Russia's exit from World War One, in 1917, must have made an eventual victory for Germany seem quite likely to German leaders, and vindicated their nurturing of Russian dissidents. From the very early months of World War One, the German government had been in touch with exiled Russian revolutionaries, many of them Bolsheviks, in the hopes that they could be used to undermine the Russian war effort against Germany.
This didn't pay off in the first years of the war, but - although the Germans were in no way implicated - the February revolution in 1917 that eventually toppled the Russian tsarist regime raised German hopes that Russia would soon withdraw from the war. These hopes were soon dashed, as the new, provisional liberal government in Russia decided to continue to fight against Germany and the Central Powers.
Towards the end of March, however, the German foreign office and the High Command agreed to send one of the exiled Bolshevik leaders, Vladimir Lenin, plus 31 other émigrés opposed both to the tsarists and the liberals, back to Russia from Switzerland.
This was in the hopes that they would topple the Provisional Government and sue to bring an end to Russia's involvement in the war. A sealed train passed through Germany during the night of 10 to 11 April, with the conspirators hidden on board, and within a few months the policy appeared to be crowned with spectacular success.
Widespread war weariness among the general population of Russia was the major cause of the October Revolution of that year; this brought the Bolsheviks to power, and almost the first act of the new government was to publish its peace proposals on 8 November. The fighting on the Eastern Front ended within a few weeks, and a peace conference began its deliberations at Brest Litovsk on 22 December 1917.
The negotiations were lengthy and fractious and it was not until 3 March 1918 that the instruments were finally signed. Russia lost control of the Baltic States, Poland, Finland, the East Anatolian provinces, and the districts of Erdehan, Kars and Batum.
Ukraine became a theoretically independent state under German military occupation. Russia lost about one million square kilometers, and 50 million inhabitants, in a treaty negotiated on the theoretical basis of a peace without annexations and reparations.
On 29 September Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff told Kaiser Wilhelm II that the war was lost and that negotiations for an armistice based on President Wilson's peace proposals should begin at once.
The German High Command (OHL) was now determined that the blame for a lost war should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the majority parties in the Reichstag rather than on the military and the imperial elite. On I October Ludendorff told a group of senior officers: 'We shall now see these gentlemen enter various ministries. They can make the peace that has to be made. They can now eat the soup they have served up to us!'
For the time being the Kaiser remained on the throne, but power was now vested in the majority parties in the Reichstag, the largest of which was the Social Democratic Party (SPD), as part of the 'revolution from above' masterminded by Admiral Paul von Hintze, a devious, blasé and ambitious opportunist who had been appointed secretary of state for foreign affairs in July.
The 'stab in the back' legend that was to play such a critical role in the eventual downfall of the Weimar Republic (in January 1933) was thus carefully constructed in the late summer of 1918 - the leaders of the SPD party were set up to take the blame for Germany's defeat, while those who had pursued the war were soon portrayed as having been 'betrayed' by all around them.
Germany was rapidly falling apart in the last few weeks of the war. By October many soldiers had had enough, and there were mass desertions. The navy mutinied in November, when orders were issued for the High Sea's Fleet to launch a massive attack on the Royal Navy in an attempt to sabotage the armistice negotiations.
On 7 November a motley crew of socialists and anarchists under Kurt Eisner seized power in Munich. The King abdicated in Bavaria, and a republican 'Free State of Bavaria' was proclaimed. On the following day, revolutionary sailors and workers took over control in Brunswick. By 8 November Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Leipzig, Halle, Osnabrück and Cologne were in the hands of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils. The mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, calmly announced that he fully accepted the new circumstances.
Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and the armistice was signed on 9 November to go into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Germany was now a republic in the joint hands of the theoretically Marxist Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the theoretically monarchist army.
The Treaty of Versailles
The peace conference that led to the Treaty of Versailles began its deliberations in Paris in January 1919. The proceedings were dominated by the French Premier Georges Clemenceau and the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George - both of them pushed by vengeful electorates to make somewhat harsher demands of their adversaries than they might otherwise have made.
The Italian Minister President Vittorio Orlando and the American President Woodrow Wilson were also members of the Council of Four, where the most important issues were discussed.
The German government was informed of the Allied peace terms on 7 May, shortly after the counter-revolutionary bloodbath in Munich that put an end to a Quixotic socialist experiment. The proposals exceeded the worst fears of the direst of pessimists. That Germany should lose Upper Silesia, a large chunk of West Prussia, Danzig, Memel, and that East Prussia should be separated from the rest of Germany came as a devastating blow.
Things were hardly better in the west. The Saar, on the borders of France, was to be placed under the League of Nations for 15 years, the left bank of the Rhine permanently demilitarised, the entire Rhineland occupied for up to 15 years. Eupen-Malmedy was to be handed over to Belgium. An Anschluß with Austria was expressly forbidden. Germany's colonial empire was to be dissolved, as the Weimar Republic took shape.
The army was not to exceed 100,000 men. Military aircraft, submarines, and tanks were among a number of outlawed weapons. The fleet was to surrender, but it was scuttled before it reached the naval base at Scapa Flow. Ninety per cent of the merchant navy had to be handed over, along with 10 per cent of the cattle and a substantial proportion of the rolling stock of the state railway.
The victors were unable to agree on a final sum for reparations, but 40 million tons of coal were demanded annually. Germans were particularly incensed by article 231, which demanded of them to make good the damage caused by a war which they and their allies had begun.
A deliberate mistranslation of this article (ie 231), making it refer to Germany's 'sole guilt' (Alleinschuld) (as opposed to the joint guilt of Germany and her allies, which was the wording in the original text) further inflamed a consternated public and set off an ever increasing wave of righteous indignation about the 'war guilt lie'.