100th anniverary of Treaty of Versailles recalls grave consequences of bad diplomacy
June 28th will mark the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, centerpiece of the overall Settlement of Paris that formally ended the Great War, waged from 1914 to 1918 between the Central Powers and the Allied and Associated Powers. The principal combatants were the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires against France, Russia (until she withdrew), Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, and the United States.
That terrible conflict, with its appalling loss of life, raged throughout Western and Eastern Europe; Africa and Asia; on and under the world’s seas and oceans; and, for the first time, in the air. With U.S. help, the Allies defeated their principal adversary, Germany, and the other Central Powers, but at a frightful cost — including almost 117,000 American casualties.
The Versailles Treaty fixed the terms of the Armistice between Germany and the Allies that had been signed by French and German representatives on November 11, 1918, in Compiègne, France. The treaty signing, on Saturday, June 28, 1919, took place in the resplendent Hall of Mirrors in King Louis XIV’s magnificent Palace of Versailles. The “Big Three” among the Allied signatories were French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
On full display from the outset of the treaty negotiations that took place from January to June, 1919, were glaring tensions pitting France and Great Britain against their associated partner, the United States, which had entered the war in 1917. France in particular was bent on retaliation against her hereditary enemy for the devastation that the German military had visited upon her land during the Great War. On the other hand, the United States, particularly the idealistic Wilson, sought a treaty not of retributive harshness but of justice and magnanimity toward the vanquished foe — whereby they might one day reestablish themselves as full partners in the family of nations.
Anticipating the war’s outcome, Wilson early in 1918 had outlined his peace proposal in a declaration he called “The Fourteen Points,” which included the right of emerging states to decide their own destinies; “open covenants openly arrived at” as opposed to Europe’s traditional balance-of-power diplomacy; and, as the culmination of his doctrine, a worldwide organization to oversee it all — a League of Nations to ensure an enduring global peace.
Wedded to his beloved League, Wilson naively allowed himself to be played by his cagey colleagues Clemenceau and Lloyd George, whose aim was maximum punishment for Germany. At every turn they blunted the president’s principled arguments for mercy while shamelessly dangling the League as bait for his capitulation. Tragically, so eager was Wilson for the establishment of the League that he reneged on his proposition of justice and mercy toward Germany.
Which, then, were the treaty’s terms that roused defeated Germany to fury, the terms that many historians, as well as participants in the negotiations, claimed drew a direct line to World War II?
First, officials of the newly proclaimed German Republic were not invited to participate in the framing of the treaty — all that was demanded was their signature on the final document. Of the 440 Articles, the most geopolitically significant were: the loss of all Germany’s colonies and 13 percent of her prewar territory, with formerly annexed provinces returned to France, Belgium, and Denmark; the assigning of 10 percent of Germany‘s population to the new nations of Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland; demilitarization and allied occupation of the Rhineland; elimination of German U-boats and aircraft and reduction of her armed forces to a small volunteer force.
Reparations for devastation caused by Germany’s brutal occupation of Belgium and France were fixed at $31.4 billion — in 1919 dollars. But the coup de grâce, guaranteed to breed seething resentment, was the galling Article 231, which assigned Germany sole responsibility for “causing” the Great War: the so-called “war guilt clause.” The distinguished British economist John Maynard Keynes, a participant in the peace negotiations, stated with frightening prescience that though Germany was temporarily hors de combat, she would rise again to exact vengeance. He was right.
The kindling was laid, it needed only someone to light the fire — and that someone would be Adolf Hitler.
The Treaty of Versailles cruelly penalized the losers but richly rewarded the victors, particularly emerging nations. With the rebirth of Poland and the breakup of former empires into constituent states of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia; Iraq, Syria, Transjordan, Palestine and Lebanon —and eventually Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States — the maps of Europe and the Middle East were transformed.
Woodrow Wilson won his League of Nations, though in his own country he lost his fight for congressional ratification of it and of the entire Treaty. Thus, ironically the U.S. never joined that body, which declined into irrelevancy and dissolved in 1946. Yet Wilson’s noble idea did not die, and the League was succeeded following World War II by the United Nations, still active throughout the world.
This history still matters. The arbitrary borders drawn in the Middle East contributed to regional upheaval that continues until today. World War I set the stage for World War II which, in turn, again reshaped our world. How different history may have been.
Consider that only a few weeks ago the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, which marked the grand final Allied push for the liberation of Europe from Hitler and his Nazis. Had the Treaty of Versailles been a more magnanimous document, one that offered a defeated Germany reconciliation and hope instead of humiliation and despair, the events that led up to D-Day — indeed brought about World War II itself — might never have come to pass.
Anne Carr Bingham lives in Salem.