176: The Armistice Pt. 1 - The Situation at Home


Why did the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary need an armistice? What did they try to do to keep their countries together?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 176. Over the course of 1918 a serious change occurred in the conduct and action of the war. What had been a mostly-static long slog over the course of the first three years had opened up and the fighting became more open and far more fluid. It was clear that this heralded the end of the war, the only question was when and how would it end. That is what we will be discussing in the next three episodes. Today we will focus on the situation on the Austro-Hungarian and German homefronts. Series problems developed in both countries as the stress of the long war finally caused the previous status quo to fall apart. How specifically this happened, and the ramifications of these changes, was different in both countries based on their specific societies but in both cases they boiled down to the civilians being very much done with the war and seeking a way out. After we discuss the home front we will then look at the peace notes that circulated around Europe during October 1918, in these notes the German government communicated with President Wilson in the Americans. The Germans were searching for a way out of the war, and they hoped that the American President would give them an easier path than the Entente. These communications would eventually lead to the armistice discussions, but not before their contents would cause a drastic shift in the German political landscape and cause the removal of several key German leaders in the military.

We have discussed the situation on the German homefront in pretty good depth over the years, with entire episodes being devoted to discussing the food shortages, but things were even worse in Austria-Hungary. Food was scarcer, the government less controlling which lead to more hoarding, and the society far more fractured around ethnic lines. This led to some real hardship around the country. This led to a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the situation in 1918, explained quite well by an 18 year old from Silesia, Rugh Hofner “Four whole years we’ve had war. Some people will say we’ve got used to it. I have also perhaps sometimes so spoken; but no, it is not true! We who once knew peace will never get used to it. We, who in war turned from children to adults, will get used to hunger and poor clothing but never to the sorrow of war, which destroys any budding happiness like frost with the first tender flowers on a spring night. She is everywhere, this lingering sorrow. Go where you will . . . God in heaven, when will it end!” In 1918 the people of central Europe, no matter where they lived, existed in a state of misery during this time. Unfortunately their situation would not improve at all during the last 6 months of th ewar and would instead continue to get worse. There were two large problems, the first being food, of which there would be even less during the summer of 1918, and the rise of influenza. Vienna was in a particually bad state when it came to food causing the Austrian government to take the drastic step of forcefully confiscating Romanian grain that was on its way to Germany. Obviously the Germans did not appreciate this action but the Austrian officials belived it was the only way to stave off starvation in the city. There were areas of the Empire that were still quite well provisioned with grain and food, but both of these regions were areas where the central government was beginning to lose control. In Bohemia the Czechs were pushing towards independence and in the Galicia the Poles were doing much the same. Neither group was a big fan of the empire and so they began to obstruct further grain shipments. To add to these general problems the government also had sort of lost its ability to sway public opinion. Just like everywhere else during the war the Austro-Hungarian government had used propaganda heavily to maintain some level of support for the war. But when things were only going poorly propaganda can only work for so long, by 1918 its time in the Empire had run out.

While at times the leaders of the Empire seemed a bit powerless that did not mean that they did not see what was happening. The governments of both Germany and Austria-Hungary were not completely out of touch with the situation in their countries, and so they both attempted to institute changes from above, a revolution from above so to speak, that they hoped would alter the situation enough to keep the countries together. The most important of these changes were political reforms. For Austria-Hungary political reforms were a tricky subject since any reduction in central power and authority would result in possible dissolution of the empire. But with the empire about to dissolve anyway on October 16th 1918 Emperor Karl issued the People’s Manifesto. This document stated that the Empire would reorganize itself on a federal basis with groups given the ability to have some level of autonomy within it. This document had the support of the German Austrians, but found a steadfast enemy in the form of Hungarian leaders. The Hungarians were vehemently against any reform of the Empire because they knew that any reforms would chip away at their privileged position that they occupied within the Dual monarchy. There was also concerns that if the People’s Manifesto was enacted all the land that the Hungarian officials controlled, mcuh of which was not populated by Hungarians, might move out of Hungarian influence. To add extra punctuation to their complaints the Hungarians threatened to halt food deliveries unless their lands were expressly excluded from the Manifesto. When this threat proved to be insufficient to prevent the introduction of the Manifesto the Hungarian leaders announced that they no longer considered themselves bound by the 1867 Compromise which had originally created the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. This essentially dissolved the Empire. Elsewhere, while the People’s Manifesto was a good document, the people within the Empire saw it as too little too late. In July the Czechoslovak National Committee had been created and by October several other minorities within the Empire had formed similar groups. The Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes had formed up in Zagreb and the Polish Council of Regency in Warsaw. These groups were no longer satisfied with limited autonomy within the Empire, they wanted full independence, nothing else would be satisfactory.

Violence erupted in many parts of the country. In Hungary the situation deteriorated rapidly. ON october 27th a 30,000 strong protest assembled outside Hungarian parliament in Budapest, which the police fired into this protest the violence instantly escalated. A new National Committee was created and it overthrew the official government of the country. Some soldiers then decided to move out of the city and find the former President Tisza’s villa. When they arrived they murdered him, stating that it was to avenge the role that he played in starting the war and getting Hungary involved. There was violence in other areas as well, wherever there were minority groups there was the possibility of violence against them. For example in north Bohemia, where there was a narrow German majority, they declared that they were part of German Austria, but then the Czechs moved in and made it clear that this region, and its population, was staying in Bohemia and the future Czechoslovakia. These are just two examples of countless acts of violence, big and small, that would engulf the Empire towards the end of the war, and after.

In Germany the politicians would also attempt to implement some drastic reforms to stave off possibly revolution. The first move, as we discussed in previous episodes, was to appoint a new government under Prince Max of Baden. There was also a conscious effort to create a more diverse and left leaning government with ministers being brought in from the Progressive, Center, and Social Democrat parties. While this greatly shifted the control of the government to the left it did not alter the desire of the government to continue the fight. The number one goal of these reforms was to increase the unity of the German society so that maybe resistance at the front would increase as well and better peace terms could then be obtained during negotiations. These changes were about all that the political leadership in Germany could do within the confines of maintaining the status quo of monarchy, Reichstag, and the war. They hoped that it would be enough to keep the country together and to appease the Allies, especially Wilson.

While these reforms were happening the Germans were also sending peace notes to Wilson, and while these were an important step towards eventual peace it did have some negative effects on German society. The first note was sent to Wilson on October 1st and it would be the first in a series of communications between Berlin and Washington during October. Wilson’s response to this note would arrive on October 9th, and it made several demands of the Germans. The first was the cancellation of the unrestricted submarine campaign, which the Germans would readily agree to. It also said that Wilson did not have the authority to dictate peace terms and that those terms would instead be determined by the political and military leaders of all of the Allies. The response also asked for many more details from the Germans, especially about Germany’s agreements with the 14 points. The German response then clarified some of these pieces but most importantly asked that the Entente be held to the same standard as the Germans. The Germans also made it clear that they had formed a new government that was elected by the majority of the German people. When news of the notes first circulated around Germany it was received very positively by most Germans. However, when it did not result in a quick peace, and with news that the German army would continue to fight to try and secure better terms, morale on the homefront collapsed even further. Back at the front Ludendorff was already beginning to change his mind on the whole situation. This would have been during the lull in the Allied offensives during the first two weeks of October. He started to think that maybe the Germans really could make it to winter, and then onto the spring. Prince Max was completely against doing anything that could jeopardize the possibility of peace, setting the stage for a confrontation between Ludendorff and Max later in October. For the first time since 1914 the political leadership of Germany, embodied in Max, had a considerable amount of power because they had been trumpetted as the leaders of a new, more democratic, Germany. If they were now replaced, with even a hint that it was at the request of the military, it would paint an incredibly negative impression.

News of the peace notes, when they reached the front, did nothing to reduce the drive of the Allied commanders to continue to attack. When Haig and Foch received the news of the first note Foch would say that “Here, here is the immediate result of the British piercing of the Hindenburg Line. The enemy has asked for an armistice.” If anything the idea that the Germans were seeking a political end to the war just increased the desire of the Allies to keep attacking, to make sure they did not have any room to breathe. While their armies kept fighting in London and Paris there was some concern about how much of a role Wilson was playing in these discussions, and most importantly how easy he might go on the Germans. While this was a legitimate concern given the 14 points that Wilson had introduced and his generally conciliatory attitude towards the Germans before 1917, in 1918 they need hot have worried. In Wilson’s notes to Germany on the 16th and 21st he was far more clear about what he wanted from the Germans. First he said that there would be not agreement with Germany until they stopped the ‘illegal and inhumane processes which they still persist in.’ There were several different actions that this was referring to, the situation in Eastern Europe, where the Germans had taken over and now controlled vast swaths of territory thanks to Brest-Litovsk, the treatment of civilians behind the front, and then also just the general fact that they were still fighting the war.

Another note on the 21st was even more precise about what should happen. It outlined that Germany must follow all the directives of the President, and that included taking steps to make it impossible for the country to renew the war. This meant giving up artillery, trains, guns, munitions, a whole laundry list of things that the Allies wanted before talks even began. This would also mean surrendering all occupied territory. The tensions within the government would then peak with Wilson’s note on October 21st because it also included a demand for wide ranging political reforms. He would say that “the United States cannot deal with any but veritable representatives of the German people . . .". What he really meant with this note is that the Americans would not deal with anything but a democratically elected governmnt, or one with a monarch, you know, like a Kaiser. When news of this got around newspapers and the people began to demand an abdication from the Kaiser, but he was not quite ready to give up his throne. The German response agreed to some of Wilson’s demands, for example the evacuation of all of the occupied territory and a halt to the U-Boat campaign. With the agreement to these terms the German government made it clear it would do just about anything to try and get an armistice.

It was right around this point that Hindenburg and Ludendorff started to have serious second thoughts about the entire peace process. Up to this point they had been supporters of seeking an armistice, even though they also believed that it was possible that the army could get to winter. They hoped that an earlier peace would leave the Germans in a better negotiating position. It was now clear, with the peace notes from Wilson, that reasonable terms, whatever the Germans defined reasonable to be, was not going to be on the table. This caused the military leaders to shift their thinking and on October 24th they sent out a proclamation to the army. In this proclamation they spelled out the latest information from Wilson’s notes and denounced them completely, saying that it represented unconditional surrender. Prince Max was furitious that this note had been sent, because it very clearly called into question the political leadership of Germany, therefore he went to the Kaiser and said that Ludendorff had to go, or Max would resign. Once that happened the Germans would send a final note to Wilson that stated that Germany “looked forward to proposals for an armistice that would usher in a peace of justice as outlined by the president.” The German politicians were done with the war, and they were asking for exactly what they had to do to get out of it, and soon.

While the leaders of the Army were beginning to rebel against the political developments, a similar situation was developing in the Navy. In August the High Seas Fleet had been placed under new command with Admiral Hipper, previously the commander of Germany’s battlecruisers, being placed in command of the fleet. The German ships had spent most of the last 2 years sitting in port, but the Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Scheer now wanted to change that. Scheer was angry that the government had ordered him to halt the U-Boat campaign and to bring the submarines back to port, an effort to placate the Allies during discussions. With this frustration in mind Scheer decided to send the fleet out on one final offensive operation. The goal was not to survive, but instead to find the British Grand Fleet and engage it. Hipper would write that this was an attempt for “an honorable battle by the fleet—even if it should be a fight to the death—will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.” The orders for the operation were issued on October 24th, the entire fleet would leave port at night and advance into the North Sea, there they would execute some raids with the purpose of pulling the Grand Fleet down from Scotland to meet them.

What the German nval commanders had not prediced, but what seems like a very obvious possibility in hindsight, is that the German sailors were not huge fans of the idea of such a mission. As news of the orders started to float around the German fleet the war-weariness of the soldiers started to take control of the situation. When the German ships passed through the locks at Wilhelmshaven 300 men from the Derfflinger and Von der Tann, all long service veterans, climbed over the side of the ships and disappeared. On the following night mutinies began aboard many ships and in the naval barracks on shore. This would then spread to all of the ships, with even some of the largest, newest, and best equipped ships in the fleet falling to the mutineers. With the crews mutinying it was decided that the operation had to be cancelled, but the situation within the fleet had already gone too far, and the mutinies would continue. Even those ships that had gotten things back under control, often by arresting any mutineers, found themsleves under pressure from other sailors to let them go, with 4,000 sailors at Kiel protesting and eventually securing the release of the sailors aboard the ships of the 3rd Battle squadron in Kiel. During the first few days of November the sailors and soldiers of Kiel created Soldier’s councils, just like in Russia. In Wilhelmshaven things were even worse, with almost 35,000 armed men in the streets. By November 9th Scheer would write to the Kaiser to let him know that the German leaders could not longer rely on the Navy.

The Allied military leaders did not know about all of these developments, but they did know that that Germans were seeking peace terms, and so they would have to determine what those would actually be. Haig, Petain, and Pershing would all meet on October 28th and they each had different opinions about what they expected the Germans to do to earn an armistice. Haig would be the most lenient, just demanding that the Germans evacuate their army from all occupied territories and Alsace-Lorraine. Petain would, of course, occupy the middle ground, demanding the same as Haig with the addition of pushing the gErmans back to the Rhine river to the north of Alsace-Lorraine. This would leave a good chunk of the German homeland in Allied hands. Pershing wanted far harsher terms, with even more German territory being occupied by the Allies. For the Americans, their war was just beginning, and Pershing saw little need to end it quickly and easily now that the American Army was in the fight. The British and French were at the end of a very long war, and they were also concerned that with the growing strength of the Americans, if the war continued too much longer they might find themselves as lesser partners in the alliance, no longer able to lead the decisions but instead stuck behind the Americans. The conversations among the military leaders would continue until the first week of November before an agreement was reached, the terms of which we will discuss next episode when it is presented to the Germans. Also, just going to end by saying that while all of these discussions and decisions were being made, thousands of soldiers were dying at the front every single day.