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Was Armistice flawed?

The armistice deal signed on 11 November 1918 brought yearned-for relief to Western Europe. But the same pact has been blamed for the return to conflict in Europe only 20 years later. Does the deal deserve the criticism, asks Professor Gerard De Groot of the University of St Andrews.

Armistice celebrations in Britain
The Armistice ended four years of fierce fighting
On 27 September 1918, the British Army, reinforced by French, Belgian and Canadian units, attacked the German line in Flanders, Belgium.

Progress was not immediately impressive, but that operation did achieve the symbolically important result of piercing the Hindenburg Line, which was supposed to be impregnable.

For Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, the jig was up. On 1 October, he told his general staff that "final defeat was probably inescapably at hand". The task now was to avoid ignominious defeat.

The Germans therefore notified US President Woodrow Wilson on 6 October that they were willing to discuss an armistice.

They approached Mr Wilson because they hoped to get a good deal from a leader who seemed humane.

That immediately aroused the suspicions of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, both of whom were determined to make Germany pay for the suffering the war had caused.

'Harsh peace'

Keen to get a jump on President Wilson, Mr Clemenceau asked the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to draw up armistice terms.

You wish to do justice to the Germans. Do not believe they will ever forgive us; they will merely seek the opportunity for revenge
Georges Clemenceau
French prime minister

Mr Foch concocted a set of demands designed to render it impossible for the Germans to resume hostilities.

All captured territory, including German speaking areas of Alsace and Lorraine, would be immediately surrendered. Within four weeks, the Germans would be required to evacuate the right bank of the Rhine to a depth of 10km (six miles), a demand cleverly calculated to leave German units in a disorganised state.

In addition, a vast collection of military hardware (including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 aircraft) were to be surrendered, plus 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars and 5,000 lorries.

At sea, Germany would be reduced to a second-rate naval power, surrendering all her submarines and the bulk of her surface fleet.

By the end of October, the British and French had managed to drag the Americans toward their version of reality.

The three powers settled upon terms roughly similar to Mr Foch's.

In a series of notes, Mr Wilson warned the Germans to expect a harsh peace.

They were to consider themselves militarily defeated, and safeguards would be implemented to ensure that hostilities could not be resumed. They should also expect to pay reparations for the costs of the war.

President Wilson further insisted that he would deal only with the elected representatives of the German people, not with the Kaiser.

'No hope'

For Mr Ludendorff, this amounted to unconditional surrender and was therefore unacceptable.

Allied Supreme Commander  Ferdinand Foch (first row, 2nd right) and other signatories of the Armistice treaty in Compiegne Forest on 11 1918
The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage outside Compiegne Forest

In consequence, he demanded that the German government back away from the armistice.

His sidekick, General Paul von Hindenburg, likewise attested: "Wilson's answer can only amount to a challenge to continue to resist to the utmost of our capabilities".

But that rallying cry was shouted into a vacuum.

The German state was in terminal meltdown. Once the possibility of an armistice was raised, there was no further hope of rousing the people to continue the fight.

On 8 November, therefore, a German delegation - headed by Matthias Erzberger - met Mr Foch in a railway carriage outside Compiegne.

The terms sent Mr Erzberger into a state of near paralysis. He nevertheless accepted, and it was agreed that the armistice would take effect at 1100 on 11 November.

Not punished enough?

The armistice terms, and the Versailles settlement that confirmed them, have been blamed for causing World War II.

It is difficult to imagine an armistice that would have satisfied the Entente powers and left the Germans feeling fairly treated

Because we know that WWII occurred, it is easy to judge in retrospect that the armistice must have been too harsh.

This harshness had dual effect: it encouraged a desire for revenge within Germany and a feeling of contrition within Britain. Thus, when the time came that Germany felt able to reassert herself, the British were disinclined to protest because, for many, its anger seemed warranted.

Another school holds that Germany was not punished enough. According to this thesis, the war ended too soon - Germany's offer of an armistice should have been refused and its army should have been pushed back across the Rhine in order to give the German people graphic proof of their own defeat.

Those who adhere to this thesis often also argue that the treaty established the principle of war guilt, which encouraged German resentment, but did not sufficiently destroy the German ability to act upon that resentment.

Bearing in mind the way Adolf Hitler manipulated the propaganda value of the "unjust" peace, the argument seems to have some merit.

US 'isolationism'

But punishment, be it of nations or children, is a blunt tool.

Could Germany's aggressive power realistically have been destroyed in 1919? And, if that option was indeed possible, would the allies have been prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to realise it?

Allied troops huddle in a trench around a tiny fire near Ypres, Belgium, in 1914
More than 40 million people - soldiers and civilians - died in World War I

Which country would have been prepared to forfeit the lives of its citizens in order to make victory more emphatic and peace more severe?

A "fairer" peace seems likewise inconceivable.

"You wish to do justice to the Germans," Mr Clemenceau once remarked to Mr Wilson. "Do not believe they will ever forgive us; they will merely seek the opportunity for revenge."

Mr Clemenceau was probably right.

It is difficult to imagine an armistice that would have satisfied the Entente powers and left the Germans feeling fairly treated.

A more liberal treaty might have brought into being a more peaceful, secure Europe, but the populist mood across Europe was not liberal. Equanimity is easy in hindsight, but difficult at a time when the graves of millions were still being dug.

The flaws in the armistice did not alone cause WWII. Germany was able to act upon its resentment because the country that emerged most powerful from the Great War decided subsequently to absent herself from European affairs.

Power implies responsibility, yet the US, in the inter-war period, sought an isolationist haven.

It is by no means clear that greater American involvement in European affairs would have prevented WWII. But it is certain that America's decision to turn her back on Europe created a power vacuum that Hitler was able to exploit.

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