widespread notion that the war has been forced upon Germany by a conspiracy of her enemies, blinded some intellectuals, while others turned silent in an environment where critical minds were ostracized as unpatriotic. On October 23th 1914, a Declaration of Professors of the German Reich was published, signed by 3100 university professors, refuting the blame for the war put on Prussian militarism.
Authors such as Stefan Zweig, at first packed by patriotic fever, came to realize that Germany did not defend itself against a host of malicious enemies, but was responsible, to a high extent, for the escalation of the war.

Articles from Wikipedia : History of Germany during World War I, World War I Casualties, Walther Rathenau, Paul von Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorff, Wilhelm Groener, Wilhelm II., Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Georg Michaelis, Georg von Hertling, Max von Baden, Schlieffen Plan, Battle of Tannenberg, Battle of Verdun, Battle of the Somme, Treaty of Brest Litovsk, OHL
Articles from Wikipedia, German language edition : Kriegsziele im Ersten Weltkrieg : Deutsches Reich, Seeblockade : Entscheidende Seeblockaden im Ersten Weltkrieg, Kriegsrohstoffabteilung
Biography of Walther Rathenau, w. scan, from DHM (in German); short biography from Cethegus (in German)
Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, from DHM (German War Raw Material Dept., in German); Ersatzstoffe, from DHM (substitution materials, in German)
Christopher Birrer, A Critical Analysis of the Allied Blockade of Germany, 1914-1918
Das Deutsche Reich und der Erste Weltkrieg 1914-1918, by Hubertus Ochsler, in German
DOCUMENTS War Bond postcards, Postcards celebrating Alliances, from Propaganda Postcards of the Great War
Images of Walter Rathenau (1922), Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : German volunteers depart, 1914; 1916 : Meat Coupon; Winter 1916/17 : barter trade - coals for potato peels; 1917 : Women work in arms production
Alice Hamilton, At the War Capitals (1916), from How Did Women Peace Envoys Promote Peace by Touring European Capitals in 1915 ? at Binghamton
Johan Skjoldberg, Vid Världkrigets utbrott (When the World War broke out, report on the atmosphere in Kiel, Germany), posted by Nationalism Project at Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish
Ernst Vollert, "Stamningen i Berlin vid krigsutbrottet" (atmosphere in Berlin when war broke out), posted by Nationalism Project, Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish; Engl. trsl. from psm-data
World War I, from Deutschlandfunk, historical radio speeches, in German
La Grande Guerre 1914-1918 a travers les Revues d'Epoque, posted by Olivier, in French; click "Les Revues Allemandes"
World War I Document Archive
Declaration of Professors of the German Reich, Oct. 23rd 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The Peace of Brest Litovsk and associated Documents, from Avalon Project at Yale Law School, Documents from 1917 and 1918
Treaty of Alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 2. 8. 1914, from Avalon Project at Yale Law School
Erlebnisbericht aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg, Der Infanterist Wolfgang Boehm (1896-1960) in der bayerischen Armee 1915-1919, from M. Beimler, a report of the experience of a Bavarian soldier in WW I, in German, also from this site
REFERENCE D. Thomas Curtin, The Land of Deepening Shadow (1917), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Carl William Ackerman, Germany - The Next Republic ? (1917), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Barbarism of Berlin (1914), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
James W. Gerard, Face to Face with Kaiserism (1918), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Gerald D. Feldman, The Great Disorder, Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, 1914-1924, Oxford : UP 1997, 1011 pp., Part I on the War Economy (pp.25-98)
David Welch, Germany, Propaganda and Total War 1914-1918, Rutgers UP 2000 [G]
Article : Germany, in : New International Year Book 1914 pp.291-302, 1916 pp.266-273, 1918 pp.249-257 [G]
Entry : German Empire, in : Statesman's Year Book 1918 pp.881-916 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on September 14th 2008

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