It is often forgotten that Germany’s signature to the truce in 1918 was conditional. On 12 October the Kaiser’s government confirmed that it wished to enter into more detailed discussions on an armistice on the understanding that it was predicated upon a joint agreement on the practical details of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. [1] Unfortunately, the Allies had no intention of acceding to any assumptions about Wilson’s proposals as the basis for an Armistice, no matter what he said. But reality provided a worst-case scenario which the German government had never suspected. No-one realised that the construction of the final demands would be left to allied military advisors who were ordered to ensure there was no possibility of Germany’s resumption of hostilities. Indeed, the Allied commanders were ordered to resume hostilities immediately if Germany failed to concede any of their outrageous demands.

Woodrow Wilson strikes s statesman-like pose, but failed to uphold his own Fourteen Points.

Britain and France had spurned numerous German approaches to hold peace negotiations from as early as 1915, but the Kaiser’s government believed that Woodrow Wilson was a man of honour. They knew that Europe was bankrupt; dependent on the United States for food supplies and financial support to stave off starvation and collapse. Negotiations in a crisis of mutual survival required cool heads and experienced decision-makers. They trusted the President of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson was influenced by his Secret Elite minders in America and completely out of his depth in the political potholes of a ruined continent. Sir Arthur Willert, the British diplomat, likened President Wilson’s arrival on the Parisian stage weeks after the Armistice to ‘a debutante entranced by the prospect of her first ball’. [2] A bitterly devastated Europe offered no shelter for the starry-eyed. If he was hardly a match for cultured statesmen like Clemenceau or Balfour, Wilson was positively an innocent abroad when faced with David Lloyd George. The British economist, John Maynard Keynes, labeled Wilson a ‘slow-minded incompetent’ [3] and wondered whether the terms of the Armistice to which he gave his approval were the product of deception or hypocrisy. [4] Either matched the Secret Elite’s intention to crush Germany.

Unbeknown to the German delegates, the British, French and Italian governments had agreed on specific armistice conditions which had not been previously outlined. The Fourteen Points were little more than live bait set to catch out the unsuspecting Germans. The Kaiser like the proverbial salmon tried to leap over the allied impasse and seek the sanctuary of a calmer pool. It proved a false hope. Perhaps the most important question in all that followed is why the Germans tholed the Allied rejection of Wilson’s so-called ‘terms’, though having been landed on a friendless shore, they had little option.

Lloyd George continued the blockade of Germany, and France was intent on imposing swingeing reparations upon the ‘beaten’ foe. [5] A major potential stumbling block to peace might have been Wilson’s insistence on the abdication of the Kaiser during the pre-Armistice discussions in October, but the German Emperor stood down under protest. [6] As the German delegation ‘for the conclusion of the armistice and to begin peace negotiations’ left Berlin, [7] they anticipated that tough decisions lay ahead, but nothing had prepared them for the shock of hearing the outrageous conditions read aloud to them in the presence of of the French commander, Marshal Foch.

The terms of the armistice required the Germans to evacuate the Western Front within two weeks.  That was no surprise, but Allied forces were to occupy large portions of Germany on the left bank of the Rhine within a month and a neutral zone established on the right bank. These parts of Germany were to be controlled by an American and Allied army of occupation. All German-occupied territories were to be abandoned and the treaties already negotiated with Russia and Romania, officially annulled. Under the terms of the armistice the Germans had to hand over 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 aircraft. Its entire submarine fleet was to be confiscated and battleships and cruisers interned at Scapa Flow in Scotland. [8]

Take a moment to contemplate how much at variance these terms were from the ‘just peace’ which Lord Kitchener would have championed. Three or four days before his death, Kitchener had stated that ‘one country’s territory should not be taken away and given to another… if you take Alsace and Lorraine away from Germany and give them to France, there will be a war of revenge.’ He would also have left Germany with her colonies as a ‘safety valve’. [9] But Kitchener had been murdered. His wisdom and good counsel, silenced.

To the victors go the spoils; it has always been so, but the Germany army had not been defeated and her leaders came willingly to the peace table on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s apparent good faith. The Secret Elite, who had caused the war, were determined to humiliate Germany; strip her bare. Within the 35 articles which comprised the armistice, one in particular drew gasps of astonishment from the German delegation. Article 26 originally stated that: ‘The existing blockade conditions set up by the Allied and Associated Powers are to remain unchanged. German merchant ships found at sea remaining liable to capture.’ [10]

The principal German delegates were Erzenberg,(left) Winterfeldt (Centre) and Count von Oberndorff.(right)

At the first meeting on 8 November, the German representatives, including Matthias Erzberger, State Secretary and President of the German delegation, were stunned. [11] None had anticipated such a monstrous condition. U-Boats were returning to their bases, and the Allied fleets reigned supreme on the high seas, yet the naval blockade was to continue. The initial sham blockade had played an important role in enabling the Secret Elite’s war to continue beyond 1915 by supplying Germany. The absolute blockade imposed over the last year of the war had effectively led to Germany’s ultimate defeat. To continue that policy following the armistice was akin to deliberate genocide.

Matters were made worse through the imposition of Article 7 which demanded that Germany surrender 5,000 railway locomotives and 150,000 wagons in good working order. [12] Consider the dual impact of these ‘conditions’ for peace. Taken together they would destroy Germany’s capacity to relieve starvation in a country teetering on the edge of revolution and anarchy. How could they feed a shattered and dislocated population with hundreds of thousands of disillusioned soldiers returning from the Western Front, if they were denied food imports and had no means of transporting what little home-grown food they could still produce at home? Malnutrition had already reared the ugly spectre of disintegration in public health. It was inhumane.

Friedrich Ebert

The German delegates initially refused to sign the death sentence on their own people. Erzberger sent an urgent telegram to his superiors, but the reply from the new Chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, authorised its acceptance.26 Field Marshal von Hindenburg, aware as he was of the hopeless military situation, added his weight to Germany’s formal approval.

Still Matthias Erzberger protested. He asked Chancellor Ebert to seek an intervention from President Wilson to avoid the inevitable widespread famine. When the delegates reassembled in the early hours of 11 November, Erzberger continued his protest based on the argument that since the blockade had been an essential act of war, its continuation was in fact as much part of the fighting as any action on the front line. An end to the blockade would be an act of good faith by the Allies and an incentive to work together for a meaningful peace. Erzberger’s dogged determination appeared to bear fruit when an addendum to article [13] was included in the final armistice agreement. It read: ‘The Allies and the United States contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the armistice as shall be found necessary’. [14] In Lloyd George’s memoirs, the British prime minister altered the wording of the last-minute modification to read: ‘The Allies will endeavour to assist, as far as possible with supplies of food.’ [15] As a sound-bite it was kinder than the word ‘contemplate,’ but in reality it changed nothing. That was the word on which a nation’s future hung. The Allies would only contemplate supplying Germany with the bare necessities for survival. The German delegation had been given a mere four days to accept the Allied conditions for an armistice that bore no relation to the Fourteen Points. They had been royally duped.

Exhausted both physically and emotionally, Erzberger sincerely believed that the rewritten article was a serious promise.[16] Even after he was obliged to sign the armistice at 5 am on 11 November, the German State Secretary specifically warned that article 26 would result in famine and anarchy. He was right. It proved a death sentence, not just for the starving and the vulnerable. Erzberger became a target of hate in Germany.

Erzberger became a target of hate. Here he is depicted in a cartoon, second figure standing, accused of stabbing the German army in the back.

On 26 August 1921 he was murdered in the Black Forest by two former marine officers, members of a secret right wing radical group. [17] Though we would not portray him as a martyr, Matthias Erzberger hardly deserved the disparaging comments from The Times in London which scorned his ‘pretentious conflicts with Marshal Foch … his tergiversations (change of heart) … culminating in his advice to sign the Peace Treaty.’ [18] The Northcliffe press dismissed him as ‘an opportunist’ who had initially supported the war before committing himself to surrender ‘when he saw Germany was powerless’. [19] His warnings on the consequences of famine and starvation were not mentioned.

But what followed is still rarely mentioned. At a conference in Brussels in November 2014, [20under the banner of a ‘historic dialogue’, the German ambassador to Belgium clearly did not understand our question about the continuation of the blockade after the Armistice had been signed. Professor Gerd Krumeich (Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf) had a quiet word in his ear, but added nothing to the enquiry. Worse still was the admission from Professor Laurence Van Ypersele (UCL) the Chairperson, that the history of the First World War was not included in the curriculum in Belgian schools. How better might you sweep away the inconvenience of historical fact other than sweeping it metaphorically under the classroom carpet? Truth to tell, the immediate consequences for the German people in 1918 were disastrous.

1. J.M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, p. 27.
2. Arthur Willert, The Road to Safety: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, p. 166.
3. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace pp. 20-1.
4. Ibid., p. 29.
6. Ex-Kaiser William II, My Memoirs: 1878-1918, pp. 280–84.
7. David Lloyd George, War Memoirs Vol. 2, Appendix, pp 2044-2050.
8. Ibid., p. 2045.
9. Randolph S Churchill, Lord Derby, King of Lancashire, p. 210.
10. National Archives, ADM 1/88542/290.
11. C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger, p. 67.
12. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, p. 50.
13. Lloyd George, War Memoirs, pp. 1983-4.
14. Herbert Hoover, An American Epic 2, p. 319.
15. Lloyd George, War Memoirs, p. 1985.
16. Vincent, The Politics of Hunger, p. 70.
17.  The murderers fled abroad after the assassination but returned after the National Socialists granted an amnesty for all crimes committed ‘in the fight for national uprising’.
18. The Times, 27 August, 1921, p. 7.
19. The Times, 29 August, 1921, p. 9.
20. The Brussels meeting in November 2014 was entitled «Expériences et représentations de la pénurie alimentaire durant la Guerre 14-18. Allemagne-Belgique, 6 November 2014»