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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 turned into the disillusionment, division, and aggression of the 1930s.
This outcome was not foreordained at Versailles. Although some of the decisions made upon ending the war in 1919 certainly fueled populist demagoguery and inspired dreams of revenge, the calamity of World War II owed as much to the failure of the democracies’ leaders in the interwar decades to deal with rule-breaking dictators such as Mussolini, Hitler, and the Japanese militarists. A century later, similar forces—ethnic nationalism, eroding international norms and cooperation, and vindictive chauvinism—and authoritarian leaders willing to use them are again appearing. The past is an imperfect teacher, its messages often obscure or ambiguous, but it offers both guidance and warning.
“Making peace is harder than waging war,” French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau reflected in 1919 as the victorious powers drew up peace terms, finalized the shape of the new League of Nations, and tried to rebuild Europe and the global order.
For Clemenceau and his colleagues, among them Wilson and David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, the prospect was particularly daunting. Unlike in 1815, when negotiators met in Vienna to wind up the Napoleonic Wars, in 1919 Europe was not tired of war and revolution. Nor had aggressor nations been utterly defeated and occupied, as they would be in 1945. Rather, leaders in 1919 confronted a world in turmoil. Fighting continued throughout much of eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had apparently set off a series of unstoppable revolutionary waves that threatened to overwhelm even the victors’ societies.
The war had damaged or destroyed old political and social structures, particularly in Central Europe, leaving formerly stable and prosperous peoples adrift, desperate for someone or something to restore their status and a form of order. Ethnic nationalists seized the opportunity to build new countries, but these states were often hostile to one another and oppressive to their own minorities. Inevitably, too, old and new rivalries came to the surface as leaders in Paris maneuvered to promote the interests of their nations.
Wilson and company also had to deal with a phenomenon that their forerunners at the Congress of Vienna had never had to consider: public opinion. The publics in Allied countries took an intense interest in what was happening in Paris, but what they wanted was contradictory: a better world of the Wilsonian vision, on the one hand, and retribution on the other.
Many Europeans felt that someone must be made to pay for the war. In France and Belgium, which Germany had invaded on the flimsiest of pretexts, the countryside lay in ruins, with towns, mines, railways, and factories destroyed. Across the border, Germany was unscathed, because little of the war had been fought there. The British had lent vast sums to their allies (their Russian debts were beyond hope of recovery), had borrowed heavily from the Americans, and wanted recompense.
John Maynard Keynes, not yet the world-renowned economist he was to become, suggested that the Americans write off the money the British owed them so as to reduce the need to extract reparations from the defeated and then concentrate on getting Europe’s economy going again. The Americans, Wilson included, rejected the proposal with self-righteous horror. And so the Allied statesmen drew up a reparations bill that they knew was more than the defeated could ever pay. Austria and Hungary were impoverished remnants of a once vast Habsburg empire, Bulgaria was broke, and the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of disintegrating. That left only Germany capable of meeting the reparations bill.
The circumstances of Germany’s defeat had left its citizens in no mood to pay. That feeling would grow stronger over the decade to follow. And its outcome contains a warning for our era: the feelings and expectations of both the winners and the losers, however unrealistic, matter and require careful management.
Toward the end of the war, the German High Command under Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg had effectively established a military dictatorship that kept all news from the front under wraps. The civilian government in Berlin knew as little as the public about the string of defeats the country’s military suffered in the late spring and summer of 1918. When the High Command suddenly demanded that the government immediately sue for an armistice, the announcement came like a thunderbolt.
The German chancellor appealed to Wilson in a series of open letters, and the U.S. president, somewhat to the annoyance of the European Allies, took on the role of arbiter between the warring sides. In doing so, Wilson made two mistakes. First, he negotiated with Germany’s civilian government rather than the High Command, allowing the generals to avoid responsibility for the war and its outcome. As time went by, the High Command and its right-wing supporters put out the false story that Germany had never lost on the battlefield: the German military could have fought on, perhaps even to victory, if the cowardly civilians had not let it down. Out of this grew the poisonous myth that Germany had been stabbed in the back by an assortment of traitors, including liberals, socialists, and Jews.
Second, Wilson’s public statements that he would not support punitive indemnities or a peace of vengeance reinforced German hopes that the United States would ensure that Germany was treated lightly. The U.S. president’s support for the revolution that overthrew Germany’s old monarchy and paved the way for the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic compounded this misplaced optimism. Weimar, its supporters argued, represented a new and better Germany that should not pay for the sins of the old.
Many Europeans felt that someone must be made to pay for the war, but the circumstances of Germany’s defeat had left its citizens in no mood to pay.
The French and other Allies, however, were less concerned with Germany’s domestic politics than with its ability to resume fighting. The armistice signed in the famous railway carriage at Compiègne on November 11, 1918, reads like a surrender, not a cessation of hostilities. Germany would have to evacuate all occupied territory and hand over its heavy armaments, as well as the entirety of its navy.
Even so, the extent of the military defeat was not immediately clear to the German public. Troops returning from the front marched into Berlin in December 1918, and the new socialist chancellor hailed them with the words “No enemy has overcome you.” Apart from those living in the Rhineland on the western edge of the country, Germans did not experience firsthand the shame of military occupation. As a result, many Germans, living in what Max Weber called the dreamland of the winter of 1918–19, expected the Allies’ peace terms to be mild—milder, certainly, than those Germany had imposed on revolutionary Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The country might even expand if Austria, newly formed out of the German-speaking territories of the vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire, decided to join its fate to Germany’s.
The actual Treaty of Versailles, published in the spring of 1919, came as a shock. Public opinion from right to left was dismayed to learn that Germany would have to disarm, lose territory, and pay reparations for war damage. Resentment focused in particular on Article 231 of the treaty, in which Germany accepted responsibility for starting the war and which a young American lawyer, John Foster Dulles, had written to provide a legal basis for claiming reparations. Germans loathed the “war guilt” clause, as it came to be known, and there was little will to pay reparations.
Weimar Germany—much like Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union—nursed a powerful and lasting sense of national humiliation. For many years, the German Foreign Office and its right-wing supporters did their best to further undermine the legitimacy of the Treaty of Versailles. With the help of selectively released documents, they argued that Germany and its allies were innocent of starting the war. Instead, Europe had somehow stumbled into disaster, so that either everyone or no one was responsible. The Allies could have done more to challenge German views about the origins of the war and the unfairness of the treaty. Instead, at least in the case of the English-speaking peoples, they eventually came rather to agree with the German narrative, and this fed into the appeasement policies of the 1930s.
Peace would take a very different form in 1945. With memories of the previous two decades fresh in their minds, the Allies forced the Axis powers into unconditional surrender. Germany and Japan were to be utterly defeated and occupied. Selected leaders would be tried for war crimes and their societies reshaped into liberal democracies. Invasive and coercive though it was, the post–World War II peace generated far less resentment about unfair treatment than did the arrangements that ended World War I.
The terms of Versailles were not the only obstacle to a lasting resolution of European conflicts in 1919. London and Washington also undermined the chances for peace by quickly turning their backs on Germany and the rest of the continent.
Although it was never as isolationist as some have claimed, the United States turned inward soon after the Paris Peace Conference. Congress rejected the Treaty of Versailles and, by extension, the League of Nations. It also failed to ratify the guarantee given to France that the United Kingdom and the United States would come to its defense if Germany attacked. Americans became all the more insular as the calamitous Great Depression hit and their attention focused on their domestic troubles.
The United States’ withdrawal encouraged the British—already distracted by troubles brewing in the empire—to renege on their commitment to the guarantee. France, left to itself, attempted to form the new and quarreling states in Central Europe into an anti-German alliance, but its attempts turned out to be as ill-fated as the Maginot Line in the west. One wonders how history might have unfolded if London and Washington, instead of turning away, had built a transatlantic alliance with a strong security commitment to France and pushed back against Adolf Hitler’s first aggressive moves while there was still time to stop him.
London and Washington undermined the chances for peace by quickly turning their backs on the continent.
Again, the post-1945 world was different from the one that emerged in 1919. The United States, now the world’s leading power, joined the United Nations and the economic institutions set up at Bretton Woods. It also committed itself to the security and reconstruction of western Europe and Japan. Congress approved these initiatives in part because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made building the postwar order a bipartisan enterprise—unlike Wilson, who doomed the League of Nations by alienating the Republicans. Wilson’s failure had encouraged the isolationist strain in U.S. foreign policy; Roosevelt, followed by Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, countered and contained that impulse. The specter of communism also did its part by alarming even the isolationists. The establishment of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe, and Soviet rhetoric about the coming struggle against capitalism, persuaded many Americans that they faced a pressing danger that required continued engagement with allies in Europe and Asia.
Today’s world is not wholly comparable to the worlds that emerged from the rubble of the two world wars. Yet as the United States once again turns inward and tends only to its immediate interests, it risks ignoring or underestimating the rise of populist dictators and aggressive powers until the hour is dangerously late. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has already violated international rules and norms, most notably in Crimea, and others—such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Chinese President Xi Jinping—seem willing to do the same. And as Washington and other democratic powers abdicate their responsibility for the world, smaller powers may abandon their hopes for a peaceful international order and instead submit to the bullies in their neighborhoods. A hundred years on, 1919 and the years that followed still stand as a somber warning.