20 March 2021, 08:33
By August 1916, World War I had raged for two years and millions of men had perished on various battle fronts in Europe and the Middle East. If, in August 1914, generals and politicians had anticipated a short and decisive conflict, the movement of armies on the Western Front had quickly given way to a series of deadly dead ends. In Verdun, the German and French armies were drawn into a siege which ultimately claimed nearly a million victims. In July 1916, the Allies had also started the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history, which left more dead or crippled than the Battle of Verdun.
It was at this time that the British essayist Edward Thomas enlisted in the armed forces. For over a year he was torn between volunteering for military service or emigrating to the then neutral United States, where he had many friends. One of them, the poet Robert Frost, even made Thomas’ indecision the subject of his famous poem, “The road not taken. “” Two paths diverged in a wood, and I … / I took the less traveled one, / And that made all the difference. “Thomas finally joined the army. He was killed at the Battle of Arras shortly after his arrival in France.
Frost’s poem and Thomas’s agonizing decision-making process inspired the title of a new book by former diplomat and policy maker Philip Zelikow, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War. It offers a captivating and detailed account of the secret peace negotiations between the warring nations from the fall of 1916 to the spring of 1917. The talks could have saved Europe two more years of fighting and with it the lives of Thomas and others. millions more. . Zelikow, relating the futility of these efforts with the keen eye of a former diplomat, strongly suggests that they should have been.
The book is quick to assign blame when it identifies missed or wasted opportunities in the past. But he also speaks in the present tense in more than one way. First, it reminds us that rational thinking – in this case to end an absurdly expensive and ultimately unnecessary war – can be clouded by nationalist passions for war, which follow their own logic. Second, George Kennan’s verdict that World War I was the “great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century easily extends into the 21st century. Many of the current conflicts, notably in the Middle East but also in Ukraine, simply cannot be approached properly without a thorough understanding of World War I and how it ended. The world is still paying the price for the ill-conceived dismantling of multi-ethnic empires and Western interference in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in particular.
Zelikow’s story begins with a secret telegram. A week before Thomas went to work in France, the August 18, 1916, then-German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg sent a secret cable to Washington, requesting that his ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, contact then-US President Woodrow Wilson. He wanted Bernstorff to convey to Wilson that the German government wanted “mediation from the president to start peace negotiations between the belligerents who want to achieve it.”
The German demand for Wilson to act as an honest middleman was not as absurd as it seems today. Wilson had just won a second term on the basis of keeping the United States out of war, and he was clearly in favor of a negotiated peace. If Germany agreed to an American peace arbitration, the other central powers would follow. The Germans also knew that the Western Allied war effort was primarily financed by American loans. Given the Allies’ high level of dependence on American money and supplies, Wilson was uniquely positioned to put pressure on London and give the Allies a face-saving means of war. Wilson knew that at least some influential figures in London and Paris were secretly open to the idea of a negotiated settlement. Even the French president, the conservative nationalist Raymond Poincaré, had told British King George V that he was ready to engage in peace talks.
“Peace is on the ground waiting to be picked up!” Bernstorff argued in November 1916, and Zelikow agrees with him. Yet despite the transnational desire to end the war, peace initiatives ultimately proved futile for several reasons. Some of them are better known than others: The British change of leadership in December 1916, when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister, clearly did not help as Lloyd George was notoriously opposed to Wilson’s mediation proposal. . Neither did the Zimmermann Telegram – the German offer of a wartime alliance with Mexico in January 1917 – and Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against ships in the Atlantic Ocean more allowed to gain Wilson’s trust. Yet Zelikow convincingly demonstrates that the Germans abandoned the path to peace in January 1917 only because they believed the secret peace talks were going nowhere.
Wilson thus missed a unique window of opportunity by not pushing hard enough. He sent his top foreign policy adviser and friend, Edward House, to Europe to conduct secret peace negotiations. However, in Zelikow’s view, Wilson should have forced the British, protected from the worst effects of the Channel war and therefore less interested in a settlement than the French and Germans, to the negotiating table.
Zelkow acknowledges that in all countries at war, policymakers and senior military officials remained divided over the question of a peace that would essentially confirm the geopolitical status quo of 1914. In his last face-to-face meeting with the House of Commons on January On December 26, 1917, Bernstorff offered his prediction on what a negotiated peace might look like. Bernstorff’s prediction, as the body conveyed it to Wilson, was that such a peace “would leave the map of Europe roughly as it was before the war.” The hawks of Berlin, London and Paris wondered why their soldiers had suffered and died for nothing.
The deep internal divisions in Germany in particular became visible three months after Bernstorff’s last meeting with the House of Commons. After reluctantly supporting the war effort for years, the left and center parties in the German parliament, the Reichstag, now openly supported a peace “without annexations and without indemnities.” This peace resolution was passed in the Reichstag with a comfortable majority but was ignored by the Kaiser. Instead of continuing the peace negotiations, German Emperor Wilhelm II sacked Bethmann-Hollweg and replaced him with Georg Michaelis, the preferred candidate of the hawkish armed forces high command under General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff , who rejected a negotiated peace and aimed for total victory.
The consequences of the failure to secure a peace agreement at the end of 1916 were obviously critical: millions more soldiers perished, including some 50,000 Americans who died in action in the last months of the war after Congress approved the United States’ declaration of war on Germany. If the war had ended at the end of 1916, it is possible to imagine an alternative future. The Bolshevik Revolution, which relied on the despair of starving peasants and war-weary soldiers, may never have taken place. The world may even have been spared the Nazi dictatorship – after all, Adolf Hitler’s most popular election promise was the annulment of the “Carthaginian” Treaty of Versailles.
Zelikow’s book implicitly raises another important point: in the era of democratic nationalism, especially from the end of the 19th century, governments have found it infinitely more difficult to make peace than in previous centuries, when wars could be started or ended at the behest of kings and queens. During World War I, the totalizing logic of nationalism made matters much more complex. A nationalist backlash against any peace treaty that essentially upheld the 1914 status quo, despite the horrific suffering of two years of fighting, was almost inevitable.
These totalizing logics still apply today, even if the conflicts of lower intensity in distant places like Afghanistan, Iraq or the Ukraine are not comparable in nature and in scale to the absolute horrors of the First World War. Ending armed conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere may require sober cost-benefit calculations and balanced civilian leadership that is not afraid to make potentially unpopular decisions against the will of hawkish generals. As long as anything less than total victory remains unacceptable and fear of a popular nationalist reaction to perceived defeat or unnecessary sacrifice clouds judgment, it will be impossible to avoid a long continuation of the war. One could do worse than draw the lessons of the past and assess whether the passions of maximalist nationalism have ever helped to create a stable peace.
At the end of World War I, almost two years after the failure of the secret talks, the feeling of resentment in the victorious countries was even worse than in 1916. The peacemakers in Paris were under immense public pressure to that they deliver a punitive punishment. peace treaty that would justify the sacrifices of the previous four years. Given the unrealistic expectations of the peace agreement on all sides – hopes of a “Wilsonian peace without winners” among the vanquished as well as demands for a draconian peace among the victors – no one was happy with the agreement. of peace of Paris. But it was instructive. The end of World War I was the first expression, but not the last, of the terrible irony that in an era of democratic nationalism it was infinitely more difficult to make peace than to start a war.