A hundred years ago, as the horror story of 1916 ground towards its end, talk of peace was in the air – but it had nothing to do with Christmas. It sprang instead from the fear felt by two individuals, powerful and experienced politicians facing the prospect of their best-laid plans coming to abject grief. Though they were only a month apart in age, German Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg and US President Woodrow Wilson didn’t have much else in common, but within the space of a week each felt moved to take a personal stab at halting the First World War.
Bethmann-Hollweg, the epitome of Prussian political orthodoxy, born and married into its elite inner circle, had been Chancellor since 1909 and had survived in office by reacting to, rather than attempting to overly influence, the moves made by a dominant military. Like any good political survivor he was a wind direction expert, and he had long supported the growing influence of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, backing their demands for concentration on the Eastern Front against the less cavalier, west-facing strategy pursued by Chief of General Staff Falkenhayn.
The Chancellor remained onside once Ludendorff and his figurehead took power as the Third Supreme Command in late August 1916, and he announced their recipe for a supercharged war effort, the Hindenburg Programme, as government policy in September – but he didn’t share the belief that the German economy, bullied out of slack complacency and boosted by resources from the Army’s conquests, could outpunch its enemies. Having helped unleash a military-industrial combine bent on turning Germany into a socioeconomic runaway train, and unable to impose any kind of restraint or to prevent its huge gamble on the war-winning potential of all-out submarine warfare, an outbreak of peace was Bethmann-Hollweg’s only hope of avoiding the disastrous flame-out he foresaw.
For reasons obvious to anyone with a reasonable sense of self-preservation, the Chancellor had spent much of the autumn hoping someone else would bring about peace. Woodrow Wilson was by far the most likely candidate, both because he was a liberal pacifist to the tips of his fingers and because only the USA had the power to stop the War by cutting supplies to the belligerents. After Wilson had secured a second term at the White House on a pacifist ticket, and the vast battles on the Western Front had subsided into stalemate, Bethmann-Hollweg waited in vain for such apparently ideal circumstances to generate a peace initiative from Washington.
Hope faded as the weeks passed, so on 12 December the Chancellor took the plunge and led with his only playable card. On behalf of the Central Powers, he proposed peace talks on the basis of frontiers as they then stood, backing the proposal with claims that German force of arms had defined the War so far and could not be beaten. This was not a strong lead. It was never going to impress the Allies, committed as they were (strategically and publicly) to reversing German conquests and punishing the perpetrators, and they duly rejected it out of hand. Meanwhile any hope that the prospect of quitting while Germany was ahead might prompt the Third Supreme Command and its backers to pursue peace (rather than the do-or-die option of all-out submarine warfare) proved completely illusory. Bethmann-Hollweg’s slightly more plausible best bet – that evidence of German interest in peace might persuade the US administration to force the issue – did appear to generate a reaction from Wilson, but didn’t come close to flushing out an ace that could end the War.
Wilson wanted peace. He had campaigned as a peacemaker, he saw himself as a peacemaker and he too viewed the exhausted, deadlocked end of the Somme and Verdun battles as a good moment for a newly re-elected president to broker peace. What’s more, this seemed a good time for the President to act as a genuinely neutral mediator because US relations with the Allies were at a low and US-German relations were on something of a high.
Despite strong cultural links with Britain and France, despite widespread American sympathy for those nations under attack by the Central Powers, and despite the huge economic boom built on the USA’s position as the Allies’ chief supplier of finance and war materials, US politicians and public were unhappy with the British in 1916. They had been infuriated by the obvious distaste for a negotiated peace expressed by the British government, by British suppression of Irish civil rights after that year’s Easter Rising in Dublin, and by Britain’s blundering high-handedness around the enforcement of its naval blockade (28 July, 1916: Special Relationship?).
At the same time, US relations with Germany had been relatively positive since the spring, when the furore surrounding the sinking of the Sussex – an English Channel ferry packed with civilians, some of them American – had persuaded Berlin to issue the ‘Sussex Pledge’, by which the German Navy agreed to stop U-boats from attacking unarmed, non-military shipping without warning. As long as the Pledge held, so would the US electorate’s mandate for peace, but the President’s hopes of avoiding, let alone ending the War would be dead if the German High Command, fighting on three fronts and required to support all its allies, sought total victory through submarine warfare.
So Wilson was in a hurry to do something peaceable once he was safely back in the White House, and was planning to approach the belligerents in mid-December – but Bethmann-Hollweg’s initiative of 12 December gave him second thoughts, on the grounds that any US move at that point might be interpreted as pro-German. Having thought twice, Wilson went ahead and acted anyway, sending identical notes to all the belligerents on 18 December. By way of avoiding any direct association with Bethmann-Hollweg’s proposal, the notes were careful to neither demand peace nor offer US mediation, but merely invited all the belligerents to state their war aims as a means of facilitating future peace talks.
Even that modest idea proved far too radical for the empires at war. Without stating its war aims, the German government replied that, though it was of course anxious to end the conflict as soon as possible, it preferred direct negotiations between warring parties to any negotiation through a mediating power such as the USA. The British government, answering on behalf of the Allies, was more forthcoming on the subject of war aims, declaring that they required the Central Powers to evacuate occupied territory, pay indemnities for the trouble caused, and grant political freedom to those central European peoples subject to Austro-Hungarian or German control. These were not aims designed to bring Germany to the negotiating table.
Taken together, the German proposal and the general response to Wilson’s note made it clear that, despite Bethmann-Hollweg’s fears for the future, neither side was really interested in a negotiated peace. Wilson nevertheless kept chasing what we would these days call his legacy, and what he saw as a new world order based on liberal principles. Talks between his chief foreign policy advisor, ‘Colonel’ Edward House, and the German ambassador to Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorff, raised the possibility of secret negotiations with a view to setting up peace talks, but in mid-January the Third Supreme Command once again rejected the idea of US mediation, making clear that it would only negotiate with belligerent powers.
Still Wilson didn’t give up, and on 22 January 1917 he delivered an oration to the Senate – known to history as the Peace Without Victory speech – that laid down his vision for a peaceful future and challenged the world to match it. The huge global impact of his words, their significance for the post-War world and the many controversies that surrounded them are important elements of the story to come, but as a postscript to the minor flurry of mid-December peace overtures the speech was irrelevant. By the time it was delivered, the Third Supreme Command had already secured Kaiser Wilhelm’s agreement to announce the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare on 1 February.
So the German ruling elite was going for victory because anything less would break its hold on power, while the Allies were going for victory because the stats said the Central Powers were almost exhausted, and because their two-year propaganda portrayal of evil German militarism demanded it. However much Bethmann-Hollweg and Wilson wanted to stop the War (for their own sakes), and however much war-weary populations agreed with them, peace stood no chance in December 1916.