The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919.
The Germany that signed the armistice on 11 November 1918 was a republic, no longer an empire. Entente propaganda had vilified the Kaiser and castigated German militarism. It had distinguished between the rulers and the ruled. But the German people were not exempted from the humiliation of the defeat. For them the most direct consequence was the continuation of the blockade until the peace treaty was signed. Moreover, with no effective opposition and with unfettered access to the one sea that had remained a German enclave, the Baltic, the allies were able to apply it with a level of severity that had eluded them in the war. The winter of 1918-19, even more than the war years, determined the Germans’ and Austrians’ folk memories of hunger as an instrument of war.
More important in the eyes of the allies was the use of the armistice to define military victory. If the triumph of the Entente was the fruit of attrition, through the exhaustion of the enemy’s resources as well as through the grinding down of armies, its implication was a compromise peace. In the autumn of 1918, the armies in the west were still reckoning on the wearing-out battle in which they were then engaged leading to breakthrough, as indeed happened so spectacularly on other fronts. The offer of an armistice before that point had been reached confronted them with a quandary. If the war ended while still in its attritional phase, the definite victory that the scale of the conflict and the issues which surrounded it demanded might elude them. Some French generals wanted to inflict on the Boche the hiding they felt he deserved, to re-divide Germany into separate states, and to make the German people conscious of invasion and defeat as the French had been in 1870 and 1914. Pétain had a scheme to regain Lorraine in 1919; ‘We must go right into the heart of Germany’, Charles Mangin, the victor of the second battle of the Marne, told all who would listen, or ‘The Germans will not admit they were beaten’.
Mangin’s British colleagues did not agree. Their advance in September and October was so rapid that it created logistic strains, particularly for an army which had geared its supply arrangements to a less fluid operational situation. It was now slowing as a result, and the deteriorating weather was turning the roads to mud. Haig reckoned that the German army was capable of retiring to its own frontier, and both he and Henry Wilson still regarded it as an effective opponent in the field. They feared that, if an immediate armistice were rejected, the war would go on until 1919. In Haig’s perhaps unduly harsh assessment, the French army was played out and the United States army, according even to Pershing, would still not be fully ready until autumn 1919. ‘The British alone might bring the enemy to his knees’, Haig commented. ‘But why expend more British lives – and for what?
Foch therefore made the armistice terms do duty for the success in battle that the Entente would have gained in 1919; they turned the compromise that was the logical outcome of attrition into victory. The German army had to withdraw to its frontiers, and to hand over 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine-guns, 3,000 trench mortars and 1,700 aeroplanes. He insisted on possession of the Rhine bridgeheads in case hostilities were renewed: the left bank of the Rhine was to be demilitarised, the right neutralised. Once in Germany, the allied army of occupation would have the right to requisition what it required. Admiral Beatty and the British were equally uncompromising over the naval terms. Germany was to hand over six battle cruisers, ten battleships, eight light cruisers, and fifty destroyers; all submarines were to be surrendered. The armistice stripped Germany of its ability to fight.
What most people celebrated on 11 November was peace. In the quiet that hushed the front at 11 a.m., some soldiers wondered how they would adjust; the war was their job, their routine; it gave them a feeling of purpose. But for others there was a real awareness of victory. As in Skopje, liberation was its most obvious incarnation. Belgium had been stripped of its industrial plant and raw materials; 120,000 workers had been forcibly deported to the Reich; and civil liberties had been forfeit to military occupation. The soldiers of the Belgian army who advanced into Belgium in October were freeing their own nation; they were also going home for the first time in four years: ‘Never has life been so dear to us as now, standing here facing home’, was how J. G. Gheuens described it in a later novel De Mis Kenden (The Unsung). ‘We can smell the stables; all we want … is to eat, to sleep and rest, and then to charge again, until we are there.‘ On 22 November King Albert entered Brussels. His reception was delirious: ’Nobody will ever experience such a thing again! In the trees, on the fences, everywhere, people!‘
Belgians did not need to ask what the purpose of the war was. Nor did the population of occupied France. The entry to Lille was celebrated by an enormous crowd in the Place de la Concorde on 18 October, and in Charleville, used by Hindenburg as his headquarters, ‘what we wanted above all, was the victory of justice, liberty and civilisation’. The poilus were greeted with peals of bells, fireworks and songs. The entry to Alsace and Lorraine was the most emotive of all; their wait had been over forty years, not four. ‘We have just entered Château-Salins! What emotion, but also what joy, what bliss! Long before the town, the young girls adorned with ribbons in the colours of France came to meet us with flowers and much to our surprise we found the whole town bedecked with flags … The former mayor with his great white beard cried tears of joy, veterans of 70 held out their hands to take ours. I was so moved that I could not speak. In the afternoon, our band gave a concert. The old mayor asked the bandmaster for his baton and conducted the “Marseillaise” with masterly skill and full of emotion.’
Belgium and France had suffered; they wanted revenge for past wrongs and they wanted security for the future. The peace settlement had to do two things. It had to draw a line under the First World War, and it had to meet the expectations that from it a new world order would emerge. Woodrow Wilson was the popular focus for the latter, but his idealism did not blind him to the legitimacy of the former. In his mind, as in the minds of many pacifists and radicals, the Germans had caused the war and had waged it in a manner which defied the customs and conventions that governed relations between states. A successful settlement had to incorporate that reality, because, if it did not, it would poison the efforts to create something better.
Each of the Central Powers was subject to a separate peace treaty, and all had reason to feel aggrieved, given the expectations the Fourteen Points had generated. But that with Germany has carried the greatest weight because of its role in the causes of the Second World War. Despite its defeat, Germany manufactured its own feeling of victory out of the war. Ludendorff’s determination in 1917 to separate the demoralisation at home from the motivation of those at the front fed directly into the post-war argument that the German army had not been defeated in the field. It still stood deep in enemy territory on all fronts when it laid down its arms; its front had been neither broken through nor enveloped; thus, none of the features of an operational defeat on the battlefield was present. The British blockade, and the claim that it had reduced the civilian population to starvation, fitted in with the argument that the army had been stabbed in the back by the revolution at home. On 28 November 1918 Herbert Sulzbach’s division marched through the streets of Bonn, packed with civilians waving flags and throwing flowers: ‘our home country’, he wrote in his diary, ‘really seems to have understood that we are undefeated and unconquerable’. Two weeks later, on 11 December, the first troops marched down Unter den Linden in Berlin. ‘The men wore green laurel wreaths over their steel helmets, each rifle bore its little spray of flowers, the machine-guns were garlanded with green branches, and children waving gaily-coloured flags sat by the side of them’. They were greeted by Germany’s new chancellor, the socialist Friedrich Ebert: ’I salute you who return unvanquished from the field of battle‘.
Those who could not quite swallow this used another tack. In the desperate defensive battles of 1916 and 1917, the German soldier had been venerated for his courage and his determination. To fight a good fight carried its own reward ; to rise above the terrors of industrialised warfare and so to master the battlefield was itself a moral victory. Strains of this sort of thinking appeared in the war memorials and memoirs of soldiers other than in Germany. But in Germany it carried particular resonance precisely because this inner experience had to do duty for victory more conventionally defined. Ernst Jünger, a storm-troop officer awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour le Mérite, concluded his fictionalised diary, Stahlgewittern (The Storm of Steel): ’Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil‘. That conviction underpinned the writing of Germany’s history of the war. Georg Soldan, general editor of a popular but official series on battles, declared his aim was not to deny the horrors of the war, but to glorify them, in the hope that, like the Bible, the books would enter every home and help rebuild the fatherland. ’The nation was no longer for me an empty thought veiled in symbols‘, Jünger wrote, ’and how could it have been otherwise when I had seen so many die for its sake, and been schooled myself to stake my life for its credit every minute, day and night, without a thought? ‘
When Ulrich Brockdorff-Rantzau, the senior German delegate to the peace conference, was presented with the fat volume of Versailles demands on 7 May 1919, his shock was palpable. He summarised its contents: ‘Germany renounces its existence’. It was to lose 13 per cent of its territory and 10 per cent of its population. It was also required to pay reparations, which the allies themselves took turns to boost. The Americans refused to link them to the Entente’s settlement of its war debt, and the British and French, unable to quantify loss of life in other terms, added the pension bill that the casualties of the war had generated. In the event, the actual amounts proved irrelevant; Germany ended up paying less than France had paid after 1871. What mattered was the rhetoric that accompanied the settlement. Before the peace treaty was signed one member of the British delegation, John Maynard Keynes, resigned in protest at the harshness of the terms, and then published a hugely successful popular book in order to damn its economic clauses. The Economic Consequences of the Peace prepared the way for liberal doubters, who were further exploited by the Germans’ response to article 231 of the treaty. This asserted German war guilt, but for the sole purpose of justifying reparations. The Germans used it to attack the peace settlement as a whole. The allies’ failure at Versailles was a failure of resolve in implementing its terms. There was no inevitable link between it and the outbreak of a second war twenty years later. The reality was that, given the enormity of the task that confronted the victors, they drew up a settlement which promised far more than it proved able to deliver in practice.
The only precedent the powers had when they convened in Paris in 1919 was the settlement whose ultimate failure caused them to be there in the first place. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna set about restoring order in Europe by looking back; in 1919 thirty-seven powers looked forward, and sought solutions which would regulate the affairs not just of Europe but of the whole world. They brought to that process vocabulary which still underpins notions of international relations: the rule of international law, the value of multilateral solutions, and the belief that liberal democracy should be the basis for progress. Their efforts were shaped by two key, if ill-defined, Wilsonian concepts. The first was national self-determination. Given that the United States was itself a community made up predominantly of immigrants, Wilson’s presumption against multi-ethnic empires was arrogant and naive. In Europe about 30 million found themselves on the wrong sides of frontiers. In so far as he recognised they would generate problems, he relied on his other over-arching idea, the League of Nations, to sort things out.
The programme was ambitious, and in the long view of the twentieth century it failed. Clear ethnic divisions were particularly hard to draw in the Balkans. Italy felt aggrieved that the deal it had struck under the conditions of ‘old diplomacy’, as the price for its entry to the war in 1915, was not honoured by the spokesmen for ‘new diplomacy’ in 1919. Its frustration led it to flout the League in 1936. In Asia another power on the side of the victors, Japan, was incensed by the refusal to adopt its proposed clause on racial equality, that the members of the League would treat each other’s citizens without discrimination. It secured compensation in the recognition of its claim to Tsingtao and Shantung despite China’s membership of the Entente and despite the principle of national self-determination. In 1937 it, too, was to ignore the League as it used its gains as a platform to extend its claims to Asiatic hegemony. In the Middle East the Arabs did not get the nationhood they had been led to expect. The competition between France and Britain for influence in the region was further compounded by the latter’s recognition of the Zionist movement in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. But the series of settlements were not simply a charter for covert imperialism. The ’mandate’ system adopted outside Europe gave the powers to whose charge territories were allocated responsibilities as well as privileges, and made clear that their occupation was temporary not permanent.