American Pravda: Lost Histories of the Great War

Veterans Day came earlier this month, a public holiday that under the name of Armistice Day had originally celebrated the end of the First World War, itself then known as the Great War to those living during that era, over a century ago.

Friends of the Palo Alto Library runs a local monthly book sale, now reopened after nearly two years of Covid closures, and I usually attend, often buying for a pittance items that have caught my eye. A few weeks ago I picked up for a quarter a copy of Adam Hochschild’s widely praised 2011 volume To End All Wars, his account of the British anti-war movement during World War I, which I’d seen very favorably reviewed in the Times and elsewhere when it was originally released. My own knowledge of that era was relatively meager and sparse, so I spent a couple of days reading the text.

Hochschild seems a fine writer and researcher, certainly earning the glowing blurbs by prominent scholars that stud his book, and he told a very interesting story of the men and women who organized and led Britain’s powerful but heavily suppressed anti-war movement as it opposed the continuing slaughter in the trenches. Many of these individuals suffered harsh imprisonment for their dissent, including Keir Hardie, the founder of what became the Labour Party and Bertrand Russell, the brilliant mathematical philosopher and future Nobel Laureate.

Support for the war split the militant Suffragette movement straight down the middle, and important political families were also often deeply divided, with the beloved elder sister of Britain’s own military commander-in-chief in France becoming a prominent peace campaigner. Just a few years earlier, E.D. Morel, the country’s leading investigative journalist, had been celebrated as an international hero for exposing the horrors of the Belgian Congo, but he was now imprisoned for his anti-war writings, with the treatment so brutal that it permanently broke his health and he died at the age of 51, a few years after the war ended.

Just as I’d expected, I discovered a wealth of information about a period only known to me in outline, and I saw no reason to doubt any of its accuracy, including the brief but surprising references to supposedly widespread German war crimes in occupied Belgium. I was very glad to fill these large gaps in my existing knowledge.

But near the end of Hochschild’s discussion of the year 1916, he emphasized that unlike Britain there was absolutely no corresponding anti-war movement in most other countries, including Germany. As he put it on p. 217:

“Both sides were committed to fight to the bitter end, and by now, two years into the war, if someone in a prominent position on either side so much as advocated peace talks, it was considered close to treason.”

On reading this, I did a double-take and almost questioned my sanity. Surely, Hochschild must be aware that exactly at that point in time, the government of Germany had publicly proposed international peace talks without preconditions aimed at ending the war, suggesting that the massive, pointless slaughter be halted, perhaps largely on a status quo ante basis.

The Germans had recently won several huge victories, inflicting enormous losses on the Allies in the Battle of the Somme and also completely knocking Rumania out of the war. So riding high on their military success, they emphasized that they were seeking peace on the basis of their strength rather than from any weakness. Unfortunately, the Allies flatly rejected this peace overture, declaring that that the offer proved Germany was close to defeat, so they were determined to hold out for complete victory with major territorial gains.

As a result, many additional millions needlessly died over the next two years, while just a couple of months later in early 1917 Russia’s Czarist government collapsed, eventually leading to the Bolshevik seizure of power, a turning-point with fateful, long-term consequences.

I don’t recall having ever seen any discussion of that rejected German peace proposal in the cursory treatment of the First World War provided by my basic high school or college textbooks, so I hadn’t originally heard of it. But around 2000, I’d begun a software project aimed at digitizing the near-complete archives of many of America’s most influential opinion magazines of the past, and along the way I’d been surprised to notice all those late 1916 headlines describing the peace offer, then glanced at a few of the articles and discovered the important history that I’d previously missed. For example, the December 23, 1916 lead article in America’s influential Literary Digest carried the headline “Germany’s Peace-Proposals” and for several weeks around that date numerous other stories in that periodical, as well as in the Nation, the New Republic, and various other publications had covered the same topic.

But although my introductory textbooks had failed to mention those facts, Hochschild was an award-winning author and historian, someone who had obviously devoted years of diligent research to his book on WWI peace movements. I found it difficult to believe that he was unaware of those crucial events, and I assumed that he would discuss them in the next chapter, but I finished his entire 450 page book seeing absolutely no mention anywhere.

At that point, I decided to confirm my recollections by doing a few casual Google searches on the topic, and found surprisingly little on the Internet. I then consulted the Wikipedia entry on World War I, which ran almost 40,000 words including nearly 500 references, but it only featured a single sentence on the German peace proposal that might have ended the fighting and thereby saved many millions of lives. Fortunately, that brief mention did link to a short 2018 Washington Post piece by a couple of professional historians, whose account fully matched my own understanding of the facts. The Great War ended on November 11, 1918, and their piece had appeared exactly one hundred years later to the day. So apparently it had required the centennial anniversary of the conclusion of that war to prompt our mainstream media to finally provide some coverage of that nearly forgotten story.

Why the First World War Lasted So Long
Alexander Lanoszka and Michael A. Hunzeker • The Washington Post • November 11, 2018 • 1,100 Words

If a negotiated peace had ended the wartime slaughter after just a couple of years, the impact upon the history of the world would obviously have been enormous, and not merely because more than half of the many millions of wartime deaths would have been avoided. All the European countries had originally marched off to battle in early August 1914 confident that the conflict would be a short one, probably ending in victory for one side or the other “before the leaves fell.” Instead, the accumulated changes in military technology and the evenly-balanced strength of the two rival alliances soon produced a gridlock of trench-warfare, especially in the West, with millions dying while almost no ground was gained or lost. If the fighting had stopped in 1916 without a victory by either side, such heavy losses in a totally pointless conflict surely would have sobered the postwar political leadership of all the major European states, greatly discouraging the brinksmanship that had originally led to the calamity let alone allowing any repeat. Many have pointed to 1914 as the optimistic high-water mark of Western Civilization, and with the sobering impact of two disastrous years of warfare and millions of unnecessary deaths, that peak might have been sustained indefinitely.

Instead, the consequences of the continuing war were utterly disastrous for all of Europe and much of the world. Many millions more died, and the difficult wartime conditions probably fostered the spread of the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which then swept across the world, taking as many as 50 million lives. Russia’s crippling defeats in 1917 brought the Bolsheviks to power, leading to a long civil war that killed many millions more, followed by three generations of global conflict over Soviet Communism, certainly accounting for tens of millions of additional civilian deaths. The extremely punitive terms that the Treaty of Versailles imposed upon defeated Imperial Germany in 1919 eventually led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic and a second, far worse round of global warfare involving both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, a catastrophe that laid waste to much of Europe and claimed several times as many victims as the Great War itself.

Although the Allies at the time had bitterly denounced what they sometimes called the dangerous “German Peace Offensive” of late 1916, it seemed obvious to me that the world would have been a much better place if it hadn’t been rejected.

Just out of curiosity, I queried quite a number of knowledgeable, well-read individuals, asking what they knew of the abortive 1916 German peace proposal and their responses were quite interesting. A mainstream scholar who had written several books on First World War topics was a little surprised at Hochschild’s lack of awareness, but noted that academic fashions since the 1960s had shifted in a direction sharply hostile to Imperial Germany, and as a result coverage of those elements of the historical record suggesting otherwise had been greatly minimized over the last half-century or more.

Meanwhile, nearly all of the lay individuals I contacted had never heard of the 1916 effort at peace and were mostly shocked by the story, the one notable exception being Kevin Barrett, whose long-running Truth Jihad podcast show had featured various conspiratorial guests over the years who had discussed it, sometimes with regard to broader, less plausible historical plots.

The extent to which the seemingly undeniable facts of the 1916 peace proposal have disappeared from public discussion is really quite remarkable, and I gradually discovered that Hochschild was far from alone in providing no hint of the story.

Consider high-profile British-born historian Niall Ferguson of Harvard and Stanford Universities, who had made his early name with his publication of The Pity of War in 1999, a highly heterodox reanalysis of World War I that came to numerous controversial conclusions. Among other positions, Ferguson boldly argued that the British should have stayed out of the conflict, which would then have resulted in a quick and sweeping German victory, leading Germany to establish political and economic hegemony over Continental Europe. But this would have simply resulted in the creation of the EU three generations earlier and avoided the many tens of millions of needless deaths in the two world wars, let alone the global consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Although Ferguson was deliberately provocative in his account, I didn’t remember seeing any specific mention of the 1916 peace proposal when I’d read the book a few years ago, and reexamining it now confirmed my recollection, even though his Introduction contains nearly a page of “What If?” scenarios, and he discussed numerous “alternative realities” later in his text. Indeed, just a couple of years earlier he had edited Virtual History, a collection of more than a dozen lengthy essays by professional scholars examining the consequences of history taking a different turn at numerous key junctures, including a German victory in WWI, but once again it totally lacked any suggestion of a possible negotiated peace in 1916.

An even longer volume of a very similar type, appropriately titled What If? appeared in 2001, edited by historian Robert Cowley and it was just as silent. The book ran over 800 pages, of which more than 90 were devoted to seven different alternate scenarios involving World War I, but the possibility of a 1916 peace nowhere appeared, despite surely being one of the most obvious and important “What Ifs.”

Comprehensive mainstream histories also seemed quite silent. In 1970 renowned British historian A.J.P. Taylor published English History, 1914-45, which ran almost 900 pages, with nearly a quarter of those were devoted to WWI; but no hint was given of the 1916 German peace proposal, with the very possibility of the Germans accepting a reasonable compromise peace at that point being dismissed in just a few sentences and a footnote. John Keegan’s 1999 volume The First World War runs 475 pages and also appears to lack any mention. While I’ve hardly performed an exhaustive review of all the standard historical texts, I think these two examples seem fairly typical, probably thus explaining Hochschild’s complete lack of awareness, with Ferguson and other distinguished authors likely having similar gaps in their knowledge.

The issue also seemed not to come up in more specialized studies, even when it might have played an important role. A couple of years ago I’d read Sean McMeekin’s 2017 history The Russian Revolution, an outstanding, meticulous reconstruction of the complex and contingent circumstances that led to the 1917 fall of the Czarist Regime and the subsequent triumph of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

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