By August 1916, World War I had been raging for two years, and millions of men had perished on different fronts in Europe and the Middle East. If generals and politicians expected a brief and decisive conflict in August 1914, the army’s movement on the Western Front had quickly given way to a series of deadly stalemates. In Verdun, German and French armies were embroiled in a siege that ultimately claimed almost 1 million victims. In July 1916, the Allies had also started the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history, in which even more soldiers were killed or maimed than in the Battle of Verdun.
It was at this time that the British essayist Edward Thomas joined the armed forces. For more than a year he had been torn between volunteering for military service or emigrating to the then neutral United States, where he had numerous friends. One of them, the poet Robert Frost, even made Thomas’s indecision the subject of his famous poem “The Road Not Taken”. “Two roads diverged in a forest and I – / I took the less traveled one, / and that made the difference.” Thomas eventually joined the army. He was killed in the Battle of Arras shortly after arriving in France.
Frost’s poem and Thomas’ agonizing decision-making process inspired the title of a new book by former diplomat and policy maker Philip Zelikow, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Struggle to End World War I. It offers an exciting and detailed account of the secret peace negotiations between the warring nations from autumn 1916 to spring 1917. The talks could have saved Europe two more years of struggle and thus the lives of Thomas and millions of others. Zelikow, charting the futility of these efforts with the keen eye of a former diplomat, strongly suggests doing so.
The book does not shy away from finger pointing when it identifies missed or missed opportunities in the past. But it also speaks to the present in more ways than one. First, it reminds us that rational thinking – in this case to end an absurdly costly and ultimately pointless war – can be tarnished by the nationalist passions of war, which follow their own logic. Second, George Kennan’s judgment that World War I was the “great landmark catastrophe” of the 20th century easily extends into the 21st century. Many current conflicts – particularly in the Middle East, but also in Ukraine – simply cannot be properly grasped without a deep understanding of World War I and the way it ended. The world is still paying the price for the ill-conceived dismantling of multiethnic empires and Western interference in Eastern Europe and especially the Middle East.
Zelikov’s story begins with a secret telegram. A week before Thomas reported for duty in France on August 18, 1916, the then German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg sent a covert cable to Washington and asked his ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, to contact the then US President Woodrow Wilson. He wanted Bernstorff to inform Wilson that the German government “wanted the President to mediate in order to start peace negotiations between those belligerents who wanted to make this happen”.
The German request to Wilson to act as an honest broker was not as absurd as it may seem now. Wilson had just won a second term to keep the United States out of the war, and he was clearly in favor of a negotiated peace. If Germany agreed to a US peace arbitration, the other Central Powers would follow suit. The Germans also knew that the Western Allies’ war effort was largely funded by US loans. Given the Allied dependence on US funds and supplies, Wilson was uniquely able to put pressure on London and offer the Allies a face-friendly way out of the war. Wilson was aware that at least some influential figures in London and Paris were secretly open to the idea of a negotiated solution. Even France’s President, the conservative nationalist Raymond Poincaré, had confided in the British King George V that he was ready to hold peace talks.
“Peace is on the ground waiting to be picked up!” Bernstorff argued in November 1916, and Zelikow agrees. Despite the cross-border longing for an end to the war, the peace initiatives ultimately turned out to be pointless for several reasons. Some of these are better known than others: the change in British leadership in December 1916 when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister clearly did not help, as Lloyd George was known to be against Wilson’s mediation proposal. The Zimmermann Telegram – the German offer of a war alliance with Mexico in January 1917 – and Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against ships in the Atlantic also did nothing to win Wilson’s trust. Nonetheless, Zelikow makes a compelling argument that the Germans gave up on the road to peace in January 1917 simply because they believed the secret peace talks were going nowhere.
Wilson missed a unique window of opportunity by not pushing hard enough. He sent his most important foreign policy advisor and friend, Edward House, to Europe to conduct secret peace negotiations. However, according to Zelikow, Wilson should have forced the British, who were protected from the worst effects of the war by the English Channel and therefore less interested in an agreement than the French and Germans, to the negotiating table.
Zelkow admits that in every warring country, policymakers and senior military officials were divided on the issue of a peace that would essentially confirm the geopolitical status quo of 1914. At his last personal meeting with the House of Commons on Jan. 1, 1917, Bernstorff offered his prediction of what a negotiated peace might look like. Bernstorff’s prediction, as the body passed it on to Wilson, was that such peace would “leave the map of Europe pretty much as it did before the war.” The hawks in Berlin, London and Paris wondered what their soldiers had suffered for and died if nothing was to be gained.
In particular, the deep internal divisions in Germany became visible three months after Bernstorff’s last meeting with the House of Commons. After the parties of the Left and the Center in the German Bundestag had reluctantly supported the war effort for years, they now openly supported a peace “without annexations and without compensation”. This peace resolution was passed by a comfortable majority in the Reichstag, but ignored by the emperor. Instead of continuing further peace negotiations, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bethmann-Hollweg and replaced him with Georg Michaelis, the preferred candidate of the High Command of the Hawk Armed Forces under General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, who rejected a negotiated peace and strived for a total Victory.
The consequences of failing to reach a peace agreement in late 1916 were obviously grave: Millions more soldiers were killed, including around 50,000 Americans who died fighting in the final months of the war after Congress approved the US declaration of war on Germany . If the war had ended in late 1916, one could imagine an alternative future. The Bolshevik revolution, which relied on the desperation of starving peasants and war-weary soldiers, is unlikely to have taken place. The world could even have been spared the Nazi dictatorship – after all, Adolf Hitler’s most popular election promise was the repeal of the “Carthaginian” Treaty of Versailles.
Zelikov’s book implicitly raises another important point: In the age of democratic nationalism – especially from the late 19th century – it was infinitely more difficult for governments to make peace than was the case in earlier centuries, when wars began at the behest of or kings and queens could be ended. During World War I, the totalizing logic of nationalism made matters much more complex. A nationalist backlash against a peace treaty that essentially confirmed the status quo of 1914, despite the terrible suffering of two years of struggle, was almost inevitable.
This totalizing logic still applies today, even if the less intense conflicts in distant places such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Ukraine are not comparable in type and scope with the absolute horrors of World War I. Ending the Armed Conflict in the Middle East and Elsewhere What may be required is a sober cost-benefit analysis and level-headed civilian leadership that is not afraid of making potentially unpopular decisions against the will of Hawk generals. As long as anything other than total victory remains unacceptable and the fear of a popular nationalist backlash to perceived defeat or senseless sacrifice tarnishes the judgment, it will be impossible to avoid a long continuation of the war. It could be done worse than grappling with the lessons of the past and judging whether the passions of maximalist nationalism ever helped create a stable peace.
When World War I finally ended, nearly two years after the collapse of the secret talks, the feeling of grievance in the victorious countries was even worse than it was in 1916. The peacemakers in Paris were under immense public pressure to impose a penalty on the peace treaty Would justify sacrifice of the past four years. Given the unrealistic expectations of the peace settlement on all sides – hopes for a Wilsonian “peace without a winner” among the defeated and demands for a draconian peace among the victors – no one was satisfied with the Paris peace settlement. But it was educational. The end of World War I was the first – but not the last – expression of the terrible irony that, in an era of democratic nationalism, it was infinitely more difficult to make peace than to start a war.