“The Eleventh Hour,” by Adam Hochschild. The New Yorker, 11/5/2018.
I was always vague about World War I, never got into the details. It was always old-fashioned for me. Some of our older male teachers were in the war. They wore funny uniforms and funny helmets. They didn’t look noble; they looked silly. When historians said World War II was just a continuation of World War I, I didn’t understand what they meant.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (the hour is questionable) and many books about it are being published. This New Yorker article is partly a book review. Books mentioned are:
Voices From the Past: Armistice 1918, by Paul Kendall;
Peace At Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, by Guy Cuthbertson;1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, by Matthias Strohn;
The Last Battle: Endgame On the Western Front, 1918, by Peter Hart
How America Won World War I . . . , by Alan Axelrod;
Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918 . . ., by Joseph E. Persico.
(The name “Armistice Day” was changed to “Veteran’s Day” in the U.S. in 1954.)
The German army had been failing for months with mass desertions, insubordination, and resignations (the top German commander, General Erich Ludendorff, had a nervous breakdown weeks earlier and fled the country in disguise), but the German people had no idea of this and were totally surprised by the Armistice and the severity of its terms. They believed the propaganda that their country was winning. The French leader of the negotiations insisted the war continue with special ferocity during the five weeks of negotiations, adding half a million unnecessary casualties to the list. Still, few Germans considered themselves defeated. Just a few months earlier, Germany’s troops had advanced far into France. Church bells rang out, and schoolchildren were given a national holiday. Shortly before the Armistice, Germany’s newspapers were still running stories about an imminent final victory. Almost all combat had been on foreign soil. How could a country be defeated without being invaded?
Even when the war broke out in June, 1914, the problems seemed minor. None claimed territory of the others, the royal families were closely related, and Germany was Britain’s largest trading partner. The entire war was considered a colossal mistake.
Within two years of the treaty, the reparations demanded of Germany were quietly reduced. It was claimed that the Armistice was humiliating for the Germans, but the final terms were far more lenient than many imposed on other nations that had been defeated in war.