By Eric Vandenbroeck
The tribulations and consequences of the Treaty of
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
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
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
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
Europeï¿½s 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
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.
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
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
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
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 Britainï¿½s 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.