The situation in Germany in early 1916

German attack in Verdun. Source: Bundesarchiv. Public domain.
German attack in Verdun. Source: Bundesarchiv. Public domain.

At the start of 1916, the war map was very much in Germany's favour, but the leaders of the Reich were obliged to consider the difficulties within the Dual Alliance (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and above all the threat of economic asphyxia.

Corps 1

Conflicting opinions between Berlin and Vienna emerged primarily in relation to how to settle the Polish question. Berlin was all for reinforcing Germany's influence in the Dual Monarchy and keeping an important place in an 'Austrian' Poland. As Austria-Hungary refused to play the role of ”Germanic march to the East”, the Reich leaders planned a solution to foster the creation of a Polish state with close links with Germany. The threat of economic asphyxia became a real prospect in spring 1915.

The Allies were attempting to impose a real blockade on Germany which could scarcely rely on its war economy and the resources taken from occupied territories. The application of raw materials played a decisive role in industry; the ingenuity of chemists was harnessed for the development of synthetic products. In the food industry, the poor harvests in 1915 worsened the situation, rationing and queuing becoming commonplace towards the end of the year.

Corps 2

All these problems left the German leaders with only two possibilities: quickly strike a peace deal or urgently secure a decisive military win. But the German government had set out, in September 1914, an ambitious programme of war aims. A programme largely supported by the parties, business leaders and intellectuals. In this context, how could peace negotiations be engaged? German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg made several attempts during the course of 1915 to strike a separate peace deal with Russia, which ended in failure. Just the mention of these dealings incited strong reactions from annexionists and the chancellor had to promise that the planned war aims would be pursued. He also made an effort to resolve the Belgian question through a separate peace deal, but Germany's conditions were such that King Albert I was obliged to refuse. There was no choice therefore but for the war to go on. Which war? Force France into a war of attrition? So Falkenhayn planned the Battle of Verdun which in many ways seemed Germany's last chance.