Faraway, So Close: Why WWI Still Haunts Europe a Century Later
Part 5: Celebrating Life
The spread of violence was reflected in weapons technology. Engineers developed flamethrowers, tanks and fighter planes. Even poison was used, first by the Germans and later by the Allies.
In this time of total war, victories and defeats were no longer decided by the genius of generals, but by economic and military mobilization strength. In 1917, Russia was no longer able to keep up -- ironically, it was precisely the power that the German Kaiser, his chancellor and the generals had once feared the most. The Russian economy collapsed, the czar abdicated and the prospect of land reform led to mass desertions by soldiers, most of them farmers.
Lenin, the new man in charge, wanted peace at any cost, and in December talks with Berlin's envoy began in Brest-Litovsk. Lenin eventually gave up a quarter of his European territory, including the Baltic states, Poland and Finland, which all yearned for independence.
After the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Central Powers could finally wage the single-front war Schlieffen had envisioned. But by then, the United States had already entered the war. It marked the "decisive strategic turning point," as historian Gerhard P. Gross puts it.
The largest industrialized nation on earth had already been energetically supporting England with food, raw materials and ammunition since 1914. In the belief that the British Empire would come to the negotiating table if its supplies were cut off, in early 1917 the Kaiser and his advisers launched unlimited U-boot attacks on freighters, including US ships.
It was probably Kaiser Wilhelm II's biggest mistake. The total U-boot war did not achieve the desired success, and it also brought the United States into the war, against the Central Powers.
Meeting in a Rail Car
By July 1918, a million well-rested GIs had landed on the old continent. The Allied forces were soon pushing back German divisions along a broad front. The war was lost even before it had reached German territory.
On the evening of Nov. 7, 1918, a German column of three vehicles crossed the front near Chimay, Belgium. Engineer units had cleared away all land mines along the route. A large white flag was displayed on the first car and a trumpeter blew short signals, so that no one would inadvertently open fire. The German delegation had come to sign a ceasefire agreement.
French military vehicles took the group, led by Matthias Erzberger, a Catholic member of the Reichstag, to a train that stopped the next morning near Compiègne in northern France.
The mood was icy when French Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had recently been named the supreme commander of Allied forces, and three British officers received the Germans in one of their rail cars.
Erzberger signed the ceasefire on the morning of Nov. 11. "A nation of 70 million can suffer, but it cannot die," he announced dramatically. "Très bien," Foch replied. The parties chose not to shake hands.
The guns fell silent at 11 a.m.
A Dented Helmet
The survivors of World War I included Franz Warremann, a journeyman bricklayer from the northeastern German city of Rostock, whose grandson, Joachim Gauck, is Germany's president today. Warremann brought home a helmet from the front that had been dented when it was grazed by a bullet just above his left temple. He had apparently been extremely lucky.
The dented helmet has since been lost, says Gauck in his office at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, but the sight of it created such a strong impression on him that he could "still draw it" today.
When his grandfather got together with other veterans in the evening and they talked about the war, young Joachim was always surprised at how exuberant they seemed. How could they be so happy after those harrowing experiences?
Only much later did he understand that the men treasured spending time with fellow soldiers who had also looked death in the eye in the trenches. Only they could understand what it meant.
And that was why they were celebrating life.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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