The American Interest

A Century of Disorder

The Paris Peace Conference opened at the Palace of Versailles 100 years ago (January 18, 1919).  It was the most ambitious gathering of its kind in history: Leaders and diplomats of 27 nations convened to shape the future, a mere ten weeks after the Armistice.  Far from reestablishing order in Europe and the world after over four years of unprecedented carnage and destruction, however, it produced a flawed treaty that contained the seeds of another, even more destructive war a generation later.

A major weakness of the Versailles system was that two great European powers were not present.  Germany and her allies were excluded until after the details of all the peace treaties had been agreed upon by the Big Four—France, Britain, the United States, and Italy—and presented as faits accomplis to each of them separately.  Russia was not invited because the Bolsheviks had signed their separate peace with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

Brest-Litovsk was an important precursor of Versailles.  Ludendorff’s generals had formulated extremely harsh terms that were seen as excessive even by the German civilian negotiators.  This convinced the Entente powers that no reasonable agreement could be reached with Germany, and that they had to fight for an outright victory.  By imposing a Carthaginian peace on Russia, the Germans ensured that they could not count...

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