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The Paris Peace Conference and postwar politics [extract]

In 1919, Allied victors met in Versailles to set the peace terms following World War I. Their decisions, largely driven by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and the United States, generated international political unrest that played a critical role in World War II.

In the following shortened extract from The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise History, historian Michael Neiberg discusses the Paris Peace Conference and its political aftermath.

The process of peacemaking lasted longer than the First World War it endeavored to end. The Paris Peace Conference began on January 18, 1919.  Although the senior statesmen stopped working personally on the conference in June 1919, the formal peace process did not really end until July 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed by France, Britain, Italy, Japan, Greece, and Romania with the new Republic of Turkey. Lausanne was a renegotiation prompted by the failures of the one- sided Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 1920 but immediately rejected by Turkish forces loyal to the war hero Mustafa Kemal.

The conference also produced the Treaty of St. Germain with Austria in September 1919, the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria in November 1919, and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary in June 1920. These treaties meted out relatively lenient terms to Austria, especially given the Austrian elite’s central role in starting the war in 1914. Hungary came out much worse than Austria did, largely to punish Hungarians for their postwar flirtation with a communist movement. Thus the conference had as much to do with postwar politics as perceptions of prewar guilt.

Interior of the Galerie des Glaces showing the arrangement of tables for the signing of Peace Terms, Versailles, France. June 27, 1919. Credit: Lt. M.S. Lentz. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But the centerpiece of the Paris Peace Conference was always the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, five years to the day after a teenaged Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, had assassinated Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. The treaty and the conference are thus closely linked but not quite synonymous. None of the other treaties bear such a heavy historical responsibility for the world they created or the conflicts that followed, although perhaps they should. It is the Treaty of Versailles for which the Paris Peace Conference will probably be best remembered, and most often damned.

The dozens of statesmen, diplomats, and advisers who assembled in Paris in 1919 have come in for heavy criticism for writing treaties that failed to give Europe a lasting peace. Even many of the people most deeply involved with the peace process recognized their shortcomings early on, in some cases before the text had even been drafted.

Participants quickly grew disillusioned by the old- fashioned horse trading and back- room dealing that overwhelmed the ideals and principles of those who had hoped to fashion a better world out of the ashes of the war. Few people came out of Paris optimistic about the future.

Points in its defense notwithstanding, it is difficult to contradict the views of contemporaries and later scholars who have seen the treaty as a great missed opportunity and a source of considerable anger and disillusion in Europe and around the world. When in 1945 the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain gathered in Potsdam to end the Second World War, they all blamed the failures of the Treaty of Versailles for having made the war of 1939– 45 necessary. The final decisions reached at Potsdam in 1945 were deeply influenced by these memories and the desire on the part of almost everyone at Potsdam to atone for the mistakes of their predecessors a generation earlier.

Of course, we must accept the basic truth that no document, even if thoughtfully written and elegantly implemented, could have closed the Pandora’s box that Europe opened in 1914. No treaty could have explained to the Germans why they had lost or made them accept the basic fact of their defeat. Instead, having been lied to by their senior leaders, millions of Germans accepted the convenient fiction that their armies had not really been defeated on the battlefield but had instead been betrayed at home. The fact that Allied armies never invaded German soil helped to fuel that poisonous myth, which German politicians intentionally spread to serve their own purposes. By June 1919, that version of history was already commonplace in Germany, and not only in right- wing circles.

Nor were the Allies, desperate to reduce defense expenses and the risks of further bloodshed, willing to commit to a long- term occupation or monitoring of Germany to enforce whatever terms the Germans might accept. Indeed, many Allied politicians, especially in Britain, wanted to see Germany quickly recover, both to restore a balance of power on the Continent and for German consumers to once more be in a position to buy British goods. Britain needed a treaty that kept Germany strong enough to serve as the engine of a postwar European economic recovery but not strong enough to pose a threat to the European political system. It is highly unlikely that any treaty could have negotiated that peculiarly deadly Scylla and Charybdis of the postwar years.

From the perspective of the French, the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine might excite nationalist politicians and serve as a patriotic background for numerous postwar celebrations, but it did not justify the deaths of an estimated 1.4 million Frenchmen. Nor did the French feel safe after 1919. In addition to the strategic considerations outlined, the French knew that they still faced a more populous Germany to their east. They also knew that their former allies were either gone (czarist Russia) or unwilling to sign a mutual security agreement to come to France’s help in the future (the United States and the United Kingdom). They also faced the tremendous task of rebuilding their farms, mines, and factories, while those in Germany remained intact. The euphoric mood of November 1918 did not last long.

The Treaty of Versailles is not solely responsible for the hell that Europe and the world did in fact go through just a few years later, but it played a critical role. If we are to understand diplomacy, decolonization, the Second World War, and the twentieth century more generally, there is no better place to begin than with the First World War and the treaty that tried to end it.

Featured image credit: “Dignitaries gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France, to sign the Treaty of Versailles” by Unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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