Monday, January 20, 2014

Sönke Neitzel on Germany in the First World War

Sönke Neitzel's Blut und Eisen: Duetschland im Ersten Weltkrieg (2003) gives an account of the First World War with particular emphasis on Germany's decision-making and war aims.


One striking thing that emerges from Neitzel's narrative is the amazing self-confidence on the part of both the Entente and Central Powers that they could win more-or-less quickly and easily. It was, very obviously in retrospect, an astonishing delusion.

It's also amazing in retrospect, as it surely must have been to many at the time, that the commanders on all sides were so unwilling to adjust their approach of mass human wave charges against enemy lines despite the obvious effectiveness of the machine-gun technology of the time.

Mass hanging of Serbians by k.u.k. (Austro-Hungarian) forces

The First World War was the largest and most costly and deadly war in history up until the Second World War. But it's also striking that all sides were able to not only able to largely maintain military discipline in the ranks but also support for the war on the home fronts until 1917, when the February and October Revolutions in Russia expressed the extreme distress the war was imposing on the populations of many countries, in this case in one of the Entente powers. The home fronts in Germany and the Habsburg lands also experienced a great deal of hardship the longer the war went on. In the case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it resulted in a complete disintegration of the prewar dysfunctional multinational empire into separate countries. Both Germany and Austria emerged from the war with new democratic republics lead by the Social Democratic Parties, which worked out somewhat less well in Germany than in Austria in the subsequent decade or so.

Britain's complete sea blockade of Germany, which was technically a violation of international law of the time, contributed in a major way to serious food shortages in the Central Powers. Germany's fleet and U-boat (submarine) warfare, even the unrestricted U-boot warfare that was also a violation of international law and eventually brought the US into the war - was unable to offset the blockade to more than a limited extent. The winter of 1916-17 is known as the Turnip Winter (Steckrübenwinter) in Germany. Also known as the Rudabaga Winter (Kohlrübenwinter). As Neitzel puts it (page 188):

Die durchschnittliche Kalorienzuteilung fur den Normalverbraucher fiel im »Steckrübenwinter« 1916/17 auf 1200 Kalorien pro Tag ab - wobei es regional allerdings erhebliche Unterschiede gab. Für die Soldaten war mit 2200 Kalorien der Mindestbedarf eines Erwachsenen knapp sichergestellt. Der Vorkriegsdurchschnittsverbrauch hatte bei 3000 Kalorien gelegen. 1917 gab es dann die schlechteste Getreideernte des Krieges. Sie erbrachte im Durchschnitt nur 6o Prozent der Vorkriegserträge. Immerhin verbesserte sich das Ergebnis der Kartoffelernte, so dass ein zweiter Steckrübenwinter verhindert werden konnte. Die Brotration verringerte sich unterdessen immer mehr. Im Sommer 1918 betrug sie nur noch 160 Gramm pro Tag. Fleisch gab es nur noch in ganz geringen Mengen, Milch ohnehin nur noch fur Kinder und stillende Mütter.

[The average calorie rationing for the normal consumer fell down in the "Turnip Winter" of 1916-17 to 1200 calories per day - whereby there were in any case regional differences. For the soldiers, the minimal requirements of 2200 calories for an adult were barely secured. The average prewar consumption had lain at 3000 calories. In 1917, there was the worst grain harvest of the war. It produced only 60% of the prewar yield. At least the result of the potato harvest improved, so that a second Turnip Winter could be avoided. Meanwhile, the bread ration shrank more and more. In the summer of 1918, it amounted to only 160 grams per day [about four slices of bread]. Meat was available only in small quantities, with milk only left for children and nursing mothers.]
Announcement of  potato rationing, city of Pirmasens, Germany, Feb 1917

This was not just the result of the British blockade. It was also a consequence of the German government's incredible optimism about how quickly they could defeat France and Russia. There was little prewar planning to put the German economy on a full wartime basis. It was Walter Rathenau, President of the firm AEG, and one of his AEG executives, Wichard von Mollendorff, that took the initiative in the early days of the war (August 2014) to push the Imperial government to set up an office to requisition essential war materials in a systematic way. Germany was heavily dependent on food imports, as well.

Turnip rationing card, city of Erfurt, Germany, 1917

But planning for a long-term war on a fully industrialized basis wasn't done before the war. The German High Command figured that they could repeat the accomplishments of the three wars of the Bismarck era that created the German Empire as it existed in August of 1914: the German-Danish War of 1864 over Schleswig-Holstein, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-German War of 1870-1. In those wars, Prussia/Germany had been able to achieve relative quick victories through massive frontal assaults. The Austro-Prussian War is also known to history as the Seven Weeks War.

Times and technology had changed by 1914. And the quick victories of the German wars of unification were not to be had. Even in 1918, when Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had been effectively exercising a military dictatorship in Germany since 1916 - really more by Ludendorff with Hindenburg as a figurehead - Ludendorff still insisted on a desperate offensive in the West during the first part of the year, thinking that he cold force a peace with France on the basis of German military victory before the Americans could fully engage in the war.

It was only after the failure of that initiative that Ludendorff began to face reality and pulled off a brilliant if sinister political move that Neitzel describes well. Briefly put, Ludendorff didn't want the military to take the rap for the failure of the German war effort and the inevitably nasty consequences that would result from an Entente-dictated peace. So he shrewdly set up for a postwar stab-in-the-back myth (Dolchstoßlegende) to blame the Social Democrats for the military defeat. A plan into which the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under the leadership of Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939) and Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) clumsily played into. They wound up being the government that accepted the vultures' peace treaty of Versailles on behalf of defeated Germany for which the rightwing nationalists and militarists then proceeded to blame them.

Postwar propaganda image of the stab-in-the-back myth from a German nationalist party

The history of the German Social Democrats' support of the Kaiser's war is a complex one and especially fascinated to me, not least because it doesn't lend itself to easy explanations. Suffice it here to say that the SPD - or the MSPD (Majority SPD), as the largest Social Democratic grouping in Parliament became known during the war - was compliant enough with the official war policies that they became known as "the Kaiser's Social Democrats." On the other hand, they did consistently oppose annexionist policies during the war. Neitzel's description of the SPD's politics during the war and the popular revolutionary upheavals of 1918-9 in Germany is solid.

The SPD was able eventually to form wartime alliances in the Reichstag with the left-liberal Progressive People's Party and the Catholic Center Party to demand a non-annexionist peace from the Imperial government. This alliance would soon become the core "Weimar" parties that were dedicated to preserving a democratic republic: the SPD, the German Democratic Party and the Center. But, not least as a result of the bad deal they made to assume governing responsibilities under Ludentdorff's scheme, the SPD's voting percentage peaked in 38% in 1919 and never recovered that level of support against during the life of the Weimar Republic.

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