A hundred years ago, on June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the illustrious Hall of Mirrors, the same spot where the German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871. It was the most ambitious gathering of its kind in history. Leaders and diplomats of 27 nations convened to establish a new order and make the world “safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson had summarized America’s war aims in his message to Congress two years earlier.
Far from reestablishing a solid new order after over four years of carnage and destruction, the Treaty was deeply flawed from the outset. It produced an unstable system which lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the vanquished states, especially Germany. This hindered their prospects of eventual integration into the new order, or even their willingness to try doing so in good faith. Perhaps it could not have been otherwise:
The war had been of such magnitude – affecting so many lives directly, creating both domestic and international divisions, and engendering insatiable expectations of the peace – that the peacemakers were all but impotent to deal sensibly with its consequences. This was not a settlement in which the peacemakers carelessly let the opportunity for consensus–building slip through their fingers: the basic problem of Versailles was that no such consensus could possibly be found.
“Versailles” contained the seeds of another, even more destructive war a generation later. On the centennial of the convening of the conference I wrote an article for the print edition of Chronicles (“A Century of Disorder,” January 2019) dealing with the Treaty’s shortcomings and their consequences. Today’s anniversary calls for a rewrite and more detailed treatment of some key themes. The subject is relevant in our own time: since the end of the Cold War, the bipartisan “foreign policy community” in Washington has been trying to create and uphold an international system based on America’s self-proclaimed authority to impose the universal regime of “benevolent global hegemony.”
The misnamed “international community” of our more or less reliable allies and partners excludes over two-thirds of humanity (China, India, Russia, Iran, subsaharan Africa, most of the Muslim world, much of Latin America). Outside its domain, the “rules-based liberal international order” is regarded as illegitimate ab initio and tainted by wanton illegality (as illustrated by the hegemon’s regime-change mania, promiscuous sanctioning of friend and foe, and undeclared wars against optional enemies).
A major weakness of the Versailles system was that two major 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. This was in marked contrast to the Congress of Vienna (November 1814-June 1815), which secured almost a century of relative stability and unprecedented prosperity to Europe.
In spite of its quarter-century of systemic disruption during the Revolution and Napoleon’s many wars of aggression, France was present at the table. She was deprived of all territories annexed in the course of Napoleon’s conquests, but her borders were not pushed back beyond those of 1789. The victorious Four Great Powers (Russia, Great Britain, Austria and Prussia) wisely decided not to treat her as a pariah with no stake in the new order. The “fifth” power was ably represented by its foreign minister, Talleyrand. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord had been Napoleon’s chief diplomat during the Emperor’s victorious marches through Europe, but he switched sides after the disasters of 1812-13 and facilitated the Bourbon restoration which the Allies desired. He negotiated a settlement which was advantageous to France. To this day his name is synonymous with diplomatic skill, resourcefulness and craft.
When the German High Command finally gave up in 1918 (the ensuing stab-in-the-back myth notwithstanding), with the Kaiser abdicating and the Armistice signed on November 11, many Germans hoped that they would be treated like the Bourbon-restored France was treated in Vienna. This was not to be. Germany’s behavior before and during the war, including the execution of thousands of French and Belgian civilians, introduction of poison gas, unrestricted submarine warfare, and comprehensive destruction of occupied areas in the east and west alike, made a peace of reconciliation politically impossible.
The spirit of revenge primarily applied to the posture of France. President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister Georges “le Tigre” Clemenceau got a treaty–having overcome Woodrow Wilson’s and Lloyd George’s objections–with which they sought to punish Germany as harshly as she had punished France in the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. The result was a document harsh in its terms and immediate consequences, but untenable in the grand-strategic terms.
The Treaty of Versailles contained many provisions that the Germans had fully expected, such as returning Alsace and Lorraine–annexed in 1871–back to France. Minor territorial adjustments along the border with Belgium and a plebiscite in northern Schleswig allowing its native Danes to choose between joining Denmark or remaining with Germany was consistent with the principle of national self-determination. This principle was not extended to a future union between Germany and the German remnant of Austria. Far more seriously, Germany lost some 10 percent of territory, including the Baltic corridor, to the newly-reconstituted Poland. This was an intolerable injustice to most Germans, and a clear violation of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
In addition, the war guilt clause (Article 231) united most Germans in opposition to the Treaty. Except for the far Left, which was interested in revolution rather than reconstruction, they rejected it en masse, regardless of class or political association:
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
Article 231 was added as a sop to the French and Belgians in order to make them accept lower reparations than originally demanded. It was bitterly resented in Germany, though, and hampered the work of those Weimar politicians who struggled in the 1920’s to meet the terms of the Treaty while trying at the same time to have them modified. In addition Germany’s colonies were partitioned among the victors, her merchant shipping was reduced to one-tenth of its prewar size, her foreign financial holdings were confiscated, and her armed forces were reduced to 100,000 men without an air force, a navy (except for coastal craft), or heavy weaponry, including tanks, for the Reichswehr.
The ink was barely dry on the final treaty when its long-term consequences were forecast with prophetic precision by John Maynard Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (December 1919). Keynes had attended the Versailles conference as an economic expert, but departed in protest because he disagreed with the draft treaty’s punitive character. Keynes accurately predicted that the huge reparations and territorial losses imposed on Germany by the Treaty would have dire economic and political consequences for Europe and the world.
On the other hand, the country’s long-term potential for recovery was left intact in 1919. Most importantly, Germany remained unified and unoccupied. After a period of revolutionary turmoil and hyperinflation, and in spite of the terms imposed in Versailles, the new Republic never ceded the Kaiserreich’s status as Europe’s most powerful economy, second only to the United States in the world. The French demanded and received the bulk of 132 billion gold marks ($500 billion in today’s dollars) which Germany was ordered to pay in reparations to cover civilian damage caused during the war. There was an insoluble snag, though: to pay the enormous bill, German economy would have to remain powerful and allowed to grow, which the French regarded as a calamity. In the end, between 1919 and 1932, Germany paid less than one-sixth of that sum.
An additional handicap of Versailles was the fact that Russia was not invited. The Bolsheviks were excluded under the pretext that their government had signed their separate peace with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The real reason was more likely ideological, but Brest-Litovsk nevertheless was an important precursor of Versailles. Ludendorff’s generals had formulated and imposed extremely harsh conditions on the Russians, including massive annexations of territory. These terms in particular were regarded as excessive even by the German civilian negotiators. The Brest Peace convinced the Entente 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 on anyone’s lenience, President Wilson included, when things went catastrophically wrong for them – as they did in the summer and fall of 1918. When they later complained that Versailles was too harsh on them, the Allies could point out that, for all its strictures, it was in fact far less brutal than the one they had imposed on Russia just 15 months earlier.
It is an additional irony of Versailles that the settlements eventually proved to be a source of weakness for those who appeared to have gained the most. Resurrected Poland’s lands east of the Curzon Line and its corridor to the Baltic (which cut Germany in two), Czechoslovakia’s possession of the Sudetenland with its three and a half million Germans, Romania’s doubling in size in many mostly Magyar lands, and the creation of a chronically unstable Yugoslavia with its many minorities, created a constant source of revanchist malevolence among the losers. They could argue, with reason, that many of these arrangements–and notably the Corridor–violated the principle of self-determination heralded in Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Eventually they exacted their revenge, starting with Munich, less than two decades later.
A century after Versailles, and eight decades after the system based upon that flawed treaty collapsed, the world needs order more than ever. Not the order of “benevolent global hegemony” based on full-spectrum dominance of the United States, but an order – possible and necessary – which would be based on a multilateral balance-of-power system which accepts each key player as both legitimate and permanent. Of course this is the exact opposite of the relentless Russophobic expansion of NATO, the promotion of color-coded revolutions, the many wars in the Middle East which have had disastrous consequences for the countries concerned and for the rationally articulated American interest.
The phenomenon of Western civilizational weakness–as manifested in its demographic crisis and ongoing immigrant invasion, which are both geopolitical and cultural threats of the highest order–were not on the agenda at Versailles, although the root causes of the rot were visible even before the catastrophe of 1914. Indeed, the realities of the early 20th century may provide but a limited guidance for the many challenges we face in the 21st. What remains is the harking for “Order” anchored in an earlier, more polished age, an age incompatible with the chaos, brutality and cultural and civilizational collapse which characterize the one we live in.
(Photo source: CC BY-SA 3.0)