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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Armistice–100 Years Ago

Nov 12, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, as we approach November 12, Veterans Day, wehonor all those who have fallen in World War I and all of the other events in our nation’s history.  Why is this Monday so special and singular?

While every Veterans Day has significance for our nation, this Veterans Day should hold an even greater importance for us, as it marks the 100thanniversary of the occurrence that eventually led to us recognizing November 11thas a national holiday. On that date in 1918, the combatant nations during the First World War agreed to a cease fire that would lead to a peace treaty ending that conflict. 100 years later, we should pay especial homage to that event.

2. 100 years is obviously a century. Take us back to the signing of the Armistice. How did it come about?

As the First World War entered its fourth year in 1918, the conflict had become a stalemate. Indeed, the warring sides had dug a series of trenches that stretched from the English Channel down to neutral Switzerland in1914, and the lines had scarcely moved a mile in the three years that followed.In 1918, however, Germany had launched a massive offensive that had shattered the status quo.

Within two months, the Germans had advanced to the Meuse River,threatening the French capital of Paris. At that point, the Allies managed to halt the Germans, and with an influx of American soldiers they turned the tables and started their own offensive. By October of 1918, they had broken through the German line at a number of points, forcing the Germans to begin a precipitous retreat.

3. Reasoning that they would have more leverage in a peace negotiation if they had troops on French soil, the Germans decided to ask for a cease fire before the Allies invaded their country. The two sides agreed to this cessation of hostilities (known as an armistice) on November 11, 1918.Historically, we study the endings of wars. Was there anything special about this armistice?  Who was involved?

Usually in a war, one side feels compelled to admit defeat, and then the victorious nation dictates the terms of peace. As we have seen, Germany recognized in the fall of 1918 that it had no chance of winning the war, but it felt that because it still had a large army in France it could claim the status of a military equal if it asked for a cease fire. Adding to its decision to seek a negotiated peace was the fact that by that time Germany had lost its wartime allies.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire had already capitulated, and the Ottoman Empire had lost the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia. Russia had ceased fighting against the Germans by the fall of 1918, but the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 had more than offset that loss. Clearly, the Germans faced overwhelming odds when the asked for an armistice.

4. Often people, historians and others, indicate that the seeds of World War II were sewn in the punitive ending of World War I. Am I off on this?Or how do historians see this?

Historians do indeed draw a direct connection between the two world wars, because Adolf Hitler used the fact that World War I ended with German forces still in France as evidence that disloyal elements in Germany had pulled the nation out of the war unnecessarily. For that very reason, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in World War II that the Allies would seek an unconditional surrender from the Germans. I understand you are about to deliver a stunning speech next week.What is the title and what are you trying to communicate?

Historians do indeed draw a direct connection between the two world wars, because Adolf Hitler used the fact that World War I ended with German forces still in France as evidence that disloyal elements in Germany had pulled the nation out of the war unnecessarily. For that very reason, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in World War II that the Allies would seek an unconditional surrender from the Germans.I understand you are about to deliver a stunning speech next week.What is the title and what are you trying to communicate?

Eastern New Mexico University is hoping to provide a fitting commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the armistice by having a number of individuals speak about the American military experience over the past 100 years. My colleague Kris Kuhlman, for example, is going to talk about military nurses during that time period. I am going to try to do justice to the combat soldiers who have served our nation in a speech that I am calling“Making the world safe for democracy.” As a life-long civilian, I only hope that I can do those brave men and women justice.

5. Hopefully, by next Tuesday our elections will be over and hopefully we can proceed forward “with malice toward none” as Lincoln would say. What would you like to add? 

Many of us grew up during the Vietnam era, when America’s involvement in a conflict divided the nation. While exceptional in many respects, the Vietnam experience does illustrate an important point: very few wars have had anything close to overwhelming popular support. Even the Civil War saw a domestic split, with many Northern Democrats refusing to support Lincoln’s efforts to suppress the rebellion. But hopefully, Vietnam taught us that while we as Americans have the right to feel about a war as they choose, we should all recognize that the soldiers who fight the conflicts deserve our support and respect. If my audience takes away only one point from my presentation, I hope that is it.

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