In the early hours of October 4, 1918, German Chancellor Max von Baden, appointed by Kaiser Wilhelm II just three days earlier, sends a telegraph message to the administration of President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C., requesting an armistice between Germany and the Allied powers in World War I.
By the end of September 1918, the Allies had made a tremendous resurgence on the Western Front, reversing the gains of the previous spring’s massive German offensive and pushing the German army in eastern France and western Belgium back to its last line of defenses, the so-called Hindenburg Line. Stunned and despondent, German General Erich Ludendorff, chief architect of that final spring offensive, reversed his previous optimism about the German military situation and demanded at a crown council meeting on September 29, that Germany seek an immediate armistice based on the terms President Wilson had laid out in his famous Fourteen Points address in January 1918. Feeling that the army’s leadership had completely usurped the government, Chancellor Georg von Hertling immediately resigned; Kaiser Wilhelm subsequently appointed his second cousin, Prince Max von Baden, to the post.
As soon as von Baden arrived in Berlin to take office on October 1, he made it clear that he had no intention of admitting defeat until Germany had regained at least some ground on the battlefield; in this way he hoped to retain some powers of negotiation with the Allies. On October 3, however, Paul von Hindenburg, the German army’s chief of staff and head of the Third Supreme Command—as Germany’s military leadership was known—reiterated Ludendorff’s advice, stating that “The German army still stands firm and is defending itself against all attacks. The situation, however, is growing more critical daily, and may force the High Command to momentous decisions. In these circumstances it is imperative to stop the fighting in order to spare the German people and their allies unnecessary sacrifices. Every day of delay costs thousands of brave soldiers their lives.”
Von Baden disagreed with Hindenburg, telling him that too early an armistice could mean Germany would lose valuable territory in Alsace-Lorraine and East Prussia, which had been implicit under the terms of the Fourteen Points, despite Wilson’s expressed desire for a “peace without victory.” Deciding to seek his own way apart from the Supreme Command, von Baden brought two Socialist members of the German Reichstag into his cabinet; they too, appraising the growing anti-war feeling on the home front and in the government, advised the chancellor to seek an armistice. On October 4, heeding their advice, von Baden telegraphed his request to Washington.
Wilson’s response, in notes of October 14 and 23, made it clear that the Allies would only deal with a democratic Germany, not an imperial state with an effective military dictatorship presided over by the Supreme Command. Neither Wilson nor his even less conciliatory counterparts in Britain and France trusted von Baden’s declaration of October 5 that he was taking steps to move Germany towards parliamentary democracy. After Wilson’s second note arrived, Ludendorff’s resolve returned and he announced that the note should be rejected and the war resumed in full force. After peace had come so tantalizingly close, however, it proved even more difficult for Germans—on the battlefield as well as on the home front—to carry on. Within a month, Ludendorff had resigned, as the German position had deteriorated still further and it was determined that the war could not be allowed to continue. On November 7, Hindenburg contacted the Allied Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch, to open armistice negotiations; four days later, World War I came to an end.