The Third Reich was invaded in 1945 from West and East by the Anglo-American and Soviet troops respectively. In order to be victorious over it, they had to effectively destroy the National-Socialist regime. However, the Entente was not in the same situation at the end of 1918:the Allied troops, but especially the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), caused Imperial Germany major losses on French soil, however, they did not advance towards Berlin. Thus, from here stemmed the paradox of First World War, a paradox unsolved by the Versailles Treaty:Germany’s national territory was never conquered during the First World War and thus, Berlin had never felt defeated.
The German request to Washington for an armistice
On November 11th, 1918, the Allies accepted the German request for an armistice. It was an actual surrender of Berlin, although it was not perceived as such at the time. Because of the American president Woodrow Wilson’s public discourse on a peace without annexations, the German leadership thought it could manage to make the war end on this note. Basically, Germany wanted a status-quo-ante 1914, which was practically impossible in 1918.
The Mittelmächte(Central Powers) were almost victorious in 1917, owing it also to the Russian exit from the war which was brought about by the radical regime change caused by the October Revolution at St Petersburg. However, Berlin was not able to fully enjoy this moment, because it made mistakes that determined the US decision to enter the war. Besides the fact that Germany attacked the neutral American cargo ships, the Kaiserreich asked Mexico to become its ally through the so-called Zimmerman telegram. This way, Washington entered the war as an Associated Power, however, initially, all it could do was to finance the Entente, in order to ensure its further combat capacity.
Germany’s fate was sealed. Even if it could have resisted the exhausted Anglo-French troops, Berlin could not have done the same when the US tipped the war balance clearly in favour of the Entente. This meant that a German victory was rendered impossible since the end of 1917. The military and political leadership in Berlin decided to request an armistice from Washington when it was clear that the German troops were defeated in the summer and autumn of 1918. London and Paris did not receive the request, because Germany intended to bring about a separation between the European and American leaders of the Entente.
The US accepts the armistice
The president of the US did not aim clearly to produce a regime change in Berlin, however, Wilson hinted that both the German autocracy and militarism were standing in the way of achieving peace. In order to impress Wilson, Berlin executed a superficial regime change in October 1918 when the military leadership of general Erich Ludendorff and marshal Paul von Hindenburg resigned in favour of civil politicians. This way, Germany achieved a quasi-democratic regime compatible with the American one.
Because of the US domestic politics, the German request for armistice was not left unanswered. The Congress had at the time a Republican majority which made the support for the Democrat president Woodrow Wilson dwindle. Moreover, the US had to pay more for the war than it originally planned and it did so in francs and pounds, not in its own currency. This way, Wilson acknowledged that Washington could not continue its participation in the war and approved of the armistice.
Revolution in Germany
Because of this, an Allied attack on Berlin that would do away with the autocratic regime was out of question. Yet, the domestic situation in Germany was going towards this very end. In October 1918, Berlin found itself alone facing the Entente, because all its former allies surrendered and formally left the war. This situation caused chaos inside the Kaiserreich which experienced revolution and civil war. Also, it led to the abdication and fleeing of the last Kaiser of Imperial Germany to the Netherlands in November 1918.
The US and the UK do not assume a bigger role in the state system
Moreover, at the end of the war, the Anglo-Americans immediately demobilized their troops and failed to take into consideration leaving soldiers on the Continent. The follow-up to this policy would be seen in 1938 and 1939 when the UK realized that it had only one division to send in Europe to help France fight National Socialist Germany. In 1918, the US and UK were not ready to assume a role which meant a constant intervention in the system so as to avoid the appearance of a hegemon.
Thus, the Entente decided to impose on Germany such conditions in the peace treaty that would render Berlin unfit to rearm and wage another war. This way, as early as November 11th, 1918, the Kaiserreich had to respect tough military and naval clauses, which made it impossible for Germany to counterattack. Nevertheless, the UK did not plan on a total destruction of its former enemy, because London acknowledged that a healthy German economy leads to the well-being of England and implicitly, of Europe. Because of this, the UK did not wish to deliver a crushing defeat on Germany and thus, its armies did not advance in German territory.
Foch plans on getting France out of the war before it loses its Great Power status
More than the US and the UK, France planned on maintaining as long as possible its ascendancy over Germany, which was gained after the Allies won the war. Because of this, marshal Foch acknowledged that the French influence would be completely lost in Europe, if the length of the war was to be extended. Foch demanded that France should occupy the lost territories of 1870 – Alsace and Lorraine – and also, take into possession the bridgeheads on the Rhine. The French prime-minister, Georges Clemenceau, demanded even more than Foch – he wanted to establish a Rhenish buffer-state between France and Germany, however, all he managed to get through the Versailles Treaty was the 15-year demilitarization and military occupation of the area.
Because of the aforementioned reasons, the Allied troops did not advance towards Berlin in the autumn of 1918. The causes that led to this situation are of military and financial nature as well as prestige matters. Also, it was related to how the political leadership of the Entente states imagined its function in the state system. In the interwar period, even if the US was financially powerful, it was not yet ready to assume an active political role and it resumed its position of neutrality.
Steiner, Zara, The Lights that Failed:European International History 1919 – 1939, Oxford University Press, UK, 2005
Stevenson, David, 1918 Revisited, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, 107 – 139, February 2005