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 24th July 1927, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing was unveiled in the Belgian city of Ypres. The memorial is one of four memorials to missing British and Commonwealth soldiers from the First World War in the area around the Ypres Salient, and features more than 54,000 names. Every evening at 8pm the Menin Gate is the location for a ceremony in which buglers from the city’s fire brigade sound the Last Post.
Ypres occupied a strategic position throughout the First World War that came about as a result of its location on the route of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. Although the Allies successfully defended the city during the First Battle of Ypres in autumn 1914, they were surrounded on three sides and suffered artillery bombardments throughout the rest of the war that virtually flattened the city. Meanwhile the surrounding area was the location for four more major battles including the Second Battle of Ypres where Germany successfully used poison gas for the first time, and the Battle of Passchendaele.
After the war Ypres was rebuilt using reparations money from Germany, while the Commonwealth War Graves Commission constructed the memorial. The Menin Gate lies on the east side of the city, close to the route that allied soldiers would have taken in order to reach the front.
The fact that the memorial was too small to contain the names of all the missing demonstrates the scale of the destruction. The 34,000 missing soldiers killed after the arbitrary cut-off of 17th August 1917 are inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial 10km away.
The German gunboat SMS Panther was sent to the Moroccan port of Agadir, sparking the Second Moroccan Crisis.
France had emerged from the First Moroccan Crisis of 1906 in a much stronger position than neighbouring Germany, whose Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to develop economic and commercial interests in the country. The two countries formalised their positions in an agreement two years later but, by 1911, the domestic situation in Morocco had declined. In early 1911 the Sultan, Abdelhafid, faced an uprising by native tribes who also attacked French forces stationed in the country.
In response 20,000 French and colonial troops were sent to the city of Fez under the pretext of protecting European residents and their property. This was interpreted by some in Germany as an attempt to extend French control over Morocco, and in response the gunboat SMS Panther was dispatched to the port of Agadir.
While France was unwilling to take military action, the arrival of the German navy raised some concerns in Britain that Germany might seek to establish a naval base. An article in “The Times” newspaper on 20 July further raised public tensions, while David Lloyd George’s Mansion House speech the following day stated that Britain would not tolerate German aggression in Africa.
In the midst of such a hostile atmosphere the situation was eventually resolved through negotiations between the German and French governments. In return for recognising France’s position in Morocco, Germany received territory in the Congo. However, the damage that the naval dimension of the crisis caused to German relations with Britain was irreparable and only deepened the mistrust that was to contribute to the outbreak of the First World War.
The 28th June saw both the trigger and the definitive end of the First World War. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had a direct effect on the outbreak of war, while the Treaty of Versailles was signed on exactly the same date five years later in 1919.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand offers one of the most popular counter-factual debates in history: What if the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne had not been shot dead by the Serbian nationalist terrorist group the Black Hand? What if the driver of the Archduke’s car had taken a different route? What if the gunman Gavrilo Princip wasn’t standing outside Schiller’s Delicatessen at that exact time? This final point is covered in a bonus HistoryPod in which I discuss a key urban myth regarding the assassination.
The fact is that the violent death of Franz Ferdinand directly led to the outbreak of war as it caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. The network of pre-war alliances led to the conflict quickly involving all the major powers of Europe.
The fact that the Treaty that officially ended the war was signed five years to the day of the assassination was coincidence. Firstly the complex negotiations had taken six months to complete, meaning the final Treaty wasn’t handed to the German delegation until the 7th May. Furthermore, having studied the 440 Articles of the Treaty with no opportunity for discussion, the German delegation rejected it as unfair. It was only when the Allies threatened to restart the war that the government reluctantly signed.
The Arab Revolt began fully on June 10th 1916 when Grand Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the guardian of the holy city of Mecca, ordered his troops to attack the Ottoman Caliphate’s garrison in the city. Hussein’s troops, drawn from his tribe, significantly outnumbered the Ottoman soldiers but were considerably less well equipped. Consequently, despite impressive initial gains, Hussein’s troops were unable to win the battle until Egyptian troops sent by the British arrived to provide artillery support.
Through correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner of Egypt at the time, Hussein had become convinced that the Revolt would be rewarded with an independent Arabian empire stretching through the Middle East. The British supported the Revolt as it distracted tens of thousands of Ottoman troops from joining other fronts in the First World War.
Captain T. E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia for his involvement in the Revolt, did not join with the Arab forces until October 1916. Although he was just one of many British and French officers who worked closely with the Arabs during the Revolt, newspaper reports of his guerrilla tactics and close relationship with Hussein’s sons Faisal and Abdullah earned him fame.
The Revolt was an enormous success, but the outcome was not what was agreed in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. The British and French instead divided the land according to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement that they had negotiated between themselves in 1916. Hussein was given the Hejaz region in the Arabian Peninsula, but was defeated in 1925 by Ibn Saud.
On the 23rd May 1915, Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Triple Entente and declared war on Austria-Hungary. Italy was actually Austria-Hungary’s ally under the terms of the Triple Alliance, but the Italian government had initially opted for neutrality before being persuaded to join with its theoretical opposition. Under the terms of the Triple Alliance, Italy was well within its rights not to provide military assistance to Germany and Austria-Hungary since the treaty was entirely defensive. Since Austria-Hungary had instigated hostilities against Serbia, Italy argued that the alliance was void.
Italy therefore remained neutral for the first nine months of the war. However, behind the scenes Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his minister of Foreign Affairs, Sidney Sonnino, were investigating which side would be the best to join. In a secret agreement signed on 26th April in London, Italy agreed to leave the Triple Alliance, join the Triple Entente, and declare war on Austria-Hungary and Germany. Assuming they won, Italy would in return receive large areas of territory from the Central Powers such as Italian-populated areas of Austria-Hungary and in the region of the Adriatic Sea.
Italy duly entered the war against Austria-Hungary on 23rd May 1915. Despite superior numbers, the Italians struggled against Austria-Hungarians. However, they did emerge victorious and so Premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando went as the Italian representative to the Paris Peace Conference. However, the offers of land were not as much as Italy had hoped for and so he left the Conference in a boycott.
Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the Triple Alliance.
Germany and Austria-Hungary had formed the defensive Dual Alliance in 1879 in which both countries agreed to assist each other if they were attacked by Russia and promised benevolent neutrality to the other in case of war with another nation.
Two years later Italy, which had North African imperial ambitions, was frustrated by France’s seizure of Tunisia. Wishing to secure a foreign alliance in case of future aggression from France, Italy consequently turned to Germany and Austria-Hungary, expanding their established relationship to form the Triple Alliance in 1882.
The alliance provided Italy with German and Austro-Hungarian assistance in case France chose to attack, in return for which Italy would assist Germany if they were attacked. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary benefited from a guarantee that Italy would remain neutral in case of a war with Russia, removing the risk of a war on two fronts and providing some security amidst the rising tensions in the Balkans.
The alliance was renewed in 1887, 1907 and 1912. Meanwhile, in October 1883, Romania had secretly joined the Triple Alliance. This move was so secret that only King Carol I and a few senior politicians even knew.
However, similar to Italy’s involvement in the agreement, this did not result in Romania joining the Central Powers when war broke out in 1914. Having based their decision on the fact that the first country to take offensive action was Austria-Hungary when it attacked Serbia, both Italy and Romania initially opted for neutrality. They claimed that, since the Triple Alliance was defensive, they were not duty bound to support the aggressor.
The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, formally known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was ratified.
The agreement was designed to deal with the future of the Ottoman Empire, which had been known as ‘the sick man of Europe’ in the preceding years due to its declining power. After the Ottomans joined the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, the Allies began discussing policy towards their territory.
Britain and France had already agreed to Russia’s claim to Constantinople and the Straits of Dardanelles by the time representatives from the two countries began discussing further questions of territorial control in November 1915. The British diplomat Mark Sykes concluded negotiations with his French counterpart François Georges-Picot in March 1916 and the agreement was ratified in May, having secured Russian assent at the end of April.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence that conflicted directly with the promises Britain had made to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, to secure Arab support against the Ottomans. When the secret agreement was published in November 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution, Sir Henry McMahon who had negotiated the Arab deal with Hussein resigned.
Over a century after its creation, the Sykes-Picot Agreement continues to be the focus of significant debate due to its lasting impact on the Middle East. It is often criticised for establishing ‘artificial’ borders in the region that ignored ethnic and sectarian characteristics, and which have caused almost continuous conflict in the region.
Vladimir Lenin arrived in Russia after a decade of self-imposed exile.
Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, had left Russia in 1907 after Tsar Nicholas II cancelled many of the reforms he had promised following the 1905 revolution. While abroad he remained busy organising Bolshevik groups and publishing Marxist works, but following the February Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 he began making plans to return to Russia.
The country had been weakened by the exhausting toll of the First World War and this, combined with disastrous food shortages, had prompted the popular revolt that overthrew the Tsar. In his place the Provisional Government ruled the country, and they opted to continue the war effort despite strong opposition from the Russian people.
German officials were keen to further destabilise the situation. Despite being at war, Lenin and other Bolshevik exiles were granted permission to return to Russia from Switzerland through Germany in a ‘sealed train’. This meant that Lenin and his companions were never legally recognised as being in Germany.
The group then took a ferry to Sweden followed by a second train to Finland, arriving at Finland Station in Petrograd on 16 April. The next day Lenin published the April Theses in which he denounced both the Provisional Government and the First World War, and claimed that Russia was “passing from the first stage of the revolution…to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”
Less than seven months later the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in the October Revolution.
The Canadian Corps successfully captured Vimy Ridge in the First World War.
Vimy Ridge was a 7km ridge that had been held by the Germans since the Race to the Sea in 1914. French forces had made numerous attempts to seize the ridge over the next two years at the cost of approximately 150,000 casualties. However, due to the need to move French troops to Verdun, in October 1916 the position was taken over by the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.
By early 1917 the war had become one of attrition. Desperate to break the stalemate, French and British commanders planned a major offensive near the city of Arras to divert German forces from the main French offensive further south. The Canadians were tasked with seizing Vimy Ridge, which the Germans had heavily fortified.
The Canadian Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, and with the assistance of numerous British support units, carefully rehearsed their attack in the preceding weeks. They studied detailed maps and aerial photographs of the enemy lines, laid communication cables, dug a series of tunnels leading directly to the front lines, and stockpiled shells for the enormous artillery barrage that was to precede the assault.
Over 1 million shells were fired at the German lines for a week before the attack. Referred to by German troops as ‘the week of suffering’, the bombardment destroyed many of their defences and left them exhausted. At 5:30 am on 9 April the first wave of Canadian troops advanced behind a creeping artillery barrage through sleet and snow. They captured most of their objectives on the first day, and took control of the final target – a heavily fortified mound known as the Pimple – by nightfall on 12 April.