DOUGLAS NEWTON. The forgotten and ignored German peace initiative of 1916.

Dec 20, 2016

Forgotten Great War Centenaries

This month, truly important Great War centenaries are passing by quite unnoticed in Australia. A hundred years ago, diplomatic events occurred of far greater significance than any battle in which Australians fought. And – if true political wisdom and courage had prevailed – a negotiated peace might have been achieved, cutting short the orgy of mechanised killing.

Imagine the war ending in the third winter of bloodshed, 1916-1917: there would have been no American entry, no second Russian revolution, perhaps no communism, perhaps no fascism in Italy, no Nazism in Germany, less post-war debt, and perhaps no Great Depression? The lost opportunities are staggering.

Last Monday, 12 December, was the hundredth anniversary of the German Peace Note of 1916. The moderate conservative chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, issued a note to the major belligerents. It recognised the ‘catastrophe’ of a war that threatened to ruin Europe. Germany proposed ‘to enter even now into peace negotiations.’ The conference could begin anywhere, with no preconditions.

The conservative German government was looking for a way out. With the German people beginning to starve, with the great bulk of the German colonial empire lost, and with all seaborne trade gone, realists in Berlin genuinely hoped to negotiate peace. Politically, the calculation was that, with a victory in Rumania recently achieved, a negotiated end to the war might save some of the old order from an inevitable post-war radical surge. On the other hand, the German annexationist Right prayed that the Peace Note would fail, clearing the way for another gamble – the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Bethmann Hollweg, and his moderate allies, had six weeks to achieve a compromise peace.

Almost immediately, the authoritarian Russian Tsarist government, rebuffed the German note. The French government, bedazzled by dreams of annexations in the German Rhineland, supposedly to make France ‘secure’, followed quickly with a denunciation of this latest German ‘peace trap’.

And Britain? Britain had a new government, barely a week in office. A virtual coup against the Liberal-led coalition of Asquith had been engineered, and Asquith had been replaced by an improvised coalition led by David Lloyd George. The Tories dominated. Not a single prominent Liberal joined the new coalition ministry. The right-wing Northcliffe press, and the Foreign Office grandees, hailed the self-proclaimed ‘knock-out blow’ Lloyd George government. They exulted that it had been installed ‘in the nick of time’, before that ‘pacifist’ Sir Edward Grey had the chance to grasp at peace by negotiation.

As the diplomatic historian Zeman wrote: ‘No one in London, Paris, Rome or Petrograd took Bethmann’s offer for what it was: an action genuinely designed to put an end to the war, made in the teeth of fierce opposition at home.’

This week, another centenary is upon us. On 18 December 1916, the newly re-elected American President Woodrow Wilson at last acted decisively for peace. He issued his own Peace Note. It made world headlines over the next few days. He called upon all sides to specify their peace terms. Clearly, the United States stood ready at last to mediate the conflict. It was the best chance for peace in two and a half years.

Fatalists argued then – and some still do – that there was no chance for peace. It is true that both sides had escalated their war aims far beyond their originally proclaimed intentions of defending territory. A bucket list of booty bewitched politicians and diplomats on both sides. Right-wing lobbies insisted on dictating peace. And not just in Germany. The Entente Powers also had expansionist ambitions, and plans for a post-war boycott of all German commercial enterprise. The Ottoman Empire had already been partitioned, on paper.

Lest we imagine that the Entente Powers were determined to fight on nobly for the sake of democracy, we should remember that by this time their diplomats had entered into the Straits Agreement, the Treaty of London, the Sykes-Picot Agreements, the Bucharest Convention, and a string of colonial agreements, all specifying territorial aggrandisement and economic boycotts.

‘Bitter-enders’ everywhere mobilised to stifle the movement for peace. Using emergency powers, they succeeded: critics were silenced, meetings banned, and moderates smeared as traitors. The British press in particular indulged in a fabulously inconsistent campaign: the Germans were so weak that they were ‘squealing’ for peace; the Germans were so strong that they would never negotiate. The reality – that Germany was a house divided, with strong socialist parties and emerging liberal elements pushing for peace and democratisation – could not be admitted.

Was peace possible? The Americans certainly believed so. Colonel House negotiated with Bernstorff, the German Ambassador, across those six weeks. House reported to Wilson on 15 January 1917, that the Germans’ terms ‘are very moderate and they did not intend to take any part of Belgium.’ This gave ‘a real basis for negotiations and for peace.’ The next day he told Wilson that the USA could ‘bring about peace much more quickly that I thought possible.’ The Germans, wrote House, ‘consent to almost everything that liberal opinion in democratic countries have demanded’.

But for moderate Germans to prevail they needed firm ground to stand upon – unambiguously moderate responses from the Entente. They never came.

Of course, hawkish historians pretend to know what would have happened if negotiations had commenced. They argue, citing German obstinacy, that failure was certain. We know no such thing. The only thing we know is that face-to-face negotiations in the public view were evaded. It is significant that, on the British side, advisers often urged the avoidance of any armistice because negotiations that followed would be bound to succeed. Indeed, had negotiations begun, no negotiator would have dared rise from the table without striking a bargain, so powerful would have been the demand for peace among the suffering people of Europe.

And what of Australia? Prime Minister Hughes airily dismissed the German Peace Note in parliament in December when asked if Australia would use its influence to bring about an honourable peace. Australia was not consulted about the Entente’s replies to the German and American Peace Notes. Lloyd George sent a soothing telegram instead to Hughes, who read it in parliament: it promised ‘no faltering in our determination that the sacrifices which we, and you, have made, and have still to make, shall not be made in vain.’ Such bilge sufficed. In the words of the historian Neville Meaney, while Hughes had been in Britain for months during 1916, the British ‘did not discuss their peace aims with him.’ On the biggest issues, Lloyd George simply ‘took the Dominion’s assent for granted.’ Thus are the ultra-loyal disregarded.

So this month is the centenary of the strangulation of peace. For Australians, it meant that the hardships of 1917 and 1918 on the Western Front were heaped upon the horrors already endured. Understanding that disaster is much more important, in my view, than documenting – and crowing about – Australian military achievement.

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled, Ending Armageddon: The Search for a Negotiated Peace during the Great War, to be published by Scribe in 2018.


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