The Weimar Republic was officially established on 11th August 1919, when Friedrich Ebert signed the new constitution into law. The National Assembly that created the constitution had convened in the city of Weimar, which is why the state of Germany from the inauguration of the new constitution until Hitler became Fuhrer is generally referred to as the Weimar Republic. However, its official name continued to be Deutsches Reich which had first been adopted in 1871.
The Weimar Republic was born amid civil strife and open revolt that engulfed cities across Germany in the closing weeks of the First World War. The November Revolution actually began at the end of October 1918, but quickly spread from the port of Kiel to reach as far as the southern city of Munich by the 7th November.
The “German Republic” was declared on the 9th November, shortly after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication was announced. Power was swiftly transferred to Friedrich Ebert, who reluctantly accepted it and formed a coalition government known as the “Council of the People’s Deputies”. It was this government that therefore signed the armistice on the 11th November, and which authorised the brutal suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919. Just four days after the deaths of Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht elections for the National Assembly took place, which convened in Weimar in order to avoid the unrest in Berlin.
It took the best of part of seven months for the delegates to agree on the terms of the constitution, and Ebert signed it into law while on holiday in Schwarzburg.
On the 23rd July 1914, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia specifically designed to be rejected and lead to war between the two countries. The ultimatum was delivered at 6pm by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, with a deadline of 48 hours within which the Serbian government had to respond. They accepted all but one of the numerous demands, which led Austria-Hungary to declare war three days later on 28th July.
Austria-Hungary had been concerned about the growing power of Serbia, and was keen to find a way to weaken the government and stop it taking over the Southern Slavic populations of the northern Balkans, and especially Bosnia, under the banner of pan-Slavism. To the government officials who favoured war, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on the 28th June was the perfect excuse.
Following the assassination, Germany had given Austria-Hungary assurances that it would support military action against Serbia, in what is known as the ‘Blank Cheque’ of 5th July. Acting with the knowledge that the strongest army in Europe was on their side, the Austro-Hungarian Crown Council began to discuss how best to justify a war against Serbia. They decided that an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands would be the best course of action, and finally agreed the wording on the 19th.
After Serbia’s refusal of the sixth point in the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war. Although it was intended to remain localised, the network of European alliances that had developed from the late 19th Century soon saw the conflict develop into the First World War.
On the 21st June 1919, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German High Seas naval fleet in Scapa Flow, a large natural harbor in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The ships had been confined there under the terms of the Armistice that ended fighting in the First World War.
America had suggested that the fleet be interned in a neutral country but, as neither Norway nor Sweden agreed, Britain volunteered instead. The majority of the 74 German ships were in Scapa Flow by the 27th November, where they were guarded by British Battle Cruiser Force. The fleet was manned by a skeleton crew of less than 5,000 men that gradually reduced over the next few months as they were repatriated back to Germany.
Negotiations over the fate of the ships took place at the Paris Peace Conference, where the various representatives were struggling to agree on a resolution. While Britain wanted to destroy the ships in order to maintain their naval superiority, France and Italy each wanted to take a quarter each. Concerned that the entire fleet might be shared out between the victors, Admiral von Reuter, the German officer in charge of the interned fleet, began planning to scuttle or purposely sink the ships.
Shortly before 11.30 on the morning of the 21st June the order went out to scuttle the ships. By 5pm 52 of them had sunk. The sailors escaped on lifeboats, and were captured as British prisoners-of-war. Nine sailors were shot and killed, making them the last German casualties of the war.
Germany and Russia signed the secret Reinsurance Treaty that ensured they would each remain neutral if the other went to war with a third European power.
Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary had entered into a second Three Emperors’ Alliance in 1881. Like the one before it, the agreement was designed by the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to isolate France from potential allies and avoid rivalry between his two neighbours over territory in the Balkans.
Continuing tensions between Austria-Hungary and Russia over this region led to the agreement’s collapse in 1887 and forced Bismarck to find another way to maintain French diplomatic isolation.
Germany had already formed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879, so the Reinsurance Treaty was created to ensure Russia continued to side with Germany. In return Germany agreed to a Russian sphere of influence in Bulgaria and the Black Sea.
By the time the treaty came up for renewal in 1890, Wilhelm II had become Kaiser of Germany. He insisted that Bismarck resign the Chancellorship in March that year, and argued that his personal relationship with Tsar Alexander III would be enough to avoid any future problems with Russia. Bismarck’s successor Leo von Caprivi was also unwilling to seek a renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty, meaning that it lapsed.
Without the treaty to tie St Petersburg to Berlin, the Russian government began to forge closer relations with France. France’s improving diplomatic situation was formalised in the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. This opened up Germany to the possibility of a war on two fronts, making the failure of the Reinsurance Treaty a contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War.
The ‘Final Act’ of the Congress of Vienna was signed on the 9th June 1815, nine days before Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. The purpose of the Congress was to review and reorganise Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, in an attempt to achieve a lasting peace.
Having first met after the defeat and surrender of Napoleonic France in 1814, the Congress continued in spite of the renewal of hostilities following the period known as the Hundred Days in which Napoleon returned from exile and took back control of France. Chaired by Metternich, the Austrian principal minister, the Congress was led by the so-called Four Great Powers of Austria, Russia, Britain, and Prussia alongside France. In total over 200 states were represented in some way at the Congress, making it the largest diplomatic event of its time. However, the key terms were discussed and decided by the Great Powers in informal meetings.
The Final Act of the Congress set in place a map of Europe that remained largely unchanged for the next forty years, and – some may argue – set the scene for the First World War. Indeed the delegates were often criticised in the later nineteenth century for focusing more on achieving a balance of power than on maintaining peace. Nationalism, for example, was largely ignored in the final settlement. Although this was a key factor in the disputes and conflicts that emerged later, it’s important to remember that the Congress did succeed in its primary aim of securing wider European peace for the best part of a century.
The Treaty of Trianon was signed between Hungary and most of the Allies of the First World War.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire had begun to collapse by the autumn of 1918, and the Hungarian Prime Minister declared the termination of the joint state on 31 October. Austria signed the Treaty of St. Germain on 10 September 1919 in which it recognised Hungary’s independence.
The Treaty of Trianon went on to strip Hungary of nearly three-quarters of its territory. Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia received the vast majority of this land and population. The border changes meant that over 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves living in a different country. Furthermore, the Treaty specified that one year after the date of signing these people would also lose their Hungarian nationality.
The territorial changes had a dramatic effect on Hungary’s economy. Large parts of the country’s former infrastructure and industry lay outside the new borders, while the loss of the coastline meant that it was both difficult and expensive to engage in international trade. Unemployment skyrocketed, while industrial output declined.
The treaty also placed severe limits on Hungary’s military which was forbidden from possessing an air force, tanks, and heavy artillery. The army was limited to 35,000 soldiers and conscription was banned, exacerbating the already mounting unemployment.
The social, economic and political effects of the treaty later led the historian and former British Ambassador to Hungary, Bryan Cartledge, to describe it as ‘the greatest catastrophe to have befallen Hungary since the Battle of Mohacs in 1526’.
The Turkish War of Independence began when General Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the Inspector of the Ottoman 9th Army and later known as Atatürk, arrived at the town of Samsun on the Black Sea Coast.
The city of Constantinople had been occupied by Entente forces since 13 November 1918, less than two weeks after they had signed the Armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire. In addition to occupying Constantinople, the Allies also seized various other areas of the Ottoman Empire over the following months. This occupation by foreign troops was described by Mustafa Kemal as ‘humiliating’.
On 15 May 1919 Greek forces, with the permission of the Entente powers, landed in Smyrna, now known as Izmir. Ethnic tensions were already high in the Anatolia region, and the wave of violence that ensued helped to consolidate a range of Turkish resistance groups into a unified force. The Sultan in Constantinople was under the influence of the occupying powers and was asked to send a member of the armed forces to quell the unrest.
Mustafa Kemal secured this assignment and departed Constantinople for Samsun on board the cargo ship SS Bandirma. After a difficult three-day voyage in poor weather, and without a functioning compass, he and his staff landed on 19 May. Instead of disbanding the army they began to organise a more formalised resistance movement, and for this reason 19 May is considered the start of the Turkish War of Independence. A month later, Mustafa Kemal issued the Amasya Circular declaring that the independence of the country was in danger. This document was a direct criticism of the government in Constantinople, and is often seen as the first formal written evidence of Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist intentions.
The British ship RMS Lusitania sank after being attacked by the German U-boat U-20 off the coast of Ireland.
The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and was one of the largest ocean liners of its time. It undertook its first voyage in 1907 and went on to win the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing.
The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain impose a blockade on German ports, which prompted the German Navy to attempt the same on the British Isles. However, the Royal Navy limited the impact of Germany’s blockade so the Lusitania was able to continue its journeys between Liverpool and New York City.
On 4 February 1915 the commander of the German High Seas Fleet announced that German submarines would begin unrestricted warfare and sink allied ships in the waters around the British Isles. Prior to the Lusitania’s scheduled voyage from the USA on 1 May, the German Embassy in Washington took out newspaper adverts warning that passengers undertook the voyage at their own risk.
1,962 people and around 173 tons of war munitions were on board the Lusitania when it left New York under Captain William Thomas Turner. Having crossed the Atlantic, the ship was hit on its starboard side at 2.10pm by a torpedo fired by U-20. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people lost their lives.
The German government attempted to justify the sinking, but it was met with outrage in the Allied countries. Despite the deaths of American civilians, President Wilson chose to remain neutral in the war. Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in August, but resumed it in early 1917. This, and the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, led to Wilson’s decision to declare war.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, wrote the war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, which inspired the symbol of the poppy to commemorate members of the military killed in war.
McCrae had published his first poems while studying medicine at the University of Toronto, after which he served in the Canadian Field Artillery during the Boer War. Returning to Canada after the war, he embarked on a successful career as a pathologist and was made a member of the Royal College of Physicians prior to the outbreak of the First World War.
McCrae was appointed to the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery) where he assumed the position of Medical Officer and Major. While serving in Belgium he fought at the Second Battle of Ypres that began on 22 April 1915, an experience he described in a letter to his mother as a ‘nightmare’. During this battle his close friend Alexis Helmer was killed, and McCrae himself performed the burial service on 2 May.
The next day, while apparently sitting in the back of an ambulance, McCrae composed ‘In Flanders Fields’. Cyril Allinson, a Sergeant Major in McCrae’s unit, later recounted watching McCrae write the poem. He was apparently unhappy with the final piece and threw it away, but it was retrieved by another member of the unit.
McCrae edited the poem and submitted it to The Spectator for publication, but following that paper’s rejection succeeded in getting it published in Punch on 8 December 1915. It was met with universal acclaim at the time, and its imagery of red poppies led to the flower’s associated with remembrance in the years following the war.
McCrae continued to serve in the army, but died of a pneumonia-related illness on 28 January 1918. He is buried in France.
On the 22nd April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres began in Belgium. The battle has become most remembered for seeing the first use of gas in the First World War, but Second Ypres really marked its first effective use. A form of tear gas had previously been used by the Germans fighting the Russians at Bolimov in the east 3 months earlier, but it had proved wholly unsuccessful. The freezing temperatures meant that a lot of the gas failed to vaporize, and that which did got blown back towards the German trenches.
At Ypres, the situation was dramatically different. 5,700 gas canisters were released by hand, all of which contained highly poisonous chlorine gas. The Germans relied on the wind to blow the gas towards their enemy but, despite some German casualties due to the rudimentary system of release, the gas was terribly effective.
Over 5,000 French Algerian, Moroccan and territorial troops died within ten minutes of the gas being released. A further 5,000 were temporarily blinded, with nearly half of them becoming prisoners of war.
The Germans didn’t expect the gas to be as effective as it was, and so didn’t fully exploit their initial advantage. However, by the end of the battle on 25th May, the Germans had certainly scored a tactical victory. They had compressed the size of the Ypres salient and had demonstrated the effectiveness of chemical warfare. The Allies soon developed their own poison gas, making chemical warfare part of the offensive strategy for the rest of the war.