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First World War Keith Thompson


First World War and Versailles - The Lessons


After the First World War, the states from the winning coalition punished the defeated nations without asking themselves the following questions:

What was our role for the outbreak of the war? What does motivate us to seek a severe punishment of the Central Powers?

Now we know that this war was a result of the actions of all of the Great Powers, and the decision of the winners, Britain and France in particular, to treat Germany more severely than she deserved was determined by fear, greed, revenge, and lack of political experience.

Before we look at the Versailles Treaty that dealt specifucally with the German future and in this way shaped the post First World War order, we must say a few words about the general conditions in Europe and the world before the outbreak of the war.

Although the twentieth century started with a dizzying development of science, technologies, and humanistic ideologies, this age was not truly "rational." The Industrial Revolution of the ninetieth century and the relative democratization of western Europe, the development of communications, mass press and mass education did not bring international peace and sustainable economic progress. Quite the contrary, the industrial era transformed the West-European societies in a new kind of predatory self-centered organisms. The industrial states in Europe and North America practiced Darwinian capitalism at home and raging imperialism abroad. They continued in a new, more sophisticated way the long tradition of confrontation and violence that characterized state behavior in all previous historical periods.

In XIX century, the European states started a frenzied competition for acquiring zones of influence over the last untouched by colonization regions in the world, believing that the expansion and exploitation are the best and only sources for national security and wealth. Initially, this common, and as it turned out at the end suicidal, competition was relatively peaceful; the expansionism was accompanied with fluid international alliances and secret negotiations -- a self-described "real politics " that was actually undermining systematically the foundations of security and wealth. In such a competitive environment fear and suspicion were major psychological factors in making foreign policy, and militarization was a constituent part of the race for dominance.

So on the eve of the First World War, Europe was divided into two major coalitions, composed by participating units (or states) that followed their own egoistic goals and interests. On the one side, there were Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy (or the Triple Alliance; in 1915 Italy left the coalition), on the other - France, Russia, and Great Britain (or the Triple Entente). These were the most powerful nations in the world (if we don't count the United States). Their zones of influence and the rest of the secondary powers gravitated around them depending on their own goals and interests. At this time, the United States was still following a politics of isolationism, but not pure, because it had its own sphere of influence in Latin America and the Pacific region.

Europe in 1914

The state borders in 1914. Central Powers and Allies are the German Reich, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and Ottoman Empire. Triple Entante and Allies are Great Britain, France, Russia and others, written on this map with red letters. (Map Source: Der Spiegel Magazine)

So before the war the world was resting on a fragile balance of power. According to Paul Kennedy, the European powers scrutinized with great embarrassment the actions, development and expansionist ambitions of Germany and Russia. [1] At that time, the economic and military power of Germany was growing, and Russian modernization was continuing. Additionally, both states, Russia and Germany, were suspicious to each other because of their conflicting interests in the Balkans and the Baltics. In an excellent article published in the International Security magazine in the early 1980s, Stephen Van Evera explains the cause of the First World War with the "cult of offensive" developed during the era of "real politics." [2] The war broke out because every major player on the international scene believed that offensive is the best defensive. The paranoid political environment made the war desired by everyone. Europeans, not only the politicians, but the citizens too, wanted this war. A short time war, they believed, will relieve the accumulated political pressure at home and abroad and will resolve their foreign and even domestic problems. In such an environment, the war was inevitable. Eventually the conflict started, but it was neither short, nor cheap. It ended leaving Europe devastated, taking millions of lives. At its end men did not learn its lessons, and the pre-war problems of Europe intensified.

The Treaties in Paris (part of which was the Treaty of Versailles) were irrational and unfair to defeated nations. All sides in the conflict were more or less responsible for the outbreak of the war. The First World War was a strange war: it was difficult to define who the aggressor was; it was difficult even to argue who the winner was since in German territory there was no penetration of foreign armies. Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and in a lesser extend Turkey, were condemned to pay the full price for the calamities, and moreover their territories were fractured without concern of ethnic minorities and local particularities. The defeated nations were excluded from the negotiations. And this was a mistake. In 1919 the Allied powers put it clear - Germany is defeated and responsible for "causing all the loss and damage" of the war (Article 198 of Versailles Treaty). The winners, Britain and France, ignoring political prudence and the lessons of history, continued the tradition of offence - their fears, their troubles, and their wartime sacrifices had to be redeemed by their foes.

In the beginning of 1919, the Allied powers (except Russia) began to elaborate in Versailles the post war treaty settling the post-war peace with Germany. The biggest nation in Europe was deprived from Saar Basin (Articles 45 and 49) and Alsace Lorraine (Article 51). As a compensation for the destruction of French coal mines the Saar Basin with German population of nearly 800 000 was transferred to the League of Nations for a period of 15 years while France received the exclusive rights to exploit the mines in this area. Alsace Lorraine was restored to France, and Germany was forbidden to construct any fortifications to the left bank of Rhine (Article 42). Germany was forced to accept the creation of a weak Austrian state (Articles 80 and 81; Austro-Hungarian empire was disbanded) and to recognize the complete independence of Poland (Article 89). The agreements of Brest-Litovsk were nullified in favour of Russia that regained its territories from August 1914 (Article 116). Germany lost its overseas territories (Article 119) and it was obliged to demobilize and reduce its military forces (Article 159). All these "preventive" and "punitive" measures along with additional reparations left Germany, the most powerful European nation, crippled and humiliated.

Europe in 1917

Map of post-First World War Europe and Asia Minor. The colored areas are the national territories of the defeated nations in 1914- Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ottoman Empire - and Tzarist Russia until 1917. (Map Source: Der Spiegel Magazine)

Why did the Allied powers, drafting this document, allowed their emotions to prevail over the justice and reason? First, the war end and it was not easy for Clemenceau and Lloyd George to resist the public opinion that saw in the Central powers the main cause of all deaths and devastation. The public needed some simple, clear reason that could explain the irrationality of the experienced butchery. People were slaughtered for some reason. And in the public opinion, the reason was Germany. The Reich was the culprit. State propaganda and the nationalist education of the masses, prior the war, played a great role in these public feelings. Second, France was afraid of strong Germany. The French just did not know what to do with Germans, and they used the old methods of defence - to suffocate the enemy's power, to keep it weak and subdued. Third, the old order and political habits did not die easy. The Allied powers remembered very well what Germans did with Russia in Brest-Litovsk - and felt that if Germany had the chance to win, their fate would not be different from the fate of the Russians, who had been forced to make great concessions of land to Germany year before the end of the war.


It is a fact that time is fixing every injustice or mistake made in the past. The most irrational decisions of Treaty of Versailles were contested later or were a constant point of tension. For example, the reparations were constantly renegotiated, Saar returned to Germany, Austria was annexed by Hitler, Alsace-Lorraine were contested again during the Second World War, the nationalistic economic policy that burdened Germany with reparations and restrictions - a mirror of the mentioned earlier "real policy" of fierce competition and selfishness - facilitated the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Despite the efforts of France, Germany succeeded to regain its central place as European economic and military power and its nationalistic madness was cured not until the end of the bloodiest war conflict of all times - the Second World War.

The world passed through the Second World War that was in part a direct result of Versailles order. It went trough the Cold War that was one of the results of the Second Wold War. In the recent years we have been witnessing or participating in a number of Middle Eastern conflicts, we see an isolationist European Union, an weakened and economically depressed America, and a rising authoritarian East Asia. Whether we have learned the lessons of history, whether we know that the fear is not a good adviser, and aggression - not a good policy, time will show. The future will show what the illusions of the present day are, as it showed what the illusions in Versailles were more than hundred years ago. Montreal Review


Illustration: "CARICATURE MAP OF EUROPE 1914" by Keith Thompson, www.keiththompsonart.com


Related articles:

The Treaty of Versailles: Peace without Justice

"To what extend the Treaty of Versailles is a cause for the Second World War?"


The Origins of the Second World War


The Peace that led to War



[1] See Paul Kennedy, "The First World War and the International Power System," International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 7-40

[2] See Stephen Van Evera, The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War , International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 58-107


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