Private Adolf Hitler was in a military hospital near the Baltic Sea when World War I came to an end. His regiment had come under fire in a British poison gas attack on the night of Oct. 13, 1918. While advancing on German positions in the Belgian town of Comines, the British fired off several tons of "LOST," which soldiers referred to as mustard gas, because of its mustard-like odor.
LOST was one of the most-feared weapons in the war. When the agent comes into contact with the skin, it causes chemical burns and blisters. If the fumes are inhaled, they destroy the bronchial tubes. Hitler apparently suffered severe conjunctivitis and inflammation of the eyelids and he worried he would lose his eyesight. In a letter to a doctor, he mentioned that he had initially been "blinded" but that the symptoms had soon subsided.
On Nov. 10, the hospital chaplain told the wounded that the war had ended. The House of Hohenzollern had been overthrown, the Weimar Republic had been established in Berlin and it was now up to Germany to accept the cease-fire "while trusting in the magnanimity" of its enemies.
Hitler became hysterical when he heard the news. "As a blackness surrounded me, I groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself onto my bed and buried my head in the blanket and pillow," he later wrote, describing the moment he had recognized that it had "all been for nothing." For the first time since the day of his mother's funeral, Hitler wrote, he wept uncontrollably.
In his book "Mein Kampf," Hitler described the day of the German defeat as his political enlightenment. The chapter in which he describes his wartime experiences and the shock over a peace agreement detrimental to Germany ends with a sentence that would often be quoted in the future: "I, for my part, decided to go into politics."
Germany's Collective Memory
As its name indicates, World War I was the first truly global conflict, the effects of which only a few nations managed to escape. To this day, the countries involved remain divided over how the conflict should be remembered. When France and Great Britain commemorate the war this year, it will be remembered as a singular event of such great importance to the national identity of both nations that it is still referred to as the "Grande Guerre" or "Great War."
In Germany, on the other hand, a unique culture of remembrance has never become established. There are war monuments in many places to commemorate fallen soldiers, but the only aspects of the war that have become firmly entrenched in Germany's collective memory are its bloodiest battles: Verdun, of course, the Battle of the Somme, Gallipoli, Tannenberg and the Battle of Jutland.
One reason for the differences in approaching the war almost certainly has to do with casualty figures. While Germany lost two million soldiers in World War I -- more than any other country -- that number was more than doubled in World War II. The situation was reversed among Germany's adversaries in the West. More than twice as many Britons and four times as many Frenchmen died on the battlefields of World War I than in World War II. In retrospect, the number of victims is not only an expression of suffering, but also emblematic of the heroism of a nation, an essential element in the mythologizing of wartime events.
The experience of victory or defeat divides nations even more than the commemoration of the dead. It is difficult to say how many German soldiers perceived the cease-fire as a shock, as Hitler did. But by the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the dream of exacting revenge for the humiliation Germany had suffered became an obsession. This is one reason why there is not only a temporal but also a causal relationship between the two world wars.
For many historians, there is a direct line between Verdun and Stalingrad. To emphasize the continuity of violence, some even characterize the two conflicts as the "Second Thirty Years' War." In their view, the years between 1914 and 1945 merge into a single, uninterrupted conflict interrupted by a prolonged cease-fire.
Without the attack on Belgium in August 1914, would there have been no invasion of Poland 25 years later? As simple as it seems, this notion leads to treacherous territory when it comes to the interpretation of historical events. If the two wars are seen as a single protracted conflict, the causes must be viewed in a different light.
The Starting Point
Any effective peace agreement should not only eliminate the conditions which led to conflict, but should also seek to ensure that those conditions do not reoccur. The imbalances that led to violence must be resolved.
In the case of Germany, this objective of the peace agreement failed spectacularly. At the beginning of World War I, Germany feared encirclement by France and Russia. It was essentially the starting point for everything that ensued.
The Treaty of Versailles seemed to confirm all fears. It was to be expected that France would insist on the return of Alsace-Lorraine, which the country had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Financial compensation was also expected, and yet this was not enough to satisfy French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.
Under Article 231 of the treaty, Germany was forced to concede that it was solely responsible for the war -- a genuflection from which the victorious powers derived their claim for extensive reparations. But Clemenceau was interested in more than compensation. His goal was to keep Germany in its place by permanently weakening the country.
It is tempting to think about what would have happened had US President Woodrow Wilson adhered to his original resolution to keep the United States out of the war. Throughout most of the war, the Germans were tactically superior to their opponents. What they lacked in materiel and manpower they managed to make up through battlefield strategy.
Indeed, in the summer of 1917 France was on the verge of collapse. The number of dead French soldiers had surpassed one million. And while the general staff attempted to distribute the losses throughout the country by constantly rotating its fighting forces -- thus spreading the pain among the individual provinces -- despair had taken hold. While the average German family produced three to four children, the birth rate in France had declined to two children per family. Each loss was even more difficult to handle. Many parents who had had only sons were suddenly childless.
The soldiers themselves were also succumbing to fatalism. After a devastating offensive on the Aisne, in which the French lost 130,000 men within a few days, large parts of the army were refusing to continue fighting. After a flood of court martial proceedings, General Philippe Pétain held out the prospect of no longer engaging in major offensives. But this also limited the effectiveness of his army.
A Cardinal Error
There are many indications that the French, with no hope for an improvement in the situation, would have been prepared to conclude a separate peace with the German Reich. The collapse of the Entente would have been imminent, as Russia too was on the brink. Although morale was surprisingly high among British soldiers after three years of war and horrendous losses, the United Kingdom would hardly have continued fighting on the Continent without its allies.
It was the United States that turned the tide in World War I. Beginning in the spring of 1918, Germany's adversaries had an almost unlimited supply of well-rested units at their disposal. By August, some 1.3 million men had been shipped from the United States to Europe. "The German army would have persevered longer than the others. On average, its soldiers had been exposed to greater hardships, and they had they become more effective in combat -- but now the troops were running on empty," concludes political scientist Herfried Münkler in his excellent study, "Der Grosse Krieg" ("The Great War").
When, on Sept. 27, the Allies penetrated the Siegfried Line, the German army's last defensive position to the West, the Supreme Army Command, under General Erich Ludendorff, knew that the war had been lost. The quartermaster general suffered a nervous breakdown. The next day, he asked the Kaiser to approve the initiation of cease-fire negotiations. So much for the stab in the back that politicians on the home front had supposedly inflicted on the brave military.
Today Versailles is seen as a cardinal error, with the French playing the role of the victor seeking revenge. In truth, however, it was the United States that did not live up to its responsibility.
Wilson drafted a new world order, in which all nations were granted a right to self-determination. But when it came to stepping into America's new role as a hegemon, Congress withdrew its support by forcing the president to agree to a strict policy of nonintervention. The Europeans were on their own once again, but this time it was in a different configuration than before the beginning of the war.
The British, who had entered the war as the world's creditors, emerged from it as debtors to the United States. While the French were one of the victorious powers, they were in fact no longer a major military power. Fearing their neighbor to the east, they dug themselves into a bunker system stretching more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), but it was more of a psychological bulwark than an effective defense system, as would become apparent in 1940. Paradoxically, it was Germany that would hazard another war -- precisely what the Treaty of Versailles was intended to avert.