chess

 

Sep 2006 Journal

next article:The AJR and the Wiener Library

September surrenders

The most momentous formal cessation of hostilities to take place in the month of September in modern times was that signed by Imperial Japan on 2 September 1945, after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had demonstrated even to the obdurate Japanese military that they were defeated. The first, crucial move towards the German surrender in the First World War took place on 29 September 1918, when General Ludendorff, strong man of the German Army High Command and eminence grise behind Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, lost his nerve and prevailed on his nominal superior to advise Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany must sue for peace.

Like the Japanese militarists, Ludendorff had gambled on securing peace through military victory on the battlefield, the 'Siegfrieden', spurning a peace by negotiation. Having knocked Russia out of the war, he concentrated his forces on the Western front, launching a massive offensive in March 1918. He aimed to divide the British and French forces and to drive the former back to the Channel, rather as Napoleon had hoped at Waterloo to prevent Wellington's forces linking up with Blücher's Prussians and, having defeated them separately, to drive them in opposite directions back towards their home bases.

Ludendorff went for broke, and Germany paid the price. Typically of the Prussian military, he despised politicians and had refused to countenance the alternative political strategy of conducting negotiations with the Allies. By the summer, his offensives had lost momentum, and the great British counteroffensive that began on 8 August 1918 - 'the black day of the German Army', as Ludendorff termed it - marked the start of a spectacular series of Allied victories that took the British through the allegedly impregnable Hindenburg Line and won the war. When the military balance turned against him, Ludendorff, lacking a Plan B, had no choice but to acknowledge the bankruptcy of his strategy and sue for peace.

Predictably, the Allies rejected the armistice terms that he offered on 29 September, as they were clearly intended to allow his armies to retreat to the German frontier and regroup there in defensive positions. Equally importantly, the German Army High Command wished to maintain the political status quo in Germany, an imperial autocracy where power rested with the Prusso-German ruling elites, the military, the aristocracy, the governing bureaucracy and the controlling industrial-economic interests. It was to prevent the dual disasters of military defeat at the front and radical reform at home that Ludendorff sought to delay the inevitable, thereby inflicting fearful losses on his own men by weeks of unnecessary fighting.

No one who has read E. M. Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front will forget his evocation of the sufferings of the German soldiers in autumn 1918 in the face of overwhelmingly superior Allied forces: 'Shells, poison gas and squadrons of tanks - crushing, corroding, death. Dysentery, influenza, typhus - vomiting, burning, death. Trench, field hospital, mass grave - no other alternatives exist.' Nor did the Germans suffer alone.

The British poet Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, seven days before the armistice. Though poems like Anthem for Doomed Youth have been taught to generations of schoolchildren, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, notable for Jews because its subject is the Akedah, is little known. Owen's poem follows the Biblical account of the story of Abraham and Isaac, until elements of First World War paraphernalia gradually infiltrate the verse: Abraham 'bound the youth with belts and straps' and ' builded parapets and trenches' for the sacrifice - preparatory to the poem's devastating conclusion, when the Angel calls out to Abraham, who represents the generation of elders and leaders, to spare his son, the youth of Owen's own generation: 'But the old man would not so, but slew his son,-/And half the seed of Europe, one by one'.

One of the principal motives behind Ludendorff's precipitate offer of peace terms was his intention to offload responsibility for negotiating peace in defeat onto the civilian politicians of Germany's parliamentary political parties, who had been largely excluded from the wartime decision-making process, as a means of discrediting them. In this he succeeded all too well, burdening the democratic Weimar Republic that followed the collapsed Empire with the odium of defeat, revolution and the harsh terms dictated by the victors to Germany at Versailles, all of which were in reality the end results of the failed policies of Germany's wartime leadership.

Right-wingers like Ludendorff were able to allege that the German armies had been 'stabbed in the back' by hostile forces behind the front - socialists, left-wing radicals, parliamentarians, pacifists, Jews. The Weimar Republic was in a sense undermined even before it had come into being, giving agitators like Hitler a god-given opportunity to ride to power 15 years later on a wave of popular disillusionment with parliamentary democracy. Leaders from Ludendorff to Hitler and his Japanese allies staked their countries' fates unconditionally on victory, but ended by taking their peoples down to utter defeat, for want of an alternative strategy. All wartime leaders need a Plan B - especially if, as seems to be the case with the American occupation of Iraq, they have no Plan A either.
Anthony Grenville

next article:The AJR and the Wiener Library