THE peace which the Armistices seemed to bring in the fall of 1918 has not in fact arrived. At first we turned our faces hopefully to the question of avoiding future wars. Now we are increasingly concerned with the problem of getting rid of the last war.

Just as the physical struggle of 1914--18 reached titanic proportions never before dreamed of in warfare, so the moral and economic struggle of 1919--23 has developed problems wholly beyond human experience and, so far, too great to be solved by human ability. The world's suffering due to these last four years of conflicting efforts to promote selfish interests promises to exceed the suffering of the preceding four years of physical combat.

The subject is both too grave and too vast for fault-finding. But it seems worth while to analyze the agencies and methods which have been adopted for settling the questions which the peace treaties did not adjust and to point out some of the fundamental political factors which have so far prevented a real settlement and which must be reckoned with when it comes to making the concessions necessary to such a settlement.

The question of reparations was left by the Treaty of Versailles an open question and it has become an open sore. When Germany was defeated in 1918 the Armistice was granted upon the understanding that Germany would be required to pay for the damage sustained by the civilian populations in the victorious countries. The ascertainment of the amount of that damage was of course extraordinarily difficult, especially in view of the vast extent and variety of the damage done by air, sea and land through a period of over four years. It is also true that political embarrassments would have been encountered in fixing the precise amount, for passions were running so high that any indemnity within the bounds of reason would have been too low to satisfy popular expectations. It likewise was not practicable to fix the dates and amounts of the various payments, inasmuch as the total could not be fixed and might vary within wide limits.

The treaty, therefore, adopting the general principle of compensation for damage to the civilian populations of the Allies, provided that the amount of such damage should be ascertained by an inter-allied commission called the Reparation Commission. This Commission was composed of delegates of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium.[i] The United States would also have had the right to a delegate if it had ratified the treaty. The Commission was required on or before May 1, 1921, and after giving Germany a hearing, to fix the amount of Germany's obligation and the time and manner of her payment of the same.[ii]

On the much discussed topic of Germany's capacity to pay, the treaty provided that after May 1, 1921, the Reparation Commission (giving Germany hearings from time to time), should periodically estimate that capacity to pay, closely scrutinizing Germany's system of taxation, and should have discretion to modify the form and extend the date of payments. The treaty also contemplated the possibility that some part of the obligation might have to be cancelled, but provided expressly that this should not be done except with the specific authority of the several governments represented upon the Commission.

Leaving the unsettled question of reparations to the Reparation Commission meant in the last analysis leaving the question to the Governments of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium. It is idle to debate whether a better agency could have been devised, such as a tribunal selected from disinterested countries. Perhaps the stupendous character of the issues and their essentially political nature would have precluded such a solution. But the great fact is--and it is one of the most significant factors in the post-war troubles--that this central problem of reparations was not settled and was postponed for settlement by subsequent agreement among the nations most vitally interested in it, with the result that every month of delay has more deeply intensified the divergencies among the Allies and has proved more demoralizing to Germany.

There was only one hope that such an agency could solve the problem before it reached a desperate issue. That hope was that there would be represented on the Reparation Commission a country sufficiently detached and sufficiently influential to aid in composing the differences which were bound to arise. That hope existed when the treaty was drafted because it was understood that the United States would be a party. All the other parties to the treaty consented to its provisions on that theory. England and France believed that this great composing factor would powerfully aid in adjusting the differences which would arise between them. Germany believed that this factor would aid in securing justice for her. All believed that this factor would materially aid the political leaders of the various European countries in justifying to their constituents the concessions necessary to arrive at and carry out a scheme of reparations. But these hopes were blasted. That fundamental central conception of the treaty was annihilated. The United States declined to become a party to the treaty.

Although many believers in the League of Nations have felt that the United States' failure to enter that League was the greatest moral disaster of the post-war period, it is now clear that the greatest immediate opportunity which was open to the United States to give powerful and sorely needed coöperation in rehabilitating the world was that of helping the parties to agree upon those essential elements of peace which the peace treaty postponed to subsequent disposition.

Reparation was not the only subject which the treaty left open and referred to special agencies for future adjustment. Numerous other important subjects were referred for settlement to the "Principal Allied and Associated Powers," that is, the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan--the United States having eliminated herself from the treaty. These functions have been exercised partly through conferences of the Prime Ministers, and partly through the Conference of Ambassadors at Paris. Among the matters so left open and referred to these governments for settlement were the following: the determination of frontiers between Germany and her neighbors according to principles established in the treaty or in the light of plebiscites, such instances involving portions of the frontiers between Germany and Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Denmark, respectively; the administration of plebiscite areas through commissions selected by these principal powers; the negotiation of the Polish treaty to protect racial, linguistic and religious minorities, and the negotiation of a treaty between Poland and the Free City of Danzig; the disarmament of Germany through Interallied Commissions appointed by the principal powers.

The postponement of the settlement of similar vital questions was likewise characteristic of the other treaties--those with Austria (Treaty of St. Germain), Bulgaria (Treaty of Neuillysur-Seine), and Hungary (Treaty of Trianon). These treaties, too, imposed tasks of future adjustment upon Great Britain, France, and Italy, and in some respects Japan (the United States having excluded itself by not ratifying the treaties). In important respects the unsolved problems thus referred to the agencies indicated were even more complex than those arising under the Treaty of Versailles, for unimaginable complications were involved in the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and in the transfer of territory and the allocation of property and debts to the successor Allied states, including Italy, Poland, Rumania, the Serb-Croat-Slovene Kingdom, and Czechoslovakia.

The efforts to solve the problems thus left open by the various treaties and referred to the great powers for subsequent disposition have produced continuing discord in the matter of reparations and recurring discord as the other questions have been dealt with. A striking illustration is afforded by the partition of Upper Silesia. The Allied powers were required by the Treaty of Versailles to make this partition in the light of a plebiscite of the inhabitants of the area. The treaty was construed to give the right to vote not only to those living in the area but also to those domiciled elsewhere but born there. This led to a campaign conducted throughout Germany, amid the wildest excitement, to get every German inhabitant who had been born in the Upper Silesian zone to return there to vote in the plebiscite. The campaign magnified the importance of Upper Silesia to Germany and greatly intensified the bitterness of the Germans. The wound made by the treaty in requiring the giving up of a part of Upper Silesia was thus reopened and made infinitely more painful. But an even greater evil which grew out of this situation was that when the vote had been taken and the partition came to be made, Great Britain and France locked horns. France wanted more for Poland. Great Britain wanted more for Germany. This was one of the bitterest controversies between Great Britain and France and left an indescribable amount of bad feeling. The matter was finally referred to, and settled according to the recommendation of, the League of Nations. But there remained a heightened degree of embittered relationship between France and Germany and between France and Great Britain.

In the making of peace with Turkey we encounter in another form the failure of the chief Allied powers to work together. The Peace Conference had drafted a treaty with Turkey, the Treaty of Sèvres. But that treaty was not ratified; war arose between Turkey and Greece (in circumstances to suggest sympathy and support in England for Greece and in France for Turkey), and finally the Treaty of Lausanne was executed in 1923. For three years or more the Turkish problem had rendered more difficult any agreement on the other unsettled problems, and its settlement finally left the principal Allies, especially England and France, in a worse, rather than a better, frame of mind for the disposition of reparations and other matters.

Broadly speaking, the bitterness, confusion and economic uncertainty which have cursed Europe in the last four years have grown out of the controversies over these stupendous unsettled matters. The agencies created for liquidating the peace settlement have unfortunately operated instead to solidify national hatreds and conflicts. This is not said as a reproach but by way of pointing out the conditions which have unavoidably prevented the realization of a tranquil régime. The peace treaties failed to untangle a badly tangled skein of conflicting interests and emotions and the subsequent process of unraveling has so far seemed to leave the unfinished mass more hopelessly snarled than ever.

It should be mentioned that the League of Nations was not charged with the disposition of these questions. It was organized on the theory that the peace treaties and the agencies set up by them would settle the war of 1914--18, and that the function of the League would be to aid in avoiding future wars between countries which were members of the League. A reference to the Treaty of Versailles will show that the League was expected to act upon comparatively few matters connected with the peace settlement, and these of relatively minor importance; among the most important were the choice and supervision of the governing commission for the Saar Basin, the framing of a constitution for the Free City of Danzig, passing upon the extension beyond a five-year period of certain commercial provisions of the treaty, and the disposal of disputes arising under Part VII of the treaty relating to ports, waterways and railways. These things did not go to the foundations of world peace as did those which the treaty expressly left for disposal by the great powers.

A further condition which has operated almost conclusively to prevent the League from introducing itself into the controversies which have arisen is that these great powers are also the dominant factors in the Council of the League. When, for example, the British Empire, France, and Italy, acting through their delegates on the Reparation Commission, disagree on vital questions, it is not surprising that some or all of them will oppose invoking the machinery of the League for the purpose of overcoming the positions they wish to maintain. In the Turkish situation, and during the resulting war between Greece and Turkey, earnest cooperation between Great Britain and France was lacking, mainly because of the hostility and distrust growing out of the great variety of their conflicting interests, including the matter of reparations. Without the earnest support of those two powers --which naturally was not forthcoming--the League of course could have taken no effective action. Even in the Graeco-Italian controversy over the killing of the Italian members of the International Boundary Mission near the Albanian boundary, and over the subsequent seizure of Corfu by Italy, the prior commitments of the great powers stood in the way of untrammeled action by the League. The Mission had been appointed by, and was acting under, the Conference of Ambassadors. Moreover, the strategic position of Italy upon the Reparation Commission made it out of the question to expect France, with its whole reparations policy at stake, to seek in the Council of the League to upset a position to which Italy was already committed.

The truth is that the League cannot begin to have a fair chance until the peace settlements growing out of the war shall have been liquidated to a reasonable extent--and that is still far from realization.

When we look through the form to the substance of all these agencies available to give effect to the peace, it is of course apparent that the controlling elements are Great Britain and France, and the fundamental difficulties are in essence a conflict between them and the influence which this conflict has upon Germany. Until Great Britain and France find a basis of agreement, there can be no real and final settlement of the last war.

The controlling motive of France is protection from the aggression of Germany, which, just across the border and with a population nearly twice as great, has in the course of fifty years twice invaded and occupied the territory of France. This motive is even stronger than the desire and need for reparations, even if the latter is talked about a great deal more. Although the whole world, including even the United States, was compelled to go to war because it could not afford to have Germany overcome France, and though doubtless it would be compelled to do so again, there has been no corresponding appreciation, in the countries which then helped France, of the advantage of underwriting the peace of the world by giving France definite assurance that such aid would again be given in the case of unprovoked aggression by Germany. The result is that France has been preoccupied in strengthening herself by maintaining a large army and by weakening Germany. This has not suited Great Britain, which has no such sense of insecurity; the sea, which Great Britain controls, separates her from Germany, and the latter no longer has a navy. Nor does Great Britain believe there can be a healthy Europe with a Germany diseased and wasting away. Again, Great Britain, being the great trading country of the world, wishes Germany sufficiently prosperous to be a satisfactory customer. Beyond all that, and of very vital importance, Great Britain does not wish to see France become the great, predominant power of the continent, any more than it wished to see Germany occupy that position before the war. These fundamental differences go much further toward explaining the present conflict between the two countries than their differences in the matter of reparations.

Nor should we assume that a nation's foreign policy is simply the logical outgrowth of general national conceptions. It is rather the result of many diverse forces, practical as well as patriotic. For example, the French steel industry's interest in raw material and world trade, and in alliances with related industries in the Ruhr, may be influential in shaping the Ruhr policy of France; and naturally the influence of the British steel industry would operate in an opposite direction upon British policy.

When we come to the clash of interest between Great Britain and France with reference to reparations, a highly interesting circumstance is that while the Treaty of Versailles was being drafted Great Britain, under the leadership of Lloyd George and with the active participation of Prime Minister Smuts of South Africa, took the initiative in demanding that the definition of reparation damage should be enlarged to include the cost of pensions to naval and military victims of the war and their dependents, although it was more than questionable whether such cost could legitimately be regarded as a part of the damage to the civilian populations--which, before the Armistice, had been accepted as the basis for the compensation to be made by Germany. Great Britain's persistence prevailed, and it is estimated that the amount of reparations was thereby more than doubled. Great Britain, however, with its greater political elasticity, has since evinced a marked willingness to make a readjustment, and influential British circles have insisted that Germany cannot possibly pay what has been demanded. Although this doubling of reparations by the addition of pensions was a British manoeuvre, France has not been slow to take advantage of that condition by insisting that she must have an amount of reparations not only sufficient to pay for the damage to the devastated regions but also enough to enable her to repay the war loans which she obtained from the Allies, if repayment is not waived.

On this subject of reparations the situation is curiously mixed, because France, while urgently needing full recompense at least for the injury done in the devastated regions, yet dreads to see Germany sufficiently powerful and prosperous to pay such an amount. France moreover is naturally hostile to the thought of fixing at the present time a reduced and relatively low figure as the final amount of reparations, and then of continuing through many decades to bear the tax burden necessary to meet the bonds issued to raise money for the reconstruction of her devastated regions; she foresees Germany, speedily reviving and paying off a relatively small indemnity, continuing thereafter her powerful and prosperous progress, freed from the burden she ought to share and all the more powerful and prosperous by being so freed. On the other hand, Great Britain, for the reasons indicated, would rather see Germany prosperous at once through an early, final, and comparatively easy reparations settlement.

Starting from these opposite points, Great Britain and France get further and further apart, the former magnifying and the latter minimizing the difficulties in the way of Germany making payment and the general danger arising from a prolongation of Germany's uncertainty and unstability. The British position has encouraged Germany to make an exaggerated showing of inability to pay reparations and to adopt in the Ruhr the policy of passive resistance, and has exasperated France to the last degree. The demoralizing effect upon Germany of this disagreement between the two Allies who could control the situation is indescribable, and of itself has been largely responsible for her present economic paralysis.

While the central figures in this tragedy of discord are Great Britain and France--and Germany--every other European participant in the war is involved in one way or another in some of the numerous unsettled problems. The only way to the necessary settlements is for the governments involved to make concessions which so far they have been unwilling to make. The political obstacles in the way of such concessions are indeed vast. The complexities of the disputes are utterly baffling to the disinterested observer, and these very complexities enable each government to make a complete demonstration to its constituents that it is 100 per cent right and its adversaries are 100 per cent wrong. During the long and painful years of disagreement such arguments have crystallized into formulas of political faith which the public has come to accept as fundamentals and which public men will find it dangerous to disregard unless they can show they have obtained concessions which will appear to justify a changed position.

Since political action is essential to putting any settlement into effect, it is well to consider the character and limitations of the political machinery of the countries of continental Europe. It is idle to complain that "politics" are so much considered. All the problems under discussion are unavoidably political in the sense that they can be settled only through individual governmental action by the respective countries interested. In each country the settlement must take form and expression through governmental machinery, which in turn is necessarily selected and operated by political processes. And on top of other difficulties we must face the fact that the sort of political machinery which the continental governments of Europe employ, and must employ, is not well adapted to cope with existing tasks.

The governments of Europe are largely governments by parliament and without any independent executive with real power. Moreover, in the continental parliament there is no majority party which has a responsibility to the country for carrying forward an affirmative policy; as a rule there are a large number of separate political groups and the life and policy of any particular government (that is, the ministry for the time being,) depend on some temporary combination of enough of these groups to secure a majority. These combinations are subject to constant change and are largely determined by the personal competition of their leaders or groups of leaders; also, personal animosities appear to play a far greater part than they do in our political life. In such circumstances, it is obvious what obstacles are in the way of a government remaining in power if it comes forward with a program that its opponents can claim involves any concession from the fullest measure of national rights and aspirations.

In the comparatively easy times which existed before the war these defects were less apparent. But in the face of the unimaginable complexities which have developed since the war it is becoming seriously questionable whether the existing methods are equal to the gigantic governmental tasks of the present day, and whether we are not confronted with the bankruptcy of the parliamentary method of governing as now organized in various countries on the continent.

The weakness of the continental parliamentary system was clearly brought out in the dramatic and stirring advent of Mussolini in Italy. Undoubtedly he is a man of extraordinary capacity and force. But the thing that gave him the opportunity to impress himself upon the people of his country was the utter impotence of parliamentary government, fallen as it had into a condition where no combination of groups would or could carry forward a constructive and courageous policy.

An ever-present condition in Europe to stir up and embitter political activity is the traditional jealousy and suspicion which is the legacy of centuries of conflict and of armed watching for conflict. The manoeuvres to preserve a balance of power, the secret diplomacy, the searching for special advantage, the efforts to checkmate known or suspected adversaries--all these have made a soil highly unfavorable to the cultivation of peace but well adapted to the rank growth of discord and strife. Our far greater preoccupation in America with domestic affairs makes it difficult for us to realize this difference in Europe, a difference which has been greatly intensified as a result of the war and the failure to settle promptly the questions left unsettled by the peace treaties. There are local issues, too, of which we seldom think, that multiply and accentuate political divisions and seriously obstruct liberal and constructive action in national affairs. Illustrations of these are religious differences (extremely potent politically), highly militaristic conceptions prevalent among army leaders, and controversies (long obsolete in this country) such as the question of monarchy versus democracy and that of centralization versus local autonomy.

Moreover, to a very large extent, the voters in Europe have less political experience and less political background than is true of the voters in our country. The right of suffrage is new in many parts of Europe to many classes of voters, and it is perhaps fair to say that in no part of the continent of Europe can the political training of the masses compare in duration and extent with the corresponding training here. Representative government began in this country when our colonial governments began, say 300 years ago, and even then it was a transplanted and not a new growth.

We must also remember that many of the European governments have been recently formed along new lines, and some of them in newly created countries, so that the difficulties in the way of successful functioning are greatly intensified. For example, Germany, which was the strongest monarchy in Europe outside of Russia, suddenly became a republic. It is now engaged in the task of learning how to be a republic--a task sufficiently perplexing in normal times and almost baffling under existing conditions. Germany has a tremendously able and selfish capitalistic class, which it is widely believed continues strongly sympathetic with monarchical principles. There is also a conviction, inside and outside Germany, that this class is bent on evading all measures which would make Germany pay an adequate amount of reparations or impose upon the wealth of Germany the taxation necessary to pay that charge, and which is also bent on shifting to the laboring classes whatever burden may finally be imposed.

Poland and the Serb-Croat-Slovene Kingdom furnish further examples of these new political handicaps. They are earnestly trying to learn how to use new and unfamiliar governmental tools, each trying at the same time to harmonize intense sectional, racial and religious animosities within its own borders, each discovering various degrees of inexperience in its public men and in its electorate, and each wrestling with a tremendous military burden.

These comments upon the political features of government as it is practiced on the continent of Europe are pertinent to the question of how to get a settlement of the matters which have not yet been adjusted through the processes indicated by the peace treaties. We must remember that not one of the unsettled problems can be solved unless one or more of the interested parties makes concessions, and that no government can make a concession without the support of a combination of political groups possessing a majority of the legislature, because if the majority is unfavorable another and non-consenting government will forthwith be substituted.

This practical political situation should appeal to our own public men who, though the beneficiaries of a vastly more stable system of politics and of a far more tranquil state of mind on the part of the voters, nevertheless appreciate the necessity for translating action even upon foreign affairs into terms of domestic politics. France has the most thoroughly established political system of any of the continental Allies and is probably less subject to the extraordinary political complications above pointed out than are the others. But even France suffers from these complications to a degree which we find hard to realize. Besides, France is confronted with the most difficult of all the European problems, one profoundly affecting the pockets and the feelings of her citizens. The amount of taxes they will have to pay over many decades is in question; their feeling of being duped by the peace treaty into a situation where they get neither security nor reparations is involved; their traditional hatred of Germany has been steadily reinflamed by developments since the Armistice, and there is always present their fear--one of the most real things in French life--of renewed German aggression. Further than that, France has a general election next spring; evidently that fact does not encourage marked moderation in the proposals of her government or in the attitude of any important combination of her political groups.

We are disposed to be impatient of the discord in Europe. We feel that one country or another should, in the general interest, recede from its extreme position; that it is utter national selfishness, political obstinacy, plain disregard of the welfare of other peoples, that causes such unrelenting adherence to the stands already taken. But we are not in a position to indulge in righteous wrath or in contempt. What each of the European Allies has done has been done under the stimulus of an apparently vital need for home security or for the promotion of home interests, under political exigencies and difficulties which we cannot adequately realize, and under a tremendous revival of nationalistic spirit. Can we find better reasons for our conduct during and since the Peace Conference? Our record is that through our Executive we were instrumental in shaping the peace treaties, that the other countries entered into them on the theory that our country would be a party, and that then our government, on account of a deadlock between the Executive and the Senate, threw these treaties over and refused to help in liquidating the problems of the peace. We may say that we had a perfect right to do this in order to keep faith with our own traditions and in order to serve the best interests of our own country; that all other countries ought to understand the peculiarities of our Constitution and discount accordingly anything our Executive does; and that we must not recede a hair's breadth from our position. But there is not a single Allied country in Europe which cannot make at least as good a plea for maintaining without concession or change its position upon the matters now in dispute.

If with our impregnable strength and unparalleled good fortune we "stand pat"--if we decline to do anything to help tranquillize an unfortunate world--if we decline through formal Act of Congress to consider whether the Allies can pay us their debts in full--if we decline to join in a non-military League to facilitate mutual understanding and the development of an organized world-wide public opinion--if we decline even to give our moral support to a World Court--why, then, should we complain if public men in Europe, under vastly greater difficulties, likewise "stand pat" and refuse to recede from any position they have heretofore taken, regardless of the effect upon the general situation?

The fact is that all the Allies are tarred with the same brush. Each appears to have been utterly devoid of spiritual and unselfish principles since the Armistice. Each has pursued its own selfish purposes regardless of the effect upon others, and in doing so has jeopardized its own welfare. And these characterizations apply also to our own country.

The time is past for blind adherence to formulas heretofore announced. Every government can prove to a certainty, from its own standpoint, that the formulas it has adopted and the positions it has taken are absolutely right. The nations involved could discuss until the end of time, without solution, the question as to who is right and who is wrong in abstract principle. We should not waste breath now on debating whether the Ruhr occupation is legal or whether any public man or set of public men was right in the enunciation of some prior declaration.

The only prospect of real world peace and prosperity is for concessions to be made, and perhaps the time is coming when the situation will be so bad, and the prospect of disaster so clear, that our own Congress and the parliaments abroad will alike be willing to support adjustments involving the necessary elements of compromise.

[i]In questions relating to damage by sea and in certain questions involving Japanese interests, the Japanese delegate was to replace the Belgian delegate; and in questions relating to Austria, Hungary, or Bulgaria, the delegate of the Serb-Croat-Slovene Kingdom was to replace the Belgian delegate.

[ii]After a vast amount of discussion and disagreement among the governments of the delegates, the Commission fixed the total amount of Germany's obligation at 132 billion gold marks, approximately 33 billion dollars, with certain deductions and additions, and made elaborate provisions for the character of bonds to be issued and for the security therefor.

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  • WALKER D. HINES, Director General of Railroads 1918-1920, Arbitrator under the Peace Treaties in questions of European river shipping
  • More By Walker D. Hines