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'The Deluge' by Adam Tooze, an Excerpt: The Great War, America, Remaking of Global Order

By    |   Monday, 24 November 2014 10:08 AM

Excerpt from the book The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze

Armistice: Setting the Wilsonian Script

The battle on the Western Front turned decisively against Germany in the first weeks of July 1918. On 22 July Ludendorff ordered a general retreat from the Marne salient. Since the beginning of the year the German Army had lost 900,000 men. Fresh American troops were arriving at a rate of 250,000 per month. Twenty-five powerful divisions had already formed in France. Fifty-five more were building on the other side of the Atlantic. From week to week the balance would tilt more and more severely against Germany. This did not, however, imply an immediate end to the war. It was not until October that the German Army began to disintegrate. Faced with far more overwhelming odds, Hitler’s regime used every means of coercion and propaganda to rally the Reich for an apocalyptic last stand in World War II. There were those in Germany in 1918 who wished to do the same. If they had gained the upper hand, 1919 might have witnessed the kind of inferno that laid waste to much of Germany and central Europe in 1944 –5. Instead, thanks to decisions taken by the remnants of the Kaiser’s regime, the majority parties in the Reichstag and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans, the war was brought to an end on the morning of 11 November 1918.

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To this day, the decision for peace in November 1918 is not given its due as a remarkable victory for democratic politics. This was hardest for Germany. But the armistice was controversial also in London, Paris and Washington. Their leaders too had to choose peace. Were they right to settle for an armistice rather than fighting on to an outright German surrender? By October Germany’s defences were collapsing. If the war had been continued even for a few weeks, the Entente might have ended the year by imposing an unconditional surrender. Instead Germany managed not only to rescue itself from the jaws of absolute defeat but, to a surprising degree, to define the politics of the peace. For sure, Germany was no longer in a position to claim the ‘peace of equality’ promised by Wilson in January 1917. Nevertheless, in the course of negotiating the armistice, Berlin quite deliberately wrote Wilson and his promise of a peace without defeat back into the heart of the script.

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After the failure of the last German offensive in July and the immediate French counter- attack, it was the British push towards Amiens that knocked Germany onto the ropes. After 8 August, ‘the black day of the German Army’, Ludendorff and Hindenburg never regained their balance. But thanks to wishful thinking and the tangled lines of communication between Berlin and the Kaiser’s headquarters at Spa, it wasn’t until the second week of September that the true severity of the military situation began to dawn on Germany’s politicians. In November 1917 the Reichstag majority had installed the Christian Democrat Georg von Hertling as Chancellor. He was expected to protect civil rights on the home front, to democratize Prussia, and to craft a sustainable and legitimate peace in the East. He had failed to deliver on every front. The result of the fiasco of Brest- Litovsk was to rob Germany of any credibility as an international actor. As Friedrich Ebert of the Socialist Party charged in Reichstag committee: ‘We are pursuing a policy that is internally dishonest. One takes what one can get! And speaks of reconciliation and negotiations . . . at the political level we face nothing but a field of rubble!’ In mid- September 1918 Austria appealed openly for peace and yet Hertling’s government refused to react. With its allies collapsing, it was clear that Germany needed to negotiate, but it would need a new government to do so. Of course, both the British and Americans had stated that they expected regime change in Germany. Even the conservatives around the Kaiser were now growing used to the idea that they might have to concede a democratic facade. But power was slipping from their grasp. To the Reichstag majority parties, currying favour with the West was not the point. They demanded power because the existing regime was politically bankrupt. Only the Liberals, Centre Party and SPD appeared to be capable of formulating a coherent foreign policy and backing it with the necessary popular support. Like Russia’s revolutionaries of February 1917, their aim was not to surrender. On the contrary, by putting the home front on a democratic basis they hoped to negotiate from a position of relative strength. When Matthias Erzberger on 12 September 1918 first summoned the SPD to join the Centre Party in a new Reich government, the leading Liberal spokesman Friedrich Naumann chose a telling historical analogy. He hoped that the entry of the socialists into government would bring to the Reich the same rush of patriotic excitement with which the French radical Léon Gambetta had re- energized resistance to Bismarck’s invading armies in the autumn of 1870 .

In the first days of October the Liberal Prince Max von Baden took office as Chancellor on a governmental platform agreed between the SPD, Liberals and Centre Party. Internally his government promised the democratization of Prussia, an end to martial law, and a fully parliamentary constitution in the Reich. A peace on the basis of a League of Nations was a logical complement to this domestic reformism. Berlin offered the full restoration of Belgium and complete autonomy for all the territories liberated from the Tsar. But if peace was refused, the new government of Germany would launch a democratic levee en masse and steel itself to fight to the finish. That such a government would appeal to President Wilson for mediation was not surprising. But it was not an automatic choice. The new Chancellor distrusted the American President. Von Baden was particularly opposed to any unilateral approach to Washington. London and Paris could not help but regard any such move as an attempt to gain bargaining advantage by setting the Entente and America against each other. It would be interpreted as further evidence of Berlin’s bad faith. It was not the way for a government to start whose watchword was credibility and coherence. If Germany was serious about making peace, it must seek it directly with the powers whose armies were about to win a crushing victory in the field, Britain and France, not attempt to gain leverage by parlaying with their American

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This hostility to Wilson was shared by prominent voices in the SPD. From the right of the party, Albert Suedekum drafted a memo arguing that the real enemy both of Germany and of Europe as a whole was American capitalism. Wilson ‘was openly aspiring to the role as arbiter of the world’. His aim was to humble all of Europe, reducing the continent to a collection of national republics all of which were economically dependent on America. The only way for Europe to escape this collective ‘violation’ was for the SPD to seek to settle the terms of a European democratic peace with the Socialists in France and the British Labour Party.

Excerpt from the book
The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Adam Tooze, 2014.

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The battle on the Western Front turned decisively against Germany in the first weeks of July 1918. On 22 July Ludendorff ordered a general retreat from the Marne salient. Since the beginning of the year the German Army had lost 900,000 men.
great war, america, global order, the deluge, adam tooze
Monday, 24 November 2014 10:08 AM
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