In Sept. 1918, the German army demanded their government open peace negotiations with the Allies. Of course the result was the armistice on very poor terms for the Germans in November. My question is, what if the German army had decided to fight on instead of entering peace talks? How quickly could have the Allies defeated the Germans on the battlefield, and was there any chance the Germans could have got a better settlement than the one they got. (Let’s assume–a very big assumption–that the Nov. 1918 German revolution didn’t happen.)
They were outnumbered and starving. Just a wiki cite but for 1918 the German claim was 763,000 civilians died from starvation and disease caused the the naval blockade. A later academic study put it at a “mere” 424k. For comparison, Germany military deaths for the entire war were about two million. Germany lost about as many civilians in 1918 as an average year of troop death during the war.
That’s before we get to the supply of items needed to fight with being also affected. To top it off the US was still relatively fresh and untapped with half of the 1 million troops in the American Expeditionary Force that had made it to Europe still not having made it into combat. The US had mobilized 4 million troops for the war.
They were pretty much out of military options.
Likely they would have suffered a comprehensive defeat with troops on German soil if not marching through Berlin. Arguably a better global outcome in the long run.
Germany was suffering the same resource crunch which was partially responsible for its doom in WWII; seems unlikely that whatever resources were gained in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk could have made a difference (eg, Ukrainian wheat for German civilians. The logistics to feed Germans at the expense of Ukrainians just weren’t there.). Brest-Litovsk certainly didn’t provide Germany with more troops. As mentioned the Americans were not nearly fully committed; and as in WWII the industrial edge was with the Germany’s opponents.
Don’t forget that Austria-Hungary was collapsing too, despite the utter incompetence of the Italians. Germany was about to be left without allies.
American neutrality is perhaps a more interesting counterfactual, but that’s not what the OP asked.
ETA, Russian capitulation DID provide more troops in the sense that Eastern Front units could be diverted to the west, but it didn’t increase the total strength of the German army, and while Operation Michael had some success we can see in its ultimate failure the utter ruin of a Germany that fought until the bitter end.
Germany was starving to death, the Navy had already engaged in open mutiny and the Army was likely to follow if Germany tried to continue the fight. Also, while Britain and France were exhausted, the US was full of young men ready to fight. Germany stood no realistic chance at continuing to fight, and figuring out how long such a fight would take depends on how long it took for the German army and civilian population to revolt, it really had nothing to do with army strength.
The surrender terms the Entente gave Imperial Germany were not as harsh as the treaty of Brest-Livstok that Germany pushed onto Russia when Russia surrendered. The idea that ‘Versailles was exceptionally harsh and hurt Germany too badly’ is really a myth, Germany got terms that it considered perfectly reasonable to inflict on other countries, and the economic problems Germany had in the interwar years had to do with the worldwide depression and some distinctly bad decisions by the Weimar government, they weren’t a direct and inevitable result of the terms of Versailles.
Then toss in the world-wide influenza pandemic of 1919. Germany was toast no matter what their army did. They could either sue for peace or die in place.
The end result would have been to bring historical validity to that blooper line in Casablanca: “You mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they ‘blundered’ into Berlin in 1918.” The Americans did not march into Berlin, but they would have eventually had Germany kept at it.
Like everything else, that too is subject to dispute. There is an equally strong argument that the Germans got very good terms in the agreement. Germany hadn’t been destroyed by having a war fought across their towns and farms, as France had, no longer had a vast war machine to support, and had all of the troops coming out of the army and into productive labor. The German Empire lost large chunks of German Europe, but that didn’t necessarily make any difference to Germans in Germany. The “terms were very poor” in German France / French Germany (Alsace-Lorraine), but the winning powers made an effort to be fair – so much so that after WWII they made a conscious decision not to go so easy on the Germans the second time around.
And this might have prevented WWII, by forcing the German people to acknowledge defeat and robbing the militarist far right of the ability to claim that the German Army was this close to winning after the Spring, 1918 Offensive, but had been stabbed in the back by leftists, Jews, foreigners, Jewish foreigners, Jewish leftists, and Jews.
The Germany of the 1920s could say it had never been invaded, and hadn’t truly lost. The partitioned Germany had no such illusions.
The Germans lacked capacity for any further offensive actions so any fighting would be defensive only. And the Allies had the men, materiel and advanced tech (tanks, aircraft etc.) to overrun and outpace any defence. See Plan 1919for details.
And I would expect any peace terms to get harsher the more blood and treasure the Allies had to spend to get them. Possibly with Germany being broken up completely instead of just being reduced as per the Treaty of Versailles.
Germans will assure you that Germany was indeed partitioned after World War 1 as well as World War 2. The partitioning of Germany after WW1 was a major cause of right wing agitation that led to WW2, and claiming the lost German eastern territories remains a right-wing cause.
Fringe elements will always find a cause. But the German defeat in WWI looks nothing like the one in WWII and to argue that they are similar is semantics.
To the average man on the street in Germany in 1945, there is no question who lost the war and to whom. That was not the case in 1918. Post WWI knew that some land to the east was lost, but there were no large scale numbers of allied troops in the streets, no allied administration running Germany, there weren’t millions of soldiers coming home telling how they had lost on the battlefield and had been overrun and defeated. This was clear to allied leadership in WWII and one of the prime reasons for the “unconditional surrender” philosophy.
Pershing suggested the allies hold a parade in Berlin after the Armistice to show Germans they had been defeated. But the French and British vetoed the idea, knowing that their soldiers wanted to just go home.
Germany was the last man standing in the Central Powers. German soldiers were starting to figure, “Why should I stop a bullet in place of some Hungarian guy who got to go home?” There were some refusals to deploy and TPTB figured if they were pushed, outright mutiny might become widespread. Virtually, all the Allied powers would have had to do was “blunder into Berlin,” per Renault’s fantasy; there was no fight left in the German Army.
The Great War this week, covers this pretty well.
How close were they to being overrun from the south via Italy?
Not close at all. Italy didn’t border Germany, it bordered Austria-Hungary, and the fighting on the southern front was a disastrous bloody stalemate. The only difference was that Austria was collapsing while Italy was not.
Historian John Keegan wrote that in each of the major combatant powers, their armies reached moral collapse at a specific point: roughly when cumulative casualties equaled the army’s total original strength (I.i., when an two-million-man army had suffered around two million total casualties, understanding that many of those had been replaced and the army still existed, albeit with much turnover).
The two exceptions were the US (which didn’t reach that point in casualties) and Germany, whose soldiers continued to fight well past that point in the casualty total. But the Germans had been buoyed up by success (notably in defeating Russia) which may have aided their morale.
By late 1918, the statistically long-overdue moral collapse of Germany’s army was beginning. It’s unlikely that any direction from above could have prevented it.
I think you have that backward there, friend.
The Treaty of Versailles was nearly abusive in the way it treated the German government- they had to cede large swaths of territory and pay huge reparations to the Allied nations, as well as having very tight military restrictions.
Post WWII there wasn’t anything of the sort, except for the partition of Germany into West and East countries and the subsequent short occupation. In fact, the Marshall Plan was pretty much the opposite of the Treaty of Versailles under the theory that economic strength was the path to stability. Hell, we even admitted the West Germans to NATO 10 years after the war.
The big factor in 1918 was the United States. This wasn’t due to some special American superiority. But the reality is the United States was a fresh army in 1918 when all of the other armies were exhausted.
The Germans in WWII had to surrender unconditionally. Their country was occupied and partitioned. Their system of government was radically changed and subject to foreign rule. Vast swathes of their territory were transferred to other countries, and Germans were ethnically cleansed from those territories. The former rulers of the country were rounded up and put on trial and imprisoned or executed.
Yes, we eventually decided to rebuild West Germany as a counterbalance to the Soviets, but there was no treaty obligation to do so. And it’s true that we didn’t require the Germans to pay reparations by treaty, but only because all of Germany was under our control, so we could simply do as we pleased. Germany anyway was flattened by the war, so good luck extracting any blood from that turnip.
If, in 1938, you offered Germans two visions of the future, one showing the 1945 defeat destruction and occupation, and the other showing the 1918 defeat and treaty, which one do you think they would have chosen?
No, Germany paid reparations after World War II. Even more than they were required to pay after World War I. In fact, the unpaid WWI reparations were included in the WWII total. But unlike after WWI, Germany paid off its WWII reparations.