Germany After the First World War

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The First World War affected the German populace in many ways. Apart from the loss of life on the battlefield, many people died of starvation. The urban/rural chasm further created social tensions. How did the German leadership fail?

German soldiers with machine guns in a trench during the First World War.
The German soldiers at the front had seen a classless society during the First World War. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Officially, the war was going well. Indeed, on the outside, things looked very good in 1917. The Bolshevik revolution had occurred with help from Germany, and Russia was knocked out of the war. The French and British resolve seemed to be cracking; there were mutinies in the French Army in 1917.

Buoyed up by these developments, military officials told the public that Germany was close to victory in the Great War. However, they couldn’t stop the public from keeping a track of the long list of casualties.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Increasing Problems for the Germans

The Russian situation was complicated. The Bolsheviks were determined to spread the revolution in Germany. So, they were sending agents into Germany, trying to proselytize among the German troops. Therefore, Germans had to leave more troops in the east than they wanted to.

Germany was also at the end of its resources. It was one thing, as the German commander at Verdun said, “We want to bleed the French white,” but Germany didn’t  have an endless supply of manpower either. And, of course, in 1917, the Americans arrived on the scene.

Just at that point when the British and the French found their resolve cracking, the Americans arrived and provided a real morale boost to the battered Allied troops.

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The Last Battle of the Great War

Between March and June 1918, with great publicity ,the Germans launched what was going to be the last battle of the Great War, an offensive that was going to finally puncture enemy lines. Germany would drive into France, capture Paris, and the War would be over.

That offensive launched forward, but it quickly ran out of gas, like all the others had done since 1914, and by the late summer, Germany’s military situation was in a terrible position. The leadership of the army—Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff—now decided to change the course of action. They called upon a leader from the Reichstag, the Parliament. His name was Matthias Erzberger and his task was to lead a delegation to negotiate an armistice with the West.

The End of the Great War

Armistice Day page from the 'New York Times'.
The New York Times carried out a story about the humiliating defeat of Germany in the Great War. (Image: Charles Ransom Miller/Public domain)

Erzberger went off to negotiate; he was basically given terms for an unconditional surrender. He’d been given his orders—anything it took—and so he signed an armistice. The army instantly said, “That’s not what we meant. We didn’t mean for you to do that,” but, in fact, that is exactly what they’d asked him to do, and it meant the end of the war.

To a great many Germans, it seemed as if somehow defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. And then the Kaiser Wilhelm II went into exile in Holland.

The Transition of Power After the War

Woodrow Wilson, the American president, had already given indications  that he wouldn’t negotiate with a representative of the old Reich. And now, a revolution broke out all over Germany. The councils of workers, soldiers, and Soviets, appeared in all the major cities, and even many of the smaller ones. Workers’ and peasants’ councils developed in the countryside. The government was simply handed over to the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, Friedrich Ebert.

He wasn’t prepared for this; the Social Democrats hadn’t been involved in anything having to do with the conduct of the war. What it looked like to a great many Germans was that the army had somehow been stabbed in the back. The army maintained that just at that moment when they were about to win, they had been stabbed in the back by a parliamentary coalition of Catholic Center politicians (Erzberger was a Catholic), Jewish liberals, and Social Democrats. Many people didn’t believe it, but for the army, it was their way out.

The Rise of the Weimar Republic

A new German government was born out of the revolution of 1918. The new constitution was drafted in the provincial city of Weimar, safely away from Berlin, where people were still out on the streets. Weimar was not associated with the militarism and authoritarianism of Prussia. It was associated with a humanistic tradition in Germany.

The constitution that it drafted was a remarkably progressive document. It instituted universal suffrage; women were enfranchised in Germany as a result, the first in Europe to have suffrage extended.

An extensive Bill of Rights was drawn up. Social commitments of the old empire were continued and vastly expanded. A radical system of proportional representation was instituted so that any political view ought to have a chance to have their representation in the Reichstag.

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The Treaty of Versailles

The new republic was born with the legacy of war and defeat. The German republic was forced to sign the hated Treaty of Versailles that was drawn up in 1919 in Paris—a document that was reviled by all political parties in Germany. Alsace and Lorraine went back to France and Germany lost territories in the east.

Germany was forced to pay reparations for all the devastation caused in Belgium and France, and to the British. And, adding insult to injury, a “war guilt clause” was added to the treaty. According to the clause, Germany alone was responsible for the outbreak of the war. As a result, Germany’s military was reduced to 100,000 troops.

The Impact of First World War on Germany

There is no exaggerating the impact of the First World War on German political and social  life. Almost two million German soldiers died, and over a million were missing in action. There was hardly any family in Germany that was left untouched, and there was enormous bitterness and disappointment. The war had sharpened the divisions in the German society.

The social lessons of the war, which were learned by many soldiers at the front, were very different. The soldiers at the front had seen a classless society. Every soldier was subordinated to the common cause—the egalitarianism of the trenches—and this would be a social ethic that the Nazis would seek to sell to the population between 1920 and 1933 and beyond.

Common Questions about Germany After the First World War

Q: Why was the Treaty of Versailles humiliating for Germany?

After the end of the First Word War, Germany was forced to accept loss of territory. Germany was forced to pay reparations for all the devastation caused in Belgium and France, and to the British. Germany’s military was reduced to 100,000 troops. Therefore, the Treaty of Versailles was humiliating for Germany.

Q: In which year did the Americans join the First World War?

The Americans joined the First World War in 1917.

Q: Who signed the armistice to the end the First World War on behalf of Germany?

Matthias Erzberger, a leader from the Reichstag, signed the armistice to end the First World War on behalf of Germany.

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