The Treaty of Versailles a Hundred Years Later

The Treaty of Versailles a Hundred Years Later

The common view of the Treaty and
indeed the common view of the Peace Conference which settled of course not
just the peace with Germany but with other defeated nations, is that it was
pretty much a disaster and led directly to a second world war twenty years later.
That view was really I think the foundations for that view were really
laid by John Maynard Keynes in the summer of 1919. A young and of
course still young and brilliant economist, he was an advisor to the
treasury he had left Paris in disgust as one American said because they
weren’t listening to him which was perhaps a bit unkind. But he wrote a book
with what is actually rather dull title which has been a best-seller ever since
the book is called The Economic Consequences of the Peace and in it he
sketches a peace conference filled with knaves, charlatans, fools and idiots
who are making a mess of things. Let me just read you one passage which gives
you a sense of the book if you haven’t read it
“Paris was a nightmare and everyone there was morbid. A sense of impending
catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene. The futility and smallness of man
before the great events confronting him, the mingled significance of unreality of
the decisions. Levity, blindness, insolence, confused
cries from without, all the elements of ancient tragedy were there.” And he had
particular criticism not to say venom, for the leading statesmen in Paris.
Woodrow Wilson the American president he described as a ‘booby’, someone who was so
spun around by the wily Europeans that he didn’t know whether he was coming or
going. Georges Clemenceau the French prime
minister he described as a giant ape who lay in his chair in the overheated
rooms thinking only of revenge on Germany. And Lloyd George the British
prime minister he described as coming out of the Welsh mists, half-goat
half-man and those were the bits that his mother
didn’t make him take out. so that view which was highly influential at the time is
the one that, certainly in the English-speaking countries, has remained
the dominant view of the Paris Peace Conference and the dominant view of the
Treaty of Versailles – that the Treaty of Versailles the most important of all the
treaties because it was made with the most powerful country Germany, was so
vindictive, so punitive they drove the Germans into
misery, economic, social and political misery, and led to the rise of Nazism and
to the assumption by power of the Nazis in 1933 and therefore led directly to
the Second World War. I think the story is more complicated than that and I’m
going to look at some of the details tonight and then perhaps persuade you
that it is a little bit more complicated. I think my first answer to the question
when people say ‘didn’t the Treaty of Versailles lead directly to the Second
World War?’ is what was everyone else doing for 20 years? There are 20 years
between 1919 and 1939 and many decisions being made and unmade and I think we
need to respect those 20 years not see them simply as an interlude between one
war and another. I think it’s fair to say that the Treaty of Versailles helped to
create, as did the other treaties helped to create, some of the conditions for the
Second World War but I think it’s quite possible to argue that Europe had
choices before it and needn’t have gone down the road to war perhaps at least
until the beginning of the 1930s. And the second thing I think we must always keep
in mind, is what were they facing when they tried to make peace in 1919? I think
we have a tendency when we look back to the past to be censorious which is
understandable but to blame those in the past for not knowing what was going to
happen, for not seeing as we do what was going to happen if they made certain
decisions and I think we need to at least put ourselves in their position,
look at the obstacles, look at the difficulties, look at the challenges they
were dealing with and also ask could we have done any better? what would we have
done differently? Making peace is never easy at the end of particularly great
wars. It is often difficult, often contentious.
At the end of Wars often the world is in a turmoil especially great Wars
like the First World War, with huge amounts of destruction both of men,
both of material but also of societies. Wartime coalition’s which will come
together in a great struggle to fight a war will fall apart as soon as peace
comes. It happened at the end of the First World War, it happened at the end
of the Second World War. And there are questions which are not easy to answer
but what is the best way to deal with those who are defeated. Do you forgive
all, say the past is the past let’s get on with it let’s look to the future?
Do you bring the defeated nations into the community of nations? That’s what
happened after the end of the Napoleonic Wars when France sat around a table with
the other powers and helped to make a peace at the Congress of Vienna. Or do
you make the defeated so aware of their defeat, do you make them so defeated as
happened at the end of the Second World War that they don’t really have any
choice about what is going to happen. At the end of the Second World War,
partly because of fears that they would be repeat of what happened after 1919,
the end of the Second World War there was no question about who had been
defeated and who had not. The Allied policy during the war had become one of
unconditional surrender. Germany and Japan were both defeated and occupied
and so the knowledge of defeat was brought home to the German and Japanese
people and in fact what they did, the Allies did, was not only bring that
knowledge home but in the end they rehabilitated both countries and so what
is the right way to make peace? is it better to try and forgive the past which
is cannot it’s not always easy and try and bring the defeated nations back into
a community of nations, do what you can to rehabilitate them or do you defeat
them so utterly there will be no question about who won and who lost? And
in a way I think what the problem was at the end of the First World War was that
the Allies did neither. They neither brought the experience and knowledge of
defeat home to the Germans in a really meaningful way and they treated Germany
harshly enough that the Germans could feel as they did a great sense of
resentment. There were disagreements among the Allies and the three key
allies really are the United States, Great Britain and France. Japan
was counted as a fourth power it was an ally in the First World War but it was
always considered as a lesser part of the great coalition and Italy also was
counted as a great power but in the end it was the United States, France and
Britain that were going to make the key decisions about Germany. What the United
States wanted was a fairer and a better world expressed by the American
President Woodrow Wilson who had sketched out in his 14 points and other
speeches, a vision of a world in which nations work together in which trade
barriers were lowered so that trade would help to link them together. There’s
a belief which I think many people still have that the more nations trade with
each other the less likely they are to fight each other. A world in which
disarmament would be universal. Everyone would lower the level of their armaments
because many people felt the First World War had been set off in part at least by
an arms race among the powers in Europe before the First World War. A world in
which nations would come together in a collective body to be known as the
League of Nations which would enforce collective punishment for those who
broke the peace but also provide collective security for its members. And
so this was a very powerful idea and I think the United States put considerable
weight behind it. The Americans kept on saying that they didn’t really want
anything for themselves which was true in a way but of course they had done
very well out of the war. The war had been a tremendous stimulus for American
industry, American agriculture – there had been a real boom during the First World War in
the United States and American Financiers had become the world’s bankers. The
United States had gone from being a destination to being the creditor nation
and that was a very important shift. The United States was bound to become a
world power in any case given its enormous natural resources and
population and location, but what the First World War did was
speed up that process of turning the United States into a great power. The
Americans didn’t want territory for themselves, they made it clear that they
didn’t want to engage in what they saw as the sorts of games that the European
powers enjoyed and they very pointedly described themselves not
as an ally but an associate and I think that was
significant. Great Britain wanted the German threat to
what the British had held dear removed. What they had feared most of all was
growing German naval power and the British had achieved that goal of
removing that German naval threat before the peace conference opened. The two
great German fleets – the submarine fleet and the surface fleet had been
surrendered at the end of the war and were in British ports and therefore in
British hands. Britain had also, or parts of the British Empire had also acquired
German colonies in the course of the war and so they were in possession of pretty
much everything that they wanted and you were beginning to get people in Britain
saying look you know the Germans are culpable we feel they started the war
but in the end they were our biggest trading partner before
the war, in the end we’re going to have to work with them in the end we want a
prosperous Germany. And so British attitudes to Germany of course were
partly made up of resentment and bitterness about what the Germans had
inflicted as the British saw it, on the British public, the costs of the war for
Britain were enormous in many ways but there was also a sense that in the
long run Britain and Germany we’re going to have to get on with each other. And I
think also you get, which is not an uncommon thing in Britain as we’re
realising today, a complicated attitude towards the continent of Europe
and the British have intervened in the continent when it has suited them, and
then they have tended to withdraw intended to turn outwards to their
empire, outwards to their trading relationships around the world and this
was beginning to happen at the end of the First World War. And then you had
France, and what the French wanted I think above all was security and this is
something I think we have to understand. When the French are accused of
being vindictive, short-sighted, wanting to keep German power down, you have
to remember what had happened to France. In most cases, or certainly in the cases
of anyone over the age of about fifty, in people’s lifetimes Georges Clemenceau
the French Prime Minister had been a young man in Paris when the German
Confederation had invaded in 1870. He had lived through the siege of Paris, he had
known what French defeat in that war of the Franco-Prussian war had meant
for France and a lot of French people knew that. In 1914, France had not
invaded Germany, it had not declared war on Germany, Germany had declared war on
France and had invaded France. A great deal of the Western Front ran
right through the north of France. It ran through Belgium of course but it ran
through the north of France, an area which in France contained, or had
contained, something like 40% of its infrastructure, its mines, its iron mills,
its industries, its railways, its bridges, and a lot of that had been destroyed
both in the course of the fighting and by the Germans as they retreated finally
out of France out of the occupied territories in the summer of 1918. And so
I think you have to understand what it was that the French had experienced, what
it was they feared they might be experiencing yet a third time, and that
was certainly something that a number of French leaders including Marshal Foch,
the supreme Allied Commander in Chief the great French General, feared he said
when he made the Armistice in 1918, he said it is a 20 years armistice because
what the French feared as they looked at Germany, was a country which was in the
end more powerful than France. It was sitting right there in the middle of
Europe, it had been relatively untouched by the war, of course Germany had
suffered during the war but none of the war very little of the war had been
fought on German soil and so the French looked at a Germany where the
infrastructure was untouched where there was a growing population. German women
were having more infants than French women were in spite of every effort by
the French government to encourage French women to do their patriotic duty. The demographic gap was opening between Germany and France. There were more
potential German soldiers coming along every year and that was something the
French were very aware of. So what the French wanted was security. They wanted
some of Germany to be broken up into separate states as it had been
before 1871 but that was not going to happen neither Lord George or Wilson
would accept that, but they wanted some way of keeping Germany under control.
What they also feared, and this was also likely fear, but perhaps second to the
fear of Germany was the spirit of Russian Bolshevism into France. There was
already a very lively left-wing movement in France and on the 1st of May 1919
the Peace Conference virtually came to a standstill in Paris because there were
left-wing demonstrations many of which turned violent and then there was an
equally violent crackdown by the authorities. It is said, no one will ever know, but it is said that several hundred people may
have died in the clashes on the 1st of May and so what the French were also
afraid of was not just a resurgent Germany, but the spread as they saw it, of
a very dangerous political ideology from the east. And so what they wanted was
both a Germany that was kept under control but they also wanted what they
called a ‘cordon sanitaire’ a ring of Nations around the new Bolshevik state
which would somehow try and contain Bolshevism. And so we get different
interests coming out, and then of course you have the lesser powers but I will
just mention Italy in Japan. The Italians had entered the war partly out of
conviction, there were Italians who supported the Allies seeing them as
the forces of liberalism but they’d also entered the war in a very calculated way. They had entered the war hoping to get territory from their great enemy
Austria-Hungary, and they had staked out claims to their borders in the north
they wanted what they called their natural borders up to the height of the
Alps in the north of Italy. But increasingly they also looked across the
Adriatic to the territories which had now detached themselves from
Austria-Hungary were in the process of becoming part of the new South
Slav state of Yugoslavia. And the Italians feared the emergence of a new
strong state on the other side of the Adriatic and they began to make noises
and more than noises about taking some of the territory at the top of the
Adriatic possibly taking some of the islands in the Adriatic, possibly even
moving over across the Adriatic and taking an occasional port or two. What the
Japanese wanted I think were two things they wanted to hold on to what they had
taken from Germany in the First World War. Japan had taken German possessions
in the Far East in China and in the Pacific. Equally important I think the
Japanese wanted recognition that Japan was an equal of the great European and
Western powers. The Japanese knew that Western powers United States, Australia
South Africa, my own country Canada, didn’t want Japanese immigrants, they
treated them as second-class citizens, they feared them on all sorts of overtly
racial grounds and this of course galled the Japanese and what they wanted was to
be recognised as the equal of the other great powers and so they came in wanting
both very concrete gains and power. So the peace conference started in January
1919. Some twenty nine sorry 27 countries came and this was really one of the
biggest international gatherings that the world has seen. Initially people
thought it would be like the Congress of Vienna which had wound up the Wars of
the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In fact the British Foreign Office
commissioned a history of the Congress of Vienna which was given to all the
members of the British delegation so they would be able to see how things
were done in Vienna. And every British delegate was issued with something like
a thousand visiting cards and they were meant to I think not quite put on knee
breeches and powdered wigs but they were certainly meant to go around and
distribute their visiting cards on their counterparts. That rapidly stopped it
became quite clear this was a very different sort of peace conference and they weren’t going to be proceeding in the
same way as the Congress of Vienna. The key issues before the peace conference
certainly in its early part were to drop the covenant of the new League of
Nations and this was something Woodrow Wilson insisted on, and he was in a
fairly strong position to insist on it because the United States had
contributed significantly to the victory of the Allies, and furthermore the Allies
owed the United States quite a bit of money. And so the United States insisted
Woodrow Wilson insisted that the cart the Covenant as he called it of the
League of Nations be drawn up. And then of course the great issue was what to do
with Germany and this was something that was going to be debated through those
early months of 1919. The Peace Conference had originally been
intended to be a preliminary peace conference. The idea was that the Allies
would meet, they would agree on the terms to be
offered to Germany and the German treaty was always going to be the most
difficult and contentious one, although some of the other treaties the Ottoman
treaty for example was going to be difficult as well, it was really the
German treaty that was a difficult one. The peace conference was meant to be
preliminary – about a month the Allies would take to draw up their peace terms and
then they would call the Germans and there’d be a negotiation. That’s what the Allies
thought, that’s what the Germans thought and that didn’t happen. And the reason it
didn’t happen I think was twofold. One, that the work of the peace conference
just kept increasing. Because there was so many very powerful people
representing powerful nations there in Paris, petitioners came from all over the
world, people who wanted countries of their own, people who had causes, women who
wanted votes, African Americans who wanted better treatment for their people,
people from the colonies the obscure assistant chef at the Ritz
called Ho Chi Minh who came and tried to present a petition to them asking for
independence for his little country of Vietnam. And so literally hundreds of
petitioners came to the peace conference asking for things whether it was land or
whether it was a cause. What the Powers also found is that without really
intending to they became a sort of world government.The world particularly Europe,
was in a very difficult State at the end of the war. The collapse of four empires,
the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had dominated the centre of Europe for
better or worse for so many centuries, the Russian Empire which had fallen to
pieces and then was now course engaged in a civil war, the German Empire which
had included Danish and Polish speakers was also falling to pieces, and the
Ottoman Empire which still had European territory and of course a lot of
territory in the Middle East was about to fall to pieces as well. And so what
the Powers found is they were having to deal with the aftermath of this not just
in all the territory that was now up for grabs and we then whose fate had to be
decided but also because they had very pressing problems of what to do about
such things as starvation and hunger and disease. The end of the European empires
in the centre of Europe meant that not just political structures had collapsed,
but so had economic structures and so in the winter of 1919 Vienna which was one
of the most prosperous cities in the world experienced starvation. The Red
Cross which was trying to do relief there said they saw diseases they had never
expected to see in Europe – diseases caused by hunger or made possible by
hunger and that was because the ending of Austria-Hungary
brought new borders; Romania, Hungary as separate states, the new state of
Czechoslovakia, meant that goods were not coming as they once had across the
border. The rolling stock that the railways needed was being grabbed by new
governments and so Vienna was starving because the food that had once come from
Hungary to feed it was not coming for various reasons, or the coal that it
needed to bake its bread and to provide its heating was also not coming from
either the new state of Czechoslovakia or from Poland. And so
what they found in Paris, the statesmen found, was that they were dealing
with a whole host of problems that they hadn’t really expected to deal with. They
finally managed to get the German terms agreed, it was April by the time
they did it and it had proved very very difficult indeed. The Italians had walked
out at one point because they weren’t getting the border adjustments that they
wanted. The Japanese had threatened to walk out because they didn’t feel they
were getting the recognition they deserve. They wanted a clause in the
Covenant of the League of Nations which said that people should not be
discriminated against on the basis of their religion or their race and for
various reasons the Allies were not prepared to concede that and so the
Japanese threatened to walk out. The Belgians threatened to walk out because
they weren’t satisfied with the recompense they were going to get, and
the Chinese threatened to walk out. And so what the leaders feared by April was
that if they opened up the whole treaty again and called the Germans in to
negotiate, the whole peace conference would fall to pieces. And what they knew
and this is something I think we always have to remember is they knew that their
power was diminishing month by month by month. If you look on paper these are
very powerful nations, they control vast armies, navies, new air forces but they
were demobilising, they had to demobilise. Their Treasuries, their tax payers, their
peoples, didn’t want to keep those giant forces in being anymore, and the soldiers
and sailors and em and themselves didn’t want to remain in these armed forces
anymore. And there were mutinies, there were riots, the French Black Sea Fleet
for example mutinied. There were riots in staging camps in
Britain for example, where soldiers who felt that mobilisation was going too
slowly rioted including a number of Canadians who
didn’t see why they should be kept in a rather miserable rainy camp in Rhyl in
North Wales when they could be back in Canada. I’m not sure I can blame them for
rioting. And so the very note knowledge that their power was shrinking was
something that was always there for the peacemakers, and when it came to actually
trying to gauge whether Germany would accept the peace terms offered to it,
Marshall Foch was very pessimistic about whether he would actually be able
to move troops in Germany and what it would cost them. Yes he said he would do
it, but the Germans might well fight house to house, town to town, village to
village, and the cost might be horrific which of course was what happened
in 1945. And so the Allies have this tremendous pressure on them. They are
dealing with a great deal, they know that their power is less than it was, and Wars
are breaking out. There are a number of wars that break out as the First World
War comes to an end as Winston Churchill said the Wars of the Giants
have ended and the Wars of the pygmies have started. And there was going to be
fighting through much of the centre of Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East up
until 1923. And some of those wars were not small. There was a very large-scale war
between the newly emerging state of Poland for example, and Bolshevik Russia.
There were wars between Poland, small wars between Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
And so when the Allies looked out at the world in which they were dealing
with I think they recognised that it was
actually very difficult for them to keep control over what was happening. They could barely feed Europe, they were having trouble doing that, they also had
to try and deal with this very turbulent political situation. There was a moment
in what was called the Council of Four which emerged as a sort of inner in an
inner core of the peace conference sometime in March 1919, where they were
talking about a small war which had just broken out over some disputed territory
between the new state of Czechoslovakia and the old but newly emerging state
Poland, and they talk about how they can stop this. They call in Marshal Foch
and they say no we’ve got to get troops over there, they’re not listening to us
you know they’re fighting each other it could spread. Foch says of course I’ll obey orders, just tell me what to do and as he often did, they said well send
troops and he said well yes but I’d like to point out
railways aren’t running, I don’t have the railway cars, I’m not sure the troops are
reliable, and it was quite clear that he didn’t think he could do much. Lloyd George
who was always an optimist, said to others he said I’ve got the solution as
they all sat there in a rather disconsolate frame of mind, he said I
have the solution, they turned to him and he said we’ll send both sides very stern
telegrams. So I think we have to recognise that the power of what
appeared to be great Powers to actually influence what’s going on in the ground
is not all that easy and what they were also dealing with was the two other
factors which I think made the making of peace perhaps more different. One was that they were working under the gaze of public opinion, and
this was really a new phenomenon in politics. It had been developing in the
course of the 19th century at Vienna Congress of Vienna in 1814 in 1815. The
Statesmen hadn’t really had to worry about public opinion. They’d had to
worry about their ruler, they’d had to worry perhaps in the case of a British,
about a very small, elite group who would be scrutinising what they’d done, but
they didn’t have to worry about mass public opinion. And because the franchise
was so restricted they didn’t have to worry about the next election in the
same way that the Statesmen in Paris had to worry about the next election. Public
opinion had become a force in the 19th century with the spread of literacy, with
the Industrial Revolution, with the growing urbanisation of Europe. And
peoples were much more aware of what their own governments were doing. Newspapers had enormous circulations, a million two million daily newspapers, and
so people were in touch with what was going on and were not, increasingly not
shy to express their own opinions either through letters to the editor, complaints
to their MPs, riots and demonstrations in Downing Street for example, or
through the press and of course through the next election. And so what statesmen
in Paris had to think about was not just the needs of Europe and how to make
peace and how to sort out all the other problems before them, but they also had
to think about how they would bring their own publics with them. Lloyd George
had fought an election just at the end of the war, at the end of November
1918. It was known as the Khaki election and he certainly didn’t say it himself
but those in his coalition said it, they were going to make the Germans really
pay. As one of the MPs running said we’re going to ‘squeeze the Germans until the
pips squeak’ and he had won an overwhelming majority which seemed to suggest that
what would be very popular with the British public was a very harsh peace on Germany.
Clemenceau worried about losing his support if he was seen to be too soft on
German. He said I will lose my own bourgeoisie my own middle classes who
are my chief support. And so public opinion becomes a factor and like a lot
of public opinion it wasn’t always consistent and so you had on the one
hand, a real hatred of the enemy and the First World War had become a war of
civilisations and the Allies, many of them from the ordinary soldiers to the
leaders, felt that they were fighting something called ‘Prussianism’, felt they
were fighting a militaristic core of Germany and they recognised there was
more to Germany than Prussianism but they really felt that the big state of
Prussia at the core of Germany had so dominated German politics and was such a
malign force that it had to be contained and Germany had to be somehow changed. And so there really was I think hatred and fear of Germany which didn’t put
people of course into a forgiving mind and so what you got was the publics on
the one hand saying they must be punished- they started the war, and most
people in those days thought that Germany had started the war, they caused
us enormous damage, they’ve caused this huge loss and anyone who was at the peace
conference in Paris said you were aware of the losses virtually everyone in
Paris is wearing black or had a black armband. The French took the highest
proportion of losses of men of military age of any of the Allies with the
possible exception of Serbia. And so the knowledge of those losses was something
that was very much with them and their publics were certainly
going to tell them. And so on the one hand, public opinion and many of those
who went to Paris wanted someone to be punished and that someone was Germany,
they wanted someone to pay up for the damage and the loss and that someone was
Germany because the other defeated Allies were in no position to pay anything,
Austria-Hungary had vanished, the Ottoman Empire was about to vanish,
and Bulgaria had no money of any sort at all. At the same time however, public
opinion also wanted a better world and I think that often happens when you have a
great catastrophe that you hope that something at least will come out of it
that is good. And so what Woodrow Wilson said was not
something just the Americans supported, it was something that really resonated
with Europeans. Many of his ideas were ideas that had been discussed and
publicised in Europe before 1914. The very idea of using arbitration for
example to settle disputes among nations to try and do general disarmament was
something the Europeans had been working on for almost a century and in some
cases earlier. And so public opinion was contradictory. Punish someone, make
Germany pay, undo the damage or make up for the damage that’s been
done, on the other hand let’s build a better world. And so the statesmen who met in Paris were dealing with that as well and
having to try and gauge it and as I say having to try and think of the next
election. Woodrow Wilson on his way to the Peace Conference said to one of his
advisers and I think here he did make sense, “What I seem to see–with all my heart I hope that I am wrong –is a tragedy of disappointment.” and I think
the Peace Conference was bound to disappoint because the expectations were
so high. And then I think what we also have to remember is the forces, not just
their own public opinions but the forces that the peacemakers felt themselves to
be dealing with and were dealing with and there were two – I think in particular,
one was ethnic nationalism both forces which people were prepared to die for
and fight for, so one was ethnic nationalism, the other was Bolshevism and
these were both rising, they were both not yet at that peak. One of the great
differences with the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 is that those
revolutionary fires set off by the French Revolution had
effectively been burnt out by this point. People were tired of war, they were tired
of revolution, they wanted a calm order they wanted peace – not everybody, but that
was certainly I think the case for much of Europe. But in 1919, ethnic nationalism
was on the rise, the disappearance of the empires in fact, had encouraged ethnic nationalism. Suddenly peoples who’d never had or perhaps dreamt, felt they would not have for generations the hope of having their own
land their own state suddenly saw the possibility. The prison doors had been
opened in fact the prison itself had disappeared. And the fact that Americans
and Woodrow Wilson in particular talked about self-determination was something
that helped to encourage the growth of new nationalisms and so all over Europe
peoples were trying not only to set up their own countries, but to set up their
own countries with the most effective, and in many cases biggest borders as
possible and that was going to lead to endless problems because history had not
left all the peoples of a certain ethnicity in a neat box in different
parts of Europe. Germans were scattered all over Europe, Hungarians were
scattered all over the centre of Europe, Poles were scattered all over the
centre of Europe and so to actually make ethnically homogeneous countries within
very clear borders was almost impossible. It was going to lead to war, bad feeling,
it was going to cause much of the troubles that the centre of Europe was going to experience between 1919 and 1939. And
when these various ethnic groups and their leaders were looking to establish
States and when they looked to see what sort of borders they’d like, as you can
probably guess they didn’t say we would like a neat little compact country like
Switzerland, what they did is look back through the history and that’s the
danger of history you can find well almost what you want in it, they look
back and they would look back to the time when they were very large. And so
Polish nationalists looked back to the great days of the Polish Lithuanian
Commonwealth when Poland controlled a huge swath of the centre of Europe.The
Greeks, well the Greeks looked back to the Classical Age, and so they looked into the Black Sea, they looked at Istanbul, they looked at all
those islands, they looked at the coast of Asia Minor. The Italians had the Roman
Empire, and when they looked across the Adriatic they said you know that the
Romans were there the Venetians were there that really belongs to us. The
Serbs looked back to their greatest national extent probably in the 13th
century. And so what you got was this very difficult set of forces,
ethnic nationalism seeing the possibility to establish their states
and not really prepared to take no for an answer, and so that was one of the
extremely difficult forces the Allies were dealing with and the other one was
Bolshevism. Because what had happened in Russia was not yet clear but what people
thought was happening in many cases depended on what they wanted to think,
and a lot of people around the world thought what was happening in Russia
with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks was a better society. They
thought a new world was being built, a world that was better than the one that
had caused the catastrophe of the First World War which had caused the many and
obvious problems of capitalism the many miseries of the early Industrial
Revolution and the injustices and the inequalities and
so Bolshevism was and was going to remain an enormously important force.
It was going to provide inspiration and a beacon for peoples around the world
and the Bolsheviks themselves even as they fought desperately against the
whites to try and maintain the power were aware of this. They had
hoped that their revolution would set off a series of revolutions around the
world and they had hoped that they would be able to be the builders of a New
World Order. Lenin had very consciously talked about how a new world order would
arise in which the old ruling classes would be overthrown, the proletariat would be in charge, there would be one large proletarian world and national borders wouldn’t really matter anymore.
That nations would no longer divide themselves up on the basis of
nationality because that was something the capitalists have done. I mean he
was wrong, but it was a very powerful vision. And he set up very early on the
Communists International in Moscow which was meant to be the headquarters for
worldwide revolution. And so the peacemakers are dealing with a sense
that they’ve got these huge and often intractable problems and they also have
a sense that if they don’t sort them out things are going to get worse rather
than better. There’s a real fear that Europe is going to collapse into anarchy and and further misery And so it’s these
circumstances the Treaty of Versailles is being drawn up in and this is not to excuse it but again I think it’s to
understand it. I will not go through all the 440 articles of that treaty much to
your relief but I’ll just mention that the main divisions of i. Part 1 was the
League of Nations and its covenant: the Germans were not going to join
immediately although it was argued that once they behaved themselves and
reformed themselves they could so that was something the Germans resented. They had to sign a treaty setting up an organisation which they weren’t allowed
to join. Parts 2 & 3 dealt with Germany’s new borders and Germany was going to
shrink they were going to lose Alsace-Lorraine which they had taken from
France in 1871. They did not lose much more, they lost other bits of territory
in the West. They did lose considerable territory in the East, mainly territory
which they had themselves, or Prussia itself had seized from Poland at the end
of the 19th century. Part 4 dealt with German rights and interests outside
Germany, Germany had lost its colonies and concessions. Part 5 dealt
with military naval and air force issue: the Weimar Republic the new Republic in
Germany was meant to have a small army of no more than a hundred thousand men,
it was not allowed to have an air force at all, it was to have a very small Navy,
it was only to have certain kinds of equipment. The problem with those clauses – again it was intended to be a preliminary to a more general
disarmament – was the Germans felt they were being unfairly singled out to
disarm when others weren’t yet doing it. And the other problem was there was no
mechanism for enforcement. It was a joke and pretty much everyone knew that the
Germans were evading the terms of that Treaty. There was a joke in the musicals in Berlin by the end of the 1920s about the man who wanted to build a baby
carriage for his brother-in-law whose wife was expecting, the sister was
expecting a baby, and so the man was working in what was said to be a baby
carriage factory and he got bits from the assembly line from his friends and
he smuggled them out bit by bit and gave them to his brother-in-law and said look
I’ve got all the parts of the baby carriage out for you now we’ve smuggled
them out put it together and you know when
the new baby arrives it will have a carriage, And after about a week he said to his
brother-in-law ‘so how is the baby carriage looking?’ the brother-in-law said
‘I don’t know I’m doing something wrong every time I put it together I get a
machine gun’. Jokes often tell you what is going on. Part six
dealt with issues such as prisoners of war and war graves. Part seven was the
issue of penalties: should the Kaiser and others be tried for what they had done? And part eight was one that was going to probably cause the most difficulty and
be disliked most by the Germans even before the disarmament clause, and
that was reparations. How much should Germany pay for the damage which it was
accused of doing by starting the war in 1914? The Germans had to sign a treaty
without knowing what the amount was and the amount was not said until 1921. Partly because it was difficult to just simply assess what the damage was worth,
how much it would cost to set it straight, and it also took into account
how much Germany could pay. The Allies knew I think, the Allied statesmen knew
that Germany would never pay that much. They knew that it was probably foolish
to try and drive Germany to pay too much because it would drive the German
economy into ruin and that would hurt everyone. Germany had been the powerhouse
of the European economy before the First World War and many Europeans even French,
recognised that it was going to have to be incorporated into Europe again if
Europe was going to be economically recovering and economically successful.
But what the Allies did was deceive their own people by making it appear
that Germany was going to pay a lot. It’s very technical but they divided
the reparations into three tranches: one, quite small which Germany
paid almost immediately; the second was larger, but still not the largest amount
which Germany was to pay over schedule which went on through the 1920s; the
third part which was very much the largest, would not be paid until the
first two parts had been paid. And so you can probably work out what happened. The
Germans didn’t want to pay. They didn’t feel they should pay and this leads me I
think to the reason why the Treaty in the end became so unpopular. Germany or
many Germans, came think that they had not lost the war. They had been kept in the dark by their own high command. The
demands of the high command for an armistice in the autumn of 1918 had come
as a real shock to the civilian government, to many Germans. Germany had
in fact been defeated on the battlefield but the High Command was able to avoid
responsibility for this and gradually the story began to spread that it was
only the civilian government that had lost its nerve, that Germany could have
fought on, that it was no way collapsing although in fact it was
in the summer of 1918 and that the only reason Germany hadn’t been able to fight
on was the cowardice of the civilian government and those German people who
had stabbed Germany in the back; those who had demonstrated on the streets,
those who had mutinied, those who had said we can’t go on, and you can imagine as
the 1920s went on who those treasonous peoples were. They were
the Left, they were the Liberals, and increasingly
they were the Jews and this was a very pernicious but very powerful myth. What
also began to happen is that Germany felt that it had been promised by
Woodrow Wilson if it became a republic, if it got rid of the Kaiser in the old
regime that it would be treated fairly and Wilson himself had said expressly he
wanted a piece of no annexations, no contributions, no punitive indemnities,
and so the Germans have felt that what Woodrow Wilson was promising but if they
became a republic, if they turned their backs on the older they would be treated
fairly. And their argument was, we are now Republic why should we pay for the sins
of our predecessors? And the third factor that began to undermine all the
legitimacy of the treaty, was that increasingly in the 1920s Germany, and
indeed many people in English-speaking countries, came to believe that Germany
hadn’t in fact started the First World War. That the First World War had
happened or it had been the result of a balance of power in Europe
or everyone had contributed to it and so if Germany was not responsible then why
should it pay reparations? If it hadn’t lost the war why should it pay reparations?And if it had transformed itself and become a republic why should it pay reparation? And the German government made a very conscious
decision to attack the treaty on all those three grounds. Having said that,
and recognising how unpopular the treaty was with Germany, I think we should
remember that in fact things were beginning to look up in Europe and the
world in the 1920s and this is why I think we should not assume that
everything was bound to end in catastrophe in 1939. Germany did
eventually negotiate down its reparations bill. It did join the League
of Nations. It did recognise, at least in the West, its territorial losses it
accepted it would not try and change them by war. And European
recovery appeared to be going ahead, European production was going up. I think
if it had not been for the Great Depression and the impact that had on
politics in countries such as Germany and Japan, which enabled the more radical
nationalist elements to come to the fore, I think the world might have managed to
avoid a war. The great Germans statesman Gustav Stresemann who had done so much
in the 1920s to try and bring Germany back into the community of nations and
try and deal with some of the outstanding issues from the peace said
“but we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside” and I
think there is a good chance those fires could have subsided in the 1920. But the
1930s came along, the Great Depression came along, and did not give Europe and
the world time for those fires to go down. And so the world did get a second
World War. The Treaty of Versailles certainly contributed to it and the
other resentments and unsatisfied business from the peace conference
contributed to it but I think still, the world could have avoided war. And I think
we need to ask ourselves: why did we get a lasting peace after 1945? And are we
any better at making peace today? And I suspect the answer to the second
question will be no, we’re not. Thank you.

11 thoughts on “The Treaty of Versailles a Hundred Years Later

  1. What happened to YUGOSLAVIA, wasn´t the 90-ties war in Yugoslavia a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, as well?

  2. 10:50 Franco Prussian war started when France declared war on germany and tried to invade into the Rhineland and was intercepted by the german army which quickly pushed the french army back.

  3. 11:05 yes after the french allied with russia against germany and started a generel mobilization of their army.

  4. Still looking for a decent documentary on this period, any suggestions? One without this economically illiterate a historical appologist for neoclassical austerity. This nonsense has been tried many times before and since, and has never worked. Greece for a more recent example.

  5. Another brilliant talk from this outstanding historian. She has this uncanny ability to explain complicated matters in such a way that anyone can understand. Remarkable.

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