Erzberger’s peace resolution fails. The High Command wants victory at any cost.
[Germany, summer 1917] The war was already in the third year, and there was no prospect of peace. In vain Pope Benedict XV had repeatedly urged peace negotiations.
On behalf of the Central Powers, Chancellor Theobald of Bethmann-Hollweg had offered the Entente peace negotiations. But his note was vague, emphasizing Germany’s strength rather than its willingness to evacuate occupied territories, and the Entente had outright rejected. Now the military commanders felt even more entitled to continue the war with all their strength. Yet hunger, great need and casualty lists that seemed to have no end made more and more people long for peace.
The political truce breaks apart
Matthias slowly recovered from his war injury. Although he had a gammy leg, he walked around rather quick. But his soul did not recover. Lottie sensed that the terrible experiences had changed her husband. He often had nightmares, but did not talk about them. “Lots of people are not able to go on,” Lottie began, “they only yearn for peace. They have ceased to believe that we will win the war a long time ago, and now America is against us too.” It felt like someone had stabbed both their hearts. “I know, I know,” Matthias said, “also in politics things have changed.” The Social Democratic Party had broken up over the war loans, the opponents had founded the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany on April 7, 1917.
The Peace Resolution
On July 6, 1917, Matthias Erzberger of the Center Party gave a sensational speech in the Reichstag. He proved that the military gave false information on the effectiveness of submarine warfare and demanded consequences. Germany should strive for a negotiated peace with its enemies. On July 19, Erzberger introduced a peace resolution in the Reichstag. With a majority of votes, it passed. “Let us hope for the peace resolution, let us hope for a negotiated peace,” Lottie said. “Not with this High Command,” Matthias answered gloomily, “they want victory, whatever it may cost. Hindenburg and Ludendorff have conquered vast areas in the East and rule them with an iron fist, they will never abandon their annexations. Erzberger’s speech in the Reichstag outraged them.”
Then the worst burst form him. “Do not believe the war propaganda,” he said, “hundreds of thousands of men on both sides have been killed. The British have lost almost a whole generation at the Somme. There is nothing left of the villages there. We have suffered devastating losses, therefore the High Command decided to make a strategic retreat, fall back to a new, shorter and immensely strong line of defense, the Siegfriedstellung or “Hindenburg line”. On the retreat, the area was systematically devastated, partly mined, entire villages were blown up and some 150,000 people deported. They hacked down every tree, mined roads, contaminated wells, dammed every stream, destroyed rails and telephone wires. Were once were villages, now there is only death and destruction. They will loathe us forever.”
Matthias was to be proven right. The High Command considered the peace resolution an admission of weakness. Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg was forced to resign, and replaced by a Ludendorff nominee. De facto, General Ludendorff determined German politics from now on. Kaiser Wilhelm II had long since been marginalized, and he was no longer able to cope with the situation. The peace resolutions made Erzberger the most loathed man within the old elites.
America becomes an enemy
From June 1917 onwards, the USA sent troops to Europe. Still, the US remained in contact with Austria-Hungary until the 12th battle of the Isonzo in October 1917. After a massive poison gas attack by the Germans and Austrians, artillery blasted everything into oblivion. Germans and Austro-Hungarians invaded Italy. Former President Theodore Roosevelt launched a campaign for the declaration of war on Austria-Hungary. In December 1917, the USA declared war on Austria-Hungary, the ally and “vassal of the German government who supported its unlawful and reckless submarine war”.
The photo is from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.