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The Morning of November 11, 1918

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11/12/2018

On the morning of November 11, 1918, fighter pilot and leading American ace Eddie Rickenbacker quietly ambled to the hangar of his aerodrome in France. The night before, in anticipation of the Armistice, all Allied flights were grounded. But Rickenbacker was not known as a rule-follower. He told his crew to roll out his SPAD XIII fighter plane "and warm it up to test the engines." He climbed into the cockpit, took off, and headed to the trenches of the Western Front. Low clouds kept him low, around five hundred feet. He could see flashes of rifle and machine gun fire from the German trenches.

And then it was 11:00 A.M., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man's-land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer's seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man's-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.

Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.

Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.

In memoirs, diary entries, and letters, we find that for the fighters of the First World War, the Great thing about the War was its end. In victorious countries, schools let out, impromptu parades and rallies erupted. These outbursts recognized victory, to be sure, but they chiefly celebrated the end of the war. My own grandmother recounted to me, more than once and each time luminously, the ecstatic celebration in her little town of Murray, Kentucky, where school was cancelled and virtually everyone in town gathered in the courthouse square to celebrate. In my recollection, she never mentioned the word "victory" once. In Rickenbacker's squadron, everyone from pilot to cook joined in a mad celebration, but not of victory, "many of them shouting 'I survived the war! I survived the war!"

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Rickenbacker, third from left, and fellow officers of the 94th Aero Squadron.

In the defeated countries, people at home were, if more subdued, at least relieved for the end, but they were also incredulous that they had lost when only days before, the newspapers had proclaimed they were winning. Above all, they were apprehensive about what was to come. Spontaneity among the vanquished was more often a matter of revolution, strikes, and mutinies, often accompanied by gun battles in the streets of Berlin, Budapest, and other cities, as revolutionary groups clashed with each other and with returning soldiers. Of course, some ten or eleven million dead soldiers and sailors would never return to join in the joy or the revolt on either side. Nor would the eight million civilian dead of the war be rejoining their loved ones in any country.

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Armistice celebration in Philadelphia.

But the shooting war was in some ways hardly over. The Russian Civil War raged. Sixteen countries, including the United States, invaded Russia to try to shape the outcome of the brutal Russian war. The Greek army invaded Turkey. Poland fought a regular war with the Soviets in 1920. Large-scale violence scarred postwar societies in Ireland, on the German-Polish border, in the Middle East. And the British maintained the Hunger Blockade on Germany for many more hungry months.

Nor was the notable wartime inflation at an end. This massive transfer of wealth by belligerent governments through inflation impacted both winners and losers. Immediately after the war, inflation escalated to society-bludgeoning hyperinflation in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Austria, and the Soviet Union, creating heightened poverty and misery.

Yet the elites of the war, especially those on the winning side, were already taking advantage of the war's drastic restructuring of international affairs and domestic politics to plan for "the salvation of the empire," or economic hegemony, or control of vast supplies of raw materials and fuel, or "greater" Serbia (or Greece, or Poland, or Romania), or "a new diplomacy." Intellectuals in the victorious countries likewise saw the war as the "fulfillment" of domestic and social goals, a subject which Murray Rothbard has analyzed in detail. Above all, the international banking houses (many of them connected intimately with the armaments industry (which had lobbied for, sponsored, and organized the complex loans for "modernization" before 1914, and for war loans thereafter) looked forward to the fees and the financial power which the interwoven loans of billions presented. The famous scheme of reparations from Germany and Austria enshrined in the Paris Peace would emerge from American banking agents on the Finance Committee at the Paris Peace Conference. Before long, New York banks would be loaning billions to Germany so that it could pay billions in reparations to Britain, France, and Belgium, so that they could repay millions in war debt to U.S. banks.

Nor would the statist total war systems that had in some degree marked all the belligerents cease on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The most extreme of these systems--in the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany--would produce a new phenomenon, totalitarianism, which would wreak havoc with the lives of millions in their own countries and with those of many others throughout the twentieth century and beyond. And even among the previously liberal regimes, total war social and political organization would extend in many ways into the future.

But little of all this could be foreseen as the German Armistice representative, Matthias Erzberger, made his way to the Forest of Compiègne in November 1918, with a little band of Germans commissioned with ending the fighting. Erzberger was the leader of the Progressive branch of the German Center Party, the political party of German Catholics. Early in the war, Erzberger was as enthusiastic about "fulfillment" of German dreams through war as most German politicians were. But he came to see that the aggressiveness of all sides, including the German reintroduction of unlimited submarine warfare, was producing an unlivable world. He managed to push a Peace Resolution through the German parliament in mid-1917, calling for peace negotiations. But the chancellor (a front man for the military dictatorship of Hindenburg and Ludendorff) had been able to rob the Resolution of any meaning.

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Matthias Erzberger in 1919. Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1989-072-16 / Kerbs,  Diethart / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.

Yet by August 1918, the German High Command was demanding that civilian politicians save Germany by making peace, by ending the war which the generals and imperial bureaucrats had lost. A liberal prince from Baden assembled a moderately liberal cabinet (including Erzberger) at the beginning of October and sent messages to Woodrow Wilson, proposing cease-fire negotiations on the basis of Wilson's famous Fourteen Points peace proposal from the previous January. Wilson hesitated, since the Allies were now driving the Germans from their positions on the Western Front. But at last the Allies agreed to talk. A highly reluctant Erzberger was appointed head of a negotiating team which he assembled hastily: a brigadier general, an upper diplomat, a naval officer, and two translators.

The small group drove--yes drove--to the trench lines, reaching the French outposts in darkness on the evening of November 7, and by the middle of the night had been conducted through the desert of the Western Front to a train at Tergnier, south of St. Quentin. The train conveyed the Germans over the thirty miles to the middle of the Forest of Compiègne. A French railway car soon arrived, carrying the Allied Commander-in-Chief, French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch and British First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Weymyss, and their staffs.

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Foch, with cane, and his Compiegne team.

In the morning, Erzberger and his small group walked to the French railway car. Foch and Weymyss appeared. Foch asked, "What do you want of me?" And the three-day conversation began. Before Erzberger had left Germany, Chancellor Max of Baden had written to Erzberger, "Obtain what mercy you can, Matthias, but for God's sake make peace." This Erzberger proceeded to do, though Foch refused to budge on any issue. Erzberger wired Berlin that the terms were draconian, essentially disarming the German military and providing for Allied occupation of all German territory west of the Rhine. Berlin replied: accept the terms. Erzberger did so, and the Armistice was arranged for November 11, at 11:00 French time. Diplomats from the Allied countries immediately started making arrangements to gather in Paris in January for the peace conference.

On reflection, as Paul Fussell made clear in his masterpiece, The Great War and Modern Memory, the multi-layered ironies of the conflict created the war's most lasting legacies. And none of the ironies was quite as striking as the fact that those groups of politicians, bureaucrats, generals, and bankers on all sides who created the war and directed it, had had a mortality rate of zero, more or less, at least until the Spanish Flu emerged late in the war to kill with a little less social and demographic selectivity.

It is fitting to end this short contemplation of November 11, 1918, with a song that emerged from the soldiers who fought the war, performed in a recent recording by a modern musical organization that thrives on ironies, both present and past, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The performance is a spare and thoughtful rendition of a British soldier's ditty from the war, "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire," a reference to that little-celebrated fate of Great War fighters who made it to the killing zone of the enemy's barbed wire in No Man's Land, only to be killed by the interlocking machine gun fire which everyone knew would be zeroed in on that simple but effective obstacle.

If you want to find the General
I know where he is.
He's pinning another medal on his chest.
I saw him, I saw him,
Pinning another medal on his chest


If you want to find the Colonel
I know where he is.
He's sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut.
I saw him, I saw him,
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut.


If you want to find the Seargent
I know where he is.
He's drinking all the company rum.
I saw him, I saw him,
Drinking all the company rum.


If you want to find the private
I know where he is.
He's hanging on the old barbed wire.
I saw him, I saw him,
Hanging on the old barbed wire,
Hanging on the old barbed wire.

Like many soldiers' perceptions, this simplistic view did not tell the whole truth (in most armies, lieutenants died at a higher rate than privates since they led the attacks "over the top," for example) and it did not extend to the political and economic structures which created the war to begin with. The German sailors in Kiel, who had by early November already started the German Revolution of 1918 by carrying out a mutiny at the Kiel naval base, understood only peace. And they called for it in the shorthand expression: "We want Erzberger!" (And a footnote. Matthias Erzberger would pay dearly for his courageous call for peace negotiations and his grim duty in carrying out the first step when he was assassinated by an ultra-nationalist terrorist group in 1921.)

Yet there was a kernel of truth in the cynical but simplistic perceptions of many Great War soldiers. The personal bravery and the sacrifices on all sides belonged chiefly to the soldiers. The postwar costs would be paid by societies which had had little to do with bringing about the massacres. The victory was in the hands of gentlemen in ornate rooms in the financial and political capitals of the "great powers," the representatives of the modern state, an entity which collectively perceived the results of the war as its own fulfillment.

Hunt Tooley teaches History at Austin College. He is the author of The Great War: Western Front and Home Front. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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