5.3

The Military Collapse of the German Empire

Wilhelm Deist

In the past two decades research in Germany into the history of the First World War has mainly concentrated on the beginning and end of the war. A large number of substantial investigations have been undertaken into the outbreak of war and its immediate antecedents, as well as into the end of the war and the revolutionary consequences of the events of October 1918. Political, especially party political, developments and economic problems under pressure of war have not been neglected, but they have not been nor are at the centre of academic interest, nor is the military course of the war.

The political component in the conduct of leading military men—Moltke, Falkenhayn, Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Groener—has been subjected to critical analysis in the relevant accounts, but the analysis of the military situation and the interpretation of military decisions have been noticeably left in the background. The same goes for the description and analysis of the conduct of war in 1918. The political implications of Ludendorff's decision to take the offensive in the spring and summer of 1918 have been emphasized. It is pointed out that the general overextension of resources led to the 'black day' of the German army, 8 August 1918,1 and finally forced the First Quartermaster-General, after a much-discussed interval of indecision, to acknowledge defeat at the end of September by the request for an armistice. Such interpretations, based on decisions at the top, pay insufficient attention to the instrument the military leaders had to use, the army itself. Moreover, there is no consensus as to how far the overstretch of resources made itself felt among the troops on the Western Front. While Gerhard Ritter notes that from May 1918 a 'great role' was played by 'mutinies' during transport, 'desertion,' and 'surrender without resistance,' Karl Dietrich Erdmann remains of the opinion that, apart from the general decline in fighting spirit after 8 August 1918, the 'Germany Army in its entirety' had remained 'cohesive until its demobilization.' This can only mean that no general weight or significance should be attached to possible signs of disintegration. It is, however, beyond doubt that, besides the well-researched causes of the political collapse and revolutionary overthrow of the old system, the condition of the many million-strong army of the Western Front played a considerable, even decisive, role in the course of events during October and November 1918. This is, therefore, a matter of clarifying one of the essential preconditions for the German Revolution 1918–20, which has been rather lost sight of among the intensive research into the political actions of the workers' and soldiers' councils.

-297-

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