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East Germany

World War I

Declaration of war by Germany resulted largely as the consequence of the Schlieffen Plan--the German military strategy prepared by Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of staff (1892-1906). The plan was based on the idea that Franco-Russian rapprochement made a German two-front war inevitable. Schlieffen's successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (1906-14), firmly committed himself to the plan. Thus Germany's declaration of war on Russia (August 1, 1914), a response to Russian mobilization, was followed immediately by its declaration of war on France (August 3). On August 4, Britain, the third member of the Triple Entente, declared war on Germany. In 1915 Italy, which had been allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, switched allegiance and joined the Triple Entente powers.

The strategy of the Schlieffen Plan conceived a swift victory in the west in which German troops entering France via neutral Belgium and the Netherlands would envelop the French armies, pinning them against the Swiss border. The bulk of the German army would then be free for combat in the east. The plan failed, however, leaving German troops stalemated in trench warfare in France. As a result, Moltke, who had at first altered the Schlieffen Plan and later abandoned it, was relieved of his executive position in September 1914 and was succeeded by Erich von Falkenhayn. Conflict raged between Falkenhayn, who insisted on continued efforts in the west, and the eastern command of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, who had achieved significant advances.

Bethmann-Hollweg's September Program of 1914 set forth Germany's war aims, which included an expanded Germany (Mitteleuropa) with Belgium and Poland as vassal states and German colonies in Africa. The program reflected a domestic political climate in which the German nation had been virtually unanimous in supporting the decision to go to war; in August 1914, even the Social Democrats voted in favor of war credits in the Reichstag. During the first years of the war, the Reichstag was controlled by the Kriegszielmehrheit (war aims majority), a parliamentary bloc including delegates from the National Liberal Party, Center Party, and Conservative Party. The Kriegszielmehrheit had pressed for an annexationist war aims program; influential German interest groups, such as the Pan-German League, the army and navy, agrarian and industrial associations, and the intelligentsia approved. The SPD alone remained adamantly opposed to all annexationist claims.

By the spring of 1915, the war of movement envisioned by the Schlieffen Plan had become a war of position, and political and social disagreements, temporarily forgotten during the upsurge of patriotic feeling, began to reappear. By late summer 1916, chances for a definitive German victory seemed remote, and consequently Bethmann-Hollweg considered peace negotiations. His peace note, however, was rejected by the Triple Entente powers. After the offer to negotiate was rejected, the Army High Command, headed by Chief of Staff Hindenburg and his adjutant general, Ludendorff, demanded passage of the Auxiliary Service Bill calling for the large-scale militarization of Germany; the Reichstag passed a considerably weakened version of the bill in early 1917.

To cripple operations of the Triple Entente by destroying a sufficient amount of shipping, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917. In the meantime, although the Army High Command increasingly gained control of political decision making, pressure for a peace settlement mounted in the Reichstag. Bethmann-Hollweg attempted to pacify the opposition in the Reichstag with a renewed pledge of democratic reform; and Wilhelm II, reacting to the first workers' strike in Germany, which had been sparked by the Russian Revolution of February 1917, issued his famous Ostergeschenk (Easter present) confirming his chancellor's promise of reform. The Social Democrats nevertheless proceeded to issue a manifesto demanding peace without annexations. The Army High Command, however, remained committed to war and annexation. In April and May 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff met with Wilhelm II at Kreuznach and persuaded the emperor to draft the Kreuznach claims confirming the goals of the September Program. Bethmann-Hollweg and the Reichstag rejected the Kreuznach claims, however, and in July an interparty Reichstag committee drafted a resolution demanding peace without annexations. Hindenburg and Ludendorff expressed their opposition by resigning their posts. Wilhelm, compelled to choose between Bethmann-Hollweg and the Army High Command, supported Hindenburg and Ludendorff and demanded the chancellor's resignation. Thus Hindenburg and Ludendorff gained de facto control of political decision making.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, Russia and Germany began peace negotiations. In March 1918, the two countries signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The defeat of Russia enabled Germany to transfer troops from the eastern to the western front. This advantage was by far outweighed, however, by the United States declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, provoked largely by Germany's continued unrestricted submarine warfare. In order to break the French and British lines before the arrival of the expeditionary force from the United States, Germany launched a large offensive in March 1918 and succeeded in reaching the Marne River. A second large offensive on July 15, aimed at definitively smashing the enemy, failed, and German troops were subsequently pressed back along their extended front. In the early fall of 1918, the Army High Command conceded and called for an armistice. The armistice, signed on November 11 after the Social Democrats had proclaimed a republic and formed a government, was later repudiated by the military, which, together with the extreme right, created the myth of the "stab in the back" that blamed defeat in World War I on left-wing elements. German military casualties in World War I amounted to 1.6 million dead, more than 4 million wounded, and more than 200,000 missing in action.

The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in June 1919, called for German disarmament. As a result of the treaty, the Rhineland was demilitarized and occupied by the western Allied powers for fifteen years; Germany ceded Alsace-Lorraine, the Polish Corridor, northern Schleswig-Holstein, and all overseas colonies; and the Allied Reparations Commission was established and charged with deciding the total war damage payments to be demanded of Germany. The Treaty of Versailles also included the "war guilt clause," which, by its implicit suggestion of German responsibility for World War I, evoked generalized German contempt for the treaty. Historians debate Germany's responsibility for World War I; some claim that Germany's entry into the war was accidental and defensive, others that the war was the result of German imperialism. It remains to be shown, in either case, that Wilhelmine aspirations were indeed qualitatively different from the pre-World War I imperialist ambitions of Britain or France.

Data as of July 1987

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