The 11th Hour: A brief history of the Great War

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 bugles across Europe sounded the end of a war that left some 10 million soldiers dead.

The 11th Hour: A brief history of the Great War
Striking workers fill the streets of Berlin on November 9th, 1918.

Hopes for a ceasefire had been growing for weeks with German troops – under pressure from an unrelenting Allied offensive – withdrawing from Flanders and most of occupied France.

At last, it came: at 11:00 am on November 11th, 1918, amid the mud and fallen leaves of a grey European winter, World War I was over.

Here is an overview of the final days of the Great War.

Berlin calls for talks

On October 3rd Germany's emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, appoints as chancellor Prince Max of Baden who has long advocated a negotiated peace with Britain, France and the United States.

The very next day the new chancellor telegraphs the US president, Woodrow Wilson, to call for talks.

The Allies demand Germany's unconditional surrender and the kaiser's  abdication.

Pressure builds on Berlin. German forces, their spring offensive long exhausted, are beating a disorderly retreat.

On November 3, German ally Austria-Hungary capitulates and signs an armistice.

 German negotiators enter France

Tensions mount in Germany as naval forces mutiny at Kiel and a general strike is called on November 5th.

French officers, meanwhile, receive the order to allow safe passage of top German diplomats into Allied territory.

On November 7th, at 8:30 pm, a ceasefire is sounded at La Capelle in northern France, near the Belgium border.

It is the first in more than 50 months of war and allows the German delegation, led by minister of state Matthias Erzberger, to cross into an Allied zone.

The diplomats take a train to a secluded forest clearing near Compiegne to meet Allied forces commander General Ferdinand Foch.

 Kaiser abdicates

Foch receives the German delegates at 9:00 am on November 8 in a train parked in a railway siding in the forest.

He asks if they are ready for an armistice. An aide reads out a list of terms fixed by the Allies at Versailles four days earlier.

At the request of the delegation, a messenger is sent to German forces commander Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in Belgium for his authorization to sign an armistice.

By the time the envoy arrives, on November 9th, the kaiser has abdicated, with the German Revolution under way.

Armistice signed

Night has fallen on the forest clearing when the messenger returns, on November 10th, with the commander's permission.

Negotiations resume. For three more hours the Germans argue, clause by clause.

Eventually there is a final version: by 5:20 am on November 11th, the armistice ending a war started four years earlier is signed in a train carriage in the woods.

The news reaches the troops quickly, and is received with disbelief. Some
commanders decide to continue fighting to the bitter end; others will not risk any further lives.

On the stroke of 11 am the ceasefire agreed just hours earlier is sounded by bugles and clarions along the hundreds of kilometres (miles) of front line that stretch across Europe.

Soldiers gradually emerge from the trenches, stunned.

 War is over

Celebrations erupt in the capitals of the Allied victors.

Civilians pour into the streets, thronging the Place de la Concorde in Paris, Piccadilly Circus in London, New York's Fifth Avenue, the Piazza Venezia in Rome.

Church bells ring out at full peal and people dance in the streets. In French ports, soldiers from the United States, Australia and other far-away lands parade under their national flags.

The Great War – which had drawn in some 30 nations and their colonies, and mobilized around 70 million soldiers – is over.

The final peace treaty will be signed in Versailles in June 1919.

Nearly 10 million soldiers lie dead, along with another 10 million civilians. Much of Europe is ruins.

German humiliation, blame

In Germany there is relief but also humiliation and anger. The Kiel mutiny spreads and there are deadly revolts across the country.

The generals blame politicians for defeat, saying they were “stabbed in the back” on the home front.

It is a notion taken up by ultra-nationalist parties and is a key refrain of one Adolf Hitler.

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75 years later: Germany moves to get rid of lingering Nazi laws

Germany is moving to rid itself of a cluster of laws introduced by the Nazis, still lingering on its books 75 years after World War II.

75 years later: Germany moves to get rid of lingering Nazi laws
An information sign on the enaction of the Nuremberg Laws, racist and anti-Semitic laws passed during Nazi times. Photo: DPA

There are 29 German legal or regulatory texts that still use wording introduced when Hitler was in power, according to Felix Klein, the government's point man for fighting anti-Semitism.

Some of them have “a very clear anti-Semitic background”, Klein told AFP.

Now, with the support of several parties in the Bundestag lower house of parliament as well as Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Klein wants to wipe the slate clean — preferably before the end of the current term in September.

But the question remains whether to introduce a single law to reform all the texts at once, or to approach them one by one.

Germany has already reformed several Nazi-era laws over the years, including the infamous Paragraph 175 that criminalised sex between men and was repealed in 1994.

More recently, a 1933 ban on medical practitioners “advertising” that they carry out pregnancy terminations was partially scrapped in 2019.

READ ALSO: German court fines two doctors for advertising abortion

But some pertinent examples remain, including a law on altering names introduced by Nazi interior minister Wilhelm Frick in 1938.

From January 1939, a change to the law forced Jewish people to add the names “Sara” or “Israel” to their first names if they did not have a name that was considered typically Jewish.

The law “played a huge role in the exclusion and disenfranchisement of Jews”, said Thorsten Frei, deputy leader of the conservative CDU party's parliamentary group.

The section on Jewish names was scrapped by the Allies immediately after World War II, but the remaining text from 1938 was incorporated into federal law in 1954.

'German Reich'

The remaining parts of the law, which deal with issues such as the right to change one's name, are still “written as though the Third Reich still existed”, Klein points out.

Terms such as “German Reich”, “Reich government” and “Reich interior minister” are used, he said.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that Nazi language should continue to shape our federal law in 2021,” Social Democratic Party politician Helge Lindh told AFP.

“It is high time to send a clear signal with this long overdue form of denazification.”

Felix Klein speaking at a press conference in November. Photo: DPA

The law should also be cleaned up so it applies to all foreign nationals living in Germany, not just Germans, Lindh urged.

The law on names may be the most prominent, but there are at least 28 other German legal texts dating from the Nazi era — and possibly as many as 40, he added.

“Other laws and regulations deal with very technical issues, such as the upkeep of the river Elbe in the Hamburg region,” explains Frei.

Further texts include regulations on alternative medical practitioners, casinos and mutual legal assistance between Germany and Greece.

'Race' debate

Although it was adopted four years after World War II ended on May 8th, 1945, aspects of Germany's Basic Law, which charted a clear course away from Nazi ideology, have also come under fire — particularly from the political left.

Critics are calling for a revision of Article 3 of the constitution, which contains the term “race”. In June 2020, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared herself open to the idea.

But any changes to the Basic Law require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Germany is also planning to scrap alphabet tables — phonetic aids with phrases like “F for Friedrich” — that have remained largely unchanged since the Nazis removed all names with Jewish associations in 1934.

READ ALSO: Why Germany plans to return to pre-Nazi alphabet tables

Although the tables were revised in 1950, most of the old names were not reinstated.

A temporary return to pre-Nazi era tables is planned from autumn 2021, with a new version using mainly city names to be rolled out from autumn 2022.

The tables are not laid down in law, but overseen by the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN).

By Mathieu Foulkes