Prince Maximilian von Baden, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany, was likely as anxious as any member of the German government to hear that Berlin had finally received a response from American President Woodrow Wilson on October 14th, 1918. Ten days earlier, Max, a relatively unknown liberal member of the Prussian nobility and former military staff officer, had publicly declared Germany’s willingness to engage in an armistice based around Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Prince of Baden had initially resisted the post when offered to him by Kaiser Wilhelm II, knowing full well that even the most generous possible terms of a future armistice would likely cost Germany dearly and Max was not interested in going down in history as the Chancellor who offered up Germany’s de facto surrender.
But following a crown council meeting on September 29th, 1918, both Hindenburg and Ludendorff had advised the Kaiser that nothing short of an armistice could save Germany as neither general could ensure the Empire’s ability to hold together what remained of the Western Front. While there was debate as to what Germany expected from any armistice request – Ludendorff vacillated between viewing an armistice as defeat or as simply a delaying tactic that would allow the German army to regroup – Baden had been tasked with making the offer. The prior Chancellor and government had resigned in protest to news that the Kaiser and his two top generals alone had decided to seek peace, believing that in Berlin’s parliamentary democracy only the Reichstag retained the right to matters of war and peace. Although Baden’s appointment would appease the growing liberal sectors of the Reichstag, the Prince of Baden knew he would be viewed with suspicion by all factors of the parliament – a toady to the conservative Kaiser or as a weak-willed liberal seeking peace.
Baden and others hoped that an armistice based upon Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be temperate in it’s punishments. The message they received on October 14th, 1918 crushed those hopes. Wilson would not lead any armistice negotiations. Indeed, there would be no negotiations and no armistice with the current construction of the German government. If the Kaiser abdicated the throne and Germany stopped their “illegal and inhumane practices” of submarine warfare and scorched earth tactics as they retreated in France, only then could the fighting cease. And any final terms would be dictate by the Allies as a whole, not with America as a mediator.
There would be no easy peace for Germany. And the nation would wrestle with how much they were willing to pay to end the bloodshed.
If there was one issue that the various heads of state and military leaders of the warring powers could agree upon by the fall of 1918 (with perhaps the prominent exception of Erich Ludendorff), it was that an armistice was not only necessary, but desired. But what any armistice would look like or how it would come about were open questions with constantly changing answers.
The Allies’ political leadership had already rejected German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg’s peace overtures in the winter of 1916, assessing that the offer of negotiations were merely a domestic ploy to placate wavering members of the Reichstag. Victory had spoiled any appetite for moderation and the template for any armistice, based on what Bulgaria had accepted and what the Ottomans were in the process of having to accept, was tantamount to unconditional surrender. France in particular pushed for the harshest possible terms for Germany as the nation had been ravaged by their German neighbor twice in 40-some years. As laid out by President Raymond Poincaré and General Philippe Pétain, not only would France want Alsace-Lorraine back, but the German Rhineland, independent nations in Poland and Czechoslovakia to serve as eastern allies to wedge in Germany and massive compensation for war-time damage – and those were just the preconditions to an armistice. As horrendous as Germany’s position was, starving, bleeding to death and potentially soon without allies, Berlin wasn’t going to throw away their newly won Eastern European empire or accept an such outright defeat.
The wildcard in the search for an end to the war was the United States. European leaders had thought President Woodrow Wilson either politically cynical or diplomatically naïve in his repeated attempts to mediate a peace treaty and outright rejected Wilson’s call for “peace without victory.” But entry into the Great War hadn’t made Wilson, or the U.S., a staunch member of the Allies. Wilson defined the U.S. role in the conflict as a “co-belligerent” as America resisted declaring war on Austria-Hungary and never declared war against the Bulgarians or Ottomans. Even in combat, the U.S. was at times a temperamental partner, demanding to control their own armies and nearly fight their own war. Still, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, although derided by the Allies and Central Powers alike when first introduced, had won support with the various warring populaces and provided a counter-template to the unconditional surrenders sought by Britain and France. If Wilson could be moved to embrace the role of arbiter, perhaps Germany could emerge somewhat intact.
Wilson envisioned a final peace based upon his Fourteen Points, but an armistice – a cessation of hostilities – was entirely different matter and the American President had no interest in dealing with the regime he blamed for the start of the war. The Hohenzollern monarchy had to abdicate the throne and Germany had to relinquish all Entente territories, plus move their armies back over the Rhine to prevent Germany from being in a position from threatening her western neighbors in the event that negotiations broke down. It was a demand only a little short of total surrender.
For a moment, Wilson’s response stiffened Berlin’s resistance. Ludendorff, prone to flinging himself between pessimism and irrational optimism, now said Germany should fight on and that it was the Allies who were on the verge of surrender. But the political and military realities of the situation were impossible to rationalize away.
The whiff of revolution had engulfed Berlin for years. In addition to the crippling food and material shortages brought on by the British blockade, Germany had not held a free election since 1912. The Reichstag had stayed frozen in place since the elections of 1912 that had brought about a strongly liberal parliament dominated by the Social Democrats. Despite repeatedly passing legislation designed to reign in the German military or exert control over domestic policy, the Reichstag had been overruled by the Kaiser and a series of relatively more conservative Chancellors who were political independents and not representatives of the ruling majorities. The “Hindenburg Programme” of “total war” had only made the problem worse as Hindenburg and Ludendorff ran the country by fiat, arresting left-leaning political leaders among their many dictatorial policies. The more extreme elements of the Reichstag were now determined to have a say in government affairs and begin to cite the Russian Revolution as a potential model.
Surprisingly, the strongest voice for granting the Reichstag more control over the government was Erich Ludendorff. Ludendorff even at one early point told the Kaiser he should abdicate to ensure more equitable terms for Germany. But Ludendorff’s support for the Reichstag had nothing to do with his support of constitutional monarchy or any liberal leanings – Ludendorff wanted the politicians in charge when it came time to negotiate as he blamed them for the pending defeat. “They now must lie on the bed that they have made us,” Ludendorff told his staff.
It may hardly have mattered who was in control of Berlin at the rate the country was deteriorating. In October, one million Germans went on strike, some setting up workers’ “Rätes“, the German term for “council” like the Russian term “Soviet.” Even average German soldiers now openly spoke of revolution. One American POW recalled a conversation with his German guard in October of 1918. When informing the German that he had manned a machine gun post during combat, the German asked him “we expect to revolt soon; will you handle a machine gun for us?”
Chancellor von Baden couldn’t accept Wilson’s terms – indeed, he hardly had to power to do so given Wilson’s precondition of the Kaiser’s abdication. So Baden went about attempting to reform the Reichstag, making cabinet level posts accountable to the parliament and appointing more liberal-leaning MPs to leadership roles. And for his most impactful move, Baden would push to amend the Imperial Constitution – turning the German monarchy into a British-styled constitutional monarchy with largely ceremonial powers. The role of Kaiser would change, regardless of when or how the war ended.
The one voice who had remained quiet throughout the turbulent months – perhaps the most important voice in Germany at the moment – began to speak to the powers that be in Berlin. “In these circumstances it is imperative to stop the fighting in order to spare the German people and their allies unnecessary sacrifices,” Paul von Hindenburg told the Kaiser and others. “Every day of delay costs thousands of brave soldiers their lives.” If Hindenburg was willing to go on the record in support of ending the war, regardless of political cost, the war wouldn’t have long to go.