Why was Germany Defeated in the First World War?

On the 4th of October, German and Austrian governments asked Wilson for an armistice and by November the war was over. The Allied Powers had defeated the Central Powers and ended the four years of gruesome and exhilarating trench warfare. It was obvious that in November 1918, the Germans had had the better of the four years of fighting. In the East, the Russians had been beaten and surrendered enormous amounts of territory, having been pushed back 200 to 700 miles. In the West, the German front line was still on enemy territory when they asked for peace. Her losses were less of those than her enemies. She surrendered not because she had been defeated, but she knew that she would be. Germany was defeated due to two main segmented factors. These factors were internal factors and external factors. This essay will explore the consequences of the actions that occurred during these four years of fighting and why they led to Germany’s defeat in this Great War.

Germany was at war on two fronts from 3 August 1914. Russian troops invaded East Prussia, advancing on Germany on the east. To the west, Germans struck towards France through Belgium and, to stiffen the resistance to the Kaiser’s army, British troops landed on the continent on 8 August. It seemed essential that, for a quick German victory, the Kaiser’s forces should march into Paris within a matter of weeks, in order to close down the Western Front and to turn the whole might of the German war-machine against the Tsar, who was moblilising millions of Russian peasants. This plan was known as the Schlieffen Plan. The Germans thought that this strategy was the synopsis of the war. They had fully prepared the time scale of such an action by looking at things such as the train times and also thinking that France would be defeated within 6 weeks after which they would only then have to concentrate on facing the slow mobilising army of Russia and take them out within 6 months. Following this assumption, the German government had made few preparations for the kind of war they actually faced. Only with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan did Germany contemplate economic mobilisation to meet the demands of the war.

Many people in Germany assumed that the war would be over by Christmas however, this was not to be the case. The Germans encountered difficulties within the first few weeks of the offensive. They took Brussels on the 20th August, but the British delayed them a few days later at Mons. The offensive by Russia on East Prussia had to be dealt with by the German High Command, who issued more soldiers to the Eastern Front than wished. Progress in the Western Front was clearly slowing down due to constant harassment by the Belgians, French and British. It was only then realised that this plan that Germany had been relying on for many years was a failure. The Germans later, under new command, decided to cross the River Marne however a counter attack by the French drove them back almost immediately. In mid-September the Germans dug in along the line of the River Aisne. Their trenches were over 70 miles short of Paris. The bloodshed had already been horrendous, but all that had been achieved on the Western Front was something near to stalemate. The warfare now consisted of attrition. The two sides tried wearing each other out and in doing so, ‘gobbled’ up their resources.

During the war, many internal factors had a major influence in the role of the war. At the beginning of the war, the Kaiser was recognised as an Imperial Warlord as he had to power to incite warfare. Germany was known to be an autocratic country however it did have a government which was known as the Reichstag. The Reichstag basically controlled the ‘supply of money to the government’ and also made the decision on how the money was to be spent. Germany had to justify the invasion of Belgium to the Reichstag in-order to ensure it would supply the credits required for the warfare. Germany’s justification was that it was going to fight a defensive war.

“Gentlemen, we act in self-defence. Necessity knows no law… We have broken the law of nations. The French Government has indeed declared that it will respect the neutrality of Belgium, so long as its enemies do likewise. But we know that France is ready to invade us. The French can wait; we cannot! A French invasion on our flank in the Lower Rhine would be fatal to us. We have been forced to disregard the just protests of Belgium and Luxemburg. The wrong- I say again-the wrong we have done we will try to make good as soon as our military objectives have been reached. He that is threatened as we are threatened thinks only of how he can hack his way through…”

Bethman Hollweg; The Great War; David James Alf

For a time it seemed right. All the political parties came together to fly the banner of Germany forward. They felt, due to propaganda, that their county’s status was being threatened and had been brain-washed into thinking that this was the only way forward for Germany. Political parties such as the Social Democrats all voted for war credits. They put aside all their previous differences and came together to act in independence and self-defence. Many of the German people did not realise that this was not a just war. The Schlieffen Plan had been developed some years before hand by German generals proving that this was not the last resort. War could have been avoided by diplomacy however, Germany, thinking that they were economically invincible, thought on the contrary due to such large backing from the economy and military. Inside the Reichstag, the members voted to give the government the money it needed. The German press had not been free to discuss the events of July 1914. As soon as war was declared it went on and on. People were staggered as the war went past Christmas and into the New Year. As the war went on, Germany was politically becoming increasingly ineffective and many new divisions were occurring. A significant minority in the SPD had opposed the war from the start and now, numbers were ever increasing. The German nationalists wanted more land to be annexed by Germany so it could make use of the new resources such as coal and iron ore. The main problem with this was that too much annexationism led to discontent in the different divisions and war was thought of as un-just.

The disagreement of annexationism was mainly voiced by the SPD in June 1915. They hoped to gain more political support. More and more people realised that the war was not really a defensive cause. It increased social discontent which will be discussed further on in the essay. The Kaiser had remained merely as a figurehead. The German political and military establishment started seeking new leaders for a more active role in the war. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were the obvious candidates as they had great experience and tactical knowledge of warfare. Gradually opinions began to change. British planes started dropping propaganda pamphlets around German towns and cities which aroused more changes in opinion. On October 16th 1916 opinions went against the war due to very high shortages. Over 30,000 workers did a march, in Frankfurt, to protest against Germany’s involvement in the war. The most important change in 1917 was that the USA had declared war on Germany. The main reason was due to the fact of the Germans having open naval warfare on any ship that came within a certain distance of Britain and also the Zimmerman Telegram, which will be discussed later in the essay. The military dictators ordered this type of submarine warfare, however they had not contemplated the true damage it could do to them. This further aroused more changes of political opinion. Morale hit ‘rock bottom’ for many Germans, as they knew that they could not possibly face another million or so men.

American soldiers were young, better prepared and they more than tipped the balance towards the Allies after the defeat of Russia. They had vast amounts of resources and technology which surely could not be matched. At that time, it had immensely improved its economy as it could start trading with the Latin American countries as the European countries were pre-occupied with the war. Martial law was the new German policy regulated by the chief military dictators. Morale continued to surge down and opinions went against the war even more when a new bill had been passed which allowed any person within the age of 16-60 to be conscripted or help in farming and other primary work. After the USA had entered the war, the Kaiser was quick to deliver a speech saying that it was now the best time for Germans to stick together. He hoped, even after the anticipated defeat, Germany would remain autocratic and allow him to continue as Kaiser, during which, many opposition parties, such as the SPD, continued to distribute propaganda pamphlets against the war and the German autocracy. Revolution was on the horizon for Germany and the abdication of the Kaiser with the election of a provisional government seemed righteous. Abdication of the Kaiser was declared a few days before his actual abdication. The war was to end without a Kaiser, as fled to neutral Netherlands. Germany had seen its last Kaiser. Revolution had taken place.

Along with the German politics, the German economy had a major influence in the defeat of Germany in the First World War. At the turn of the century, Germany’s economy was vastly improving. Its production levels of food, coal, iron and steel were effectively one of the best in Europe. It seemed that Germany was economically invincible. At the beginning of the war, Germany had a very large war effort. They decided that to ensure the economy remained booming, unity in the political parties was required to fight against the allied powers. This was the case as Germany headed into this ‘defensive and just war’. The failure of the Schlieffen Plan took Germany by surprise, as they had not contemplated any malfunction in this plan. Within the first few months of fighting, Germany did encounter some shortages due to the blockades incited by the Allied Powers however, these were overcome by obtaining resources from the occupied countries of France and Belgium. These countries had vast supplies of coal and iron ore.

As the war went on, Germany realised that it had a very large shortage of military back up. A lot of people were recruited at first via conscription however the very high casualty rate required more recruits which severely affected the home front. In 1916, Germany was the first country to introduce the rationing of bread. Corn supplies had to be confiscated by the authorities and distributed evenly. Other shortages included cloth, which now had to be made from paper and nettles. These shortages affected the armies severely as they restricted the amount of food they could consume. The economy started decreasing and within 3 years of fighting, the production levels in Germany fell by 55%. More and more people began to take part in strikes. Farmers also took part in these strikes as they felt that working hours were too long and the wages were too low. The conditions they worked in were very harsh. In Frankfurt several strikes took place which again reduced levels of output required for war. Ludendorff and Hindenburg decided that action had to be taken against these strikes and mutinies therefore began deterring people from doing so by implementing the use of executions. This significantly reduced the number of strikes however, again plummeted the morale of the workers.

Another major internal factor was to influence the outcome of the war. The social affairs brought Germany’s economy trembling to its knees during the war. The military rulers believed that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’. When the Reichstag, at the beginning of the war, agreed to give the government the money it needed, outside the people took to the streets, as did the people in Britain and Australia, to sing songs and wave flags and banners. The shortages of raw materials and labour that threatened Germany’s production of war goods also affected the supply of goods to meet the normal daily needs of the people on the home front. Many imported goods were not available at all, and others were scarce because of the demands of the armies on the battlefield. One of the effects of the shortages that the government most feared was political and social discontent and the withdrawal of support for the continuation of the war. In order to prevent further discontent, several rules were established which restricted the wastage of food such as bread. It encouraged recycling of food, cooking potatoes with their jackets on and taking no more than the food you required. In 1916, the local authorities introduced rationing of bread.

Although one reason for the problem of food supply for the civilians was the British blockade, the greatest factor were the disruptions to agricultural production. Shortages of labour, fertilisers, machinery and animal stock meant the whole system was undermined. In course of time, substitutes multiplied and took a recognised place in the nation’s diet. Instead of egg, people resorted to eating powdered potato with yellow colouring. As many shortages developed, the people had to adapt to this, either by continuing to wear the same clothes by constant repair or wearing wooden clogs. Travelling kitchens were provided to try to maintain the health of the population. In June 1916 in Berlin alone these kitchens provided 25000 meals per day. A major problem for Germany was that most food supplies depended on the annual harvest, which in turn depended on the weather. Germany’s social morale was devastated when in 1915 the harvest had been severely reduced by heavy rain. New types of food were required to keep these people happy. Mr Lloyd George complimented the potato bread spirit.

As the war went on, Germany became weaker and weaker due to these internal problems. These were not the only cause of the defeat of Germany in the First World War. In the west, trench warfare continued. It was basically a case of attrition. The two opposition camps were wearing down their foes and in doing so, were also wearing down themselves. The war acted as a catalyst which speeded up the whole technological war effort. New weaponry such as tanks, gas and explosive shells were mainly developed by the Allies which definitely hindered the progress of Germany. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, this war of attrition developed into trench warfare.

The main problem on the Western Front was that Germany was having to face two, if not three, countries. The war required many resources which were used significantly rapidly. Along with Britain and France fighting the Germans, the colonies also fought alongside them. At that time, Britain’s main colonies included India, Australia, Canada and many other African countries. This in total, numbered up to be a huge force which seemed invincible on their own however, Germany had developed their own tactics and fought very well. Several million men were gathered from the colonies. During the war, Britain had control over India, which was know as the British Raj. India was the jewel in Britain’s empire. Along with its riches, it consisted of many brave soldiers such as the Sikhs. Over 200,000 Sikhs fought for the British in the First World War, of which, 90,000 turbaned Sikhs died fighting their cause.

These were highly significant factors however, the most significant factor, which was the main cause of the defeat of Germany, was when USA entered the First World War. The declaration of war was slightly delayed at first because USA were afraid a civil war may develop if they took sides in the war, as many of the Americans were European immigrants. However, the unrestricted submarine warfare implemented by Germany agitated the Americans severely. It restricted the amount of supplies that could enter Britain and also lost many American lives. This along with the Zimmerman Telegram resulted in the entering the war. Artur Zimmerman had sent a telegram to the German Minister in Mexico, urging him to pursue an alliance with the Mexicans. The British intercepted this telegram and quickly made its contents known in Washington.

The Americans were severely infuriated and declared war on the Germans. They believed it was ‘to make the world safe for democracy’. America began mobilising and sending 300,000 men per month. An estimated 5 million landed on the European continent. America had a great economic contribution with large supplies. Germany, knowing that defeat was around the corner, launched an offensive. When failed, they had nothing but to prevent the ‘fatherland’ being invaded, therefore asked Wilson for an armistice. The war was over, Germany had been defeated.