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A Century Later, the Versailles Treaty Still Haunts Our World

A century ago, the peace conference convened that drafted the Versailles Treaty. It was a time of hope. World War I, then variously called the Great War, the War to End War, and the War for Democracy, had mercifully ended. The worst conflict in modern history had yielded mass death, destruction, and chaos. Now a new world would be built.

Unfortunately, we are still living and suffering in that world. Today’s social engineers are pikers compared to the sanctimonious, hypocritical megalomaniacs who in early 1919 sought to reorder the globe to their fantasies. In doing so, they planted the seeds of World War II a generation later, as well as innumerable smaller conflicts in succeeding decades. Their legacy warns us against the modern Sirens who insist that America’s responsibility is to reorder the world, enforced by constant war if necessary.

On June 28, 1914, Serbian Gavrilo Princip, armed by nationalist government officials, fired what may been the two most consequential gunshots in history, when he assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne on the streets of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Princip thereby loosed Europe’s many fears, hatreds, ambitions, and fantasies, and within weeks armies were on the march. Eventually, more distant nations, most notably the U.S. and Japan, joined in. Princip did not survive the war, dying of tuberculosis in prison, but his handiwork left at least 20 million people dead, four ancient empires in ruins, widespread economic destruction, mass social dislocation, multiple violent revolutionary movements active and dangerous, and conflict still raging in Europe’s east, across Russia, and throughout the Caucasus and Middle East.

On January 18, 1919, the allies gathered in Paris—though the treaty would be signed in June at the Versailles palace, most of the negotiations took place in the French foreign ministry’s more mundane surroundings. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, a tough, ruthless nationalist who bore much of the credit for his nation’s victory, admitted, “Making peace is harder than waging war.” In contrast to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the losers were excluded. In fact, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist and the Hohenzollern monarchy had been extinguished. The representatives of their democratic successor states, most importantly Germany, were to be dictated to rather than reasoned with.


The story of the succeeding five months has been told in excruciating detail. The “Big Four”—Clemenceau, Italy’s Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, Great Britain’s Prime Minster David Lloyd George, and America’s President Woodrow Wilson—dominated the proceedings. Wilson refashioned the war as a crusade, and many around the world looked to him and the ideals he espoused. The haughty, sanctimonious, and ignorant Wilson would turn out to be uniquely pernicious. His realpolitik counterparts wearied of his claim to speak for humanity. Of his famed 14 Points, Clemenceau snarled, “the good Lord only had 10.” Wilson later admitted to not knowing that millions of ethnic Germans remained in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. Two decades later, their status became Adolf Hitler’s excuse for breaking up that nation.

Despite the high-flown rhetoric, most of the participants fought for their own nations’ or peoples’ interests. The conference provided an opportunity for high-minded plunder and grandiose plans for social engineering. The Germans would be made to pay for the war, despite the shared responsibility for the conflict’s start. New ethnic-based states would be created, containing populations of dissatisfied groups on the losing side. Some of these new entities, especially in the Middle East, would be turned into glorified colonies in the form of “mandates,” the formal responsibilities for which Wilson’s negotiating partners unabashedly giggled when discussing. And Wilson’s hallowed League of Nations would be used to enforce the victors’ peace in the years ahead.

Critics were many. France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the allied commander-in-chief at war’s end, wanted harsher terms. He lamented: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” South African General Jan Smuts, who served on the peace delegation and became prime minister shortly after his return, criticized forcing Germany to sign at the “point of the bayonet,” adding that “a new international order and a fairer, better world are not written into this treaty.” John Maynard Keynes, before he gained global economic fame, opined: “The campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible.”

Alas, the Rube Goldberg scheme created by witlessly hubristic planners came apart almost immediately. On the ground, nationalists ignored the pronouncements of foreign leaders signing documents in the fabled Hall of Mirrors hundreds and thousands of miles away. Despite the allies’ grand victory, there would be no military expeditions to enforce every jot and tittle of the treaty.

The Russians were excluded as a bitter, brutal civil war consumed their great land. Despite halfhearted allied intervention, the Bolshevik state triumphed, creating a new menace to the east. Americans were disillusioned with both the Europeans and their president. Wilson had negotiated without consulting Republican senators, who rejected his all-or-nothing demand, leaving America outside of the vaunted League of Nations.

The French and Belgians were frustrated. Determined to weaken Germany, they sought to harshly enforce Versailles’ dictates on the recalcitrant Germans. But over time they found themselves alone. The British were disappointed, convinced that accommodation of Berlin would be better policy, and soon refused to back their allies. The Italians were victors, but nevertheless dissatisfied, and soon turned to Benito Mussolini.

Most importantly, the Germans were resentful, having had no say in their own fate. Opposition to Versailles rallied both supporters and opponents of the weak new democratic order, but most benefited the latter. German governments variously resisted the treaty’s terms and sought reconciliation, as the political system imploded amid the Great Depression with the rise of both Nazis and communists. On January 30, 1933, just 14 years after those in Versailles gathered to create a new peaceful order, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the wealthiest, most populous, and most militarist nation in Europe. The rest, as they say, is history.

By the late 1930s, many of Versailles’ requirements had been reduced to dead letters by German aggression and allied acquiescence. Tragically, the victors had fallen between two stools, willing neither to ruthlessly impose a Carthaginian peace nor to reconcile with the new democratic republic.

The ensuing global conflagration wiped away additional aspects of the Versailles order. And the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union would complete the destruction of Versailles. Moscow’s de facto colonies had broken free. The Balkans were reordered into what Germans long before had called Saisonstaaten, or “states for a season,” transforming and disappearing. Ironically, what eventually emerged looks a lot like the hated Brest-Litovsk Treaty imposed by imperial Germany on the struggling Bolsheviks. It enshrined German dominance and broke up the Russian Empire, freeing 11 nations from Soviet control (though expecting them to be subjects, even vassals, of Berlin). The treaty was voided by the allies, though today even Brest-Litovsk looks more realistic than Versailles.

A similar process of disintegration transformed the Middle East. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states emerged out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and British-French line-drawing. Gradually the allies departed, forced out by the aftermath of World War II and rising Arab nationalism. The existing states may survive, but not as stable, united, democratic systems. Some may end up as countries in name only. How the region would have evolved absent the efforts of the allied “peacemakers” is impossible to know. But it would have taken effort to have yielded worse results.

Yet a century later, voices continue to insist that Washington engage in additional military interventions, line-drawing, and global social engineering. Hopefully political leaders will eventually learn from the disastrous experience of 1919.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global  Empire.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "A Century Later, the Versailles Treaty Still Haunts Our World"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 17, 2019 @ 7:37 am

Can you imagine, of those with any influence in Washington, only Donald Trump expresses doubts, and the Washington consensus calls him a heretic – or traitor.

#2 Comment By b. On January 17, 2019 @ 8:07 am

“The Russians were excluded as a bitter, brutal civil war consumed their great land. Despite halfhearted allied intervention, the Bolshevik state triumphed… ”

“…the victors [unwilling] to reconcile with the new democratic republic [in Germany]”

One wonders whether France, and especially Wilson and Britain, saw the “uppity commoners” of that German Republic through the same lens they saw the Russian revolutionaries – or the inhabitants of the Balkans and the Middle East. The predisposition of colonial powers to consider populations of other territories as malleable and disposable is pervasive. It is not by accident that a USA that fed itself on Natives and Africans, its power drawn off ethnic cleansing, genocide and slavery, would express its chosen manifestly insane destiny in Wilsonian terms in a hubristic attempt to re-colonize Central Europe. No wonder “Americans were disillusioned” when the new subjects failed to comply.

#3 Comment By Liam On January 17, 2019 @ 8:32 am

“But it would have taken effort to have yielded worse results.”

I respect Mr Bandow, but that important sentence is hardly self-evident, given human nature and the tensions among the many critiques (many facile, some worthily substantial) of the post-World War I treaties and the leaders responsible for them.

#4 Comment By TomG On January 17, 2019 @ 9:20 am

I am always glad to see someone calling out the hubris and ignorance of Wilson. What a different history it might have been if we’d stayed on our side of the ocean in the first place.

#5 Comment By Collin On January 17, 2019 @ 10:15 am

Yet a century later, voices continue to insist that Washington engage in additional military interventions, line-drawing, and global social engineering. Hopefully political leaders will eventually learn from the disastrous experience of 1919.

Of course how much war has been going on since 1945? Or how about since 1989 fall of the Wall? And outside of the Middle East, isn’t the world safer than ever? Sure the Versailles Treaty was complete failure but how much 19th Century Europe wanting colonial empires was part of the Versailles Treaty failure.

Even if we don’t think NATO is useful for combating Russia (reasonable point) but how much of NATO is controlling the European participants?

#6 Comment By Liam On January 17, 2019 @ 11:00 am

“What a different history it might have been if we’d stayed on our side of the ocean in the first place.”

This is facile, and I am not saying that as someone who favors intervention abroad. I’d like to know what important American leader would have been able to pull that off in 1917 and sustained it. Wilson resisted before he flipped. TR would have had us in the war in 1914; the America of 1917 was not the America of 1897, and that’s an important difference that is often overlooked – America got more than a taste of imperium in 1898-99, and loved it lots. Wilson’s administration was not the fall from Eden/Arcadia – that happened earlier.

For all the myriad problems WW1 caused for the world, the USA and Japan emerged as the only powers who came out “ahead” from it, and many of the things that have created our current international miasma are things that the US likely would have been involved in regardless of its involvement or non-involvement in WW1 (like getting enmeshed in petroleum of the Middle East). That’s not to justify the past, but to show that historical realities are complex.

#7 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On January 17, 2019 @ 11:07 am

Good article about which there is little to disagree, though the following cries out for a more thorough explanation:

“The Germans would be made to pay for the war, despite the SHARED RESPONSIBILITY (emphasis mine) for the conflict’s start.”

As an island nation Great Britain, in keeping with her traditional wariness of any Continental nation becoming too big for its britches as it were (and thus threatening British interests), would side with that nation’s opponents. Thus in 1812 Britain sided with Russia, Prussia and Austria etal. in a grand coalition against an aggressive Napoleonic France. Fast forward almost exactly 100 years later and once again Britain is faced with another potential aggressor, but this time it’s Prussia, still under Hohenzollern rule but this time disguised as something called “Germany”. In view of this turn of events, Britain would throw in its lot with its old enemy, France (and, to a lesser extent, with Russia). The difference, however, was that in 1812 Britain and her allies were confronted with a genius in the form of Bonaparte whereas in 1912 they were confronted with a bumptious fool in the form of Wilhelm II who, twenty years before, had FIRED a genius, Bismarck, in part for Bismarck’s insistence that Germany not ally with Austria-Hungary, a polyglot empire that was already in the process of disintegration. It was largely due to Wilhelm’s refusal to pay heed to that warning that set the scene for the conflagration (predicted by Bismarck himself shortly before he died) that would take place a generation or so later. The absence of Bismarck or anyone even resembling him in the German government, would set Germany down the road to an inevitable confrontation with not one but TWO other European nation-states who by this time had amassed a colonial empire throughout much of the rest of the world and who were not willing to invite an upstart Imperial Germany to their party. The author has correctly detailed the net effects.

And, yes, we can only hope that lessons have been learned from “the disastrous experience of 1919”, but–what was it again that Santayana said about not learning history?

#8 Comment By Muad’dib On January 17, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

If a war left 25% of the US male population between the age of 18 and 45 either dead, crippled or wounded, I wonder how generous the peace term the US would impose would be?

Actually I don’t, the terms the Germans got from the French would look like a love tap.

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 17, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

I am always glad to see someone calling out the hubris and ignorance of Wilson.

Wilson’s life is proof positive that being a Progressive and a racist are not mutually exclusive, and that neither is particularly reliable.

Can you imagine, of those with any influence in Washington, only Donald Trump expresses doubts, and the Washington consensus calls him a heretic – or traitor.

This sounds like the argument of a disgruntled German ex-communist for supporting Adolf Hitler.

If there were a functional Washington consensus, the federal government would have a budget right now. If the government isn’t funded, nobody should be working — no pay, no work. And that would get those responsible focused on actually passing a budget.

#10 Comment By PAX On January 17, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

The Germans did not lose WW1 per se. Not one allied soldier stood on German soil as of 11/11/1918. The allies pillaged Germany of its wealth in reparations. Who started WW1? Probably the French were the main architects (Alsace Lorraine). As dominoes fell in August 1914 trigger happy First Admiral Churchill mobilized the British fleet (Plan 7) and the fireball gathered fuel. The war party in Germany gained ascendancy and the horrific results are now history. Versaille was definitely a catalyst for WW2. There are lessons to be learned. One was the Marshall Plan when the US helped rebuild Europe. MacArthur in Japan, who allowed the Emperor to stay was another. The US and Israel trying to sustain the occupation after the pre-emptive war of 1967 is not a lesson for lasting peace.

#11 Comment By swordfish On January 17, 2019 @ 5:08 pm

Versailles was a disaster, no question, and the French were primarily responsible for it. But they had their reasons. They had lost a generation of young men in the war. There is land in northern France (and Belgium) that still cannot be farmed because of unexploded mines.

And then there was the Franco-Prussian war, after which the Prussians were anything but generous. They annexed Alsace and Lorraine, imposed ruinous reparations (which France paid in full) and insisted on a triumphal parade down the Champs Elysee, which France had no choice but to allow.

#12 Comment By kingdomofgodflag.info On January 17, 2019 @ 5:52 pm

“The Germans would be made to pay for the war, despite the shared responsibility for the conflict’s start.”

Yes, war is a choice. Those who participate share responsibility for its costs.

#13 Comment By DOG On January 18, 2019 @ 5:55 am

In reality the politics that caused ww1 and ww2 are still in effect it has just moved on to the Middle East.

#14 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 18, 2019 @ 7:52 am

This is essentially the same poiint Robert Merry is making and my response to it is much the same. The harshness of the Versailles Traty spawned a monster, Hitler, but having spawned that monster, there was no alternative but to destroy him. US exclusion of the Russian Federation from post-cold war Europe also spawned a monster, Putin, and sooner or later, he too will have to be destroyed. Simply standing aside and letting him grab whatever it is he actually wants will simply encourage him to go further until, one day, he will go too far. That’s what happened with Hitler and I don’t see why thing would be any different with Putin.

#15 Comment By Dan Green On January 18, 2019 @ 8:51 am

I read and tried to absorb, the in depth explanation by famed historian author, Margaret Macmillan , her detailed book, namely, “Paris 1919”. Like most historians, she goes into great detail of the marathon event, post the Treaty of Versailles . Certainly was a grandiose vision as this author points out, by the US , ( President Wilson), camped out in excess of six months in Paris, the Brits and the French. My opinion after reading all the details, the primary motive of the Treaty of Versailles was to secure the British and French empires , while adopting the ludicrous notion they could keep Germany bankrupt. As they say the rest is history with the outbreak of WW 2. Only the Vatican and the Swiss Banks went unscathed.

#16 Comment By didi On January 18, 2019 @ 9:42 am

One cannot analyze Versailles without the 1870 German-French war. Yes, it is true that the French imperial government had messed in purely German issues but was that enough justification for a war ending with the stupid annexation of Alsace which was going to create new problems?
The Germans also demanded a huge payment from the French which was paid in full. No whining.
With regards to payments after WW1 it was reasonable that Germany should have made payments to Belgium which had declared itself neutral and suffered much destruction from the Germans (Louvain!).
Versailles did not automatically and inescapably lead to Hitler. When the German economy began to improve towards the end of the 1920’s the NSDAP suffered a grievous and major loss at a national election. Goebbels was so upset that he threatened to commit suicide! It was the 1932/33 crash which Hitler had predicted that catapulted him into the German Chancellorship. That crash and the earlier one of 28/29 had much deeper causes than Versailles. It was Keynes who pointed out why the stubborn adherence to the ‘Gold Standard’ was a major contributor to these crashes. Hence I may reasonably argue that the major contributors for the rise of fascism were the central bankers of the US, GB, France, and Germany at the time.

#17 Comment By Eileen Kuch On January 18, 2019 @ 2:38 pm

I agree with Tom G. here. I, too, am glad someone called out the hubris of the ignorant Woodrow Wilson. Once he won re-election in 1916, he totally changed his tune about dragging the US into WWI.

History would’ve been quite different had we stayed on our side of the ocean.

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ ~ Georges Santayana

#18 Comment By Phrank On January 18, 2019 @ 3:05 pm

What a contrast to how the Treaty of Vienna was negotiated (*sigh*). The Versailles conference was completely bereft of any agenda or true leader, Robert’s Rules got chucked out the window (so to speak), and Clemenceau was out for revenge. How many more MILLIONS wound up being killed because of these selfish, amoral men?

#19 Comment By Antipropo On January 18, 2019 @ 5:07 pm

Michael Kenny perpetuates the ludicrous Hitler/Putin meme, really give it up. If you are an American it’s YOUR country with military bases-over 800- in well over 100 countries on the planet. As the ironic joke goes “what were the Russians thinking moving their country so close to NATO”? By the way that “half hearted intervention” in the Russian civil war involved thousands of British and US soldiers from, you know the epitome of democratic rule fighting to retain a hierarchical monarchy.

#20 Comment By O’Brien On January 19, 2019 @ 1:00 am

didi, have you ever for a second wondered how a city in France has the name Strassburg? The Germans did not just give it away. Dynasts, the Hohenzollerns, having much longer memories than the demos, wanted their city back. Some people do not think the French paid as much for it as they should have.

#21 Comment By Markus On January 19, 2019 @ 10:28 am

I am not clear at all what people think a better outcome would have entailed. Obviously Germany should not have been unduly punished, and areas with overwhelming German population concentrations should have been drawn into a new German republic. But the basic Wilsonian idea — that the age of empires was over and the age of the as-homogeneius-as-possible nation-state was dawning — what was wrong with that perspective and what was the alternative to embracing it?

#22 Comment By Joe On January 27, 2019 @ 12:46 am

“By the late 1930s, many of Versailles’ requirements had been reduced to dead letters by German aggression and allied acquiescence.”

No. The actions of the Teutons was not German aggression, but German JUSTICE. Versailles was travesty. Any honest thinking person knows this.