Coronavirus, the First World War, and Germany

Given the current focus on the Coronavirus, and the widespread fear of it, it is relevant to German History and the present situation to discuss how the last great Pandemic, the Spanish Flu, affected Germany and its efforts to win the First World War.

Obviously, the rapid spread of the Spanish flu through the German Army and the civilian population had a deleterious effect on the German war effort. Perhaps most crucially for determining the outcome of the war, the Coronavirus played a major role in halting the German Spring Offensives against the Allies in France. The Allied troops were infected first by the virus, and by the time of the German final push against the Allied lines were recovering and for the most part had returned to normal combat effectiveness. The Germans, in contrast, had only recently been introduced to the virus and so by the time of the final attack in July were still suffering its ill effects. Further, due to the allied blockade the German had been suffering food shortages and so had to introduce strict rationing on their forces. Hunger and deprivation made the German soldiers more susceptible to the virus than the comparatively well fed allied troops. 500,000 German Soldiers fell sick, as many as one fourth of the troops in some units were unable to fight. The virus also indirectly contributed to the lack of supply that German units suffered from by disorganizing logistics departments and halting rail traffic as necessary workers fell ill. The Germans finally failed to break through the allied lines as the exhausted and under supplied troops were staled and eventually pushed back by superior Allied forces.

On the home front, the Spanish Flu exacerbated the suffering of the German civilian population ready beset by shortages and war-weariness. Like the soldiers on the front, the German population was underfed only just sustained by German grain requisitions from defeated nations in Eastern Europe. The German population was thus vulnerable to disease, and over 420,000 German civilians died from the Spanish Flu. The German government attempted to suppress reports of the virus and hide its severity from the public, but the wide spread of the virus ultimately made those efforts in vain. The virus weakened the German war effort by killing a great deal of its productive workforce and further exhausting its population and undermining confidence in the government’s honesty and ability to protect its citizens. That along with the weakened support for the war that resulted from the failure of the Spring Offensives contributed greatly to popular demand for an armistice.

Today in German History: March 21

March 21st, 1871

On March 21st of 1871, Otto Von Bismarck was made Chancellor of the German Empire. Bismarck, Prussian Noble and prominent conservative, was instrumental in German unification. His Orchestration of the Schleswig-Holstein war with Denmark and then the 6 week’s with Austria made Prussia the primary power in Germany. Soon after, he goaded France into declaring war on Prussia and so precipitated France’s disastrous defeat in the resulting Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck’s creation of the North German Confederation and his other efforts to increase interaction and cooperation between the German States provided the background that allowed for the surge of nationalism that resulted from victory in the Franco-Prussian War to push the German States to unify into the German Empire. As Chancellor, Bismarck would direct the foreign and domestic policy of Germany for the next two and a half decades. Notable domestic actions include the institution of the Kulturkampf, his effort to suppress Catholics and eradicate socialists. He also created the first modern welfare state in an effort to keep the workers from turning to socialist politics. In foreign policy, he chaired the Berlin Conference to organize the colonization of Africa and prevent wars between colonial powers. His efforts to ally with Austria, his old enemy, were successful. However, he failed to maintain the German Alliance with Russia. Bismarck’s successors failed to maintain the balance he created and ultimately turned the majority of the Great Powers against Germany.

March 21st, 1918

On March 21st of 1918, The army of the German Empire launched its last major offensive of the First World War. The Spring offensive against the French and British armies in Northern France successfully broke through the allied lines but stopped short of taking Paris and ultimately failed to end the war. Innovative tactics including the use of “storm troopers” to break through allied lines allowed Germany to undo all of the allied gains made since the First Battle of the Marne. However, the German Army was unable to break the allied armies or keep its offensive forces supplied. Soon after the offensive stalled, US troops arrived in sufficient numbers to decisively tilt the balance of power on the Western Front in the favor of the allies and that along with German food shortages, financial collapse, and domestic unrest forced it to capitulate and sign an armistice on November 11.