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In January 1919, twenty-eight delegations came to Paris to draft the documents ending the conflict we now call the First World War. Just six months later, on June 28, five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, German delegates joined the Allied and Associate powers in signing the peace treaty. Victory parades were held in Paris and London.

Now, one hundred years on, those festive moments leave us with a taste as of ashes. It was not only that millions were in mourning. It was also that virtually from the moment the peace was signed, it began to unravel. There is no better instance of the dangers of a flawed peace treaty than that concluding the war of 1914–1918. Its failures still resonate today.

The deliberations producing the treaty were complex, but the final decisions were made by only four men, each of whom brought strong national and personal ambitions to the table. The French host, Georges Clémenceau, aged seventy-eight in 1919, the elder statesman of the Allies, was trained as a physician, and had been mayor of the Parisian commune of Montmartre following France’s defeat by the Prussians in 1870. In his opening statement, he said that Germany must never again be permitted to threaten France. Germany had to be punished for the terrible devastation and loss of life its invasion of France had caused over four years. France had lost 1.4 million men and more than twice that number had been wounded. In his bitterness, Clémenceau spoke for his people.

Jay Winter
Jay Winter is Charles J. Stille Professor of History emeritus at Yale University.

David Lloyd George was a Welsh Liberal and a brilliant orator, a charismatic man, whom no one ever accused of being a man of principle. Ambition came first. He managed to destroy his own political party in 1916 and headed a coalition government, and then led another coalition to a major victory in the general election of 1918, held immediately after the war had ended. Notably among his delegation in Paris was Winston Churchill, former First Lord of the Admiralty and author of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1918.

Vittorio Emmanuelle Orlando was a former professor of law and a liberal. He was a vigorous proponent of Italy’s entry into the war in 1915, spurred on by secret assurances from London and Paris that Italy would be rewarded after victory with sovereignty over parts of the Dalmatian coast.

Woodrow Wilson was aged sixty-three in 1919. A Virginian, he grew up with a visceral memory of the ravages of the U.S. Civil War in the South. His father was a Presbyterian minister and gave to him a sense of moral rectitude he carried for the rest of his life. Wilson trained in the law, and then began a career that led to academic distinction in U.S. constitutional history first at Johns Hopkins University and then at Princeton University. From there, he was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910 and then, as the Democratic Party’s candidate, president of the United States in 1912.

Wilson spoke for a generation of moralists who left their indelible mark on early twentieth century U.S. history. They were all children of the Civil War and shared a language of moral engagement that set Wilson off from his peers at Versailles. Initially, he was convinced the United States should stay out of the First World War and won reelection on a neutrality platform in 1916. Then he was pushed into war by German submarine warfare and prosecuted the conflict with all the fury of an Old Testament prophet bringing fire and brimstone on the sinners’ heads.

Wilson’s self-righteousness did not win him many European friends. Speaking about Wilson’s famous declaration of principles—the Fourteen Points he announced in a speech on January 8, 1918—Clémenceau noted, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.”1

And yet, the arrival in Europe of Wilson—the first sitting president to leave the United States—stirred up great popular hopes in France and elsewhere that a new order was coming to Europe and the world, one in which war would be banished from history.

Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed. Some historians argue that the leaders at Versailles were simply not up to the task. Others believe they did the best anyone could have done, and the treaty they wrought was undermined by later events they could not foresee. The mainstream of historical opinion lies somewhere between the two, though everyone agrees that there were structural and ideological flaws in the peace process that, in different ways, undermined the settlements signed first in Versailles and then in a series of subsequent treaties ending the Great War.

The Flaws of the Treaty of Versailles

The first flaw of the peace conference was that it was constrained by time. When peacemakers assembled in Paris in January, they were charged with the mountainous task of concluding a peace agreement that would enable the vast armies the Allies still kept in readiness to be sent home. That meant that they had to accomplish their work as quickly as possible. Many soldiers, separated from their families for four years, were in a mutinous mood. Tens of thousands were hit by the Spanish flu—the worst influenza epidemic in history. They were prepared to accept only two orders—to disband and to go home.

Rushing into peace made as little sense as rushing into war, but that is precisely what happened. Leaders from all over the world were there pressing their cases and insisting on audiences with the Big Four. The task they and their staffs faced was simply crushing. Wilson’s health suffered considerably; he had what some saw as a light stroke and was exhausted—some said diminished—by the time the final treaty was agreed. The constraints of time also meant that, in the rush to Paris, Wilson did not bring onto his negotiating team the leadership of the Republican Party—a tactical mistake that he would come to regret. Instead, the president brought along members of the Inquiry, a group of academic experts that included James T. Shotwell and other men associated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Shotwell coordinated the work of producing papers and maps on the major points and areas of conflict to be decided in Paris and took a leading part in framing the convention establishing the International Labor Organization, one of the few lasting legacies of the postwar settlement. And yet much of the work of these experts was limited by the pressure of time as well as their conflicts with the U.S. State Department.

Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George leaving Palace of Versailles after signing peace treaty. (Library of Congress)

Time pressure also helps explain why Wilson changed his mind about the nature of the peace settlement he was prepared to accept. Having stood for a “peace without victory” in early 1918, a year later Wilson had become an advocate of a punitive settlement, designed to ensure that Germany would never again threaten the peace of the world. This volte-face indicated the price he was prepared to pay for British and French support for the establishment of a League of Nations, an institution he believed to be essential to uphold world peace. There was no time to work out a compromise. Either Wilson had to accept what the British and French wanted, or he would have to forget his dream of creating a League of Nations. He got his league, but the punitive nature of the peace guaranteed its failure.

The second flaw was that the Versailles Conference excluded the losers. In 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, France was given a seat at the table to shape the postwar world. Yet in 1919, Germany was barred from negotiations. This omission completely baffled Shotwell and other Carnegie men in Paris. In Shotwell’s view, the knowledge of German experts would have helped make the peace treaty a common instrument for peace rather than a victor’s fiat. Instead, the delegates of the provisional German government replacing the kaiser were given a stark choice of either signing and accepting the settlement or rejecting it and renewing the war. Clémenceau ensured that their pariah status would be seen by all. Adjacent to the door through which the German delegation passed into the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles to sign the document on June 28, he stationed five disfigured French soldiers, men whose grotesque wounds embodied the guilt Germany and her allies should bear for all the suffering the war had brought about.

This charge of guilt was outlined in Article 231 of the treaty and constituted the third fatal flaw in the drafting of the peace.2The Treaty of Versailles was more a moral than a political indictment. The absolute nature of the accusation that only Germany and her allies were responsible for the outbreak of the war simplified the war crisis of 1914 and turned it into a caricature.

In the interwar years, Germans left, right, and center objected to this form of diplomatic morality, as if the assassination of Franz Ferdinand had never happened, and as if there were no degrees of responsibility for war extending beyond Germany. When Adolf Hitler demanded the revision of the treaty, he spoke for many Germans, not only the Nazi Party. After the archives of the chancelleries of Europe were opened in the 1960s, further research has made it virtually impossible to say that only Germany bore responsibility for failing to keep the peace.3

The fourth fatal flaw was in the construction of the new League of Nations. It aimed for collective security, but its participating members all operated on the principle of the absolute sovereignty of states. Indeed, as Britain had explicitly gone to war to defend the neutrality of the state of Belgium from German aggression, it is evident that the war was fought first of all to defend the sovereignty of individual states, not to establish an institution that prioritized collective security.

And yet Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations provided for international military assistance to be given to a state that is a victim of aggression.4 Here was a derogation of state sovereignty in the interest of collective security—but it was an idea well before its time. It became the sticking point on which Wilson and the U.S. Senate refused to compromise, and was the proximate cause of the failure by the Senate to ratify the treaty. Perhaps lawyers could have found language to square the circle, but even today, international institutions falter when sovereignty becomes the issue.

Twenty years later in September 1938 at Munich, the Nazis drove a coach and horses through this intellectual hole in the framework of the League of Nations. Their threats against the Czechs were a clear threat to the collective security of Europe. And yet the league was powerless to act. The invasion of Czechoslovakia bypassed the league, and the country’s fate was decided by old-fashioned diplomacy between sovereign states. The Czech government was not even invited to its own execution; Czechoslovakia was first divided and then swallowed whole by the Nazis. Collective security never had a chance.

Hitler made much of his claim that Germans living in Czechoslovakia had the right to self-determination. It was absurd for the leader of a police state with a racist character to talk about self-determination, but that is precisely what Hitler did. His presumption was based on the fifth fatal flaw of the peace settlement—its assertion, without any precise definition, that all nations had the right to self-determination.

The catch here was that the peacemakers of 1919 had in mind all white nations in Europe had the right to self-determination. Not so, men and women of color. The racism of the settlement was driven home during the proceedings of the peace conference itself. The Japanese delegation, well aware of the racism of the Allied delegations, flew a kite they knew would be shot down. They advanced the idea that in the protocols of the peace treaty there would be a racial equality clause, only to be rejected by then Australian prime minister Billy Hughes, among others. Wilson appeased the Japanese by giving them control of the former German concession in the Chinese province of Shandong, thereby entrusting the birthplace of Confucius to the imperial Japanese army; so much for self-determination. Chinese students were so outraged when they learned of this decision that, on May 4, 1919, they burned down the telegraph office in Beijing and European parts of the city, and gathered together in a sports stadium to form the May Fourth Movement, the embryonic form of the Chinese Communist Party.

At the time, the creation of a series of anticolonial movements around the world did not overly trouble the imperial powers. Yet the war had both extended the Allies’ imperial power and undermined the economic base on which it rested. Dealing with a vastly changed international economy, Britain and France had difficulty in maintaining the revenues, in part from overseas assets and trade, that kept imperial power in place. War debt, especially to the United States, had to be paid, and after the release of civilian expenditure in 1918–1920, they experienced the first of many downturns in economic growth in the interwar years. The time bomb embedded in the peace treaty of 1919—the right to self-determination—started ticking under these worsening economic conditions.

What made economic recovery even more difficult to achieve was the sixth flaw of the work of the peacemakers of 1919. The peace settlement included reparations clauses that were meant to ensure Germany remained so economically weak that she could not resume preparations for war. And yet, European recovery without Germany was an impossibility. The economic—and hence political—stability of postwar Europe was not possible without a robust German economy. This was a mistake that the peacemakers of 1945 sought to correct with their ambitious economic development plans.

The seventh and final fatal flaw in the peace treaty of 1919 is that it totally ignored the Bolshevik Revolution and the status of the borders of Eastern Europe. Not only were the leaders of the new regime not invited to the proceedings, but in the course of the deliberations, Winston Churchill raised the question as to whether it was time to launch a full-scale military invasion of Russia in order to help stamp out the Bolshevik regime. In time, U.S., British, French, Italian, and Greek troops invaded Russia. Their ignorance of both the topography of Russia and the political landscape presaged their failure. Indeed, the intervention of foreign troops probably heightened Russians’ hostility to foreign invaders and helped to tighten the Bolsheviks’ grip on power.

Failed Leadership

Was the Paris peace treaty a disaster that could have been avoided? Probably not. The interests of each of the Big Four states were entirely divergent and to a degree contradictory. Italy, France, and Britain each had its own domestic and imperial priorities. Wilson wanted to found the League of Nations, and was prepared to pay any price for it. In early 1917, before the United States entered the war, he proclaimed his policy as seeking a peace without victory. Once the United States went to war, and sent over 2 million men across the Atlantic, he ultimately achieved a victory without peace.

It is easy in retrospect to judge the peacemakers of 1919 as lacking a vision and a sense of the limits of the possible in a deeply damaged world. And yet, what British historian E. P. Thompson once called “the enormous condescension of posterity” serves little purpose.5 Like the war itself, the peace of 1919 took on a character few could have predicted and no one controlled.

Perhaps we can add to an assessment of the peacemakers of 1919 some reflections on what their record tells us about peacemaking in 2019. The first point to make is that the consequences of the flawed peace of 1919 still exist. The modern Middle East emerged from the imperial division of the region between Britain and France and a subsequent revolt against Western domination, through proxy or force. The Chinese humiliation at Versailles and the awarding of Shandong Province to Japan are matters of concern to this day in China. Listen to Hungarian politicians like Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speak of the crime of St. Germain; they are not referring to a famous Parisian football team but to the loss of two-thirds of Hungarian territory at the end of the war. The Armenian genocide of 1915 is still contested by Turkish spokesmen, though historians in Turkey as elsewhere have established clearly the genocidal character of the crime. The peace treaties of 1919–1923 left jagged edges on the international map that still cause distress today.

Another painful issue that still resonates is regime change. Wilson came to Paris in January 1919, insisting that he would not negotiate with Kaiser Wilhelm II or his government when their emissaries sought his help in bringing about the armistice. Wilson got his regime change on November 10 when the kaiser reluctantly abdicated, and was replaced by a provisional government formed by those who were not responsible for the war. These people then signed the peace treaty of 1919 and wore that indignity like an albatross for the rest of their lives, while the true culprits like the Kaiser; Erich Ludendorff, his key military commander; and Alfred von Tirpitz, his naval commander, escaped scot free. Wilson’s inflexible regime-change strategy, like later incarnations of this idea, undermined the peace settlement in essential respects.

The third point is that the Versailles decision to conduct peace negotiations without all the relevant parties at the table made then and makes now no sense at all. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump will not settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by themselves. The Western peacemakers of 1945 knew better, and engaged first the Soviets and, after 1949, the German government in the reconstruction of the postwar world. Their record has flaws, but they pale in comparison to those of 1919.

The fourth point is more specifically American in character. Liberal internationalism was at the heart of Wilson’s foreign policy, just as it was (and is) at the heart of the peace projects associated with the name of Andrew Carnegie. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of this position then as now is that liberal internationalism shrivels under the pressure of modern war. Those on the political extremes attract a mass following and make compromise difficult.

The Carnegie Legacy After Versailles

The liberalism of the Carnegie men at the peace conference of 1919 was more damaged by the 1914–1918 war than they knew. Nineteenth-century liberalism championed a weak state and a strong civil society. States grew in strength during the war and stayed strong thereafter. Liberalism had a much harder time dealing with a big state than with the small states that marked the prewar period. In addition, the prewar pacifist core of liberalism was based on its appeal to a wide electorate; that electorate deserted liberalism for parties on the left and right throughout Europe and elsewhere. But perhaps of greatest importance was that pacifist liberalism foundered when the dynamic economic growth of the period 1870–1914 came to an end. These halcyon days were the ones in which Andrew Carnegie not only made his fortune but also attempted to use it to abolish war by constructing a stable peace based on law, arbitration, and conciliation. After 1919, the economic conditions in which liberalism had flourished both in Europe and in the United States simply did not exist.

The Great War inaugurated a dark period in global economic history. Britain’s interwar depression began in 1920, and continued with ups and downs until 1940. France, like Britain, was impoverished by the staggering costs of war, and by the need to pay off war debts. The failure of international trade to revive rapidly after the war reduced national incomes and made it much harder for these two imperial powers to afford both the costs of protecting their empires and paying for the welfare benefits to which millions of disabled men and their families were entitled. The optimism of Carnegie men, like Nicholas Murray Butler, James Brown Scott, and James T. Shotwell, was born in an age subsequently blown away by the shattering effects of the first fully industrialized war in history.

The democratic impulse Wilson brought to the conference table at Versailles was both deeply felt and profoundly unrealistic. The settlement of 1919 broke up the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and later events tore apart the Ottoman Empire. But democracy in these successor states was a frail reed, unable to take root firmly in the harsh postwar era. The peace settlement had created new states in Eastern Europe, many of which had substantial minority populations unhappy with their status. Ethnic conflicts deepened as antidemocratic regimes emerged first in the 1920s, and then with the rise of the Nazis in 1933, throughout central and Eastern Europe.

By the 1930s, it was evident that the Great War had made the world safe for authoritarian governments. This was hardly the outcome Wilson and the Carnegie men had hoped for when they landed in France in the heady days of 1919, thinking they could forge a new and democratic world order. None of them knew that the treaty would be turned down twice by the U.S. Senate. Thus Wilson’s beloved League of Nations was born without U.S. support, and without the chance of Americans to shape it and strengthen it in coming years.

In effect, Wilson and the U.S. delegation got the worst of both worlds. They got their prize—the League of Nations—but at the price of signing on to a peace settlement that had little chance of success. The peace settlement was a house built on insecure foundations, which gave way under the pressure of the world economic crisis of 1929 and the arrival of the Nazi regime in 1933. The treaty’s eventual collapse in 1939 surprised no one.

Indeed, Allied peacemaking in 1945–1946 was the diametrical opposite of the way things were done in 1919. To be sure, the defeated powers were prostrate and occupied in 1945, but the effort to reconstruct the world order avoided the worst errors of 1919. The foundation of peace was the revival of the world economy, led by the United States. The Marshall Plan of 1948 gave Europe $12 billion—over $100 billion in today’s currency—and the triumph of Keynesian economics helped produce the greatest economic boom in a century. Globalization, interrupted by the two world wars, began its second surge, producing what the French term “les trentes glorieuses,” the years of bounty from 1945 to 1975.

In those years, men and women in the Carnegie mold got a new lease of life. Their liberal internationalism was different from that of their founder. Their aim became less utopian. They did not try to abolish war but worked instead to contain it politically through multilateral policies, through a concerted effort to control nuclear weapons, and through support of global civil society.

The failure of the peacemakers of Paris in 1919 is an object lesson in what not to do to create a stable world order in the wake of war. Looking back at their work leaves this observer with a sense of tragedy. All that suffering between 1914 and 1918—10 million dead soldiers, and 20 million wounded—yielded little other than a rearrangement of the explosive materials that had detonated in 1914 and would explode again in 1939. The settlement of 1919 was indeed the peace that passeth all understanding.

Jay Winter is Charles J. Stille Professor of History emeritus at Yale University.  He is an historian of the First World War, and the author of Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, published in 1995, editor of America and the Armenian Genocide (2008), and editor-in-chief of the three-volume Cambridge history of the First World War, published in 2014 in English, French, and next year, in Chinese. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Graz, the Katholic University of Leuven, and the University of Paris – VIII.  In 2017 he received the Victor Adler Prize of the Austrian government for a lifetime of work in history. 

Notes

1 As quoted in Thomas Bailey, “Woodrow Wilson Wouldn’t Yield,” American Heritage 8, no. 4 (June 1957), accessed September 10, 2019, http://www.americanheritage.com/content/woodrow-wilson-wouldn%E2%80%99t-yield.

2 “Treaty of Versailles,” UK National Archives, accessed September 10, 2019, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/aftermath/p_versailles.htm.

3 See Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper, 2013).

4 “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School, accessed September 10, 2019, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp.

5 “Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class,” University of Cambridge, accessed September 10, 2019, https://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/prospective-undergrads/virtual-classroom/secondary-source-exercises/sources-people/thompson.