The Armistice of Compiegne in November 1918: Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Germany’s allies, secret diplomacy and war propaganda.
Wilson’s Fourteen Points
As early as January 8, 1918, US President Wilson delivered his famous speech to Congress in which he listed ‘Fourteen Points’ for a Future Peace. Of particular importance are the ‘abolition of secret diplomacy’, ‘freedom of the seas’, ‘arms limitation’, ‘claims of the Allies’, ‘evacuation of Russia by the Central Powers’, ‘restoration of Belgium’, ‘return of Alsace-Lorraine’, ‘an independent Poland with access to the Baltic Sea’ and the ‘founding of the League of Nations’.
Among other things, he ends his execution by pointing out that the Americans ‘are not jealous of the size of Germany and should not reduce it by these points, or to violate Germany or reduce its legitimate influence or power. We do not want to fight Germany, neither with arms nor with blockades or trade restrictions, if it agrees with the other nations in just and fair treaties and takes an equal place in the international community, instead of a place of supremacy.’
The last part of the statement with the fear of a German ‘supremacy’ is remarkable, because in 1914 Great Britain alone already ruled 20 percent of the earth’s land area with 23 percent of its population, of which only 13 percent (or 3 percent of world population) were British.
On 11 February 1918 Wilson added in a further speech that ‘in a peace there should be no territorial compensation and annexations against the will of the population concerned. In any case, there should be no rules that could destroy the peace of Europe and the world in the future’.
Armistice of the allies of Germany
In September 1918, Bulgaria became the first country to be tired of war after its armies in Greece and Serbia were defeated and retreating. At the same time, a large corps of Bulgarian deserters moved against the capital Sofia.
They therefore agreed in an armistice to evacuate the entire Serbian and Greek territory that their troops were still occupying and that they had previously claimed for themselves.
A month later, on 30 October 1918, the Turks, who had lost two-thirds of their army in Palestine and whose remains were in retreat, signed another armistice. They were forced to make their capital Constantinople available as an Allied naval base, as well as the transfer of the Black Sea port of Batumi and the oil fields of Baku, both occupied by Turkish troops. All garrisons in Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Mesopotamia and Cilicia, which were immediately occupied by French and British troops, had to surrender, the obvious prelude to a future occupation.
Finally, on 3 November 1918, the Austrians also signed an armistice, since the Austro-Hungarian Army had been defeated on the Italian front and was in a state of disintegration. Here, too, it was decisive that the Italians could immediately occupy the entire territory they had agreed to in previous secret treaties, and the Allies were given the right to move as they pleased throughout Austria-Hungary. The Habsburg Empire had already dissolved in the meantime and the Allied presence gave the new nations the certainty that they would continue to exist as national states.
This created facts in Southeastern Europe and the Middle East before a peace conference was even held.
However, the armistice conditions against the German Reich were the toughest. The total collapse of Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria was taken for granted as soon as the Allied breakthrough and advance could be achieved – but Germany was stronger and more resilient than its allies.
On 12 September 1918, British Prime Minister Lloyd George stressed in Manchester that ‘Prussian military power must not only be defeated, but Germany itself must know that it has been defeated’.
After the allied armies were strengthened by fresh, enthusiastic troops from the United States and the German trench positions in Flanders were broken, such a double strategy seemed possible.
But just a month later, the British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig complained about the situation. On 19 October, he returned from France to London to inform the War Cabinet that things were not going well. He claimed that the American army was ‘disorganized, poorly equipped and poorly trained, and they suffered heavy losses due to their ignorance of modern war’. As far as the French army is concerned, it seems ‘very exhausted’. The British army, he concluded, ‘is not fresh enough or strong enough to force a decision alone’ and the war, according to Haig, would last well into 1919.
All this pointed to the need for a sharp ceasefire that would deprive the Germans of any possibility of continuing to fight once they had agreed to end the struggle. The British War Cabinet therefore felt that the ceasefire terms should be so comprehensive that they could be seen as ‘promises to fulfill our peace terms’.
Meanwhile, after the significant deterioration of the military situation, the German Supreme Army Command had repeatedly called on the Reich government since 19 September and thereafter to begin negotiations on a ceasefire. The government and army leadership are hoping for Wilson’s Fourteen Points to maintain an acceptable peace.
Thus, on 3 October, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey jointly asked Woodrow Wilson for a ceasefire on the basis of his Fourteen Points.
On October 10, the American response arrives in Germany, in which Wilson wants to propose an armistice to the Allies if the Fourteen Points are accepted and the occupied Belgian and French territories are evacuated.
On the basis of this reply, the German Government assumes a peace settlement on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. In the following two weeks, until the beginning of November, Wilson makes two further statements in which he sets additional conditions, which the German government accepts in each case.
These also include the offer that a peace would be ‘negotiated’ later if the monarchic autocrats resigned and an elected people’s representation took power. This point will also be fulfilled by the resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his departure into exile to Holland as well as by subsequent elections to a constituent assembly in Weimar.
Since in Germany the disagreement of the Allies on the question of a ceasefire and peace is clearly noted from their press, Wilson declares on November 5, 1918, that he is reassured: ‘The Allied governments … declare their willingness to conclude a peace treaty with the German government on the basis of the terms of peace laid down in the President’s address to the Congress on 8 January 1918.’ This statement corresponds to a preliminary peace treaty under international law.
On 9 November 1918, the ceasefire negotiations began in the forest of Compiegne, but were no longer led by US President Wilson, but by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch.
Since all German allies have stopped fighting in the meantime and the revolution breaks out in Berlin, the negotiating position of the German plenipotentiaries is awful.
The Allied representatives ignore Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the German delegation can hardly threaten to continue the struggle.
They receive only a 36-day ceasefire, in which all remaining occupied territories must be evacuated within 15 days, Germany is occupied west of the Rhine, and allied bridgeheads are formed on the east bank near Mainz, Koblenz, and Cologne. Thus, Germany has lost all conquered territories, Alsace-Lorraine as good as and is exposed to the danger of also losing its territory west of the Rhine.
Germany must immediately release all Allied prisoners of war, the peace treaties with Russia and Romania must be cancelled, large quantities of railway equipment (5,000 locomotives and 150,000 railway wagons), trucks and war equipment (including 5,000 guns; 25,000 machine guns; 3,000 mortars; 1,700 aircraft) must be handed over, and all submarines and German High Seas fleets must be interned at Scapa Flow.
Finally, the four words ‘reparations for damage caused’ can be found in the ceasefire agreement. The German delegation accepted these few words without discussion and the latter Allied interpretation of their meaning will poison the political atmosphere in Europe for the next twenty years and provide the best election campaign powder for Adolf Hitler.
With the adoption of these conditions on 11 November 1918, the German delegation gave up all weapons and means of pressure and is no longer at eye level in the subsequent negotiations. In fact, Germany is at the mercy of the Allies and can no longer invoke Wilson’s fourteen-point peace offer. To this end, the ceasefire must be extended again and again until the actual peace negotiations, with the Allies imposing ever more conditions and demands.
Thus, a balanced peace treaty was already prevented by the respective ceasefire conditions.
At the beginning of the war, all nations had their war goals. For France, it was the reconquest of the provinces Alsace and Lorraine lost in the war of 1870-71, Great Britain wanted to acquire as many colonies of Germany as possible, Serbia wanted to become ‘Great Serbia’ with Bosnia and Albania, etc.
At different times of the war, however, the situation of the Allies was precarious. New allies had to be found. But the Neutrals are not easily willing to be drawn into a war that they have recognized as a terrible bloodbath on land and sea, and which brings with it the disruption of peaceful trade and industry, the difficulties in daily life and above all the ever-present risk of defeat, occupation, humiliation and national ruin.
The promises made during the war in secret negotiations thus had the main purpose of convincing the neutrals and wavering that it was in their full interest to support the cause of the Allies. Once this support was in place, the Allies could hardly withdraw their secret promises.
Where they did so, as in the case of Italy, they created a sense of resentment that had far-reaching consequences. Italy had been promised by Britain, France and Russia a share of all areas of Turkish or German territory in Africa and the Middle East. The Italians were also promised the Austrian provinces of Trentino, South Tyrol and Gorizia and Istria, the Dalmatian coast and Albania.
But most of these promises were not fulfilled. Albania became completely independent. The Dalmatian coast went to Yugoslavia. Great Britain and France kept all the African colonies of Germany to themselves and profited from the collapse of Turkey.
At the peace conference all protests of Italy were in vain. Although the country nevertheless emerged from the peace treaties with an expansion of its territory, it became a dissatisfied nation, also waiting for a revision of the Treaty of Versailles.
Within a few years Mussolini took advantage of this feeling of humiliation. He demanded the fulfillment of what had been promised to Italy.
Consequences of war propaganda
Allied governments and newspapers have been very active throughout the war persuading their populations that the struggle must be fought to the bitter end and their own victory. The democracies in Britain, France and the USA had to ‘keep their voters at bay’ through active public relations as the war became harder and harder and more loss-making.
The crowds of the allied countries should learn that they stand for ‘right and good’ against ‘injustice and evil’. Already on 27 August and 2 September 1914 reports about alleged atrocities of German soldiers appeared in The Times.
Since then horror propaganda about the ‘bloodthirsty Huns’ has flourished among British, French and Americans.
It must be noted that a papal investigation in the war zones could not prove a single case of this kind.
The Italian Prime Minister of 1919, Nitti, writes that in order to ‘awaken the fighting spirit of the peoples, one must above all hate in order to maintain the will to win at any cost. There was no cruelty to which the Germans were not ascribed’. Thus, after the end of the war, he initiated investigations into the cases and even the British Prime Minister had witnesses questioned in Belgium. Not a single case could finally be proven.
The fact that the British cut the German overseas cables immediately after the war began enabled them to spread such propaganda unilaterally in North America and influenced American media and the population as well. Woodrow Wilson also used self-deception to justify entering the war, painting the enemy black and the Allies white.
The incomprehensible self-deception and hatred in the peoples’ heart could of course no longer be corrected until the peace treaty. So Versailles is less about a new order of peace than about revenge and punishment.
Another consequence of the nonsensical agitation will be that the actual genocide of the Nazis in the Second World War will then be interpreted by many people only as a ‘further, unfounded shiver propaganda’ of the Allies.
Part II: Treaty of Versailles.