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The First World War ended with a whimper, not a bang. Here’s why.

- November 12, 2018
A woman cycles past an installation with thousands of poppy flowers at Koenigsplatz in Munich on Nov. 3 as Europe prepares to mark the centenary of the ending of World War I. (Reuters)

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, war ended on Europe’s Western Front. More than a month earlier, German leaders requested a pause to negotiate a peace settlement, and after weeks of back-and-forth negotiations, the Entente, led by Britain and France, and the United States granted an armistice.

The guns fell silent in an apparent anticlimax, with German territory unconquered and an army that, if unwilling to fight for Belgium and France, wasn’t unable to defend its homeland.

For anyone listening to Allied leaders in the final years of the war, the armistice might have come as a shock. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had insisted as far back as 1916 that “the fight must be to the finish — to a knockout.”

Why did the Entente and the Americans grant an armistice to a Germany that was finally, after years of attrition, out of reserves and on the run? Why didn’t they drive on to Berlin?

Here’s how the war ended with Germany intact and unconquered:

1. The Entente certainly wanted German regime change

Germany’s major power enemies — Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Russia (until the Russian Revolution) — wanted to remake it.

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British Foreign Minister Edward Grey described “ending militarism,” which meant in no uncertain terms the end of the ruling houses of Hohenzollern in Germany and Habsburg in Austria-Hungary, as a bedrock Entente war aim. By May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, his own desire for a “peace without victory” a thing of the past, announced: “The day has come to conquer or submit.”

The Entente seems to have decided that, absent guarantees that come with conquest, surrender and possibly dismemberment, Germany couldn’t be trusted not to try again to overturn the European balance of power.

And yet when Germany asked for an armistice, its enemies agreed, abandoning the march on Berlin for which their generals, including John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, had begun to plan.

2. Germany initiated a “revolution from above”

Solving a commitment problem was key to the Entente’s war effort. A still-standing, autocratic Germany couldn’t be trusted — so the argument went — not to try to dominate Europe again, so its enemies waged a war to eliminate Germany’s ability to challenge the status quo. Oftentimes, parties settle wars driven by commitment problems in total fashion, with the losing side conquered or disarmed.

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But in negotiations with Wilson, Germany agreed to democratization, putting a civilian government in charge to negotiate the peace. Wilson professed more trust in this government than either the Kaiser or his generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had led a virtual military dictatorship since 1916.

Wilson’s demand reflected Immanuel Kant’s vision of a world of peaceful republics and his own diagnosis of the causes of the war, which blamed not the German people but their leaders.

German democratization was, however, an imperfect solution to the problem because regimes come and go, and after Entente demobilization there might be nothing to stop a reversal of the revolution. If German democracy failed, the world might find itself right back where it had been in 1914. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch even dismissed the Treaty of Versailles as “an armistice for 20 years.”

So what made this imperfect solution to Germany’s commitment problem palatable? A big part of the answer lay across the Atlantic — in America.

3. The allies didn’t just fear Germany — they were wary of rising American power

When the fighting stopped in 1918, London and Paris weren’t concerned just about containing postwar Germany. They also cast a wary eye at the United States, the partner whose entry swung the war in their favor but also a partner who stood to take on an increasing role in determining strategy if the war continued into German territory.

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Already dependent on U.S. financing, the Entente believed its role at the peace talks would be further subordinated to Washington if the war effort relied more heavily on American dollars, dreadnoughts and doughboys. If the Entente could credibly claim the lion’s share of work bringing the Germans to the table — as they could in 1918 — they stood a better chance of retaining their empires and enjoying the spoils of war (read: reparations and conquests).

But if they went for Lloyd George’s knockout blow, they risked losing their own positions in the global hierarchy to Wilson’s radical vision for reshaping the global order, which foresaw the humbling of European imperialism before the unparalleled financial and military might of the United States. Continuing the war with a more powerful American partner might bring about Wilson’s desired “peace without victory” — with that victory snatched away from a fully exhausted Entente. Precisely because a United States that was more powerful in Europe couldn’t be denied a larger say in strategy and in the negotiation of a final peace treaty, the Entente powers gave up on their dreams of inflicting a total defeat on Germany.

The end of the Great War in Western and Central Europe, though, came with a whimper that would be overshadowed by the cataclysm of World War II a generation later, when many of the same states would march on Berlin to offer a more permanent answer to the question of who would rule Europe. That the 1914-1918 conflict ended so far short of a total military victory shows us that negotiations between coalition partners can be just as important for shaping how wars end and how long peace lasts after the war as negotiations between enemies. Disagreements between the war’s victors plagued the interwar years, the seeds of which were sown when the United States entered the war with a vision for world order quite at variance with the other great powers whose side it had taken.

Scott Wolford is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. His textbook, The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security, will be published in spring 2019 by Cambridge University Press. Follow him on Twitter @thescottwolford.