Gossip from the Forest

by Thomas Keneally

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728

In the autumn of 1918, the war started to go very badly for Germany and her allies. Not only were they beginning to be defeated in the field, but also the armed forces were refusing to obey orders and alarming acts of rebellion with Socialist and Communist overtones were erupting throughout the country. The end was drawing near, and steps were being taken to provide for the belated abdication of the Kaiser and the peaceful transition of power to a republican government. A cease-fire had to be arranged quickly, not only to save lives on both sides but also to halt the complete disintegration of the German state.

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This novel, based loosely on the historical record, traces the Germans’ journey through the lines of battle to the conference the preparation of the two delegations, and their meetings in a railway carriage in a forest clearing near the town of Compiegne, a few miles north of Paris.

The delegations, surprisingly small, and narrow in their representative range, are what interest Thomas Keneally most. The Allied group is thoroughly dominated by its chairman, the French Marshall Foch, who is confident that he can “will” the Germans to accept severe terms. He is accompanied by Maxime Weygand, who is hardly more than a messenger boy for Foch, and by two English naval officers, Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss and Hope, who are intent on one thing: destroying the German army.

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The German quartet is somewhat more colorful. Matthias Erzberger, their leader, is not a military man but a politician who has been trying to get Germany out of the war for some time, and he sees his appointment as a punishment for his failure to support the war effort. He will bear the stigma of having signed away Germany’s freedom. His delegation is not much help. Count Alfred Maiberling, a last-minute substitute, is a self-pitying drunk and looks as if he is having a breakdown. General Detlev von Winterfeldt, who is suspect in his own profession because of his marriage to a Frenchwoman and his affection for France, thinks that he can, with his intimate knowledge of the French sensibility and his skill in the French language, win concessions from the Allies, and he is determined to play a central part in the negotiations. The naval representative, Vaneslow, is deeply distressed, knowing instinctively that the German military and merchant fleet will be a prime target of the Allies in settling terms for the treaty.

The chaos of their nation, reeling on the edge of political and social anarchy, makes everything difficult for the German group, and its leader, Erzberger, is in constant fear that if their mission is known, they may be assassinated before they reach France. His recurring dream of defending himself from gunmen with an umbrella does not make things easier for him; moreover, the fractious nature of his committee, their difficulties in simply getting through the lines, and the cool reception they meet suggest that things will go badly. In the minds and dreams of all the German participants, they are on a mission which is likely to prove disastrous.

The Allies have similar doubts and suspicions, but they, at least, are in the position of power, and their struggle lies in their variant ideas on how much pain and unmitigated punishment can be imposed on the Germans as well as on the question of who is to rule at the conference table. The British pair, Wemyss and Hope, do not entirely trust Foch, and the French, in turn, make it clear that they consider the British presence to be superfluous. Foch intends to force formidable terms down the Germans’ throats, and he does, satisfying the British demands at the same time.

Some minor adjustments are made to the swinging demands for reparations, but they are hardly sufficient to meet the German plea (and warning) that the obligations forced upon them will destroy any chance of Germany’s recovery from the ravages of war. The Allies, shortsightedly, reject any consideration of the long view; the treaty makers, who will formalize the terms later (at Versailles), can worry about that problem. The Germans sign, aware of the fact that they have no choice and also that they will hardly be received at home with much honor.

Erzberger resumes his political career, but his nightmare with the umbrella will eventually come true.

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