By Brennan Steele
This November 11 marked the centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, and the beginning of the long peace process that followed. The centennial of one of the greatest tragedies in human history offers an opportunity for reflection on what went wrong a century ago, and should encourage us to understand exactly how the peace process failed so spectacularly in less than two decades. The unprecedented scale of the Great War demonstrated that the Concert of Europe had failed; that backdoor negotiations and balance-of-power politics had proved no match for machine guns and mustard gas. Both the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires had collapsed, the ruling families of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had been toppled through revolutions, and much of Europe looked ready to follow suit. The peace that the Armistice ushered in was a tenuous one, backed not by overwhelming strength or clear victory but by the unwillingness to continue the fight and send millions more to their deaths.
Old Europe had died, and the statesmen at Versailles were tasked with burying it and creating its replacement. The Big Four were the American president Woodrow Wilson, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and the Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. Orlando’s position was secondary to the rest, leading to multiple conflicts with the other heads-of-state and temporary withdrawals from peace negotiations. The final outcome of the Paris Peace Conference was the Treaty of Versailles, signed in January 1920. This treaty failed to keep the peace in Europe, and by 1939 another world war had broken out. A century on, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear why. The Treaty of Versailles failed to keep the peace not because of failings in the principles espoused, but because the representatives of the victorious nations refused to frankly address the entrenched and conflicting interests of themselves and their allies. There were four main failures of the Treaty: negotiations were conducted with minimal room for input from other powers, Germany was held solely responsible for starting the war, self-determination was applied selectively, and the League of Nations was not made fully legitimate.
The first failing came during the negotiations. The diplomacy was conducted very much in the style of Old Europe, with the victors negotiating privately behind closed doors. Audiences and input from other powers were allowed, but it was abundantly clear that the victors would ultimately call the shots. Many of the belligerents on both sides, as well as newly independent nations, found that they were left out in the cold. Even the Italian delegates stormed out of the negotiations when Wilson, George, and Clemenceau relegated their interests to the sidelines. The final treaty was presented largely as a fait accompli, minimizing the impact that others could have. The result was a document that the defeated powers, and even some of the victorious ones, could rightfully point to as exploitative and unfair. Had the Big Four involved more nations in the peace process to draft an agreement that more fairly dealt with the conflicting interests present, peace may have been a much more achievable goal.
The second failing was in the punitive nature of the treaty. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were largely dissolved, although much of this process had already occurred by the beginning of the negotiations. The Allies placed the blame for the war squarely on Germany’s shoulders, knowing that he could not challenge the decision without remobilizing. However, Germany was not solely responsible for the war breaking out, but this fact was not reflected in the treaty. Instead, Germany was humiliated, lost territory both in Europe and in his colonies, and was forced to pay massive reparations. The Allied powers did not seek to rebuild a more friendly Germany, but rather to simply punish him. Although they certainly had the right to demand concessions from the Central Powers, the extent of the Allied demands distorted the understanding of how the war had started in the first place.
WWI was not the product of any one power, but a possible conclusion of the European system that the Congress of Vienna had set up following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. States of similar strength would keep each other in check, and uninvolved powers could threaten intervention in order to keep the balance of power in Europe. The hope was to prevent states from accomplishing the kind of massive military victories seen during Napoleon’s reign. However, by the early 20th century the result was that the blocs of great powers in Europe were nearly equally matched, and none could actually claim a decisive advantage. The general expansion of Europe worsened the situation, as colonial claims became matters of national honor and prestige. France and Britain had come close to war over competing claims in the Sudan in 1898, and Germany and France nearly started a war over claims in Morocco in 1911. The international crisis following Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was not unique, it was simply the first one to actually end with a world war. By focusing the blame solely on Germany, the Allies were able to ignore the need to create a system wherein these kinds of incidents could be avoided or resolved without resorting to war.
The third, and most impactful, failing of the treaty involved the principle of self-determination. This principle was arguably the most important part of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. However, it became immediately clear that self-determination was only for Europeans. The former subjects of Austria-Hungary and the Western Russian Empire were largely given their own states, Yugoslavia was formed as a Balkan state for the Slavs, and parts of the German Empire were returned to other nations along the lines of national identity. However, the peoples of the Ottoman Empire were divided up by European Powers to best suit their own interests. The hopes of most Arab peoples in the Levant for independent states were dashed, and British promises to that extent were rescinded. Governments were created with little regard for the reality of the situation, as can be seen in Britain’s appointment of King Faisal I as the King of Iraq despite his having no Iraqi ties. The division of the Ottoman Empire was not along self-determined lines, but lines of European interest.
Much of the divvied up Ottoman Empire, as well as Germany’s former colonies, became mandates of the League of Nations. All but one of these mandates ended up as pseudo-colonies of Britain and France (modern-day Rwanda and Burundi were given to Belgium). These mandates were nominally temporary measures intended to prepare their inhabitants for self-government, but by the outbreak of WWII all remained subjects. It is impossible to say whether or not the League would actually have attempted to force the mandates to be set free, but it seems unlikely considering the dominant roles France and Britain held within it.
The Big Four nominally supported self-determination for the peoples of the defeated powers, but did not attempt to extend this principle to their own subjects, even when these issues were brought to Versailles. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Northern Vietnam in the Vietnam War, discovered this firsthand while attempting to petition the peace conference for self-determination for French Indochina but found the Allied powers unwilling to take action. Cases where international arbitration could certainly have ended immediate violence were also ignored, as in the case of Ireland. In 1918 Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, but mounting pressure had been building for either increased local autonomy or full independence. The outbreak of world war in 1914 averted a civil war, but a rebellion in 1916 and a conflict over conscription soon after led to a declaration of independence and subsequent war in early 1919. Irish delegations petitioned Wilson, Clemenceau, and George for either recognition or arbitration, but the matter was almost entirely ignored because Wilson and Clemenceau decided that it was a British problem. Both Vietnam and Ireland would become sites of conflict for decades to come.
Finally, the last major failing of the Peace of Versailles was the League of Nations. The victors recognized that creating an international body that could help to resolve conflicts between members and provide for multilateral action was beneficial, but the League failed in achieving these objectives. Germany did not join until 1926, the Soviet Union only joined in 1934, and the United States never joined. Without the backing of these major powers, the League was largely illegitimate at the outset. Its inability to intervene in or resolve various conflicts, such as the Spanish Civil War, further crippled its power. Without a legitimate international body, crises had to be resolved as they appeared. Further, the ease with which nations could leave the League allowed nations to remain involved only on their own terms.
The peacemakers at Versailles did not have the benefit of being able to look back at a century of history while drafting their agreement. They were largely creating a treaty to prevent the outbreak of another war on the same terms as the Great War, which they saw as an aberration. However, the victors were unwilling to give concessions in the peace. Their failure to adequately address the responsibility that they themselves bore for the violence and destruction of WWI was a mistake, and left the Treaty of Versailles as a largely failed attempt at peace. It would be unfair to leave the totality of the Second World War at the feet of the diplomats in Paris, but we can learn from their mistakes and work to ensure that they are not repeated.
A century after Versailles, the world is at a crossroads. The end of the Cold War, the rise of the far right in the West, and the emergence of China as a major world power has upset whatever balance existed in the wake of WWII. World war is no longer as unimaginable as it was a decade ago. A series of missteps could easily escalate a minor conflict into a global one. Our response should not be to double down on isolationism and secret negotiations of the sort that ended with WWI. Instead, liberal democracies, especially the United States, have to focus on multilateral international action and engagement with international bodies. Further, liberal powers must be willing to confront injustices, regardless of whether they are being perpetrated by enemies or allies. If another world war breaks out, nuclear weapons might ensure that it actually is the war to end all wars. Let’s learn from the past, and not find out.