Versailles 1919

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Returning German army marching through Berlin, December 1918

President Wilson himself arrived in Europe (to tremendous enthusiasm) in mid-December, and represented a sort of new world order, in which Progress and Freedom could resume the forward march that had stopped in 1914. Peace treaties were sorted out – more by haggling among the Allies than with the defeated states, which were just told to sign on the dotted line – in various palaces in the Paris region. The chief treaty was concluded at Versailles, with the Germans on 28 June 1919, others following. In the famous painting by Sir William Orpen, the peace-makers look extraordinarily pleased with themselves as they pose, in Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors, for rather wooden immortalization: silkiness of moustache, acuteness of gaze, dignity of stance. A Maharajah and a Japanese baron look on, evidence of the peace-makers’ internationalism and benevolence. Clemenceau is said to have remarked that he was sitting between a would-be Napoleon (Lloyd George) and a would-be Jesus Christ (Wilson).

Even at the time there was not much reason for these people’s self-confidence. A worldwide epidemic of influenza carried off ten million victims; civil war carried off more millions in Russia, until, in 1920, the Bolsheviks won. The Allies’ attempt to divide up the Middle East soon came to grief. Muslim Arab countries – and their oil supplies – were mainly taken over by the British, and their expert on the area, T. E. Lawrence, remarked with wonder that whereas the Turks had run Iraq with a locally raised army of 14,000 men, executing ninety people a year, the British, with 100,000 soldiers, tanks, aircraft and gas, faced a war with everybody. The Sultan, prisoner of the British and French occupying Istanbul, was forced in 1920 to sign a treaty at Sèvres that not only vastly truncated his realm, but subjected it to a process of forced re-civilization. Greeks and Armenians invaded Anatolia, with the blessing of the British and French. The Turks, uniquely among the defeated powers, recovered, under a leader of genius, and in 1922 re-took their country: at Lausanne in 1923 it was then recognized. Paradoxically, it is the only creation of the post-war period that has flourished ever since: the rest came to grief, in some cases quite quickly, and those beautifully tailored statesmen in the Orpen portrait were in most cases repudiated by their own voters. Their creations went sour. In 1919, the European empires were greatly extended. Within ten years, these empires were falling apart and within a generation were finished.

The list of the failures of Versailles goes on and on. A ‘League of Nations’ was set up, to adjudicate international problems. It began quite well by organizing population-transfers in the Balkans. Then, confronted with major matters, it declined into irrelevance, greeting the outbreak of the Second World War with a debate about the standardization of level-crossings. The attempt to put the world’s economy together also came to grief. By 1920, the post-war boom had fizzled out, and by 1929 the greatest economic crisis in the history of the world had arrived, bringing with it political disasters all over. The would-be parliamentary nation-states established in 1918–19 generally ceased to be parliamentary, and Bolshevik Russia, which in the 1920s had something of a human face, acquired, under Stalin, a monstrous one.

The worst problem by far concerned Germany. In February 1919, meeting in Weimar, the new republican politicians devised a democratic constitution, perhaps the most literalmindedly democratic constitution ever (so determined were its makers to show proper Wilsonian credentials that they provided for relentless elections and proportional voting). At Versailles, there were territorial losses, particularly to Poland, which were quite widely resented. But the real problem was money. ‘The Germans’ were formally blamed for the war, and were expected to pay ‘reparations’ for the damage they had caused. But the French really meant to use this device to prevent the German economy from recovering, and other former Allies expected to pay off their war-debts. In 1921, the sum of 132,000,000,000 gold Marks was arrived at, which meant that, annually, Germany would be handing over for generations a quarter of the money she earned from exports. Such sums might be extracted from an occupied country, as the Nazis displayed in France during the Second World War and as the European Economic Community did in Germany thereafter. The Allies had deliberately avoided occupying Germany, for fear of the upheavals that might result; they therefore expected democratic politicians to cooperate with them. It was asking too much. In the 1920s, American investment went into Germany, and was used to pay the annual reparations charge. Then the world economy broke down, and the American money ceased to flow. More or less all Germans blamed their economic plight on reparations, more generally on Versailles, and this was Hitler’s strongest card. In fact, Weimar democracy broke down in 1930, in the sense that there was no longer a parliamentary majority prepared to take responsibility; the largest political party, the Social Democrats, distinguished itself by ‘constructive abstention’ – meaning that it would vote neither for nor against – and the Reichstag kept dissolving itself: in 1932 there were more election-days than there were parliamentary sessions, and the aged president, Hindenburg, ruled by decree. In 1933, a majority of German voters were either Communist or Nazi, and Hitler was appointed chancellor. He appealed for full powers, in other words dictatorship, and needed a two thirds majority in the Reichstag for this. He got it, and the final surreal note to the post-war settlement was supplied by the guiding light of the Weimar Republic, the Democrats. By then they (under a different name) were down to five seats. When it came to Hitler’s vote, they divided. Two deputies voted for Hitler, two against, and the other abstained, protesting that the others were splitting the party. By then, reparations had been abolished, but the damage had been done, and Hitler embarked on an extreme-nationalist programme.

The real disaster, in all of this, was that Germans did not think that they had been defeated. They had, as the legend was to have it, been ‘stabbed in the back’: Jews, the Left, soft-brained academics had prevented them from winning the war and setting up a Europe that had more sense, on the ground, than anything dreamed up by the naive Americans. Ludendorff was the main architect of this fantasy, but even then by accident: a British journalist asked him in English whether he felt that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’, and, upon translation, Ludendorff said yes.

The disaster that followed had been sensed by Lloyd George, in the last days of the First World War, when armistice terms were being discussed. He made a prophetic remark: ‘if peace were made now, in twenty years’ time the Germans would say what Carthage had said about the First Punic War, namely that they had made this mistake and that mistake, and by better preparation and organization they would be able to bring about victory next time.’ This was more or less what Hitler said in Mein Kampf – Germany deserved to have won, and would have done so if only it had not been for treachery, out-of-place humanitarian nonsense, and all the appeasement of traitors on the Left. On 10 November, he was convalescing from gassing, which had blinded him, and when he heard someone saying that a revolution had broken out, he reacted: ‘since the day when I had stood at my mother’s grave I had not wept… It had all been in vain… Did all this happen so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the fatherland? The more I tried to achieve clarity on the monstrous event in this hour, the more the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow. What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery?’ The conclusion that he drew was that ‘there is no making pacts with Jews. There can only be the hard: either, or.’ The way was open for a Second World War even more terrible than the First.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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