1915-1920: The End of Balance
On Friday May 7 1915, a torpedo prematurely exploded several meters off the starboard bow of RMS Lusitania, a British passenger liner en route to England. Captain William Turner was quick to realize a German U-Boat was lurking in the area and had dared to open fire on a civilian vessel. Throwing caution to the wind, Captain Turner pushed Lusitania to full speed through the fog off the Irish coast. Lusitania escaped unharmed, arriving at port to report the incident. President Woodrow Wilson, incensed by the incident, ordered Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to dispatch a formal protest to the German embassy. The response from Berlin was muted; Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg refused to send any formal apology, nor did he offer guarantees that unrestricted U-Boat warfare would cease in the immediate future. Faced with a prevailing desire among the American public to remain neutral in the conflict tearing the continent of Europe apart, Wilson had no choice but to back down from any continued demands regarding Germany's U-boat policy. Secretary of State Bryan was decidedly opposed to even the original protest, and the matter was quietly forgotten.
An exaggerated artist's depiction of the Lusitania Incident
Had that German torpedo not malfunctioned and indeed hit its mark, the fate of the nearly 140 American passengers, and of the United States' foreign policy, could have turned out differently. Ultimately, though many continued to complain of the breaches in neutral rights unrestricted submarine warfare represented, it was not enough to push for American involvement in what most considered to be Europe's war. The United States of America would, ultimately, remain neutral.
With or without American involvement, the Great War continued to rage on unabatted for nearly four more years. In 1917, the Russian Empire withdrew from the Entente alliance against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire and quickly dissolved into revolution and civil war after the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. With its eastern front now safe, the German Army could finally turn its full energy against the allied French and British armies in northern France. General Erich Ludendorff, de facto dictator of Germany alongside the war hero General von Hindenburg, conducted a massive offensive aimed at the French capital Paris codenamed Operation Michael beginning in late March 1918. Casualties quickly soared against the heavily-entrenched Entente, but steadily gained ground. Demoralized from the mutinies following the cataclysmic Battle of Verdun, the French Army at last gave way at the outskirts of Compiegne in early June, opening a miles-wide gap in the Entente line. Assured of success, Ludendorff pushed ahead determinedly on Paris. With their French allies disintegrating before their eyes, the British Expeditionary Force retreated to Calais and Dunkirk, resigned to abandoning the continent. By July 15, the German armies were fast approaching Paris, and the capital was declared an open city. Two days later, Paris fell, and the war was all but over.
With France fallen, Britain's sole remaining continental ally, Italy, could not hope to stand for long on its own. Determined Austrian offensives, backed by veteran German troops rushed in from their victorious French campaign, easily broke through the Italian line and pushed all the way south to the Po River, capturing Venice and most of the northeast in short order. Abandoned by Britain and without any hope of relief, Italy quickly followed France in approaching the Central Powers for terms of surrender. On January 19 1919 ('Nineteen-Nineteen'), Germany issued a joint-armistice with France and Italy. For the first time in over four years, the guns fell silent in Europe.
Britain continued to hold on in spite of the inevitable, hoping against all odds that a pro-war party might emerge victorious in the chaotic Russian situation, or that America might at long last stir from its neutrality, but to no avail. With Britain incapable of mustering the army to gain a foothold, and Germany incapable of overcoming the Royal Navy, the two countries at last came to terms six months later on June 5, 1919, almost on the anniversary of the breakthrough at Compiegne.
Germany emerged from the Great War the clear military victor. Originally faced with the combined forces of Britain, France, and Russia, the German Empire had crushed its enemies and now stood undisputed master of the continent. The old balance of power established at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon's defeat was gone forever. No other European power could muster the men or the industry to match its strength. But it by no means came away unbloodied. In over four years of fighting, Germany had sustained a ghastly 2.3 million deaths and twice that many wounded, often horrifically. Added to that were another half million civilian deaths, totaling 7.1 million casualties in all; only Russia could claim to have suffered such obscenely high death tolls. The prolonged mobilizations, war economy, and the Entente naval blockade had wrecked the country, reducing millions to near-starvation levels of rationing, while most industries were desperately short on raw materials or had simply ceased functioning. National debt and rampant inflation also wreaked havoc on the already-suffering German population. The war had also badly undermined the political edifice. The Kaiser Wilhelm II had been relegated to the sidelines, and remained virtually powerless until the Treaty of Berlin in 1920 ended the war and the Ludendorff-von Hindenburg military junta stepped down.
Though deeply scarred by the traumatic events of 1914-1920, the German people were not willing to let their soldiers' sacrifices be in vain. Russia was in the throes of revolution, France on the threshold, and Britain teetering precariously between recession and total economic collapse. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, escaping only ruin by virtue of German troops, were impotent to take advantage of the vaccuum rapidly opening up. Only the United States, unmarred by war and possessing the world's largest and strongest industrial arm, could hope to oppose global German hegemony. But the electoral victory of Republican candidate William Borah in 1920 ensured that, for the time being, the United States would remain idle in the face of Germany's ambition.