Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Versailles: The Peace Treaty that Caused a World War

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

Not long ago I watched the film “Paris 1919", which depicts quite vividly the process of creating the Versailles Peace Treaty. The events are shown (partly as documentaries, partly as a movie recreation) through the eyes of Canadian diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was attached to the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. The conference was to define the conditions of the peace treaty and the fate of post-war Germany. The three major players in the negotiations - British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and US President Woodrow Wilson - all blamed Germany for starting the war and for the devastation it caused.

The three allies actually had quite different agendas in these peace negotiations. The British wanted to eliminate Germany’s economic and naval power–well, it’s good to get rid of one’s major competitor. The French, obsessed with revenge and fear going back to their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, wanted to reduce Germany to economic and military non-existence, so that it never became strong again. As for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (Oh! This American idealism!), he just wanted to create a League of Nations, an international body that would ensure that a conflict like World War I would never happen again. But to achieve this goal he needed the support of the British and the French, so he had to compromise and placate his allies in all the absurdity of their outrageous demands. The only sane voice on how much Germany should pay in reparations belonged to John Maynard Keynes , a British economist, who calculated the amount of reparations it could afford to pay–but who listens to the sanity of a normal professional in the face of “high” geopolitical ambitions?

The film is emotionally and rationally difficult to watch, especially from the present-day perspective, when we know how post-treaty events developed. With some kind of malicious satisfaction I learned that all three leaders were “punished “ by history - none of them had a political future. But the world suffered terribly from their short-sightedness (not to say stupidity).

As we know, the Versailles Peace Treaty, whose 90th anniversary was marked last summer, officially ended World War I. Although Allied war propaganda described the “Great War” as “the war to end all wars”, it was only 20 years later that World War II broke out. The harsh terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty were ultimately responsible for this, the most devastating war in human history.

Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, the “war guilt” clause, proclaimed Germany solely responsible for the start of the war and therefore solely accountable for all the losses and damages. The western Allies were determined to make Germany weak, not only militarily, but also economically, which they perceived as the best guarantee against future German aggression. The vanquished Germany was deprived of all her overseas colonies and of many territories in Europe. Its military size was severely restricted: a regular army of no more than 100,000 men and a navy of no more than six cruisers, six destroyers and 12 torpedo boats. These conditions were humiliating for a nation used to great power status. However, to my mind it was not these military restrictions, or at least not only they, that prepared such fertile ground for the resurgence of extreme nationalism.

Far more pressing, and unbearable to the average German, were the severe reparation payments imposed by the victorious Allies. The treaty initially required total payments of 269 billion gold marks, equivalent to about 400 billion US dollars today. Though the sum was reduced later to 132 billion marks, it still remained an overwhelming burden on the German people. They paid most of it in the form of heavy surplus taxes, and the rest in the form of coal, steel, agricultural products and even intellectual property (such as the trademark for Aspirin). Thus the nation lost the vast profits it could otherwise have made from exports of these trade items, and it paid higher prices for them on the internal market. This economic squeeze inevitably impoverished the mass of the German people. It brought hyperinflation in the early 1920s and a severe economic crisis during the Great Depression. It was no surprise that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, the most vociferous opponent of “the humiliations of Versailles”, got increasing support, until it finally seized power in 1933, during the Great Depression.

When the Versailles Treaty was signed, Germany’s first democratically elected Chancellor, Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, resigned in protest, saying: “Which hand, trying to put us in chains like these, would not wither? The treaty is unacceptable.” His words were prophetic: the victorious Allies would eventually pay a heavy price in World War II for putting the German people “in chains like these”.

The “chains” of Versailles were not justified. First, contrary to the statements of French and British politicians, Germany was not solely responsible for the outbreak of the War. Second, and most importantly, whatever the degree of responsibility of the German government, it was the semi-autocratic regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II that started the war. The German people overthrew this regime in the November 1918 revolution. The subsequent Liberal-Social-Democratic provisional government, which signed the armistice with the Allies as practically its first step, reflected the will of the majority of the war-weary German people. The heavy Versailles “chains” bound these people, while the kaiser lived comfortably in exile in the Netherlands, even though he had been proclaimed a war criminal. This disparity of treatment inevitably produced nationalist anti-Allies sentiment in many German commoners, who not long before were favouring the end of the war at nearly any cost. This sentiment was exploited by the Nazis, with the final results that we all know.

Thus the “war to end all wars” ended in a peace settlement that brought about a new World War. The main lesson is that a peace settlement that leaves any nation vanquished, humiliated and plundered (in practice if not in theory) inevitably brings about new conflicts and wars, rather than lasting peace.

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