When World War I ended The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — 100 years ago

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Vic­tor Davis Han­son

The First World War ended 100 years ago this month on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. Nearly 20 mil­lion peo­ple had per­ished since the war be­gan on July 28, 1914. In early 1918, it looked as if the Cen­tral Pow­ers — Aus­tria-Hun­gary, Ger­many, Bul­garia and the Ot­toman Empire — would win. Czarist Rus­sia gave up in De­cem­ber 1917. Tens of thou­sands of Ger­man and Aus­trian sol­diers were freed to re­de­ploy to the West­ern Front and fin­ish off the ex­hausted French and Bri­tish armies.

The late-en­ter­ing United States did not de­clare war on Ger­many and Aus­tria-Hun­gary un­til April 1917. Six months later, Amer­ica had still not be­gun to de­ploy troops in any great num­ber.

Then, sud­denly, ev­ery­thing changed. By sum­mer 1918, hordes of Amer­i­can sol­diers be­gan ar­riv­ing in France in unimag­in­able num­bers of up to 10,000 dough­boys a day. An­glo-Amer­i­can con­voys be­gan dev­as­tat­ing Ger­man sub­marines. The Ger­man high com­mand’s tac­ti­cal blun­ders stalled the Ger­man of­fen­sives of spring 1918 — the last chance be­fore grow­ing Al­lied num­bers over­ran Ger­man lines.

None­the­less, World War I strangely ended with an ar­mistice — with Ger­man troops still well in­side France and Bel­gium. Rev­o­lu­tion was brew­ing in Ger­man ci­ties back home.

The three ma­jor Al­lied vic­tors squab­bled over peace terms. Amer­ica’s ide­al­ist pres­i­dent, Woodrow Wil­son, op­posed an Al­lied in­va­sion of Ger­many and Aus­tria to oc­cupy both coun­tries and en­force their sur­ren­ders.

By the time the for­mal Ver­sailles Peace Con­fer­ence be­gan in Jan­uary 1919, mil­lions of sol­diers had gone home. Ger­man politi­cians and vet­er­ans were al­ready blam­ing their ca­pit­u­la­tion on “stab-in-the-back” traitors and spread­ing the lie that their armies lost only be­cause they ran out of sup­plies while on the verge of vic­tory in en­emy ter­ri­tory.

The Al­lied vic­tors were in dis­ar­ray. Wil­son was idol­ized when he ar­rived in France for peace talks in De­cem­ber 1918 — and was hated for be­ing self-righteous when he left six months later.

The Treaty of Ver­sailles proved a dis­as­ter, at once too harsh and too soft. Its terms were far less puni­tive than those the vic­to­ri­ous Al­lies would later dic­tate to Ger­many af­ter World War II. Ear­lier, Ger­many it­self had de­manded tougher con­ces­sions from a de­feated France in 1871 and Rus­sia in 1918.

In the end, the Al­lies proved un­for­giv­ing to a de­feated Ger­many in the ab­stract but not tough enough in the con­crete.

One ironic re­sult was that the vic­to­ri­ous but ex­hausted Al­lies an­nounced to the world that they never wished to go to war again. Mean­while, the de­feated and hu­mil­i­ated Ger­mans seemed all too ea­ger to fight again soon to over­turn the ver­dict of 1918.

The con­se­quence was a far blood­ier war that fol­lowed just two decades later. Even­tu­ally, “the war to end all wars” was re­branded “World War I” af­ter World War II en­gulfed the planet and wiped out some 60 mil­lion lives. What can we learn from the failed ar­mistice of 1918? Keep­ing the peace is some­times even more dif­fi­cult than win­ning a war.

For an en­emy to ac­cept de­feat, it must be forced to un­der­stand why it lost, suf­fer the con­se­quences of its ag­gres­sions — and only then be shown mag­na­nim­ity and given help to re­build.

Losers of a war can­not pick and choose when to quit fight­ing in en­emy ter­ri­tory.

Had the Al­lies con­tin­ued their of­fen­sives in the fall of 1918 and in­vaded Ger­many, the peace that fol­lowed might have more closely re­sem­bled the un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der and agree­ments that ended WWII, lead­ing to far more than just 20 years of sub­se­quent Euro­pean calm. De­ter­rence pre­vents war. Ger­many in­vaded Bel­gium in 1914 be­cause it was con­vinced that Bri­tain would not send enough troops to aid its over­whelmed ally, France. Ger­many also as­sumed that iso­la­tion­ist Amer­ica would not in­ter­vene.

Un­for­tu­nately, the Al­lies of 1939 later re­peated the er­rors of 1914, and the re­sult was WWII.

The con­se­quence was a far blood­ier war that fol­lowed just two decades later. Even­tu­ally, “the war to end all wars” was re­branded “World War I” af­ter World War II en­gulfed the planet and wiped out some 60 mil­lion lives.

Ger­many cur­rently dom­i­nates Eu­rope, just as it did in 1871, 1914 and 1939. Euro­pean peace is main­tained only when Ger­many channels its enor­mous en­ergy and tal­ents into eco­nomic, not mil­i­tary, dom­i­nance. Yet even to­day, on mat­ters such as il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, over­due loans, Brexit and trade sur­pluses, Ger­many tends to ag­i­tate its al­lies.

It is also al­ways un­wise to un­der­es­ti­mate a peace­ful Amer­ica. The United States pos­sesses an un­canny abil­ity to mo­bi­lize, arm and de­ploy. By the time Amer­ica’s brief 19-month foray into war ended in No­vem­ber 1918, it had sent 2 mil­lion sol­diers to Eu­rope.

Had the ar­mistice of No­vem­ber 1918 and the en­su­ing peace worked, per­haps we would still re­fer to a sin­gle “Great War” that put an end to world wars.

But be­cause the peace failed, we now use Ro­man nu­mer­als to count world wars. And few be­lieve that when the shoot­ing stops, the war is nec­es­sar­ily over. Vic­tor Davis Han­son, a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion at Stan­ford Univer­sity, is the author of “The Sec­ond World Wars: How the First Global Con­flict Was Fought and Won” (Ba­sic Books, 2017).

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY

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