Why did Germany lose the First World War?

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Why did Germany lose the First World War?

  1. The Breakdown of the Schlieffen Plan

It is tempting to suggest that Germany’s eventual military defeat in autumn 1918 is a classic example of how a long-term factor can prove to be decisive in historical causation. For in this case it seems that Germany’s inability to achieve a quick victory in the autumn of 1914 resulted in a war of stalemate for which the country was militarily and economically unprepared and strategically ill-suited. […] The Schlieffen Plan did not provide any guarantee of success, and yet its failure was likely to draw Germany into a war which its own generals knew would be highly problematic. […]

However, the optimism and public euphoria of 4 August 1914 soon came up against military realities. Russia did indeed mobilise more quickly than expected and in desperation Moltke transferred a further two army corps to the eastern front. The main offensive meanwhile came up against stiffer than expected Belgian resistance and then the troops of the BEF. The momentum of the German advance was lost and it was decided not to encircle Paris. The allies counter-attacked at the battle of the Marne (September 1914) and German forces retreated to the river Aisne. The Schlieffen Plan had failed. Moltke resigned having suffered what amounted to a nervous breakdown and was succeeded by Falkenhayn as the chief of the OHL, Oberste Heeresleitung (Army Supreme Command). Admittedly, Germany had a couple of victories against Russia, but Russia was still very much in the war and a very real threat to Austria-Hungary, Germany’s major ally.

The implications of Germany’s inability to gain the intended quick victory were far-reaching. By November 1914 Germany was confronted with a two-front war – a war which it had always wished to avoid and for which it was not prepared militarily, let alone socially or economically. […]

  1. The Failure of Alternative Strategies

Throughout 1915 Germany struggled to formulate an appropriate long-term strategy to overcome the unexpected military stalemate. Victories on the eastern front against Russia and the withdrawal of the Allies from the Dardanelles campaign could not alter the fact that time was against Germany. The Allies had already gained the maritime advantage by seizing German colonies and destroying its roving cruiser squadron1, but most significantly Britain had imposed a naval blockade which severely limited Germany’s ability to import. The German response to this threat is telling evidence of the leadership’s inability to develop a co-ordinated and purposeful strategy. Tirpitz wanted to engage the British fleet in battle in order to break the blockade. However, other voices felt that this was far too risky. As an alternative, Tirpitz consequently pressed for the use of unrestricted submarine warfare, but this too generated fierce controversy. There were doubts about the morality, as well as the efficacy of the policy. Bethmann was also rightly aware of the possible diplomatic consequences for the neutral USA. However, Bethmann accepted military advice and in February 1915 unrestricted submarine warfare was introduced – it was ended in September following the sinking of the liner Lusitania. In February 1916 the policy was re-adopted – only to be dropped again within a few weeks when the USA threatened to break off diplomatic relations. At this point Tirpitz resigned. Such inconsistency was indicative of the divisions and uncertainties within the German politico-military leadership about how the war could be successfully prosecuted.

The limitations of German strategic thinking were revealed further in 1916. Falkenhayn believed that the war could only be won on the western front and to this end his plan to launch a massive assault against the key French fortress of Verdun in order to drag the French into a war of attrition was accepted. The war of attrition duly took place, but the casualties were horrifying and the French in the end hold on. The failure of Verdun along with the losses suffered in the Battle of the Somme undermined Falkenhayn’s position completely and he was replaced in the summer of 1916 by the joint leadership of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. […]

  1. The Limitations of German Economic Mobilisation

Germany’s economic growth was the foundation stone of its emergence as a world power in the years before 1914. Such economic strength was in turn dependent above all on Germany’s ability to trade. However, the imposition of the blockade and the demands of a long drawn conflict created enormous economic strains. Germany’s banks and export industries were badly disrupted, whilst Germany’s ability to import foodstuffs and raw materials was severely curtailed2. Some items, such as oil, rubber, nitrates and the metals copper and mercury, were vital to war production. Others, such as fats and fertilizers were essential if Germany’s population was to be adequately fed. Of course, Germany was not alone in experiencing such problems, but her circumstances meant that the situation was more marked, and, therefore, success in the war necessitated the total mobilisation of the nation’s economy. […]

In the short-term the measures taken by the German leadership to regulate the war economy [creation of the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, creation of local War Boards, rationing, price control – IF] were reasonably successful. However, military victory was not forthcoming in 1915-16 and thus two crucial economic weaknesses continued to erode Germany’s capacity to maintain the fight in the long-term; these were the government budget and the provision of food. Germany was already running a massive government deficit in peace-time and once the war started it soared. The issue of war bonds3 represented the only real attempt to narrow the gap between income and expenditure. […]

By the end of 1916 the economic exigencies4 of the situation were such that the OHL determined to intensify the war effort by a clearly defined set of targets. The Hindenburg Programme aimed to increase arms production massively by placing contracts directly with heavy industry, whilst the introduction of the Auxiliary Service Law was supposed to achieve ‘the mobilisation of the entire civilian population for war service’. In fact, both initiatives fell short of their objectives and problems of labour and production continued to dog5 the German war effort.

The onset of ‘total war’ induced Germany to use the power of the state as a means of mobilising its economic potential. However, there were distinct limits on how far this policy could go because of certain key interest groups. Ironically, therefore, autocratic Germany failed to achieve the same degree of mobilisation as in democratic Britain where war-time consensus and collectivism proved to be more productive in the long run. […]

  1. Submarine Warfare and the Entry of the USA

Although Hindenburg and Ludendorff were determined to pursue the war with the utmost vigour and to reject any possibility of a compromise peace, they were unable to offer any fundamentally new military strategy. There was no way out of the deadlock on the western front and yet the passage of time simply played further into the hands of the Allies. It was this dilemma which encouraged the OHL to press once again for the implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare in the self-deluding belief that this would bring Britain to its knees. Bethmann remained unconvinced by this ‘miracle cure’ and its possible side-effects, but by January 1917 he was politically too isolated to offer effective resistance and the following month a new submarine campaign was launched. Within a few months the bankruptcy of the policy was only too apparent. Admittedly, Britain had initially suffered catastrophic losses, but the introduction of the convoy system proved decisive in reducing the losses to tolerable levels in the latter half of 1917 and by 1918 it was clear that the Germans were losing the submarine warfare. Even more significantly, the USA declared war in April 1917. Military logistics were now stacked against Germany. The resources of the world’s greatest economic power – finance, industry, and manpower – were mobilised in the interests of the Allies, whilst the economic strains on Germany and the Central Powers continued to increase.

  1. The Collapse of Germany’s Final Offensive

Germany’s defeat seemed only a matter of time as 1917 drew to a close. The fact that Germany did not actually succumb6 until November 1918 was mainly due to events in Russia, where the establishment of the Bolshevik regime in November 1917 resulted in an armistice with Germany and then a negotiated peace in March 1918 (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). This provided a window of opportunity for the German leadership. Not only did it boost civilian and military morale at a critical time, but it also liberated Germany from the nightmare of the two-front war and opened up the chance to snatch victory by concentrating German military might on the western front.

However, although Germany’s victory offensive in the west, ‘Operation Michael’, at first made considerable progress and German troops once again crossed the Marne in June, the Allied lines were never decisively broken and the offensive slowly ground to a halt. There were several reasons for this. Ironically, the OHL had still kept one and a half million men on the eastern front to establish and maintain control over Germany’s newly won sphere of influence – such numbers could have provided vital reserves to maintain the momentum of advance. Instead, German troops in the west were confronted by ever increasing numbers of American troops, who had not been subjected to the debilitating7 effects of trench warfare for the past three years. When the Allies counter-attacked in August German troops proved incapable of withstanding the assault, although their retreat remained an orderly one. By mid-September the western states of Germany faced the very real possibility of invasion, whilst in the south-east of Europe Germany’s allies, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary all faced imminent collapse. Even Hindenburg and Ludendorff at last recognised the extent of the crisis and on 29 September they advised the emperor that Germany must sue for an armistice – the war had been lost.

(taken from: Geoff Layton: From Bismarck to Hitler – Germany 1890-1933. London (Hodder & Stoughton) 1995, pp. 57-64.)

1 a naval unit consisting of two or more divisions and sometimes additional vessels

2 shortened; restricted

3 an interest-bearing certificate of public or private indebtedness; Kriegsanleihen

4 that which is required in a particular situation —usually used in plural

5 to plague

6 to yield to superior strength or force or overpowering appeal or desire

7 weakening

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