After a Century of Chaos, Totalitarianism, and War, Versailles Treaty Still Haunts the World
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Signing of the Treaty of Versailles to negotiate post-World War I conditions. Image: Official U.S. Signal Corps photo, June 28, 1919/Shutterstock.com

A century ago, in July 1919, Germany began its journey to the lowest reaches of Hades. Another 26 years would pass before a previously civilized, enlightened people finally emerged, their nation in ruins, its cities bombed and its countryside occupied. Another four decades would pass before their country was reunited, and even then some of Berlin’s neighbors, convinced that Germans possessed a double dose of original sin, preferred a divided Germany.

In 1919, World War I formally came to an end. The victorious allies dictated a peace that humbled Germany, formalized the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, created a gaggle of weak ethnically based states, and shared the geopolitical spoils among the victors. A new world seemed to have been created.

The treaty signed on June 28 in the famous Hall of Mirrors at the Versailles palace, however, proved to be but a brief interlude of peace. Germany remained recalcitrant. The myth had emerged that the German military had been defeated by the Dolchstoss, or “stab-in-the-back,” at home. But the reality was unpleasant enough: the peace settlement made no pretense of applying Woodrow Wilson’s famed Fourteen Points to Germany as the surrendering Germans had expected.

The first democratically elected German government resigned rather than signing what became known as the Versailles Treaty. After being threatened with invasion, the successor leadership submitted. Not until two weeks later, in July, did the reluctant Reichstag ratify the pact. The Deutsche Zeitung inveighed against the “disgraceful treaty” and promised, “We will never stop until we win back what we deserve.”

Versailles almost immediately began radicalizing politics in the Weimar republic, encouraging violence, assassinations of left-wing politicians, and extremist bids for power, including by an army veteran and surprisingly effective rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler. The sense of crisis gradually receded, however, only to have the Great Depression destroy much of the middle class, the mainstay of any democratic order. Hitler gained power, and a little more than two decades after losing one war Germany plunged into another one, a war turned out to be even more deadly, brutal, horrific, and destructive than the last, highlighted by the incomprehensible Holocaust. The conclusion of that conflict saw the spread of totalitarian communism worldwide. Although the latter menace began receding in the 1980s, the Middle Eastern states created by the Versailles Treaty only recently disintegrated disastrously, resulting in years of wars involving the United States.

How different the pre-World War I world looked. The beginning of the 20th century dawned brightly. Commerce was increasing, America and European nations were prospering, old empires were liberalizing, and intellectuals debated the obsolescence of war in the capitalist age.

But two contending alliances arose. The Central Powers of Wilhelmine Germany and Austro-Hungary were authoritarian, but largely satiated and determined to protect their European positions. Revolutionary France and reactionary Russia were allied, joined only by fear of Berlin; Paris and London were informally linked in an Entente, largely hidden from the United Kingdom’s parliament and public. Strengthened in this way, revanchist France hoped for an opportunity to regain territory lost to Prussia in 1879. The Russian Empire stood behind its Slavic ally Serbia, an aggressive regime that rested upon regicide and was committed to destroying the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire. The loyalties of other states were more flexible; Italy proved willing to sell itself to highest geopolitical bidder.

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian terrorist, aided by his government’s military intelligence service, assassinated the heir apparent to the Habsburg throne while he visited Sarajevo. This act lit the fuse of what proved to be the worst war yet in human history. By the end of July, countries began mobilizing, carrying much of Europe into war. Crowds cheered soldiers marching off to battle, imagining dramatic victories over hated opponents. Almost everyone expected a speedy conclusion to the conflict.

Alas, the war quickly stalemated. The fighting was brutal, demoralizing, and dehumanizing. Imperial Russia suffered especially horrendous casualties; when Western officials expressed their condolences, they were assured that there was little reason to be concerned, since manpower was the one resource which the Tsar’s regime possessed in abundance.

The largely static Western Front, characterized by multiple fruitless attacks on sophisticated trenches, was known as the sausage machine. The system was firmly fixed in place; men were inserted, and corpses emerged. French soldiers, tired of being sacrificed for nothing, mutinied. Italian soldiers, whose lives were being tossed away so their political leaders could aggrandize the territory under Rome’s control, broke in battle and deserted in large numbers.

The Ottoman Empire, facing destruction if the allies won, joined the Central Powers, slaughtering much of its Christian Armenian population as its military fortunes faltered. London’s illegal starvation blockade sapped the morale of Germany’s population. Traditional ties holding together Austro-Hungary’s multiple ethnic groups frayed as nationalists saw the opportunity to create their own ethnicity-based states.

But the first and most dramatic collapse was Imperial Russia. In March 1917 (February under the old calendar they then used), popular dissatisfaction with the conflict swept away the Romanoff dynasty. Unfortunately, the original liberal, provisional government continued the war, giving the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, their chance for power. They promised “peace, land, and bread,” all desperately sought by the Russian people. Soldiers organized, resisted, and demanded “peace without annexations or indemnities.” In November, the small but well-organized Bolsheviks staged a military putsch in the capital of Petrograd; they then made peace with Germany and outlasted their divided opponents in the ensuing civil war.

Germany used troops withdrawn from Russia to make one final bid for victory in the West in spring 1918, but fell short. At this point the steadily increasing American military presence sealed the fate of the Central Powers.

The U.S. entered as a result of presidential megalomania. Woodrow Wilson, a man remembered as much for his sanctimony as for his racism, was determined to remake the world and realized that to do so he had to make his country a belligerent. Yet he could not ask Americans to fight for his egotistical illusions.

Instead, he draped his eloquent locutions around a legal casus belli of protecting the right of Americans to travel on reserve British warships carrying munitions through war zones; the famous Lusitania sank as a result of a secondary explosion caused by the destruction of munitions carried in its hold. Yet Wilson insisted that even one American booking passage on such a ship should immunize it. The policy was inane on its face. It was also immoral, given Washington’s failure to protest the British blockade, which starved far more people than were killed by submarine warfare.

U.S. intervention forced Germany to sue for peace. An armistice halted the fighting, and revolution swept Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Republic replaced empire in Germany as the emperor fled into exile. The latter two systems disintegrated, spawning a gaggle of Saisonstaaten, or “states for a season.” The conflict had transformed its participants, dissolving the sinews of society across the continent. The old world of 1914 was no more. The new world of 1919 was still forming.

Rather than engage the defeated power, as the victorious allied states had done with post-Napoleon France, the World War I allies, including France, imposed a peace upon Germany (and what remained of its former confederate states). Gen. Jan Smuts, a member of South Africa’s delegation, criticized forcing Berlin to sign at the “point of the bayonet.” As a result, he lamented, “a new international order and a fairer, better world are not written into this treaty.”

In January 1919, the allies convened in Paris without their previous adversaries. Variously the Big Three or Four (U.S., United Kingdom, France, and sometimes Italy) sought to remake the world. They battled each other over their respective shares of the plunder, such as dividing Germany’s colonies and one-time Ottoman possessions, and concocting a system to hinder Berlin’s recovery. These leaders were besieged by individuals, groups, and interests seeking support for a variety of causes, most importantly creating new nations out of old ones and punishing perennial adversaries.

Woodrow Wilson played the role of arrogant naïf. Of his famed Fourteen Points, France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau quipped, “the good Lord only had ten.” The U.S. president imagined himself representing all mankind, but he quickly wore out his international welcome. Neither politicians nor populations determined on national aggrandizement enjoyed his moralistic lectures. Wilson also saw no need for study or consistency, bizarrely admitting later that he did not know that millions of ethnic Germans remained in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, later used by Hitler to dismantle that state. By the treaty’s terms, Czechs were freed from Austrian control, but ethnic Germans were forced to submit to Czechs. So too Poles, who were granted historic Prussian territory. Romanians got to rule over Hungarians. Virtually every clause created a new grievance in waiting. Germany, though under new, left-leaning management, was stripped of territory, disarmed, handed a large reparations bill, and forced to admit full responsibility for a war caused by a cascade of assumptions, errors, and crimes by all combatants.

Of course, Wilson’s grandest dream was the League of Nations. He imagined it would forestall conflict, reorder the globe, and satisfy his overweening ego. The other members of the Big Four were both more cynical and realistic: they planned to use Wilson’s creation to protect their joint hegemony. Wilson’s invention would rig the international system on their behalf. Inconveniently, neither Germany nor Russia was included and apparently missed the memo on their expected role as handmaidens to the allies.

Although separate treaties were signed with members of the Central Powers and named after the cities in which they were inked — that with Hungary was Trianon — the overall system is known as Versailles, after the treaty signed by Germany. The system’s great flaw was that it was neither brutally Carthaginian nor progressively conciliatory. Either of those might have worked, but the midpoint — harsh enough to antagonize the defeated while sapping the will of the victorious to enforce it — seemed doomed to fail. And fail it did.

Some have justified the punitive treatment of Germany by Berlin’s imposition of the even harsher Brest-Litovsk Treaty on Russia, but the latter made the results of Versailles no better. Moreover, Brest-Litovsk was a wartime measure, making forbearance and statesmanship in especially short supply. That agreement, in dismembering the Russian Empire, proved ultimately prescient. When the Soviet Union’s flag was last lowered over the Kremlin on Christmas Day in 1991, Brest-Litovsk became a reality after being delayed for 72 years.

The Great War loosed communism on Russia, and it spread from there. Popular disappointment with the peace created an opportunity for fascism to take control in Italy shortly after the war’s conclusion. Another decade passed before Nazism arose in Germany, fueled by anger over Versailles and the devastating impact of the Depression. London, Paris, and Brussels squabbled over enforcement of the treaty; ultimately, they made concessions to Hitler that were denied to his democratic predecessors.

Although the allies imagined their handiwork would last, others were less sanguine. John Maynard Keynes, later famous as an economist, spoke of “serious acts of political unwisdom.” France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the allies’ Commander in Chief, warned, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” He was right.

Thus, tragically, what was sometimes called the War to End War was anything but. Fourteen years after Versailles, Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. Two decades after the allies celebrated in the Hall of Mirrors came an even worse conflict, with even greater destruction and death. And today Versailles remains, geopolitically, the gift that keeps on giving. Officials today seek to stabilize the Persian Gulf, yet the best hope for peace might be dissolution of one or more of the artificial countries created in the treaty.

Most wars are stupid, unnecessary, and harmful to all sides. Some are the result of hubris: the assumption by both sides that victory is the only possible outcome. The U.S. has had more than one tragic experience with war started for this reason: Americans in both North and South, after all, imagined that one or two battles would settle the Civil War. Four years and oceans of blood later, the fighting finally ended.

Other conflicts grow out of error, misjudgments about intentions, capabilities, and responses of opposing states. Inevitability and destiny also distort policymakers’ judgments. The Great War incorporated all of these along with hubris. For these reasons millions died, generations shattered, dynasties disappeared, and futures darkened.

The problem, however, was not just a bad war. There also was a bad peace created by the Versailles Treaty. Some of the same vices which led to World War I also undermined the peace treaty that followed. Arrogance, hypocrisy, myopia, stupidity, recklessness, and much, much more destroyed governments, societies, and nations in a conflict that might have been solved peacefully.

This backs President Donald Trump’s observation that great powers don’t fight endless wars. Those that do tend to stop being great powers. The centennial of the Versailles Treaty should remind us of the necessity of ending any conflict with a good peace — and, more importantly, of not starting a bad war.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
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