The critical lesson from Versailles
Sir Winston Churchill looked Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the eyes in 1938, as Chamberlain and other European leaders learned of the enormous power of the Third German Reich, and said, “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonour. They chose dishonour. They will now have war.”
November 11, 1918 – The Armistice, which ended the actual fighting during World War I, is signed. However, it takes six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the weakest world organization ever created, known as the League of Nations.
June, 1919 — Allies declares that the German homeland should expect Allied invasion forces to cross the Rhine River and occupy this proud, yet beaten country, if the German government does not sign the treaty.
June 28, 1919 – On the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the immediate cause for the war), the “peace treaty” was signed. The treaty had clauses ranging from war crimes, the prohibition on the merging of the Republic of German Austria with Germany without the consent of the League of Nations, freedom of navigation on major European rivers, and much more.
The document was the Treaty of Versailles. It was an emotional, as opposed to logical, document that provided severe punishment for Germans and Austrians. This document was also responsible for human suffering on such a massive scale that it is difficult to describe.
There are at least 50 severe consequences that the greed and recklessness of the signers unintentionally unleashed upon the entire globe. Here are just four:
1. It was in the best interest of other nations that Germany have a prosperous economy not only so it could be a trading partner, but as insulation against a return to aggression.
But, proud Germans and Austrians were unnecessarily humiliated and forced to pay reparations to the Allies. This gave a young corporal in a German infantry division the opportunity to seize power, kill 6 million Jews and continue WWI into WWII.
By the time Germany stopped paying reparations, after its economy collapsed and the Allied powers agreed to a suspension in the summer of 1932, Germany was well on the road to Nazi fascism. Adolf Hitler would be chancellor a few months later;
2. Self-determination for nations emerging from imperial control was a popular and attractive idea, but also dangerous. Ethnic nationalism was a major threat to national self-determination. Nations were not cleanly divided in the way that empires were.
Creating unified nation states out of diverse populations with many minority groups was, in effect, creating “mini empires”, with all the challenges of full-size empires.
A tragic example of this took place in the Balkans, an area in south central Europe that for centuries has known nothing but war. Yugoslavia, a nation created for the southern Slavic people, forced many different ethnic groups to become one. This eventually led to genocide and ethnic cleansing under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990’s;
3. Dissatisfaction with the terms of peace can lead to worse, even for the victors. Italy’s Prime Minister in 1919, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, for example, failed to secure the land to the east of modern Italy that he demanded, which undermined his domestic political credibility. He was forced out of office less than a week before the treaty was signed.
His failure to win Italian dominion over Dalmatia sealed his own fate as a top politician and was a key factor in the rise of a short bald man. His name was Benito Mussolini;
4. Peace treaty negotiations are a grand place for revolutionaries and radicals to get together and compare notes. One of those revolutionaries was a Vietnamese nationalist. He had been an itinerant cook on steamships, traveling the world, including Britain and America, where he made contact with leaders of other fledgling revolutionary movements.
Convinced the Western powers were hypocritical, the man who would later be known as Ho Chi Minh turned instead to the Soviet Union for patronage. After WWII, as France sought to re-establish control over Vietnam, Ho’s leadership was a key factor in Vietnam’s declaration of independence and the resulting military campaign.
As France became less able to control Vietnam, it leaned on the United States, which was keen to hold off the spread of Communism in Asia. This set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Vietnam.
The lesson here is that regardless of whether it is a nation or an individual, the inability to control insatiable greed and punishing a defeated opponent to the point of desperation is a plan for future destruction and suffering.
If we take a look around us, it is clear this lesson has not yet been learned.