By Eric Vandenbroeck

The tribulations and consequences of the Treaty of Versailles

Opened on 28 June 2019 the exhibition in Arras organized by the Palace of Versailles starts with the proclamation of the German Empire in the same Hall of Mirrors that witnessed the signing of Peace of Versailles on 28 June.

The year 1919 was, in fact, a catalytic moment not only did it see already earlier the rise of Mussolini, in March 1919, but 51 representatives from two dozen countries also met in Moscow at the Founding Congress of the Communist International. Long before Versailles, the other great totalitarian ideology of the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism, was also on the march.

When Germany signed the armistice ending hostilities in the First World War on November 11, 1918, its leaders believed they were accepting a "peace without victory," as outlined by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points.

Thus during the first six months of 1919, after more than four years of an unprecedentedly miserable and destructive war, global statesmen traveled to Paris in the hope of creating a permanent peace. The leaders of the victorious Allies, including US president Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David I Loyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau, lived in the same city for nearly six months along with the representatives of many other allied and neutral nations. They met in various forums both official and informal on a nearly daily basis.

But the world was to discover that making peace endure was a matter not just of hopes and ideas but of will, determination, and persistence. Leaders need to negotiate as well as to inspire; to be capable of seeing past short-term political gains, and to balance the interests of their nations against those of the international community. For want of such leadership, among other things, the promise of 1918 soon turned into the disillusionment, division, and aggression of the 1930s.

This outcome was not foreordained at Versailles. Although some of the decisions made upon ending the war in 1919 certainly fueled populist demagoguery and inspired dreams of revenge, the calamity of World War II owed as much to the failure of the democracies’ leaders in the interwar decades to deal with rule-breaking dictators such as Mussolini, Hitler, and the Japanese militarists. A century later, similar forces - ethnic nationalism, eroding international norms and cooperation, and vindictive chauvinism - and authoritarian leaders willing to use them are again appearing. The past is an imperfect teacher, its messages often obscure or ambiguous, but it offers both guidance and warning.


The price of peace

"Making peace is harder than waging war," French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau reflected in 1919 as the victorious powers drew up peace terms, finalized the shape of the new League of Nations, and tried to rebuild Europe and the global order.

For Clemenceau and his colleagues, among them Wilson and David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, the prospect was particularly daunting. Unlike in 1815, when negotiators met in Vienna to wind up the Napoleonic Wars, in 1919 Europe was not tired of war and revolution. Nor had aggressor nations been utterly defeated and occupied, as they would be in 1945. Rather, leaders in 1919 confronted a world in turmoil. Fighting continued throughout much of eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Russia's Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had apparently set off a series of unstoppable revolutionary waves that threatened to overwhelm even the victors' societies.

The war had damaged or destroyed old political and social structures, particularly in Central Europe, leaving formerly stable and prosperous peoples adrift, desperate for someone or something to restore their status and a form of order. Ethnic nationalists seized the opportunity to build new countries, but these states were often hostile to one another and oppressive to their own minorities. Inevitably, too, old and new rivalries came to the surface as leaders in Paris maneuvered to promote the interests of their nations.

Wilson and company also had to deal with a phenomenon that their forerunners at the Congress of Vienna had never had to consider: public opinion. The public in Allied countries took an intense interest in what was happening in Paris, but what they wanted was contradictory: a better world of the Wilsonian vision, on the one hand, and retribution on the other.

Many Europeans felt that someone must be made to pay for the war. In France and Belgium, which Germany had invaded on the flimsiest of pretexts, the countryside lay in ruins, with towns, mines, railways, and factories destroyed. Across the border, Germany was unscathed, because little of the war had been fought there. The British had lent vast sums to their allies (their Russian debts were beyond hope of recovery), had borrowed heavily from the Americans, and wanted recompense.

John Maynard Keynes, not yet the world-renowned economist he was to become, suggested that the Americans write off the money the British owed them so as to reduce the need to extract reparations from the defeated and then concentrate on getting Europe�s economy going again. The Americans, Wilson included, rejected the proposal with self-righteous horror. And so the Allied statesmen drew up a reparations bill that they knew was more than the defeated could ever pay. Austria and Hungary were impoverished remnants of a once vast Habsburg empire, Bulgaria was broke, and the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of disintegrating. That left only Germany capable of meeting the reparations bill.


A rude awakening

The circumstances of Germany's defeat had left its citizens in no mood to pay. That feeling would grow stronger over the decade to follow. And its outcome contains a warning for our era: the feelings and expectations of both the winners and the losers, however unrealistic, matter and require careful management.

Toward the end of the war, the German High Command under Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg had effectively established a military dictatorship that kept all news from the front under wraps. The civilian government in Berlin knew as little as the public about the string of defeats the country's military suffered in the late spring and summer of 1918. When the High Command suddenly demanded that the government immediately sue for an armistice, the announcement came like a thunderbolt.

The German chancellor appealed to Wilson in a series of open letters, and the U.S. president, somewhat to the annoyance of the European Allies, took on the role of arbiter between the warring sides. In doing so, Wilson made two mistakes. First, he negotiated with Germany's civilian government rather than the High Command, allowing the generals to avoid responsibility for the war and its outcome. As time went by, the High Command and its right-wing supporters put out the false story that Germany had never lost on the battlefield: the German military could have fought on, perhaps even to victory, if the cowardly civilians had not let it down. Out of this grew the poisonous myth that Germany had been stabbed in the back by an assortment of traitors, including liberals, socialists, and Jews.

Second, Wilson's public statements that he would not support punitive indemnities or peace of vengeance reinforced German hopes that the United States would ensure that Germany was treated lightly. The U.S. president's support for the revolution that overthrew Germany's old monarchy and paved the way for the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic compounded this misplaced optimism. Weimar, its supporters argued, represented a new and better Germany that should not pay for the sins of the old.

Many Europeans felt that someone must be made to pay for the war, but the circumstances of Germany's defeat had left its citizens in no mood to pay.

The French and other Allies, however, were less concerned with Germany's domestic politics than with its ability to resume fighting. The armistice signed in the famous railway carriage at Compiègne on November 11, 1918, reads like a surrender, not a cessation of hostilities. Germany would have to evacuate all occupied territory and hand over its heavy armaments, as well as the entirety of its navy.

Even so, the extent of the military defeat was not immediately clear to the German public. Troops returning from the front marched into Berlin in December 1918, and the new socialist chancellor hailed them with the words "No enemy has overcome you." Apart from those living in the Rhineland on the western edge of the country, Germans did not experience firsthand the shame of military occupation. As a result, many Germans, living in what Max Weber called the dreamland of the winter of 1918-19, expected the Allies' peace terms to be mild-milder, certainly, than those Germany had imposed on revolutionary Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The country might even expand if Austria, newly formed out of the German-speaking territories of the vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire, decided to join its fate to Germany's.


Asia and the dilemma over Shandong

The Paris Peace Conference had a significant impact on Asia. Prior to the war, the Western powers exercised imperialistic control over most of Asia. Britain controlled modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, along with Hong Kong and Singapore. France controlled modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Russia took territory in Northern China; the Netherlands had Indonesia; the United States controlled the Philippines.

China and Japan were the only real significant independent Asian countries before the war. But China was on the verge of losing its independence. The British, French, Germans, and Russians all exercised control of territory in China via concessions. But Japan was China's greatest threat. Before the war, Japan had already taken Taiwan and Korea from China, and they controlled Manchuria. The First World War halted European expansion in China, but this left Japan unchecked to wrest away more Chinese territory.

Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies. Before the war, Germany had control of islands in the Pacific, and Japan took these islands during the war. Germany had controlled a territory in China called Shandong, and Japan seized these German concessions. The Japanese made secret imperialistic agreements with Britain during the war that would allow them to keep the German Pacific islands and Shandong.

The Japanese had two demands at the Paris Peace Conference. First, they wanted the Allies to uphold their secret wartime agreements on Shandong and the German Pacific islands. Second, they wanted a racial equality clause. In other words, the Japanese desired a clause in the peace treaty stating that Europeans and Asians are of equal racial quality.

Like the Japanese, the Chinese joined the war on the side of the Allies. The Chinese believed that contributing to the war effort would prevent the Europeans and Japanese from expanding in China after the war. China had one major demand at the Paris Peace Conference: Shandong. This territory had a large Chinese population, and it was culturally important because it was the birthplace of Confucius. But the British had promised Shandong to the Japanese. The Allies found themselves in a dilemma over Shandong.

According to the principle of national self-determination, the Chinese had the proper claim to Shandong. Sadly, the principle of imperialism prevailed over the principle of national self-determination. The peacemakers upheld their imperialistic wartime agreement and granted Shandong to the Japanese instead of the Chinese.


The Middle East

The geopolitical situations in the Middle East over the last century have their roots in the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference. Before the war, the British controlled Egypt, the French controlled Algeria and Tunisia, and Italy controlled Libya. By contrast, the Ottoman Empire controlled modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

At the beginning of the war, the Allied Powers made secret agreements to carve up the Ottoman Empire. For their part in the war, the Russians demanded the expansion of its territory down to Constantinople. This was a sensitive issue for the British, for it would give Russia influence in the Mediterranean waters around the Suez Canal. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, and Britain shuttled their troops to India through the canal. In short, the Suez Canal was essential to Britain�s imperial control over India.

The British would agree to the Russian demand for Constantinople, but only if Britain was guaranteed certain territory around the Suez Canal. This territory included modern day Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and southern Iraq. British control of these territories would create a bubble around the Suez Canal and thereby secure the British route to India.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of January 3, 1916 was a secret treaty between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East after the war. France would get the territory of modern day Syria, Lebanon, and northern Iraq, while Britain would get the territory of modern day Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and southern Iraq. Later, the Russians and Italians assented to the treaty.

Unfortunately, the British made promises to the Arabs inside the Ottoman Empire that were incompatible with Sykes-Picot. The British and French controlled territory in India and North Africa that contained vast numbers of Muslims. The British and French were terrified that the Turkish sultan would incite Muslim revolts inside their empires. They were desperate to knock the Ottomans out of the war to avoid an Islamic uprising.

British military campaigns against the Ottomans were disastrous. As a result, the British devised a plan to destabilize the Ottoman Empire from within. The plan was to have the Arabs revolt against the Turks. The British promised Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, that he would be made king of a unified and independent Arab state after the war if he revolted against the Turks. Hussein agreed. His son Faisal, advised by Lawrence of Arabia, led the Arab revolt against the Turks. The Arab revolt thus played a role in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

At the peace conference, the British broke their promise to establish a unified and independent Arab state. Instead, they created a handful of new nations in the Middle East that would be dominated by Britain and France. In 1921, the French created the Kingdom of Syria. The British convinced the French to make Faisal the ruler of Syria, but he had no independence. He was exiled by the French in July 1920. The French created the state of Lebanon in 1920, and transferred territory from Syria to Lebanon. This act of imperialism still irritates Syrians today.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the creation of Iraq. According to Sykes-Picot, the British would get Baghdad and Basra, while the French would get Mosul in the North. The British realized the importance of oil much earlier than the French, and the British suspected there was oil in Mosul. In 1918, the British convinced the French to relinquish their claim to Mosul. In this way, the British took control of the entire territory that is now Iraq. The British formed the Kingdom of Iraq in 1921, and Faisal was made king.

The British promise for an independent Arab state was incompatible with Sykes-Picot. But British promises to European Jews further complicated the situation in the region. On November 2, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration - a public statement supporting a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Czarist Russia was the great anti-Semitic power before the war, and this made many Jews reluctant to support the Allies. The English believed the Balfour Declaration would foster Jewish support of the Allies and weaken Jewish support for the Central Powers.

Sykes-Picot gave the British control of Palestine. In 1921, the British carved Jordan out of Palestine and made Hussein's son Abdullah king. However, the creation of Jordan infuriated both the Jews and the Arabs. On the one hand, the Jews thought the Balfour Declaration granted them the entire territory of Palestine. Thus, they viewed the creation of Jordan as a broken promise.

When the Treaty came as a shock

The actual Treaty of Versailles, published in the spring of 1919, came as a shock. Public opinion from right to left was dismayed to learn that Germany would have to disarm, lose territory, and pay reparations for war damage. Resentment focused in particular on Article 231 of the treaty, in which Germany accepted responsibility for starting the war and which a young American lawyer, John Foster Dulles, had written to provide a legal basis for claiming reparations. Germans loathed the "war guilt" clause, as it came to be known, and there was little will to pay reparations.

Weimar Germany-much like Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union-nursed a powerful and lasting sense of national humiliation. For many years, the German Foreign Office and its right-wing supporters did their best to further undermine the legitimacy of the Treaty of Versailles. With the help of selectively released documents, they argued that Germany and its allies were innocent of starting the war. Instead, Europe had somehow stumbled into a disaster, so that either everyone or no one was responsible. The Allies could have done more to challenge German views about the origins of the war and the unfairness of the treaty. Instead, at least in the case of the English-speaking peoples, they eventually came rather to agree with the German narrative, and this fed into the appeasement policies of the 1930s.

Critics of Versailles got their attack in early. Just six months after the treaty was signed John Maynard Keynes published “The Economic Consequences of the Peace”, the book that made his name. Today however Keynes’s critique of the Treaty of Versailles is seen as problematic. In fact, Keynes himself shortly after stated that he regretted having written the book.

Keynes himself regretted it, and so should historians and economists today. Mentioned in an article early in 2017 telling to me was that sometime in 1936, after the March 29 “election” in Germany which consolidated Hitler’s power, Elizabeth Wiskemann, a German-born, Cambridge-educated historian, met [Keynes] at a social gathering in London. Suddenly, she reported later, she found herself saying, “I do wish you had not written that book [meaning The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which the Germans never ceased to quote], and then longed for the ground to swallow me up. But he said simply and gently, ‘So do I.’” (1)

Peace would take a very different form in 1945. With memories of the previous two decades fresh in their minds, the Allies forced the Axis powers into unconditional surrender. Germany and Japan were to be utterly defeated and occupied. Selected leaders would be tried for war crimes and their societies reshaped into liberal democracies. Invasive and coercive though it was, the post-World War II peace generated far less resentment about unfair treatment than did the arrangements that ended World War I.


Missed opportunities

The terms of Versailles were not the only obstacle to a lasting resolution of European conflicts in 1919. London and Washington also undermined the chances for peace by quickly turning their backs on Germany and the rest of the continent.

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.

London and Washington undermined the chances for peace by quickly turning their backs on the continent.

Again, the post-1945 world was different from the one that emerged in 1919. The United States, now the world's leading power, joined the United Nations and the economic institutions set up at Bretton Woods. It also committed itself to the security and reconstruction of western Europe and Japan. Congress approved these initiatives in part because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made building the postwar order a bipartisan enterprise-unlike Wilson, who doomed the League of Nations by alienating the Republicans. Wilson's failure had encouraged the isolationist strain in U.S. foreign policy; Roosevelt, followed by Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, countered and contained that impulse. The specter of communism also did its part by alarming even the isolationists. The establishment of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe and Soviet rhetoric about the coming struggle against capitalism persuaded many Americans that they faced a pressing danger that required continued engagement with allies in Europe and Asia.

Today's world is not wholly comparable to the worlds that emerged from the rubble of the two world wars. Yet as the United States once again turns inward and tends only to its immediate interests and smaller powers may abandon their hopes for a peaceful international order and instead submit to the bullies in their neighborhoods, a hundred years on, 1919 and the years that followed might still stand as a somber warning.

Today most historians agree however that contrary to earlier legends it was the First World War itself, not the treaty that concluded it, that set loose the forces and ideologies that would convulse Europe and initiate another global conflict. And that for all of Versailles' problems, it represented a clear end to a major war in a way that we rarely see today.

Also the League of Nations was created as a result of the Paris Peace Conference on 10 January 1920, an international organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, to provide a forum for resolving international disputes:

The map underneath shows the 42 founding members of the League of Nations (10 January 1920):

Other attempts to make it more difficult to wage war where the draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance (1923), which made aggressive war a crime; the abortive Geneva Protocol, which narrowed the definition of lawful war; the resolution of the September 1927 League of Nations Assembly declaring the use of war to settle disputes "an international crime"; the Locarno Treaty of 1925 forbidding its signatories from resorting to war; and a wave of bilateral treaties doing the same.

Wilsons failure at Paris, on the other hand, was rooted in the limited nature of his internationalism, one focused entirely on diplomacy and politics, and insufficiently attuned to the practical demands of the global economy.

Wereby also the re-emergence of Britain’s traditional ambiguity concerning continental affairs should not have surprised policymakers in Paris. The Clemenceau government’s concept of a trans-Atlantic security system as proposed dring the Versailles deliberations was ahead of its time. It would take another World War of even greater destructiveness to convince both British and American policy elites of the importance of a strategic commitment on the European continent. (2)


1. C.H. Hession, John Maynard Keynes: A Personal Biography of the Man Who Revolutionized Capitalism and the Way We Live, 1984, p. 306-7.

2. Peter Jackson, Great Britain in French Policy Conceptions at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, Diplomacy & Statecraft, published on-line 28 June 2019, 30:2, p. 397.


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