It is generally accepted that the First World War which at the time was seen as a clash of civilizations and a contest of rival national values still reverberates today. With some important centennials coming up like (already in the course of 2019 used in the rhetoric by Prime Minister Viktor Orban) the Treaty of Trianon on 4 June 2020 and (which among others provided for an autonomous Kurdistan) the Treaty of Sèvres on10 August 2020 new complex patterns and alliances were formed many of them who found themselves at each other’s throats as they struggled with competing claims and expectations. With some important centennials coming up like (already in the course of 2019 used in the rhetoric by Prime Minister Viktor Orban) the Treaty of Trianon on 4 June 2020 and (which among others provided for an autonomous Kurdistan*) the Treaty of Sèvres on 10 August 2020 new complex patterns and alliances were formed many of them who found themselves at each other’s throats as they struggled with competing claims and expectations including the fact that a number of centennials will add more to the discussion as to how the war ended.
We know that the First World War was begun with high expectations of rapid victory. And although many military thinkers feared that a major war between the Great Powers might prove to be a drawn-out affair, they were outnumbered by those who believed that offensive tactics would allow for a swift victory. Instead, the continent was condemned to a drawn-out war of attrition that ended with the three great empires that dominated Central and Eastern Europe – Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia – all being destroyed and replaced by republics. From their peripheral fragments were born the states that formed complex new patterns and alliances. As has been described, many of these found themselves at each other’s throats as they struggled with competing claims and expectations.
The exhausted Western Powers were in no mood to allow the disputes between the new states of Europe to erupt into wars that might plunge the continent back into a global conflict. Although France, Britain, and the United States continued to maintain powerful navies and the capacity to field large armies, there was no appetite whatsoever for war, not least because there remained fears that Bolshevism might spread beyond Russia. The remaining Great Powers were acutely aware that the Russian Revolution had grown out of Russia’s disastrous performance in the war, and no nation wished to risk finding itself drawn into a conflict that might end in the same manner. Instead, the countries of Western Europe all hoped that fear of future world conflict and the intervention of the new League of Nations would be sufficient to ensure at least a generation of peace.
Ethnicities and nationalities had played a large part in the conflict between the three empires. The spark that ignited Europe – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie – was the result of tensions in the Balkans, where the Serbs aspired to create a South Slav state under their control. The entire
Austro-Hungarian Empire struggled in vain to keep its multitudinous nationalities under control, and the lack of any collective sense of identity or loyalty ensured that it was the first empire where centrifugal forces combined with war-weariness to create widespread unrest. Nevertheless, despite these internal pressures and the general expectations that the Dual Monarchy was an institution with no future, Habsburg rule outlasted that of the Romanovs in Russia and the Hohenzollerns in Germany.
As Europe settled down to its new national structures, it was inevitable that many people would find themselves on the wrong side of the new borders that were often created in haste, or with no regard for the realities on the ground. Whatever high-minded principles might have led to Wilson’s insistence on the rights of the peoples of Europe to self-determination, the fact was far untidier than he might have expected. The decades of imperial rule had not required different nationalities within any individual empire to live apart, and while there had been friction between the different groups, their new status within the modern nations of Europe raised this to new levels.
The greatest territorial loser in the rearrangement of Europe was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ceased to exist altogether. The Italians were awarded territories along their border, completing their long-held dreams of uniting all the lands that they regarded as Italian; the Balkan parts of the empire were largely incorporated into the new Yugoslavia; Hungary was forced to concede Transylvania to Romania; Bohemia and the Carpathian region broke away as the new state of Czechoslovakia; and much of Galicia was absorbed by Poland. Hungary and Austria became separate states, and in a remarkably short period, Vienna was changed from the center of a sprawling empire that stretched from the Swiss border as far as the Ukrainian steppes into the capital of a relatively small nation in Central Europe. It is a measure of how inevitable the end of Habsburg rule had seemed for many years that few Austrians showed any sense of hankering after past glories.
Russia entered the war under the control of the tsars and ended it under Bolshevik rule. In absolute terms, its loss of territory – Finland, the Baltic States, and Poland – was modest, but these regions included some of its most important economic and industrial centers, particularly Riga. Although exhaustion brought the series of wars that followed the withdrawal of German forces to an end, few in the region believed that the Russians had genuinely accepted the loss of these territories. The Baltic States, in particular, were fearful that small nations would prove no match for their larger neighbors. Still, it proved impossible for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to agree to cooperate militarily in any meaningful manner. Their vulnerability would be exposed fully in a future conflict. In the aftermath of the Battle of Warsaw, the Polish Army managed to seize substantial territory to the east, but this created its difficulties. Much of the land that now formed eastern Poland had a large non-Polish population, and just as it was clear that Russia retained ambitions about recovering its Baltic provinces, there could be no question that, if the opportunity were to arise, the Russian population of eastern Poland might provide a pretext for the Russians to attempt to re-enter this region. Piłsudski had hoped that he might be able to create a Polish-led alliance that would be strong enough to prevail against both Russia and any future resurgent Germany. Still, the continuing enmity of the Lithuanians over the status of Vilnius effectively prevented this from becoming a reality. For the moment, the military and economic weakness of Germany and the Soviet Union allowed the new states to develop unhindered, but this was no guarantee of long-term survival. Indeed, the status of the Vilnius region would be used expertly by the Soviet Union in the manner in which it absorbed Lithuania.
The former empire that harbored the highest sense of grievance about the peace that was imposed upon Europe was Germany. Many Germans felt that their nation had been unfairly treated in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles; they did not accept that Germany was primarily to blame for the war, and resented the territorial losses that were imposed by the victorious Western Powers.
There was an arguable case for Alsace and Lorraine were returned to French control, but it should be pointed out that this region was not as unequivocally French as has generally been stated – by the beginning of the 20th century, less than 12 percent of the population spoke French as their first language.1 Even at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Francophones made up less than half of the overall population. However, the anger in Germany at the loss of these territories was far less than the resentment at the French occupation of the Saar region of Germany. The French had demanded this area as a territorial acquisition during the abortive peace talks between Vienna and Paris, and there was a considerable concern in Germany that the French occupation of the Saar might become permanent.
The loss of territory in the east was also the source of great resentment. Two Baltic cities – Memel, to the north of East Prussia, and Danzig, to its west – were removed from German control, even though the majority of their population was unequivocally German. In both cases, the surrounding countryside was predominantly non-German, and as has already been described, the Lithuanians took advantage of this to seize the entire Memelland region and gain access to the Baltic. The Poles were keen to secure control of Danzig, but although Woodrow Wilson had assured the Poles that he supported the right of the new Poland to have a Baltic port, he had likely intended this to be by union with Lithuania. Instead, Danzig was declared a free city, and the Poles were given control of a corridor of land running past Danzig to the coast immediately to the north.
Here, they rapidly developed the minor port of Gdynia into a new maritime center. The existence of this corridor resulted in East Prussia is left isolated from the rest of Germany. This region, undeniably German in its history, culture, and population, had always been a predominantly agricultural area, and there were constant doubts that it would be able to survive in its new isolated state without one-day becoming prey for an expansionist Poland. However, when the southern part of East Prussia – the Masurian region, where there was heavy fighting in 1914 and 1915 – was offered a plebiscite in 1920 to decide whether it would be part of Poland or Germany, the result was overwhelmingly in favor of the latter. The Poles protested that there had been widespread intimidation by German police and paramilitary groups, and that results had been falsified, but it seems that many Poles genuinely preferred to be part of Germany rather than Poland; the vote took place in July when there was a genuine threat of Tukhachevsky’s armies reaching Warsaw, and many may have felt that they would be safer under German control rather than potentially once more being under the Russian yoke.
All along the eastern fringes of the new Germany, there were substantial German-speaking communities in the modern nations of Europe – in Poland, the Baltic States, the Sudetenland, and Bohemia. Even in Transylvania, there were tens of thousands of descendants of Saxon settlers who had lived in the region for hundreds of years. The status of Danzig was unsatisfactory to its citizens, to Poland, and Germany. Once memories of the terrible cost of the war began to fade and were no longer strong enough to be offset against the continued perceived grievances of the Treaty of Versailles, it was almost inevitable that many in Germany would seek opportunities to put right what they regarded as abiding injustices. The willingness of a future generation to exploit grievances both real and imagined made a second all-engulfing war inevitable. The Austro-Hungarian diplomat Czernin summed up events with considerable prescience in 1919:
The Council of Four at Versailles [France, Britain, Italy and the United States] tried for some time to make the world believe that they possessed the power to rebuild Europe according to their ideas… That signified, to begin with, four utterly different purposes, for four different worlds were comprised in Rome, Paris, London and Washington… Wilson has been scoffed at and cursed because he deserted his program; indeed, there is not the slightest similarity between the Fourteen Points and the Peace of Versailles… Clemenceau, too, the direct opposite of Wilson, was not quite open in his dealings. Undoubtedly this older man, who now at the close of his life was able to satisfy his hatred of the Germans of 1870, gloried in the triumph; but, apart from that, if he had tried to conclude a ‘Wilson peace,’ all the private citizens of France, great and small, would have risen against him, for they had been told for the past five years, queues boches payment tout [‘that the Germans will pay for everything’]. What he did, he enjoyed doing; but he was forced to do it, or France would have dismissed him. … And thus there came about what is now a fact. A dictated peace of the most terrible nature was concluded and a foundation laid for a continuance of unimaginable disturbances, complications, and wars… The Entente, who kept up the blockade for months after the cessation of hostilities, has made Bolshevism a danger to the world. War is its father, famine its mother, despair its godfather. The poison of Bolshevism will course in the veins of Europe for many a long year.
Versailles is not the end of the war; it is only a phase of it. The fight goes on, though, in another form. I think that the coming generation will not call the high drama of the last five years the World War, but the World Revolution, which it will realize began with the World War.2
The closing comments highlight the widespread preoccupation in Europe with the threat of Bolshevism. Lenin, Trotsky, and others had always made clear their intent to export their revolution to the rest of the world, and while the war between Russia and Poland brought the first, forcible attempt to do this to an abrupt halt, Soviet doctrine remained unchanged. Even if the threat gradually became more ideological than the military, the fear of Bolshevism was exploited by those who wished to play upon the concerns of the ‘bourgeoisie’ who had the most to lose from the communist government. While the National Socialists in Germany were amongst the leading exponents of exploiting such fears; they were by no means alone. Both the Nazis and the Italian fascists demanded antidemocratic powers as a necessary means of holding back socialism, and such sentiment spread to non-fascist countries such as the Baltic States and Poland. The post-war legacy of ethnic minorities on the wrong sides of Europe’s new borders became intermingled with pre-war thinking about social Darwinism and racial superiority; not only was it essential to reunite the lost populations with their homelands, but it was also vital to save them from oppression by races that were seen as inferior. Even within Bolshevik Russia, there was widespread prejudice against certain nationalities. After coming to power, Stalin – who was a Georgian – rapidly implemented a policy of enforcing Russification, classifying some communities within Russia as ‘enemy nations’. Once assigned this title, members of these communities – Poles, Germans, Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, Iranians, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians by ethnicity – were subject to forcible relocation, arbitrary arrest, and even summary execution.3
For many in Germany, there was an additional factor: the tantalizing sense that German domination of Eastern Europe almost became a reality after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. While there was a case for saying that the German Army had been defeated in the west, it was unarguable that it had prevailed in the east. Also, the soldiers who served with Goltz in Latvia returned home feeling that they had been promised land in return for their service; there was a widespread sense of entitlement, which combined with the notion of German superiority to the Slav people of the region to make many believe that the Western Powers had cheated Germany of its rightful gains in the east. If the opportunity arose, Germany would attempt to make the territorial gains that were snatched away at the end of the war, not least because the specter of blockade and starvation had to be avoided in a future conflict; given British control of the seas, this was possible only if Germany controlled a vast land-based empire in the east.
Inevitably, many in Germany attempted to analyze why their mighty army had failed to win the war. The legend of the invincible army, stabbed in the back by treacherous politicians and left-wing agitators, was popular with the officer corps in particular, not least because it absolved them of all blame. Writing many years later, Hermann Balck gave a somewhat more sophisticated analysis. There was no question of Germany continuing the war in the context of the loss of the Romanian oilfields and the collapse of the k.u.k. Army; even if Austria-Hungary had been propped up, the vast resources of the United States would have brought defeat.
Like all the Great Powers, Germany entered the war with considerable unity and enthusiasm. Still, as Balck pointed out, this was unlikely to last, and the political leadership of Germany – the civilian politicians and the kaiser – did not do enough to ensure that the nation remained united in its pursuit of victory. Decisions about democratic reforms were postponed until after the successful conclusion of the war, an error that merely led to disaffection and growing demands for immediate change. Nevertheless, Balck also concluded that the German Army was not blameless. The extravagance and glitter of the early years of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reign alienated many of the Prussian officer corps, who increasingly turned their backs on politics and concentrated on purely military matters, a tendency that would cost them dearly in the Second World War. Balck felt that if Germany were to win the war, victory had to be achieved in the first years of the war. Still, despite the constant talk of conflict in the early years of the 20th century, Germany was ill-prepared for a war that would find it pitched against multiple opponents. The massive expenditure on the German Navy achieved nothing other than alienating Britain and diverted precious resources and workforce from the German Army. Once the war began, there were repeated errors: Balck was particularly critical of Falkenhayn’s strategy, and felt that Hindenburg and Ludendorff were sidelined for too long.4
Like many reviews written in the decades that followed, Balck’s opinions are not without merit but are also selective. There can be no question that the war was lost by early 1918, and there was almost no possibility of the great offensive launched in the west, bringing about a decisive victory before the immense power of the United States intervened. But to point out the mistakes that Germany made in the years before the war and once the conflict began is to ignore similar mistakes made by Germany’s opponents. While Falkenhayn might have made errors, the commanders of other armies also miscalculated repeatedly. Ultimately, the war was lost because Germany and its allies did not have the resources of their enemies.
The disintegration of the national sense of unity that took Germany to war was more due to the enormous pressures placed upon Germany by its enemies than due to negligence by domestic politicians.
Even in the first months after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, there were apparent differences of opinion about whether it had achieved its aims. The British view was that the destruction of Germany’s fleet had primarily achieved its war aims. Still, despite Czernin’s condemnation of Clemenceau, there was considerable dismay in France that the terms were not harsh enough. The Italians had explicitly entered the war with significant territorial gains as the price. Although they achieved some of these, others – particularly the Dalmatian coast – were not granted to them. In the years that followed, Germany proved incapable of paying reparations on the scale demanded, leading first to the military occupation of the Ruhr and then to the cancellation of payments entirely. David Lloyd George, who played a significant part in the negotiations on behalf of Britain, later wrote an evaluation of the treaty in which he concluded that it had not removed the military threat permanently from Germany, and was critical of the manner in which Germany was treated.5
The issue of reparations had dominated thinking about the shape of a peace treaty during the war, not least because of how Germany had imposed reparations on France in 1871. The Germans blamed the collapse of their economy on the punishing payments that were demanded by the French and Belgians, and whilst it would be wrong to blame the period of hyper-inflation entirely on reparations, they certainly contributed to the problems of Germany as it attempted to recover from the war. John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, criticized the treaty as being fundamentally unfair.
Europe, if she is to survive her troubles, will need so much magnanimity from America, that she must herself practice it. It is useless for the Allies, hot from stripping Germany and one another, to turn for help to the United States to put the states of Europe, including Germany, on their feet again. If the general election of December 1918 [in Britain] had been fought on lines of prudent generosity instead of imbecile greed, how much better the financial prospect for Europe might be.6
Others took a different view. A leading French economist suggested that by restricting Germany to a small army, the treaty allowed Germany to divert funding towards reparations in an affordable manner; others pointed out that the terms were far more lenient than those that Germany had intended to impose upon its enemies in the event of a German victory.7 Regardless of whether the financial terms were too severe, it is difficult to imagine a peace settlement that would have satisfied French and Belgian demands for reparations and the general desire to weaken Germany militarily, and at the same time would not have left Germany with a great sense of grievance that could then be exploited by German politicians for their own ends. In a letter to a friend written in 1920, Balck mused on the failings of different parts of German society and made a prophetic statement:
Just like the German Bürgertum [the bourgeoisie], we too, unfortunately, must strike our Christian religion, at least in its current state, from the list of factors that can rebuild Germany. The church also has failed. The powerful force of Christian teachings has been watered down and is heading in the wrong direction. Our times are screaming for a reformer or a new religion. Socialism is nothing but the dissatisfaction of the masses on a religious level. 8
For a nation with little experience of democratic government, it was almost inevitable that enthusiasm for such new concepts would soon be replaced by disillusionment, especially in the context of a nation humiliated by defeat and struggling with worsening financial circumstances. The lure of a strong man with dreams of reborn nationalism was almost irresistible, and, for a generation brutalized both at home and in the front line by a terrible conflict, the associated violence and racism did not raise the concerns and outrage that might otherwise have prevailed.
It is unarguable that the roots of the Second World War lay in the imperfect peace that was established in Europe after the First World War. But such a simple statement ignores many other factors. Many nationalities were allowed to develop their states, and Europe was too exhausted to continue fighting until German military power was unequivocally destroyed – in the absence of such a conclusive defeat, the terms imposed resulted in perhaps the ‘least worst’ outcome. The world would have to wait for another war with all its attendant horrors before the imbalances created in the wake of the First World War were resolved. Still, while the Second World War settled some issues, it created many more, leaving Europe divided into two armed camps in a stand-off that would last for over 40 years. While some nations are dragged unwillingly into conflict, those that enter it in the hope of resolving their problems find that they have merely exchanged one set of issues for another – and at enormous cost.
In some respects, the First World War belongs more to the 19th century than the 20th century. It was a conflict with imperial monarchs, the widespread use of cavalry, and statesmen who believed that they could arbitrarily redraw the maps of the world. The events that triggered the outbreak of war show a disastrous failure of deterrence. Yet, decades later, when Europe was once more armed to the teeth and divided into two hostile, mutually suspicious camps, deterrence proved to be effective at preventing war.
Although it was never as isolationist as some have claimed, the United States turned inward soon after the Paris Peace Conference. Congress rejected the Treaty of Versailles and, by extension, the League of Nations. It also failed to ratify the guarantee given to France that the United Kingdom and the United States would come to its defense if Germany attacked. Americans became all the more insular as the calamitous Great Depression hit and their attention focused on their domestic troubles.
The United States' withdrawal encouraged the British-already distracted by troubles brewing in the empire-to renege on their commitment to the guarantee. France left to itself, attempted to form the new and quarreling states in Central Europe into an anti-German alliance, but its attempts turned out to be as ill-fated as the Maginot Line in the west. One wonders how history might have unfolded if London and Washington, instead of turning away, had built a transatlantic alliance with a strong security commitment to France and pushed back against Adolf Hitler's first aggressive moves while there was still time to stop him.
Perhaps the cultural memory of the vast waste of the First World War helped the nations of the world, even if only to a limited extent, from making similar miscalculations during the nuclear age.
*The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, carved the carcass of the Ottoman Empire into a number of nation-states, including a “Kurdish State of the Kurds…east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia.” It would, said Winston Churchill, Britain’s minister of colonies, be “a friendly buffer state” between Turks and Arabs. But the Turks fought back, making enough trouble that the U.S. supported a new treaty in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne. The Treaty of Lausanne allowed the British and French to carve off present-day Iraq and Syria, respectively, for themselves. But it made no provision for the Kurds.
1. Rademacher, M., Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen 1871–1919 (Osnabrück University, 2006) University thesis available online
2. Count Ottokar Czernin (Austrian serving as Foreign Minister from1916 to 1918), In the world war 1920, 2015, pp. 302–305
3. Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923–1939 (Cornell University Press, Ithaca 2001), p. 311
4. Hermann Balck (Author), David T. Zabecki (Editor, Translator), Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops (2015), pp. 128–133
5. David Lloyd George, The Truth about the Peace Treaties (Gollancz, London 1938)
6. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Harcourt, Brace & Howe,
New York 1920), pp. 90–91
7. Etienne Mantoux, Carthaginian Peace, or The Economic Consequences of Mr Keynes
(Scribner, New York 1952)
8. Balck (2015), p. 137