Going Over The Top: The Death of Empire (Part 4 - Turnips, Socialism, and Mutiny)

By David Flin

Going Over The Top: A Look at the History and Alternate History of the First World War.

The previous three Empires discussed, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian, were characterised by a collection of groups led by one specific group within that, and the Empires fracturing under the strains of maintaining control in the face of huge problems brought about by the war. A similar process took place in Germany, with the same end result.

Put simply, there was a discrepancy between the Prussians and the rest. From about mid-1916 onwards, British troops reported numerous instances of German soldiers telling them where the Prussian units were in the line, and asking them to aim their guns at the Prussians. Apparently, Saxons and Bavarians were particularly prone to hoping that the Prussians got killed so everyone could go home.

It was an issue that arose because of a disparity between the Prussian and Imperial political systems. In Prussia, the lower house was elected under a system that resulted in the riches 15% of the male population choosing approximately 85% of the delegates. As a result, a conservative majority was always assured. However, the extensions of the suffrage elsewhere in the country meant that there were increasing numbers of centre and left-wing politicians in the Imperial parliament.

In the last election in the Empire in 1912, the Social Democrats captured 110 seats with 34.8% of the vote. There were strong signs that parts of Germany were moving towards the left, while Prussia, along with a few other states such as Hamburg, made moves to restrict the plebiscite and shore up the position of the elite.

It’s not at all clear how German politics would have developed in the absence of war breaking out in 1914. Unquestionably, the elites would have attempted to shore up their position, and this would have not been welcomed among the rest of the population. Some historians have suggested that the elites pressed for a war in order to de-fang these pressures, citing the example of Bismark in the 1860s when the Prussian state was under pressure from a liberal opposition.

War certainly had the effect of postponing the issue, although the tensions were already present. In due course, these would become problematic.

War came, and the costs of war rose. Inevitably, Britain deployed its traditional weapon, and imposed a blockade. This pressed Germany into a situation of shortages. Shortages meant hard choices, and inevitably, the military got first call on everything, and German civilians were forced to live in increasingly difficult conditions. First, food prices were controlled, then rationing was introduced then there were severe food shortages in all urban areas, leading to the Turnip Winter of 1916-17. It has been estimated that over the course of the war, about 750,000 German civilians died from malnutrition. Things became so bad that even the Army was forced to cut soldiers’ rations.

The morale of both civilians and soldiers fell. By now, the German elite were in a conundrum. There were loud calls from the mass of the civilians and disillusioned soldiers for peace. However, defeat or a compromise peace would inevitably lead to democratisation, because it would have resulted in a loss of legitimacy for the elite that had demanded so many sacrifices from the workers, farmers, and artisans, while denying them effective political power.

In 1917, the Reichstag passed a peace resolution that called for Germany to refrain from any annexations. The German authorities ignored this, and gambled on victory. Unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, hoping to starve Britain and France from the trade routes before the USA came into the war, which it inevitably would do once the submarine warfare started. Then the Spring 1918 offensives, hoping to end things before American forces arrived in numbers.

Put simply, the stakes were growing higher and higher, and no-one felt able to leave the table.

Once the Luddendorf Offensive in Spring 1918 had failed, the end was inevitable, and the only question was when it would happen, and how many more would die before the German forces were beaten. Of course, the idea of seeking peace terms was still out of the question.

Meanwhile, morale among the troops doing the dying fell. The final edition of the German trench newspaper Die Sappe, produced near the front lines, is basically one long lament of “When will this cruel war be over?”

Some soldiers had become radicalised by the Russian Revolution, and desertion became an issue. Civil unrest grew, with strikes and demonstrations commonplace.

Following the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the capital ships of the German Navy sat uselessly in harbour. Discipline and morale fell, as did rations. Occasional protests were met by execution of the ringleaders. Secret sailors’ councils were formed on a number of capital ships.

8th August, 1918 (oil-on-linen, 107 cm x 274 cm, 1918-1919) by Will Longstaff, Australian official war artist. Depicts a scene during the Battle of Amiens. The view is towards the west, looking back towards Amiens. A column of German prisoners of war being led into captivity. Meanwhile horse-drawn artillery are advancing to the east.

On 8 August 1918, the German Army suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Amiens, described by General Ludendorff as: “A black day for the German Army.” It was. The defensive lines had been broken, the British, Canadians, and Australians advanced eight miles in the day – further than had been achieved throughout the whole of 1915-1917 – and over 30,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner. All the contemporary evidence is that they were pleased to be safely out of the war. Over the next hundred days, the war was once again a war of movement, and the movement was entirely to the east.

Later in August, a new, more liberal Government was installed in Berlin, headed by Maximillian, Prinz von Baden. The Government decided, not unreasonably, given the collapsing situation, that the war was lost, and the best course of action was to seek terms. The Balkan Front collapsed, Bulgaria capitulated, Austria-Hungary was on the verge of collapse.

On 29 September, the Supreme Army Command informed Emperor Wilhelm II that the military situation was hopeless, and demanded that the Government request an immediate ceasefire. This was to enable the Imperial Army to claim it hadn’t been defeated, but placing the capitulation at the feet of the democratic parties.

In October 1918, the German naval command planned to dispatch the fleet for a final battle against the Royal Navy in the English Channel. The naval order of 24 October 1918 and the preparations to sail triggered a mutiny among the affected sailors. This initiated an uprising in Kiel. On 3 November, the revolt spread to other cities and other states. As the revolution spread, the Government resigned, and the Emperor was forced to flee Germany on 9 November, to the Netherlands.

The German Empire had come to an end. There would still be struggles as to who ruled and how, but the Empire was gone.

The Social Democrats declared a republic, and took power to try and bring the bloodletting to an end. A civilian, Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party, signed the armistice, which took effect on 11 November, 1918. Meanwhile, the military commanders took the opportunity to make it known that it was the civilians who had called an end.

Thus was born the stab-in-the-back myth, which claimed that revolutionaries had attacked an undefeated army from the rear, and turned almost-certain victory into defeat. Still, I’m sure that common sense and a sense of historical awareness would mean that this particular fantasy would have no major implications for the future.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow