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Warnings From Versailles

The Lessons of 1919, a Hundred Years On

Delegates at the Trianon palace in Versailles, France, 1919.  Wikimedia Commons

We often recall World War I and the two decades that followed as a grim chapter of history, the prelude to an even costlier and more destructive war from 1939 to 1945. We remember terrible losses—the nine million or more dead in battle, the civilians who died of preventable disease or starvation, the ghastly influenza epidemic that, in the dying days of the war and the shaky first moments of peace, may have carried off as many as 50 million around the world. We think of a Europe that once led the world in wealth, innovation, and political power, only to emerge from the war diminished, its Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in tatters, Bolshevism and ethnic nationalism threatening more upheaval and misery.

The calamity of the 1930s was not foreordained at Versailles.

Yet when the Allies gathered at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles 100 years ago, from January to June 1919, the time was also one of hope. The Allied leaders promised their own peoples a better world in recompense for all they had suffered, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made of those promises a crusade for humankind: a War to End All Wars, a World Safe for Democracy. Wilson’s League of Nations was meant to create an international community of democratic nations. By providing collective security for one another, they would not only end aggression but build a fairer and more prosperous world. These ideas drew support around the globe—from Europe, where Wilson was greeted as a savior, to the West’s colonies, and even in struggling nations such as China.

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

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