Domestic Pressures at the Beginning of 1917

  November 20, 2021   Read time 5 min
Domestic Pressures at the Beginning of 1917
The original protagonists in the war, the Russian and Austrian empires, were now more than ready for peace. The pressures on their home fronts had become almost intolerable. Everywhere there were shortages of food, fuel, and raw materials for industry—the result not so much of Allied blockade as of the insatiable demands on the economy.

Raging inflation drove consumer goods onto a black market. The beneficiaries were profiteers from war industries whose boldly flaunted new wealth intensified social tensions. Peasants could still hoard their stocks and resort to a barter economy, so the worst sufferers were the working and lower-middle classes in the cities, who had to queue for hours, often in bitter cold, for such low-quality goods as were available. Strikes and bread riots became endemic throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Domestic hardships, combined with the losses suffered by their armies, left little room for the patriotic sentiment and dynastic loyalty that had sustained the Czarist and Habsburg regimes over the previous two years, and by the end of 1916 it was clear that the two empires were engaged in a race for disintegration. The death of the 86-year-old Emperor Franz-Joseph in November was widely seen to presage the end of the Empire itself. His successor, the young Emperor Karl, at once established ‘back channels’ with France to discuss peace terms. German influence was still strong enough both to sustain Austria’s war effort and to quash her search for peace; but Czar Nicholas II’s western allies could do nothing to help him when, three months later, bread riots in Petrograd spun out of control and brought down his regime.

Those western allies were not yet ready for peace. For one thing efficient and largely uncorrupt bureaucracies could manage their economies competently enough to avoid serious civilian hardship. For another, command of the seas gave them access to the foodstuffs and raw materials of the western hemisphere. The question of payment for these was to store up huge problems for the future, but for the moment credit was plentifully available. War weariness was certainly growing in both France and Britain. In both countries socialists whose pre-war international loyalties had been temporarily overlaid by patriotic fervour were now beginning to argue for a compromise peace, but they were still in a small minority, and political discontent was directed rather at the conduct of the war than at its continuance. In both countries, the increasing mobilization of civilian resources was leading to growing civilian participation in the management of the war itself. In France, the sacrifices of Verdun were blamed on the misjudgements of Joffre, who was replaced by a politically more acceptable general, Robert Nivelle. In Britain Haig’s position remained unassailable in spite of the losses of the Somme, but popular discontent found its target in the somewhat lackadaisical administration of Herbert Asquith. In December Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George—a ‘man of the people’, one rightly credited with the creation of the civil infrastructure that supported the war effort and who had the charisma of a natural war leader. The general mood both in France and in Britain at the end of 1916 was not so much in favour of making peace—certainly not so long as the Germans remained in Belgium and north-east France—as of making war more efficiently.

This was the mood also of Germany’s military leaders. Whereas in France and Britain military setbacks had led to an assertion of civilian leadership, in Germany military successes, especially on the Eastern Front, had so enhanced the reputation of Hindenburg and Ludendorff that, when they displaced Falkenhayn in command of the army in August 1916, they virtually took control of the country as well. But, although Falkenhayn had lost office, his ideas had triumphed. The experience of Verdun and the Somme persuaded his successors that the nature of the war had fundamentally changed. It was no longer a conflict to be resolved on the battlefield by superior military skill and morale, but one of endurance between industrial societies in which control of armed forces melded seamlessly into control of production and the allocation of available resources. Civilians were as intrinsic a part of war making as the military, and so logically should be under military control. The High Command therefore created a Supreme War Office, an Oberstekriegsamt, to control both industry and labour, and passed an Auxiliary Service Law, the Helfdienstgesetz, which made the entire population liable for conscription. The military in fact created a shadow bureaucracy, paralleling the civilian, and competing with it in running the country. Soldiers became bureaucrats. They also became politicians. Ludendorff’s staff fomented a campaign for the triumphalist war aims first set out in the September programme of 1914—permanent control of Belgium and northern France, together with widespread annexations of territory in Poland and the OberOst.

By doing so they worsened the tensions that were now beginning to pull German society apart. The Social Democrats, whose voting strength lay among the urban working classes, were the strongest party in the Reichstag, which still had the power to vote war credits. In 1914 they had been persuaded to support what had been depicted as a defensive war against Russian aggression. Now the Russians had been soundly defeated. Working-class solidarity was disrupted by the army’s intelligent policy of cooperation with the trade unions and lavish wage increases in war-related industries, but agitation was growing for a peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and found growing support in cities where food shortages were already producing bread riots. Failure of the potato crop in the autumn of 1916 forced the urban poor to subsist throughout the winter on a diet largely of turnips. The terrible losses at Verdun and the Somme—a million and a half men dead or wounded—had taken their toll of German morale, both civil and military. However successful the High Command might be in squeezing more productivity out of the German economy, it was increasingly doubtful whether the German people would support the war for another year.