12 January 2016

Did Germany really make a serious peace proposal in Dec 1916?

I am very grateful to Britain At War, Illustrated History of the Third Year of the Great War: 1916, without which I would not have sought out, and found the speech offering Germany’s peace proposal in Dec 1916. Thanks to Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918 by R Chickering.

The intolerable strains of the war showed on all sides. Britain, the only major nation that had been at war without conscription, introd­uced it in early 1916. Depleted manpower resources forced governments throughout Europe to begin deploying women in various hitherto male-only jobs on the home front. Signs of popular disillusionment with the ongoing conflict, such as labour unrest and food riots, were more common. By 1916 End-The-War voices had been everywhere.

Although their armies were killing each other’s young men by the mil­lions, the warring sides in WW1 remained in almost constant diplomat­ic contact. How bizarre! As early as Feb 1916, newspapers were des­crib­ing an attempt by German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to make a peace proposal through Pope Benedict XV. His proposal and its stipulations were further explained by Count Julius Andrassy in Budapest in April, but the Allies dismissed it out of hand because of it was fundamentally calling for a return to pre-war boundaries, leaving only the fate of Germany’s overseas possessions in dispute.

In Nov the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne circ­ulated a letter calling for a negotiated peace in the name of saving civil­is­ation, but it was loudly damned by most British statesmen. One other proposal followed the death of Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef I in Nov 1916, when Kaiser Charles I took over. The new Emp­er­or’s offer interested American President Woodrow Wilson enough to remain strictly neutral until April 1917, when it became clear that Austria-Hungary would not break its alliance with Germany. Ultim­ate­ly the peace initiatives failed and the war went on. And on.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg read out the Central Powers’ peace offering, 
at the Reichstag
2nd Dec 1916. 

But we would have expected the Central Powers’ (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) public offer to negotiate in Dec 1916 to be taken very seriously. On 5th Dec 1916 the Imperial German Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, delivered an address in the Reichstag in which he stated the willing­ness of the German Empire, under certain conditions, to consider the question of peace with its enemies. Hollweg included the text of a note which the Imperial Govern­ment had submitted, through neutral govern­ments, for consid­eration by the Entente Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia). An identical note was likewise submit­ted on the same date by Germany's allies.

“Should our enemies refuse to enter peace negotiations – and we have to assume that this will be the case – the odium of continuing the war will fall on them. War-weariness will then grow and generate new support for the elements that are pushing for peace. In Germany and among its Allies, too, the desire for peace has become keen. The rejection of our peace offer, the knowledge that the continuation of the struggle is inevitable thanks alone to our enemies, would be an effective means of spurring our people to utmost exertion and sacrifice for a victorious end to the war”.

Soon after its victory in Romania, the German peace offer was seen as ambiguous, and arrogant, in tone. It produced only cynicism in the Allied camp, and its failure eased the way towards even greater German ferociousness regarding submarine warfare.

Why was Germany prepared to give up very little, if it truly wanted peace? Why did the Germans assume the Allies would refuse to enter peace negotiations, before the speech had even been delivered? Why did the Germans insist that Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine were to remain German, or have pro-German governments? Historians have suggested that the German peace offer of Dec 1916 was a real one, but so inflexible that it could only have been made as a public relations exercise to imp­ress the Neutral Nations. It was felt that the original peace prop­os­als made in August 1914 were still the same and only ones that were on offer in December 1916. Two years of killing (650,000 dead or wounded from the British and French armies, and 500,000 German soldiers killed or wounded) apparently did not modify governmental thinking, on either side of the war.

In return, the Entente Powers stated the condit­ions upon which they would consider pursuing peace with the Central Powers. Herbert Asquith had resigned as British prime minister and his successor, David Lloyd-George, reaffirmed the British and French resolve that “an acc­eptable peace could only come with the outright defeat of Germany”. So Lloyd-George rejected the German offer of peace negot­iations and called for the Allies to redouble their efforts against the Cen­tral Powers. By Christmas, the Germans had counter-attacked succ­ess­fully in Romania and occupied Bucharest. Soon after, the Czar was dead, the revolution was commanding its generals’ attention and the Russian soldiers were called home.

A German poster quoted a speech by Kaiser Wilhelm II, 
against the Allied rejection of the peace proposal,
January 1917.

I actually think the Allies refused to negotiate a peace settlement in Dec 1916 for a rather insane reason. The peace offer apparently in­dicated a real weakness on the German side and rather than increasing the probability of peace, the offer actually diminished it. Ironic­al­ly, and dangerously as it turned out, it emboldened the Allies and made them bel­ieve that Germany was about to fall apart, from deaths, starv­ation, inflation and internal divisiveness.

If only France and Britain had pursued the German peace offer more vigorously in Dec 1916. If only they had asked the grieving widows and mothers of Cape Town, Toronto, Delhi and Perth, instead of asking elderly male parliamentarians about national honour and brilliant victories yet to come. In August 1914 the combatants could not have known that millions of teenage soldiers and civilians would be massacred on both sides -  by December 1916, they certainly did!






14 comments:

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I don't know; from this brief glimpse of the peace offer, it strikes me as insincere and largely rhetorical, and I doubt it would have had much lasting value even if it had been pursued. It looks like the main reason behind it was to put the onus of the war on the other side.

Andrew said...

Yes, if only they had asked.

I now know who Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand was named after and also Andrassy ut in Budapest. Hmm, a quick look tells me it was probably named after his father.

Joe said...

Before the British and French rejected the peace offer, did they consult all the other Allied Governments? Those ex-colonies were still sending their own soldiers to France/Belgium/Palestine/Egypt and deserved a vote.

Hels said...

Parnassus

Undoubtedly the main reason behind the peace proposal was to put the onus of the war on the other side. The Central Powers were losing all their working men, their industries were no longer available for ordinary production, their markets abroad were dead, the population was cold, hungry and angry. I too would have made a peace offer in those circumstances.

But I disagree with you about its lasting value, had the peace offer been pursued. It was worth testing, surely.

Hels said...

Andrew

when the landmark in New Zealand was named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (decades before WW1), I wonder if they had any clue whatsoever that New Zealand soldiers would one day be fighting German and Austrian lads in war. How times change.

Hels said...

Joe

Sir George Foster, Canada's acting Prime Minister, apparently sent a telegram to Lloyd George saying "Canada will stand with you for a vigorous prosecution of the war until complete victory has been attained" (14th Dec 1916). December 1916 newspaper reports in New Zealand and Australia seemed to say the same thing.

A more reliable mechanism for getting feedback from the ex-colonial governments was the Imperial War Cabinet - it included representatives from Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. When they all met in March 1917, I imagine the German peace offer was high on the meeting's agenda.

mem said...

It interesting how that war was the beginning of huge social change everywhere . It had to come and maybe without the appalling loses of the war the push for change wouldn't have been so great from the lower classes and the birth of the social democratic government we have now wouldn't have happened .
History is so serendipitous at time . My 10 year old son once said to me "mum if Mr and Mrs Hitler hadn't had sex on that particular night Adolph Hitler wouldn't have been born. I guess that is true and a startling thought really .

Hels said...

mem

Good comment! The late Victorian and the entire Edwardian eras were amazing times *nod*. It was a true Belle Epoque in the widest sense, with literature, music and architecture being valued and patronised. Education was free and compulsory, workers' rights were being protected from capitalist exploiters, women were becoming more confident and equal. Once the Boer War ended, there was a very real expectation that there would never be a war again. And science and medicine would find resolutions to all outstanding issues.

So I agree with you about huge social change...but the Belle Epoque ENDED in August 1914. World War One brought nothing but death, disease and national depression.

Mandy Southgate said...

I agree - they should have pursued it. They knew by then how horrific the war was. Your comment on conscription reminded me of the film Testament of Youth and how each of Vera Brittain's friends, including her brother and boyfriend volunteered to go fight. It's such a bittersweet film of the losses they encountered.

Hels said...

Mandy

We can understand why unemployed teenage boys or lads with a dismal future in coal mining might have wanted a new chance in life. And we can certainly understand why Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, South African and Indian lads thought they would never travel to the motherland and to Europe, unless they sailed with their nations' armed forces.

But I am struggling to understand why men with important jobs, loved wives and adored children would want to risk life and limb against an enemy they barely knew. In a couple of weeks, read my review of a book based on the letters of two very educated soldiers in Europe, posted back to their mother in Australia. In 1914 and 1915 the two brothers' letters were bursting with impatience, waiting to get to France and Egypt. At the end of the book, I still cannot understand their motives.

Mandy Southgate said...

Absolutely Hels! In the film, the boys and Vera herself gave up places at Oxford for the war effort. Look forward to your review.

Hels said...

Mandy

I know Vera Brittain worked as a V.A.D nurse for much of WW1, at first in the UK and later on the Continent. As you said she suffered excruciating losses, hearing that her fiancé, brother and close friends were all killed. I would not have survived :( She was a heroine, yet she did not become a pacifist for many years.

Lady Ottoline Morrell, on the other hand, had already been sharing the Bloomsburies' Fitzroy Square gatherings where she met all the regulars. She was herself a pacifist during WW1, so she found jobs on her Oxford estate so that conscientious objectors from the Bloomsbury Group could gain court exemption from serving in the army. Secondly she welcomed injured soldiers to her home, to support their pacifism and to get their literature published. Another amazing woman during the worst era in history.

http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/ww1-oxford-bloomsbury-set-and-wounded.html

Anonymous said...

Greetings

As Woodrow Wilson stated, even a child knows that wars are fought for commercial reasons.

Please research the blackmail of Woodrow Wilson by Samuel Untermeyer that led to WW1 being restarted for completely different reason than the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian emperor. (see also the Balfour agreement and the 'false sinking of the Sussex incident' that was used to trick the US into the war after Germany had already offered peace.)

TKS

Hels said...

TKS

Thank you for responding. I have often looked at the strange causes for the outbreak of war, and the seemingly random distribution of nations into either The Allies or The Central Powers. And I agree totally that the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian emperor was far from the only trigger.

But I disagree with any "tricking" of the USA into war. Neutrality in 1914, 1915 and half of 1916 was seen by The Allies almost as colluding with the enemy. Britain, France, Australia, South Africa, India, Canada etc were stunned. The USA joined the Allies in April 1916; the Imperial German Chancellor delivered his possible-peace address in the Reichstag in Dec 1916!