Right away, the war was ideologically charged by the Allies. During a tour of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Asquith – in Edinburgh, in September – called the war a crusade against the arrogance of a single power trying to dominate the development of Europe. In Dublin, he declared the need to prevent small nations being annihilated by an overbearing power, and claimed that the war was about the final abolition of militarism as the ruling factor in the relationships between states. In London, on 9 November, he spoke on the necessary abolition of Prussian militarism, and his fellow party member Lloyd George wanted to see the German people liberated from the hell of the military caste. The speech from the throne of 11 November held that England would continue for as long as it could dictate the peace. All this was accompanied by sharp anti-German propaganda in the media. This even went so far that Germany was frequently called “Barbaria”. The British government was later not to leave their position briefly sketched here.
In France, too, there were demands to break up Prussian militarism. In October 1944, Foreign Minister Delcassé told the Russian ambassador that the aim of France was to annihilate the German Reich and to weaken Prussia’s military and political power as much as possible. In a similar vein, in a memorandum for the French government, Sazonov in September spoke about the destruction of German power and the German arrogance to be predominant in Europe. On 5 September, the three Entente nations contractually committed themselves not to agree on a separate peace and to talk about their war goals in public only after having consulted their Allies. Several treaties were entered into regarding these goals, even with countries like Italy which only joined the Allies later in the course of the war. The plans were about weakening Germany and destroying the Danube Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, which had joined the war in the autumn of 1914 on the side of the Central Powers.
After the important initial successes of the German army in the West, it could not be excluded that there soon would have to be talks about peace with the opponents. That’s why Bethmann-Hollweg, who stayed in the headquarters at the time, had a catalogue of possible goals compiled – which he expressly declared provisional – which he sent to the state secretaries of the exterior and the interior for revision on 9 September. The proposals required France to commit itself to reparations for the duration of 15 to 20 years to be calculated so that she would not be capable of spending much on armament, but without calling for territorial sacrifices with the exception of the Briey ore basin. Moreover, she should be closely linked to Germany by means of a trade agreement. A different section talked about a Central European economic association under German leadership. Bethmann-Hollweg could most identify with this. But this paper did not represent a firm agenda. With the Marne battle, the German offensive came to a halt, static warfare began, and hopes for the war ending soon had to be given up.
In mid-November, the Prussian War Minister General von Falkenhayn who now led the operations in the West, told the Chancellor that it was impossible to reach a decent peace as long as Russia, France and England stuck together. So they would have to break Russia away from the Entente coalition. Their thinking was that France probably would give in once Russia made peace. Russia should have to pay sufficient war reparations but remain territorially intact, apart from slight corrections along the border. France should also have to pay reparations yet receive an honourable peace, since Germany and France would have to amicably coexist again after the war. Bethmann-Hollweg fully agreed with these considerations. If Russia could not be prised away from the opposing coalition, the war might take a disastrous turn for Germany. If this didn’t happen the prospect of the war ending because of a general mutual weariness without any decisive defeat of one party or the other became likely. Bethmann-Hollweg kept to this opinion thereafter. Now, his aim in war was Germany’s self-assertion. He wanted to get guarantees for its safety, but he explained this only in general terms. Belgium and Poland were not to become the ground for preparing military action against Germany ever again.
Shortly after the conversation of von Falkenhayn and Bethmann-Hollweg, the Danish King Christian X. offered – via the Danish ship owner and state councillor Hans Niels Andersen and the German ship owner Albert Ballin, a friend of Emperor Wilhelm II. – his services in mediating a peace in London and St. Petersburg. Bethmann-Hollweg wanted to delay an answer so as to be able to improve the military position in the East, but von Falkenhayn and the Emperor considered an understanding with Russia to be urgent and gave Andersen a positive answer. During his visit to Petrograd, as the Russian capital was now called, in 1915, Andersen was told by Nicholas II. that he would never leave his Allies in the lurch, and that he was decidedly against a separate peace. The British and French ambassadors, who had come to know about Andersen’s visit, also tried to influence Sazonov in this sense.
When, following Bethmann-Hollweg’s request, Andersen went to Petrograd again in June and in August, he got the same answer. In November of 1914, the Ministry of State also tried to enter into talks with Japan which had declared war on the German Empire in August and had annexed the German leased territory Kiautschou in the Chinese province of Shantung. The state secretary Jagow thought that England could not have any interest in further strengthening Japan. This would offer the German Empire the opportunity to get into closer contact with Japan, provided Germany would accept the loss of Kiautschou.
Then, Japan could mediate with Russia. But this contact effort failed completely. In December 1914, the Japanese ambassador in Stockholm, Uchida, made it known to his German colleague via Swedish intermediaries that Japan was not interested in communicating with Germany. In this, he acted not on orders by his government, but on his own initiative. So these contacts were fruitless. When in early 1916 Uchida first met with the German ambassador in person, he had to declare that according to the London agreement of September 1914, there would be no separate peace and that the German Empire would have to succumb to the peace conditions imposed by the Entente.
Bethmann-Hollweg publicly declared several times that the Reich would be ready to enter into talks provided the offers were appropriate. When talking to Col. Edward Mandel House, a confidant of President Wilson, he declared his sympathy for a step towards peace made by the U.S. As the year went on, there were three more statements in the same vein. In October, he came to an understanding with the Austrian-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Count Stephan Burián, towards a joint step towards peace. This should happen at a point in time when it could not be construed as a sign of weakness. This was the case after the conquest of Romania. On 12 December, the Central Powers of the Entente submitted the proposal, via neutral countries, to soon enter into peace talks. They would submit proposals to form an appropriate foundation for an enduring peace. They stated this publicly, Bethmann- Hollweg for instance in the German Reichstag. The Allies brusquely refused and declared that Germany and its Allies would have to atone for everything they had committed, as well as providing reparations and security collateral.
They even refused the mediation offer Wilson made on 16 December. They said that currently it was impossible to enter into a peace reflecting their ideas. They wanted the restitution of Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro, the handing back of Alsace-Lorraine to France, the cession of all regions with Polish settlements to Russia and the breaking up of the Danube Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. Also, they did not want to allow the Central Powers to take part in peace negotiations on equal terms.
In late January 1917, Wilson again offered the German ambassador his services for reaching a reconciliation between the warring opponents and asked to be informed about the German conceptions. He was told that Germany wanted to win a frontier protecting Germany and Poland against Russia – the Central Powers recently had proclaimed the Kingdom of Poland –, an agreement about colonial matters, certain corrections concerning the border to France, and an economic and financial compensation between the warring opponents.
Following the death of Emperor Franz Joseph in November 1916, his great-nephew Karl stepped up to the top of the Habsburg Empire. After the failed peace offer of December 1916, Karl I was looking for peace options on private routes. In the spring of 1917, his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, a Belgian officer, conducted several talks in Switzerland, Paris and London, which, however, did not achieve any results.