Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Time For War: The Spring of '18

Even when humans are busy making a mess of the world, the flowers still bloom in Springtime.

Well, who knows what the future holds? But in any case, they bloomed in the Spring of the year 1918.

A hundred years ago, it almost looked like someone might win the impossible, insane European war. In some sense, it was already "half-won," thanks to the surprising turn of events the previous year. But it remained necessary to deliver the decisive blow, and it needed to be done quickly.

One year earlier, Germany had been hopelessly deadlocked on two fronts. Then, like strange magic, the Russian front evaporated. That bizarre little man, Lenin, whom they had transported through their country with the wild hope that he might cause some trouble, had succeeded beyond all imagination (or nightmare).

Russia was in chaos, and there remained three years of brutal civil war before Lenin and his clique would consolidate power. But in early 1918, while the world was still not sure whether to take the Bolsheviks seriously, Lenin was busy negotiating a peace treaty with the Germans.

It wasn't easy. Lenin had to convince members of his own party that it was worth it to formalize a complete capitulation to the Kaiser's forces. But at this point in time (so it seems), Vlad-the-Bad was (still?) enough of an "orthodox Marxist" to believe that the inevitable forces of history were about to push through the proletarian revolution in the industrial world, beginning very, very soon in Germany.

That didn't actually happen, as it turned out. So much for the inevitable-forces-of-history-blablabla, but by the time that was clear, Lenin was in his over-celebrated tomb and Stalin was working hard to make the ideology more "practical" (as an instrument of raw power, despotism, and mass murder).

But we're getting too far ahead. It's 1918 and Lenin is bold enough to play head of state. So, why not sign a treaty? Who cares? Treaty schmeety, no worries. Give them what they want on paper. The tide of the revolution will sweep everything away.

Well, the Germans wanted a lot. And in the Treaty of Brest-Livosk on March 3, 1918, they got it. But let's just look at a map from March 1918 (versions of this map are basically all over the Internet). Oh my!😟


Now, permit me to oversimplify to convey the gist of what we are seeing here (and also to indulge in a little more snark—which you guys know I don't do very often).

By 1918 the Ottoman Empire was not much to talk about. And ever since the accession of the Emperor Karl in the Fall of '16, the Austro-Hungarian multinational Empire had been a particularly unreliable ally for the "simpler" ambitions of the German Reich. Young Karl probably struck the Germans as a bit of a romantic with too many "medieval and Catholic notions" of government: silly things like justice, peace, and what was actually good for the various peoples he governed, not to mention the rest of Europe.

Sadly, no one paid any attention to Karl von Habsburg.

In this light, it would be an understatement to say that Germany felt very much in charge of matters in the East. Though they did not simply absorb the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine, they were in place to dominate the entire region.

It appeared to be a smashing victory. It looked to some like a sketch of the future, of a "Greater Germany" with plenty of "living space" for Germans and with the pesky Slavs under foot.

But they had to win in the West and they had to win fast. Because the allied naval blockade and overall war weariness were on the verge of bringing down the economy at home. And the Americans were finally mobilized and due to arrive in Europe. The German high command knew they needed a daring plan to break through the Western Front in the Spring of 1918.

By now everyone knew that the old rules of war were out the window. The horrible new game of modern warfare called for new ways of fighting. The Germans decided to launch a major offensive led by small, light, fast-traveling units making quick hits on vulnerable points of their enemy's lines. Soldiers returning from the Eastern Front were retrained for these special units. They were trained to be smart, focused, and fast—to combine the most portable technological weaponry with intelligence and speed.

These units were supposed to strike like lightning. They were called Sturmabteilung. 1918 marked the appearance on center stage of the German "Stormtroopers."

And the strategy appeared to work. Indeed, led by the storm troop units, German forces broke through the lines in unprecedented ways, and for a few weeks of that Spring they dreamed of rolling back the Western Front. From April to July they had various successful advances; at one point they even approached Paris once again (the closest they had come since September 1914).

But the Germans were vastly overextended and the gains turned out to be more apparent than real. They were trying to occupy their new acquisitions in the East while also conquering in the West. Meanwhile the Americans joined the British and the French with vast numbers of fresh troops. The German economy began to tank. And the "Spanish Flu" hit everybody.

By November the Reich was exhausted. Their pride and their ambitions were bigger than their reach. After so much ugliness in Europe since 1914, it was the greater hubris that led to the greater fall.

The map of the Spring of 1918 above was more of a dream than a reality. Almost everyone was awake by November. But some continued to dream. They dreamed angry dreams of vengeance and wild dreams of conquest.

One enlisted man was determined to restore the victory of the Treaty of Brest-Livosk and more. For Corporal Adolf Hitler, the dream was just beginning, and it was destined to become the world's next nightmare.

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