Ending Wars Was Never Easy

A new book about a forgotten attempt to resolve World War I sheds light on the struggles facing the West’s diplomats today.

A still from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme purportedly shows British soldiers moving forward through wire at the start of the battle on July 1, 1916. This scene is now generally considered to have been staged well behind the lines but has regularly been used to represent British troops “going over the top” at the start of an assault on the Western Front.
A still from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme purportedly shows British soldiers moving forward through wire at the start of the battle on July 1, 1916. This scene is now generally considered to have been staged well behind the lines but has regularly been used to represent British troops “going over the top” at the start of an assault on the Western Front. Geoffrey Malins/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

By August 1916, World War I had been raging for two years, and millions of men had perished on various battlefronts in Europe and the Middle East. If, in August 1914, generals and politicians had anticipated a short and decisive conflict, the movement of armies on the Western front had quickly given way to a series of deadly stalemates. At Verdun, German and French armies were embroiled in a siege that would ultimately result in nearly 1 million casualties. In July 1916, the Allies had also started the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history, that left even more soldiers dead or maimed than the Battle of Verdun.

It was at that time that British essayist Edward Thomas enlisted in the armed forces. For more than a year, he had been torn over whether to volunteer for military service or emigrate to then still neutral United States, where he had numerous friends. One of them, poet Robert Frost, even made Thomas’ indecisiveness the subject of his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” Thomas did eventually join the army. He was killed in the Battle of Arras soon after he arrived in France.

The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, Philip Zelikow, PublicAffairs, 352 pp., .00, March 2021

The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, Philip Zelikow, PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $30.00, March 2021

Frost’s poem and Thomas’ agonizing decision-making process inspired the title of a new book by former diplomat and policymaker Philip Zelikow, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War. It offers an engaging and detailed account of the secret peace negotiations among the warring nations from the autumn of 1916 to the spring of 1917. The talks could have spared Europe two further years of fighting and with it, the life of Thomas and millions of others. Zelikow, chronicling the futility of these efforts with the keen eye of a former diplomat, strongly suggests they should have.

The book does not shy away from attributing blame where he identifies missed or bungled opportunities in the past. But it also speaks to the present in more than one way. First, it reminds us that rational thinking—in this case to end an absurdly costly and ultimately pointless war—can be clouded by war’s nationalist passions, which follow their own logic. Second, George Kennan’s verdict that World War I was the “great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century easily extends into the 21st century. Many current conflicts—notably in the Middle East but also in Ukraine—simply cannot be grasped properly without a deep understanding of World War I and the way in which it ended. The world is still paying the price for the ill-conceived dismantling of multiethnic empires and Western meddling in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in particular.

Zelikow’s story begins with a secret telegram. A week before Thomas reported for duty in France, on Aug. 18 1916, then-German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg sent a covert cable to Washington, requesting that his ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, make contact with then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He wanted Bernstorff to convey to Wilson that the German government wished for “mediation by the President to start peace negotiations among the belligerents who want to bring this about.”

The German request for Wilson to act as an honest broker was not as absurd as it may now seem. Wilson had just won a second term on the basis of keeping the United States out of the war, and he was clearly in favor of a negotiated peace. If Germany agreed to a U.S. peace arbitration, the other Central Powers would follow. The Germans also knew that the Western Allies’ war effort was essentially financed with U.S. loans. Given the high level of Allied dependence on U.S. money and supplies, Wilson was uniquely placed to put pressure on London and give the Allies a face-saving way out of the war. Wilson was aware that at least some influential figures in London and Paris were secretly open to the idea of a negotiated settlement. Even France’s president, the conservative nationalist Raymond Poincaré, had confided to the British king, George V, that he was willing to engage in peace talks.

“Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!” Bernstorff argued in November 1916, and Zelikow agrees with him. Yet despite cross-national longing for an end to the war, the peace initiatives ultimately proved futile for several reasons. Some of these are better known than others: The change in British leadership in December 1916, when David Lloyd George became prime minister, clearly did not help as Lloyd George was famously opposed to Wilson’s mediation proposal. Nor did the Zimmermann Telegram—the German offer of a war alliance with Mexico in January 1917—and Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against ships in the Atlantic Ocean help gain Wilson’s trust. Yet Zelikow makes a convincing case that the Germans abandoned the road to peace in January 1917 only because they believed the secret peace talks were going nowhere.

Wilson thus missed a unique window of opportunity by not pushing for it hard enough. He did send his key foreign-policy advisor and friend, Edward House, to Europe to conduct secret peace negotiations. However, in Zelikow’s view, Wilson should have forced the British, shielded from the worst effects of the war by the English Channel and therefore less interested in a settlement than the French and the Germans, to the negotiation table.

Zelkow acknowledges that in all of the warring countries, policymakers and senior military figures remained divided on the issue of a peace that would essentially confirm the geopolitical status quo of 1914. In his final face-to-face meeting with the House of Commons on Jan. 26, 1917, Bernstorff offered his prediction for what a negotiated peace might look like. Bernstorff’s prediction, as the body relayed it to Wilson, was that such a peace would “leave the map of Europe pretty much as it was before the war.” The hawks in Berlin, London, and Paris were left wondering what their soldiers had suffered and died for if nothing was to be gained.

The deep internal divisions in Germany in particular became visible three months after Bernstorff’s final meeting with the House of Commons. After reluctantly supporting the war effort for years, the parties of the left and center in the German parliament, the Reichstag, now openly supported a peace “without annexations and without indemnities.” This peace resolution passed in the Reichstag with a comfortable majority but was ignored by the kaiser. Instead of further pursuing any peace negotiations, German Emperor Wilhelm II dismissed Bethmann-Hollweg and replaced him with Georg Michaelis, the preferred candidate of the hawkish Armed Forces High Command under Gen. Paul von Hindenburg and Gen. Erich Ludendorff, who rejected a negotiated peace and aimed for total victory.

The consequences of the failure to secure a peace agreement in late 1916 were obviously momentous: Millions more soldiers perished, including some 50,000 Americans who died in battle in the final months of the war after Congress approved the U.S. declaration of war on Germany. Had the war ended in late 1916, it is possible to imagine an alternative future. The Bolshevik Revolution, which counted on the desperation of starving peasants and war-weary soldiers, may never have happened. The world may even have been spared the Nazi dictatorship—after all, Adolf Hitler’s most popular election promise was the undoing of the “Carthaginian” Treaty of Versailles.

Zelikow’s book implicitly raises another important point: In the age of democratic nationalism—notably from the late 19th century onward—governments found it infinitely harder to make peace than had been the case in previous centuries when wars could be started or ended at the behest of kings and queens. During World War I, the totalizing logic of nationalism made matters much more complex. A nationalist backlash against any peace treaty that essentially confirmed the status quo of 1914, despite the horrific suffering of two years of fighting, was almost inevitable.

These totalizing logics still apply today, even if the more low-intensity conflicts in distant places like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Ukraine are not comparable in nature and scale to the absolute horrors of World War I. Ending armed conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere may require a sober cost-benefit calculation and some level-headed civilian leadership that is unafraid of making potentially unpopular decisions against the will of hawkish generals. As long as anything less than total victory remains unacceptable and fear of a popular nationalist backlash to a perceived defeat or pointless sacrifices clouds the judgment, it will be impossible to avoid a lengthy continuation of war. One could do worse than to engage with the lessons of the past and to assess if the passions of maximalist nationalism have ever helped to create a stable peace.

When World War I eventually ended, almost two years after the collapse of the secret talks, the sense of grievance in the victorious countries was even worse than had been the case in 1916. The peacemakers in Paris were under immense public pressure to deliver a punitive peace treaty that would vindicate the sacrifices of the previous four years. Given the unrealistic expectations for the peace settlement on all sides—hopes for a Wilsonian “peace without victors” among the defeated as well as demands for a draconian peace among the victors—nobody was satisfied with the Paris peace settlement. But it was instructive. The end of World War I was the first expression—but not the last—of the terrible irony that in an age of democratic nationalism, it was infinitely harder to make peace than to start a war.

Robert Gerwarth is a professor of modern history at University College Dublin and director of the Centre for War Studies. He is the author of The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.

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