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Versailles – The Terrible Treaty

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…

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Why D-Day Matters

The invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on 6 June 1944, was the Western Allies’ most critical operation of World War II.

By 1942 German armies had overrun most of Europe, North Africa and the western Soviet Union. They set up murderous police states and imprisoned million of people in the pursuit of implementing a policy of breeding a Germanic master race. With gas chambers and firing squads, Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, gypsies, disabled people and others undesirable to the Nazi regime. If the attack, nicknamed ‘Operation Overlord’, had failed – and Hitler’s Wehrmacht had succeeded in pushing the invaders back into the sea – then world history would have been altered. ‘It’s hard to imagine what the consequences would have been had the Allies lost,’ says Timothy Rives, of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. ‘You could make the argument that they saved the world.’

Failure on D-Day would have freed Hitler to redeploy 20 more divisions, including eight Panzers, to meet the Red Army’s summer 1944 onslaught on the Eastern Front. The German generals would never have risked their 20 July bomb plot against a now victorious Führer and Germany’s V-weapons programme would have had the critical extra time it needed to produce thousands more new rockets and jet fighters. Many people forget that, even with D-Day and the Allied bombing offensive, German industrial production peaked in September 1944.

Also, as Andrew Roberts points out, if the Russians had overwhelmed the German armies in the East, nothing could have prevented the whole of Western Europe – perhaps even as far as Paris – falling to Joseph Stalin’s USSR.

The 50 miles of Normandy coastline is therefore one of the most important battlefields of World War II. Today’s golden tourist beaches witnessed the start of one the most ambitious and historically important campaigns in human history. In its strategy and scope – and with its enormous stakes for the future of the free world – it was among the greatest military achievements ever. The Western Allies’ goal was simple and clear cut: to put an end to the Germany military machine and topple Adolf Hitler’s barbarous Nazi regime.

For the very old men of the surviving British, American and Canadian troops who spearheaded that assault at dawn on what one commentator called ‘the longest day’, this year’s anniversary was special. It will be their last big celebration of their victory, 75 years ago in the summer of 1944. Amid the beautiful French holiday countryside, one of the most critical struggles of the twentieth century took place. It was a struggle that would eventually end at the gates of Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin on the last day of April 1945, as a demented and broken Hitler poisoned his dog and his mistress, before finally blowing his own brains out.

But D-Day nearly didn’t happen. The whole enterprise was delayed for 24 hours by bad weather and heavy seas. Having taken the momentous decision, on the night before the invasion Eisenhower drafted an ‘In case of failure’ note, to be published if necessary: ‘If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone,’ he wrote. Like all professional soldiers, he knew that in the final analysis – assuming that his soldiers had weapons and would fight – only two factors are of paramount importance in war: intelligence and logistics.

On both counts the Allies triumphed. One of the biggest and most successful deception operations ever fed the German General Staff a brilliantly conceived and executed stream of false intelligence. From a phantom ‘4th Army’ in Scotland, preparing to invade Norway, to Patton’s massive ‘1st US Army Group’ in Kent, with its thousands of rubber tanks, fake landing craft and a mock oil depot across from the Pas de Calais at Dover, the Germans were completely fooled. In reality the busiest warriors were a few hundred Allied radio operators busy transmitting phoney signals to simulate non-existent armies’ radio traffic.

What is also often forgotten also is the staggering scale of the logistic back-up effort put in to ensure that the amphibious assault went well.

The statistics of all the materiel the Allies piled up on the beaches of southern England to support the invasion are mind blowing – not just in scale, but in attention to detail. All over southern England massive new ammo and supply dumps mushroomed. Millions of tons of stores, 100,000 vehicles and 250,000 men piled into the Channel coast bases in the spring of 1944. One of those supply units alone piled up 3 500 tons of soap, which Eisenhower insisted went to France so that his soldiers could take baths.

‘Ike’ had 3 million troops under his command; what they all devoured in just one day was stupendous. According to historian Rick Atkinson, US commanders had ‘calculated daily combat consumption, from fuel to bullets to chewing gum, at 41,298 pounds per soldier. Sixty million K-rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales.’

With his experiences of the Somme and Gallipoli, Churchill was deeply pessimistic about casualties. There is ample evidence that he harboured grave misgivings about the whole enterprise. The US Chiefs of Staff were having none of it. They insisted that casualty evacuation was given particular attention. Many of the ships headed across the channel for France, had no soldiers on board. Instead, they carried some 30,000 stretchers, 96,000 blankets and tons of supplies – blood, dressings, splints, plasma, beds, to name a few – for the assault troops that would land at Normandy.

Once ashore, a sophisticated and well-organised system of field hospitals swung into action. Medics on the beach applied basic first aid as they sorted the casualties. The ‘transportable wounded’ were embarked on to the very ships that had carried the blankets that now covered them. Across the channel they were loaded on to trains for the 150 American-built hospitals across southern England. This was the medical staffs’ vital contribution: to save lives, none more so than the forward Casualty Clearing Stations and mobile Field Hospitals as the battle plunged further into France. ‘Doctors and nurses, often working 14-hour-long shifts, consider this time as their actual battle participation,’ one medical official wrote.

Except for the difficulties on Omaha Beach – when the Americans launched their swimming tanks too far out, where they were swamped by the waves – casualties were surprisingly light, considering the perils of any frontal assault. Although German machine-gunners hit Allied soldiers hard as they came ashore from their landing craft, the Montgomery’s attack plan (in his role as Land Forces Commander) overwhelmed them, as 160,000 assault troops, 12,000 aircraft and 200,000 sailors manning 7000 vessels first blasted the defenders, then stormed the beaches.

The eight assault divisions suffered 12,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Americans lost 8230, with 2400 casualties at Omaha alone. On the other beaches casualties were surprisingly light; at Utah, the US lost only 197 men. Thanks to the firepower of their swimming tanks and other ‘funnies’ the British and Canadians had only 3000 casualties. Although no major French units took part in the invasion, many French civilians were killed, mostly by Allied bombs or shell fire. Some injured citizens were reduced to disinfecting their wounds with calvados, the local apple brandy.

By dawn on 7 June the Allies were safely ashore, dug in and there to stay. German counter attacks had been repulsed. Supplies and fresh reinforcements were flooding in and the bridgehead was expanding. As the Allied soldiers marched inland from the beaches, the delighted French cheered, many of them giving flowers to the soldiers. The success of D-Day changed the course of history for ever.

That is why President Johnson’s tart reply to de Gaulle in 1966, when the arrogant French leader demanded that all US troops leave France immediately, still hits home: ‘What? Including all the ones in your cemeteries?’

The Reality of ‘Red October’

‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’ VI Lenin (speech to Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets)

On 25 October 1917, (pre-revolution calendar) Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, organised a successful coup d’etat and seized power in St Petersburg, then known as Petrograd.

Despite 90 years of Soviet propaganda, the events of ‘Red October’ were never a spontaneous uprising and a revolution by the people. It was an armed insurrection by a minority to overthrow a provisional government. Also, it was not – again despite Soviet claims – universally popular: fighting went on in Moscow and Petrograd for two weeks as the Bolsheviks tried to crush and silence their enemies, to be followed by a prolonged and brutal civil war.

Lenin himself was astounded by his revolution’s success, saying, ‘It takes your breath away.’ However, having seized power, he showed himself as authoritarian as any Czar. When the Second Congress of Soviets assembled on (modern calendar) 7 November 1917 it voted to ratify the revolutionary transfer of state power and, after a walk-out by the opposition – who claimed the coup was illegal – made Lenin ruler of Russia. Lenin’s Marxist Bolsheviks were now the government of a nation that was 3000 miles wide and had 11 time zones. Lenin’s famous call to arms was to unleash misery and death for millions: ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’

Russia’s new ruler made crystal clear his aims and means of achieving them: ‘The goal of socialism is Communism,’ and ‘Personal liberty is precious – so precious that it must be rationed.’ In addition, just to show that he meant business, ‘Hang without fail, so the people can see them, no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.’ The rich and middle class got the message and promptly fled abroad clutching their valuables, leaving their property to be seized by the State.

It rapidly became clear that Lenin was no harmless old revolutionary theorist, obsessed with permanent opposition to the bourgeoisie – he turned out to be a ruthless, rabble-rousing, power-hungry class warrior, determined to crush the rich for ever, using ‘The Party’ and his Red Guards to provide muscle when required.

Like all professional revolutionaries however, his priority was money – other people’s money. One of his first decrees was to close down all the banks and steal their money in the name of the State, leaving millions penniless.

Revolutionary socialists had always understood the importance of money to fuel their socialist dream.  Josef Dzhugashvili, a,k.a ‘Stalin’ – which translates as ‘Man of Steel’ – or perhaps ‘steal?’ – was just one of many revolutionary bank robbers. He was the main planner of an infamous stagecoach hold-up in Tiflis in 1907. The Bolsheviks attacked a security coach, killing 40 guards and civilians. The thieves got away with over a million roubles, describing their atrocity as a legitimate ‘redistribution of capital for the Revolution.’

Another revolutionary socialist would-be Robin Hood, Mao Zedong, recruited ‘bands of brigands and bandits’ to support his revolutionary cause by theft. In 1927, he organised his own great train robbery in Hupei and stole a huge shipment of banknotes. Interestingly, Mao later organised another wave of ‘revolutionary bank robberies’ when he was actually Chinese dictator. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he unleashed his Red Guard thugs to hold up dozens of banks to ‘shake up society’ in 1966. Ironically, in 1969 Mao suddenly remembered that he was also responsible for China’s law and order, and ordered his Red Guards to stop.

Revolutionary socialists sometimes make fat-cat capitalists seem almost benevolent. Peru’s Maoist movement, the Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) were not just brutal terrorist murderers responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Peruvians and $20 billion in damage. They were also accomplished thieves. Bank robberies – or ‘revolutionary expropriations’ – soon became a favourite means of raising funds for their planned revolution in Peru. In 1981, Shining Path carried out over 50 bank robberies in Lima alone, and the wave of bank robberies continued throughout the mid-1980s, along with international heists in Brazil and Mexico.

The lesson is that the Socialist State of Lenin’s dreams had as much need of hard cash as any capitalist one. But Lenin’s ‘socialist revolution’ did not confine itself to just stealing other people’s hard-earned savings.

The Russian Civil War demonstrated that not everyone, in what was to become the USSR, favoured Lenin and the Bolsheviks being in power. In the face of mounting anger and opposition from the now less-than-revolutionary masses, Russia’s new dictator ordered a crack-down on all opposition and protest. In December 1918, he ordered the creation of the Cheka, or the ‘All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage,’ the original bloodthirsty Soviet secret police organisation. The Chekists were led by a Polish aristocrat-turned-communist, the psychopathic Felix Dzerzhinsky, who ruthlessly murdered all Communism’s opponents. Lenin, and later Stalin’s, new secret police made the Czar’s rule seem compassionate by comparison.

The Cheka’s task was to hunt out ‘enemies of the state’. This led to what became known as the ‘Red Terror’. Suddenly anyone could be arrested. The Cheka became sole judge, jury and invariably executioner. Following a failed assassination on Lenin in September 1918, Russians came to dread the Cheka’s midnight knock on the door. Fellow Bolshevik Leon Trotsky even compared Lenin’s crackdown to Robespierre’s French Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror’ – in 1940, he got an ice pick through the brain for his pains. In all, an estimated 20 million Russians would eventually die at the hands of their Party masters in Communism’s ‘Revolutionary Paradise.’

Fat on stolen money, and with dissenting voices silenced, Lenin now turned to actually governing his new Russia. A Decree on Land policy confirmed the actions of the peasants, who had quietly redistributed private land among themselves during the chaos. The Bolsheviks now reinvented themselves as representing an alliance of workers and peasants. The Hammer and Sickle became the symbol of the new Soviet Union. Other decrees ensured there could be no turning back from Lenin’s new Socialist order:

  • All private property was nationalised by the government
  • All Russian banks were nationalised
  • Parliament was abolished in favour of The Party
  • Private bank accounts were expropriated
  • The properties of the Church (including bank accounts) were expropriated
  • All foreign debts were repudiated
  • Control of the factories was given to the workers’ committees called ‘Soviets’
  • Wages were fixed at higher rates than during the war; and a shorter, eight-hour working day was introduced

In our time, we have seen something similar in Venezuela. In 2005, Hugo Chávez announced Venezuela’s ‘great socialist leap forward’. Since then, the oil-rich country has followed the strict ‘socialist path’ and – just like the USSR – ruined its economy and impoverished its people. Despite a wealth of natural resources, Venezuela has turned into an economic and humanitarian disaster zone, thanks to an attempt by the government to run a ‘revolutionary socialist economy’ for Chavez’s deeply corrupt Party.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of Venezuelan credit and normal banking has aggravated runaway inflation and a recession, causing hundreds of thousands to flee the country amid chronic shortages, rising malnutrition and increased incidence of preventable disease.

Lenin’s decrees, plus his and Stalin’s desire for state control of everything (including the economy), eventually ruined the USSR, just as it is ruining Venezuela today. The lesson is that Marxist theory may work well in theory and dreams of stirring up ‘socialist revolutions’, but history has shown us that it cannot run a modern state properly. Lenin’s ‘October Revolution’ turned out to be a disastrous experiment with people’s lives and property that just didn’t work. It soon became obvious to all that in Lenin’s new ‘Socialist Order’ some quickly became more equal than others – just like before the Revolution.

The ‘October Revolution’ may have been one of the twentieth century’s defining events; it was also one of the most bloody and tragic.

It stands as a model for how not to reform society.