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The Treaty Of Versailles: An Uneasy Peace

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important agreement that came out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which followed the end of World War I. A new book, “The Treaty Of Versailles: A Concise History,” looks at how that treaty was assembled and examines its mixed legacy.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with the author, Michael Neiberg (@MichaelNeiberg).

Book Excerpt: ‘The Treaty Of Versailles: A Concise History’

By Michael Neiberg


The process of peacemaking lasted longer than the First World War it endeavored to end. The Paris Peace Conference began on January 18, 1919, on the anniversary of the coronation of the German Emperor Wilhelm I in the Palace of Versailles in 1871. That event had occurred at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, which had resulted in the unification of Germany and the seizure by the new Germany of two formerly French provinces, Alsace and Lorraine. Although the anger in France over these events had largely dissipated outside of right-wing circles by 1914, the First World War reawakened the memory of the harsh terms that Germany had imposed on France a half a century earlier. Those terms had included not just the loss of territory, but an occupation and a large financial indemnity, which the French paid ahead of schedule. Opening the Paris Peace Conference on such a historic anniversary served to remind the French of why, ostensibly, they had fought the war and who would pay for the damages this time. It has also contributed to the image of the Paris Peace Conference as one motivated primarily by vengeance.

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Although the senior statesmen stopped working personally on the conference in June 1919, the formal peace process did not really end until July 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed by France, Britain, Italy, Japan, Greece, and Romania with the new Republic of Turkey. Lausanne was a renegotiation prompted by the failures of the one-sided Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 1920 but immediately rejected by Turkish forces loyal to the war hero Mustafa Kemal. Sèvres had partitioned Turkey, ceding much of its territory to Armenia, Greece, France, and Britain, with Italy receiving a large zone of influence in southern Anatolia. The sultan had approved the treaty, but Kemal then led an army that deposed the sultan, threatened a renewal of war in the Middle East, and forced a true negotiation at Lausanne.

The conference also produced the Treaty of St. Germain with Austria in September 1919; the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria in November 1919; and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary in June 1920. These treaties meted out relatively lenient terms to Austria, especially given the Austrian elite’s central role in starting the war in 1914. Hungary came out much worse than Austria did, largely to punish Hungarians for their postwar flirtation with a communist movement. Thus the conference had as much to do with post-war politics as perceptions of pre-war guilt.

But the centerpiece of the Paris Peace Conference was always the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, five years to the day after a teenaged Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, had assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. The treaty and the conference are thus closely linked but not quite synonymous. None of the other treaties bear such a heavy historical responsibility for the world they created or the conflicts that followed, although perhaps they should. The Treaty of Sèvres in particular created the conditions for massive change in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Still, it is the Treaty of Versailles for which the Paris Peace Conference will probably be best remembered, and most often damned.

The dozens of statesmen, diplomats, and advisers who assembled in Paris in 1919 have come in for heavy criticism for writing treaties that failed to give Europe a lasting peace. Even many of the people most deeply involved with the peace process recognized their shortcomings early on, in some cases before the text had even been drafted. Perhaps most famously, British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a scathing indictment of the treaty in a 1920 bestseller entitled The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He predicted that the economic arrangements of the peace treaty would destabilize the European and global economies, leading to major financial crises. Similarly, American President Herbert Hoover criticized the Treaty of Versailles in his memoirs for causing the worldwide economic depression that began in 1929.

Participants quickly grew disillusioned by the old-fashioned horse trading and backroom dealing that overwhelmed the ideals and principles of those who had hoped to fashion a better world out of the ashes of the war. Few people came out of Paris optimistic about the future. Woodrow Wilson’s senior adviser on the Middle East, Columbia University Professor William L. Westermann, captured the views of many participants in his final diary entry from Paris, which described the treaty as “wrong in spirit and quite wrong in its methods.” Time soon proved him right. It is a great tragedy that so many people like Westermann had come to Paris optimistic only to leave totally disillusioned.

The Germans had hoped until the very end for a moderate treaty based on negotiation or the idealistic principles of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s ideas, as articulated in his Fourteen Points speech of January 1918, included a League of Nations, an end to secret diplomacy, freedom of the seas, and a reduction of national armaments. He also hoped to reshape the borders of Europe to remove nationalism as a cause of international conflict. Wilson saw his Fourteen Points as the basis for the construction of a new world order. Critics saw him as hopelessly naive about the true inner workings of the world. On seeing the Fourteen Points, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau quipped that God Himself was content to give mankind just ten. More importantly, the British saw Wilson’s program as a threat to their own power in the postwar world. Simply put, there was no point in fighting so hard to win the war if victory came on Wilson’s terms.

The Germans, however, had believed in the Fourteen Points because they offered a glimmer of hope. Germany therefore reacted with fury and anger to the final terms of the treaty. The Allies searched for German officials who would affix their names to such a lopsided treaty, then summarily called them into the majestic Hall of Mirrors at Versailles for a short and anticlimactic signing ceremony. The Germans were not the only ones who were disappointed. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the man who had done as much as anyone to secure Allied victory on the battlefield over those same Germans, protested the treaty by declining to attend the signing ceremony. Foch believed that the treaty did not do enough to ensure French and European security from a resurgent German threat. The Chinese delegation, too, stayed away in order to protest the cession of economic privileges in the Shandong Peninsula to Japan. Several senior Allied officials either resigned in protest at the terms of the treaty or strongly protested portions thereof. Some saw the treaty as too harsh toward Germany, others as too lenient. Almost everyone agreed, however, that the great challenge of the postwar years would be to find ways to rebuild Europe on the basis of a flawed treaty.

On the historical and legal side, the treaties that came out of the Paris Peace Conference were no more harsh than the Treaty of Frankfurt that had ended the Franco-Prussian War. They were in fact much more lenient than the treaties Germany imposed on Russia and Romania in 1918. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March, took away Poland, Finland, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus from Russia. With those territories went almost one-third of the Russian population and arable land as well as half of its industrial enterprises and a crippling 89 percent of its coal output. Shortly thereafter, the Germans imposed the Treaty of Bucharest on Romania, forcing the Romanians to lease their oil wells to Germany for ninety years, and to give the Carpathian Mountain region to Austria-Hungary and the Dobruja to Bulgaria. Both treaties put German puppet governments in place.

The Treaty of Versailles justifiably annulled the harsh terms of both Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest. It also proceeded from less acquisitive principles than those that had motivated the Germans. Defenders of French and British policy claimed (correctly) that had Germany won its leaders had planned to impose treaties on the model of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest on the British and French. In other words, they claimed, the Treaty of Versailles was far more reasonable than any peace that would have resulted from a German victory. Nor did the treaty demand an Allied victory parade through Berlin or the long-term occupation of any portion of Germany until the Germans had paid the indemnity in full. The Germans had imposed both conditions on the French in 1871.

To make flattering comparisons with such harsh treaties is, of course, to damn with faint praise. Other defenses of the treaty might note the relative stability of the 1920s as evidence of a reasonable foundation for rebuilding that the treaty left to Europe. French diplomat Aristide Briand and his German counterpart Gustav Stresemann negotiated the Locarno Treaty in 1925, which led to German admittance into the League of Nations. It earned the two men the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize. Locarno left a legacy that led to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which Germany signed, that renounced war as a means of resolving international disputes. It also helped to make possible the 1929 Young Plan that renegotiated German war debt and reduced the reparations that the Treaty of Versailles imposed to a manageable level. Had the international economy not collapsed soon thereafter, there could have been further acts of reconciliation. In other words, it is not too much to put the blame for the crises of the 1930s on the Great Depression more than the Treaty of Versailles itself.

The Treaty of Versailles also left Germany in a surprisingly strong geostrategic position. By creating Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states, the treaty put buffer states between Germany and one of its traditional rivals, Russia. Fighting among the new states weakened them, and the geography of their new borders made them difficult to defend. Thus Germany emerged from the war with small, relatively weak states on its eastern border. By making both Germany and the Soviet Union pariah states, moreover, the Allies inadvertently opened the door to cooperation between them. For example, it enabled the Treaty of Rapallo, signed in 1922, which buried all grievances the two had against one another and allowed Germany to test new military equipment in Russia, far away from prying French eyes. It also gave each state an incentive to see Poland as a mutual enemy, especially since the Allies had created Poland largely out of formerly German and Russian territory. German nationalists called Poland “the bastard child of Versailles” and Soviet diplomats often referred to it as “Western Belarus” in order to deny it even a nominal place in the new Europe.

To a lesser extent, the same might be said of the German relationship with Italy. Although a nominal victor in the war, Italy, too, came away deeply dissatisfied with the treaty. Like the Germans, the interwar Italian government railed against the perfidy of the French and the British. This shared anger helped to lay a foundation for German-Italian cooperation after the war. Finally, because most of Germany’s overseas colonies had been costly to operate in the years before the war, their loss enabled the Germans to focus resources on Europe. In other words, Germany managed to emerge from the Treaty of Versailles in a position that gave it plenty of opportunities if it could rebuild its economy and play its cards skillfully.

Serious German and French strategists read the treaty this way, arguing that it had left France in a far weaker position in 1919 than it had been in 1914. In particular, France no longer had an alliance with Russia to balance Germany and intense French efforts to build Poland into a reliable eastern ally proved hard to sustain. Nor had Allied politicians taken Foch’s advice to detach the German lands west of the Rhine River and create a separate Rhenish state tied to France by a mutual security pact. Instead, the treaty compromised by demilitarizing the Rhineland and imposing limits on the size of the German army and the kinds of weapons the Germans could possess. As Foch predicted, however, these limits proved almost impossible to monitor and the Germans found ways to skirt them, such as the Rapallo agreements to train soldiers and test equipment in Russia.

Points in its defense notwithstanding, it is difficult to contradict the views of contemporaries and later scholars who have seen the treaty as a great missed opportunity and a source of considerable anger and disillusion in Europe and around the world. When in 1945 the leaders of the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain gathered in Potsdam to end the Second World War, they all blamed the failures of the Treaty of Versailles for having made the war of 1939-45 necessary. The final decisions reached at Potsdam in 1945 were deeply influenced by these memories and the desire on the part of almost everyone at Potsdam to atone for the mistakes of their predecessors a generation earlier.

Of course, we must accept the basic truth that no document, even if thoughtfully written and elegantly implemented, could have closed the Pandora’s box that Europe opened in 1914. No treaty could have explained to the Germans why they had lost or make them accept the basic fact of their defeat. Instead, having been lied to by their senior leaders, millions of Germans accepted the convenient fiction that their armies had not really been defeated on the battlefield but had instead been betrayed at home. The fact that Allied armies never invaded German soil helped to fuel that poisonous myth, which German politicians intentionally spread to serve their own purposes. By June 1919, that version of history was already commonplace in Germany, and not only in right-wing circles.

Nor were the Allies, desperate to reduce defense expenses and the risks of further bloodshed, willing to commit to a long-term occupation or monitoring of Germany to enforce whatever terms the Germans might accept. Indeed, many Allied politicians, especially in Britain, wanted to see Germany quickly recover, both to restore a balance of power on the continent and for German consumers to once more be in a position to buy British goods. Britain needed a treaty that kept Germany strong enough to serve as the engine of a postwar European economic recovery but not strong enough to pose a threat to the European political system. It is highly unlikely that any treaty could have negotiated that peculiarly deadly Scylla and Charybdis of the postwar years.

From the perspective of the French, the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine might excite nationalist politicians and serve as a patriotic background for numerous postwar celebrations, but it did not justify the deaths of an estimated 1.4 million Frenchmen. Nor did the French feel safe after 1919. In addition to the strategic considerations outlined above, the French knew that they still faced a more populous Germany to their east. They also knew that their former allies were either gone (Czarist Russia) or unwilling to sign a mutual security agreement to come to France’s help in the future (the United States and the United Kingdom). They also faced the tremendous task of rebuilding their farms, mines, and factories while those in Germany remained intact. The euphoric mood of November 1918 did not last long.

That the peace conference would take place in Paris was never seriously in doubt, despite the wishes of the British delegation for a smaller and less emotionally-charged site. When the British proposed other locations, Clemenceau, as hard-hearted as any politician in Europe, wept. Paris had the advantage of being large enough to host as big a conference as anyone could envision and it also served as a kind of symbolic reward for the sacrifices of the French people. Paris was, of course, also a traditional capital for diplomacy. Still, British fears that a Paris conference would quickly turn into a circus and a magnet for any group with a grievance were not far off the mark.

People did come to Paris, and they came in droves. The British, who had had fourteen official representatives at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, brought more than 400 officials to Paris in 1919. The Americans brought with them dozens of advisers known collectively as the Inquiry. Along with the diplomats came swarms of journalists, politicians, and would-be influence peddlers. They included the young Indochinese patriot Nyugen Ai Quoc, who later changed his name to Ho Chi Minh; the well-connected Romanian Queen Marie, who hoped to use her popularity to help her native land come out of the conference strong despite its humiliating defeat on the battlefield; and the Arabian Emir Faisal, who came to cash in on British promises that he would control a large Arab state in exchange for his leadership of a revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

But the biggest celebrity of all was the mercurial, contradictory, sanctimonious, and occasionally charismatic American president, Woodrow Wilson. He was the first American president to leave the United States while in office. That remarkable fact had as much to do with American attitudes toward the outside world as it did about early twentieth-century transportation limitations. Wilson received an ecstatic welcome from the people of Europe. At least for a little while, Europeans tired of war and conflict saw him as a potential savior from the old system and a possible architect of a newer, more just world.

But that feeling did not last long. European leaders quickly came to dislike Wilson’s constant moralizing, his lack of understanding of the problems of Europe, and his stubborn unwillingness to see the destruction of France with his own eyes for fear, he said, of the devastation hardening his heart toward Germany. By the time the conference ended, almost everyone in Europe, and many members of the American delegation itself, had grown weary of Wilson and frustrated with his ineffectiveness at the conference.

One of those Americans, the future American ambassador to the Soviet Union William Bullitt, resigned before the treaty was finalized and left Paris to, in his own words, “lie on the sand and watch the world go to hell.” The Treaty of Versailles is not solely responsible for the hell that Europe and the world did in fact go through just a few years later, but it played a critical role. If we are to understand diplomacy, decolonization, World War II, and the twentieth century more generally, there is no better place to begin than with World War I and the treaty that tried to end it.

True peace did not come to Europe for many more decades, after a second world war and an often precarious Cold War. During the latter, the presence of American and Soviet forces kept Germany and France from even thinking of continuing their feud. The integration of their armed forces into alliances controlled by the superpowers removed the possibility of their acting with military force against one another. On a more positive note, the increased integration of their economies into the European Union gave them incentives to opt for peace rather than conflict. Over time, the people of France and Germany themselves came to reject the very idea of war against one another, opting instead to open the border between them, share a currency, and coordinate regularly on foreign policy. The Treaty of Versailles can take no credit for any of these positive reforms, except perhaps as a warning from history of what not to do.

It is not the point of this book to rescue the reputation of the Treaty of Versailles. Nor will it make any judgments about who “won” and who “lost.” With the perspective of a century, it seems quite obvious that the Treaty of Versailles produced a legion of losers and precious few winners. This book has a more modest goal. It will offer a brief introduction to the complex world of 1919, the individuals who played starring roles in that year, and the many factors that produced this treaty. We can debate the abiding influence of the treaty on the world we inhabit today but there can be no doubt about its importance in shaping the twentieth century.

Excerpted from the book THE TREATY OF VERSAILLES: A CONCISE HISTORY by Michael Neiberg. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Neiberg. Republished with permission of Oxford University Press.

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