Wars between states are ended with treaties, not armistices. The Great War came to an end exactly five years after the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo with the Treaty of Versailles, not at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a century ago. However, on that basis, what was called by some at the time the Second Great War only truly came to an end in 1990 when the two interim German governments were replaced by one that fulfilled the criteria of the Potsdam declaration of 1945. The Korean War has not ended.
But the major part of the fighting in the Great War halted almost 100 years ago this month. It was all very orderly, the subject of an Allied-imposed agreement around a table. This might have been because the Germans were ruled at the time by the kind of militarists who did not regard Wagner as a blueprint for governance. The end itself was sudden, and did not seem to involve Germany actually surrendering to the Allies as she did twenty-three years later. In fact, negotiations to end the war, or ‘Wexit’, had been going on for almost two years until military events forced a decision.
Of course, the Wexit negotiations could not be face to face for that amount of time. Diplomatic ties between the belligerents had been severed. The face-to-face element took place over four days in early November 1918 in a railway carriage in a siding in the woods near Compiegne. The negotiations of the previous two years were undertaken through intermediaries, diplomatic notes via neutral countries, and political speeches outlining current thinking.
They effectively started when the USA announced that the war aims of both sides, as had been communicated to them, were identical. Both sides believed they were fighting a war of self-defence. Somebody was telling porkies. It was, of course, the Germans. Prior to invading Belgium, the Germans had been negotiating with the British ambassador to try to keep the British Empire out of the war, by promising not to annex any more of metropolitan France’s territory. However, no such guarantee was given over France’s colonies.
Germany had sent out a boastful peace note in December 1916 as a way of starting the Wexit negotiations. This was forcefully rejected by the Allies. Any compromise peace would have meant that Germany had won. The boasting concealed Germany’s weakness. She had not forced a decision at Verdun. Her professional army had been reduced in fighting quality by Britain’s citizen army at the Somme. Germany’s expensive folly of a Navy had been shown to be unable to break the British blockade while Germany was slowly starving to death.
The Wexit negotiations in 1917 were conducted in the shadow of popular discontent across the continent. No power was free of strikes, mutinies or uprisings. Russia had fallen to revolution and every country feared it could be next. Ideas about a workable Wexit passed back and forth. In July 1917 Germany tried again, with a Wexit resolution passed by an impotent Reichstag that called for a peace based on no annexations or indemnities. This was rejected by everyone, even Germany’s own government. It would have meant no compensation for any country that had been ravaged by German soldiers. It was also a bit rich for Germany, whose initial aims had been to take colonies off France, to ask for the return of the colonies taken by the British Empire. Secret diplomacy between Austria-Hungary and France also failed. Germany’s real ambitions were revealed in the punitive treaties she imposed on Russia and Romania.
Germany’s attitude to Wexit can be gauged from her Chancellor’s statement from as late as July 1918. He said: ‘Belgium, in our hands, is a pawn for future negotiations. A pledge means a guarantee against certain dangers which are warded off by the retention in our hands of this pawn. This pawn is, therefore, only surrendered when these dangers are removed. Belgium, as a pawn, means, therefore, for us, that we must secure ourselves by the peace conditions, as I have already said, against Belgium ever becoming a jumping-off ground for our enemies, and not only in a military, but also in an economic sense.’ Four years after dragging Britain into the fight by violating Belgium, Germany still didn’t ‘get it’. One month later the Battle of Amiens signalled final doom for the German Army. Germany finally ‘got it’. The ‘Hundred Days’ offensive that led to Germany’s defeat on the battlefield had begun.
The public reaction over Wexit in Germany when it was announced that the country would accede to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points was overshadowed by subsequent events. The German people found they had been led into war for nothing. This failure over Wexit by the militarist government led to the soldiers having to walk away from power. The Kaiser thought that moving to a constitutional monarchy would save him. He had not counted on the immense stupidity of his admirals, whose desire for a final reckoning with the Royal Navy sparked a mutiny in the fleet that turned into a revolution. Wilhelm the Last retired to the Netherlands, and spent his days chopping down trees with his one working arm.
The German public’s response to their government’s failure over Wexit was to sweep the old power structures away with little care for what followed. There was civil war and economic collapse. Extremism flourished as institutions were weakened. In the end the group capable of the greatest violence prevailed.
The German government’s failure in its Wexit negotiations destabilised Europe for over 70 years. It shows how international negotiations can have an impact on domestic politics and rebound on the international arena. It also demonstrates the importance of negotiating in good faith and with empathy, neither of which was the case with the Kaiser’s Germany. It is a lesson politicians all across Europe should learn, and learn well.