One hundred years ago, one of the most important conferences in the 20th century began (on 28 June 1919) culminating in the negotiation of a portentous document (finalised on 10 January 1920) that has had ramifications ever since. The Treaty of Versailles – signed to put a formal end to Word War I – turned out to be a disastrous script offering nothing but grief. It would lead in future decades to the death of millions and the chaos of the world in which we continue to live today.
For the first six months of 1919, the leaders of the great powers descended on Paris to reshape their world. Empires were broken up and horse-traded over tea and biscuits in the Quai d’Orsay as new countries were discussed and confirmed – or not. Royalty, journalists, economists, bankers, prostitutes, politicians and other con men poured in to make their unique contributions to building a ‘new world order.’
Although 27 nations attended the Peace Conference at Versailles, it was President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau of France who dominated the proceedings. They came to the table determined upon a settlement that would keep Germany down, albeit tempered by liberal-democratic ideals: a settlement intended to get rid of the catalysts for future conflict, or at least control them.
The problem was that everyone attending the negotiations had a different agenda. Belgium and France wanted payback and security from the warlike Germans across the Rhine. Britain had already got most of its war aims. Wilson insisted that there should be ‘peace without victory’, believing that that if Germany was treated too harshly she might seek revenge, and start another war. He came to Europe determined to preach that the sacred legacy of the Founding Fathers and American political ideas were universally intended for the good of all mankind. Cynics – including Lloyd George and Clémenceau – were sceptical.
The cracks emerged early on in the proceedings. Unlike the high-minded President, the British PM was a slippery, unprincipled pragmatist: in the US advisor’s words, he was ‘a mischief-maker who changes his mind like a weather cock’; and Clémenceau’s judgement was even harsher: ‘Lloyd George is a trickster… Lloyd George has deceived me. He made me the finest promises, and now he breaks them.’ Clémenceau was heard to growl: ‘Between the crooked Lloyd George and the saintly Wilson, it’s like sitting between Napoleon and Jesus Christ.’
Wilson’s demand for a League of Nations to control his new world order was dealt with rapidly. Lloyd George agreed with the idealistic American to keep him happy, as did Clémenceau, both believing that although the League was theoretically a good idea, it would never work. Wilson virtuously lectured them all on ‘American values and principles of liberty and independence as a perpetual charter for the whole world.’ The startled delegates moved on rapidly to safer topics.
Russia was not represented at Versailles, even though the country was theoretically one of the victorious belligerents. The new Bolshevik regime spurned international diplomacy, concentrating instead on exporting revolution to their erstwhile allies’ home countries. The problem was that Russia was still legally an ally. However the subversive aims of Bolshevism, Lenin’s flat refusal to pay Russia’s debts, and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, sent a shiver down the spines of European politicians, aware that they were seeing something new and alarming on the international scene.
The other important reason was that war-weary Western public opinion was decidedly hostile to any new war; in many places (such as Red Clydeside and Liverpool) people actually supported the Bolsheviks. In 1919 Whitehall was terrified of a British revolution. So the powers opted to isolate Red Russia by blockade and provide dwindling support for the anti-Bolshevik Whites. It was a policy that would cost the unfortunate Russian masses dear over the next 70 years.
The other big absentee from the negotiating table was Germany. Most Europeans were understandably bitter about the legacy of the ‘Second Reich’. Their millions of dead stood as a mute reproach to any calls for leniency towards German militarism. Clémenceau of France, demanding ‘victory with vengeance’, insisted that the defeated must expect little mercy from the victors. His aims were clear: to punish Germany; to make the Germans pay for all the damage they had done to France and Belgium; to recover Alsace and Lorraine; and to restrict Germany military power to ensure that it was forever weaker than France. The Germans were not consulted. Berlin was, in historian Norman Stone’s dry comment, ‘just expected to sign on the dotted line.’
Meanwhile the peacemakers turned their attention to creating a new and supposedly more peaceful Europe. New countries sprang up in the Balkans, where the war had started in 1914. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Greece all got new borders. The Slavs got a national home in Yugoslavia and an independent Poland was created with a curious corridor to Danzig on the Baltic, isolating East Prussia, and creating a serious international hostage to fortune. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia suddenly appeared. Italy’s frontiers took in former Austrian territories inhabited by Italians. Ottoman Turkey lost everything as their empire was parcelled out. Further east the French got Syria – much to TE Lawrence and the Arabs’ dismay – and the British got the oil in what was now Iraq and Persia. (Kurdistan was completely overlooked, because Lloyd George had never heard of it and didn’t know where it was.)
When the details of the treaty were published in June 1919 German reaction was surprised and outraged. The still-blockaded German government was given just three weeks to accept the terms of the treaty, take it or leave it. Its immediate response was a lengthy list of complaints, most of which were simply ignored. The terms of the treaty were seen as an unreasonable Diktat, clearly intended to ensure that Germany remained militarily and economically powerless. After all, argued the militarists of the ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ nationalists, Germany had never actually ‘lost’ the war.
The final terms of the Treaty were indeed harsh. The blame for the whole war was placed firmly on Germany. The ‘War Guilt Clause’ (Article 231) in particular was judged very unfair. How could Germany be the only country to blame for the war? The war had been caused because a Serbian hothead had assassinated an Austrian Prince. Germans believed that they were being made the scapegoats for everything.
Berlin was also ordered to pay reparations of around 226 billion gold marks. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men, the navy to six warships and no submarines; and all military aircraft were to be destroyed. Heavy artillery, gas, tanks and military aircraft were banned. In addition, there was to be no military presence within 30 miles of the east bank of the Rhine. Kaiser William II and some German army officers were found guilty of ‘war-crimes.’
The Allies also foisted a new form of government on Germany to prevent the country from being taken over by a dictatorship. Instead ‘proportional representation’ would lead to more than 30 political parties, and the Weimar Republic’s eventual weakness and collapse.
The final act of Versailles was overshadowed by German’s refusals to sign. Political chaos reigned in Germany. The government folded and no politician was prepared to put his signature to what was seen as a dishonourable capitulation. Without a government there could be no Treaty. The Germans said that if the offending articles were removed, then they would sign. Paris refused, threatening to start Foch’s armies marching again. Germany backed down, sending two subordinate ministers to sign.
On 28 June 1919, in a glittering ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Peace Treaty to end World War I was finally signed. Next day Paris rejoiced, en fête; but in Germany the flags were at half mast.
Later generations would be left to deal with the problems of a resurgent Germany and the USSR, let alone Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli wars, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and control of global oil supplies.
All consequences of Versailles: the 20th century’s political Pandora’s Box…