Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917

By Philip Zelikow
Public Affairs, 2021
Review and Excerpt from PBC Guru and Public Affiars

Royal Engineers on the Western Front

A revelatory new history that explores the tantalizing and almost-realized possibility that the First World War could have ended in 1916, saving millions of lives and utterly changing the course of history. In August 1916, two years into World War I, leaders in all the warring powers faced a crisis. There were no good military options. Money, people, and food were running short. 

Yet roads to peace seemed daunting too, as exhausted nations, drummed forward by patriotic duty and war passion, sought meaning from their appalling sacrifices. Germany made the first move. Its government secretly asked Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States and leader of the only great power still neutral, to mediate an end to the Great War. As a token of good faith, Germany promised to withdraw from occupied Belgium. Wilson was too anxious to make peace. If he failed, he felt sure America would drift into a dreadful, wider war.

Meanwhile, the French president confided to Britain's king that the Allies should accept Wilson's expected peace move and end the war. In The Road Less Traveled, Philip Zelikow recounts the five months when, behind closed doors, the future of the war, and the world, hung in the balance. It is a story of civic courage, of awful responsibility, and of how some rose to the occasion or shrank from it. "Peace is on the floor waiting to be picked up!" pleaded the German ambassador to the United States. This book shows how right he was, and how close leaders came to doing so. . . 

The publisher provides this revealing excerpt from The Road Less Traveled:

On August 18, 1916, the chancellor of Imperial Germany made the first big move. He sent a momentous and secret cable to his able ambassador in Washington. Britain had cut direct telegraph connections from Germany to America. So the chancellor’s message had flashed over the wires first to neutral Stockholm. From there it was relayed to neutral Buenos Aires. From there his coded message was dispatched again, on to the German embassy in Washington. There the chancellor’s words were laboriously decoded.

“We are happy to accept a mediation by the President to start peace negotiations among the belligerents who want to bring this about,” the German chancellor instructed. “Please strongly encourage the President’s activities in this regard.”

To avoid giving any impression that his country was weak or desperate, the chancellor’s plea was utterly secret. The German mediation request was unconditional. The chancellor sought President Woodrow Wilson’s help to arrange both a peace conference among the belligerents to end the war and another, more general peace conference, with participation by the United States and other neutrals, to set postwar plans to secure the peace. The other path now beckoned.

THE IMPERIAL CHANCELLOR who made that plea, the sixty-one-year-old Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, had been in his job for seven years. He was a tall, firmly built, angular man, graying with a short mustache and beard.

He was not an elected politician. He was an imperial official, appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the kaiser. Bethmann was the supreme civilian leader and foreign minister both for the German Empire as a whole and for its largest member state, Prussia.

He had never attempted to become the kaiser’s friend. His style was to be the quintessential dispassionate public servant. Deliberate, plain-spoken, and truthful, he offered appraisals and advice in a professional, careful, didactic style. Others in the court occasionally resented and mocked him; yet they respected him.

Before the war started, Bethmann had been melancholy, his mood darkened by his wife’s death in May 1914. As the conflict wore on and his son died at the front later in 1914, he became still more somber. By early 1915, Bethmann wondered aloud, to friends, about what share of the blame he should carry for the hurried and negligent diplomacy that had led to war in July 1914. “If one talks about guilt for this war—we also have our share of the responsibility, that we have to confess honestly,” he confided. “And if I say this thought depresses me that would be too little—the thought does not leave me. I live in it.”

Bethmann put some of the blame on xenophobic popular movements, including in his own country. “There we have our part of the guilt, the pan-Germans (Alldeutsche) have their guilt. In our domestic and foreign policy, we have lived in lies.”

By 1916, Bethmann was in plain opposition to the right-wing factions. They were doing all they could to bring him down. To some he seemed worn down, “tense, tired, and nervous,” a colleague observed in the spring of 1916. “His hair has become white; his face is lined with deep furrows.”

But in August 1916 Bethmann had won the kaiser’s approval to step out, for the first time, on the road to a general peace. The path, the German peace strategy, looked to Woodrow Wilson, the only leader of a great power not yet embroiled in the war, to bring the warring sides to the table.

And Wilson was eager to do it. And in Paris, and in London, other leaders too were eyeing the peace road. Bethmann’s timing was better than he knew.


  1. Maybe there was something to Wilson's plan to maintain neutrality to position himself to mediate a peace.