The principle underlying all
of Wilsonís Fourteen Points (and stressed particularly at the end of the
speech) was the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities;
yet in the Versailles Treaty, it is difficult to argue that the Allies
constructed a just peace. Indeed, despite five months of arduous
negotiations leading up to the settlement, history has decidedly judged
the Treaty as being too harsh on a nation already disillusioned by its
years of autocratic rule and perplexed as to the reason it itself had not
won the great war. Some historians go so far as to place partial
(and sometimes substantial) blame on the Treaty and its negotiators for
the subsequent outbreak of World War II in 1939. Those historians
are correct to the extent that Hitler used Versailles as a battle cry to
rally support for his militaristic ambitions, and part of his success was
certainly due to the fact that the Treaty had destroyed the German people's
self-pride and confined them to the role of a villain in world affairs.
As Hitler vowed to overthrow that status quo and return Germany to its
rightful place as a strong nation and world leader, the guilt-ridden Germans
placed all their hope in him as the savior who could liberate their consciences
from the pain of Versailles and allow them to once again experience the
feeling of nationalistic pride.
From the Allied perspective, it must also be noted that some important
leaders came to see the Treaty as too severe a punishment. A French
adviser to Clemenceau dared to call it a twenty-year truce,
and he was not alone in the belief that Germany would one day endeavor
to extricate itself from the shackles of Versailles (this may partially
explain the policy of appeasement toward Hitler during the late 1930s,
possibly an Allied belief that Germany was entitled to throw off some of
the burdens from the Treaty, believing that Hitler would be stop at that).
Finally, John Maynard Keynes, a noted economist of that day, criticized
the severe financial burdens and cessions of territory within the Treaty
as a threat to the financial equilibrium of the continent.
However, to the Allies' defense, World War II was
the product of a number of causes, and any attempt to blame Wilson and
friends for provoking a second and even more horrible war is both incomplete
and unfairly hindsighted. As many historians point out, though the
Treaty of Versailles was comprehensively harsh on Germany, it was not predestined
to fail as a solution for peace. In fact, from 1924 until 1931 there
was a period of relative stability in European relations.
Many events took place during the subsequent two decades that the Big Three
could not have foreseen, but which came to have a negative impact on the
peace they had negotiated. For example, the United States returned
to its pre-war isolationist ways and refused to join the League of Nations
(although it must be noted that Wilson's ineptitude in negotiating with
the Senate played a big role in that failure); the world was thrown into
the Great Depression in the early 1930s, which caused internal turmoil
around the globe, ending the spirit of internationalism created by the
League of Nations; and Germany and Japan fell under the control of right-wing,
militaristic leaders who were determined to provoke war to aggrandize their
power ... just to name a few. If any of these events had occurred
differently, the world may have been spared the tragedy of World War II.
Of course, one may still appropriately argue that
the Big Three could have negotiated a more forward-looking resolution to
the global conflict, setting a precedent for self-sacrifice in the greater
interest of a durable peace. While this would have been preferable
(at least in theory, irrespective of whether it would have been more effective
in the long run), some scholars are now beginning to view the Treaty as
the best compromise that could have been reached given the existing circumstances
in early 1919. I personally tend to side with those historians who,
while not hesitating to state that matters could have been handled more
prudently, do not condemn the Big Three or the Treaty, due to the inherent
constraints of the situation. The Allies gathering to create a peace
settlement after the Great War had experienced enormous losses, both economically
and especially in the number of casualties they suffered (indeed, Wilson's
perspective on Germany would undoubtedly have been even more retributive
had the United States suffered the same amount of casualties as the French
or British). It is not hard to understand the indignancy of the Big
Three at all those lives needlessly lost during the war, and although the
Treaty focused primarily on only one cause (German aggression), it was
clear that the Germans had sufficiently rattled their saber with such carelessness
to merit the ire of the Allies. Moreover, blaming the Allied leaders
for their retributive justice seems misplaced when it was so evident that
democracy was functioning as it was intended. Public opinion in France,
Britain and the U.S. convincingly supported harsh consequences for the
belligerent Germans, and that public opinion constituted a substantial
constraint on the Big Three. Finally, the negotiators had to move
quickly through a long agenda of issues, in order not to delay any further
the establishment of a resolution to the fragile European predicament.
Given these constraints and the general exhaustion of Europe after such
a long war, the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not the best one could
hope for, but it seems to have been the best compromise possible.
To place the Treaty in context, the question of how
to create a lasting peace between hostile nations (or worse, a world at
war) is never a simple one, and at the time, it was a novel one, for not
only was this the first conflict involving a whole continent of nations
in a dreadful war of attrition, but it was probably the first time in history
that a serious attempt was made to prevent any future war. So the
negotiators were clearly journeying through uncharted waters. Furthermore,
even some modern attempts to stifle aggression have been unsuccessful.
U.S. President Bush led a international coalition against Saddam Hussein
that resulted in decisive military victory, but the aggressive and disruptive
tactics of the Iraqi President have not subsided. And most recently,
though the world continuously observed the atrocities in Bosnia spearheaded
by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic from 1993 to 1995, the resolution
to that terrible war did not meaningfully restrain Milosevic, as evidenced
by the Serbian crimes committed in Kosovo in 1998. These cases may
be slightly different in that they involve what are typically considered
evil presidents governing otherwise normal and non-aggressive peoples.
Nonetheless, these cases serve as examples that quenching aggression and
a durable peace were not only difficult to achieve in 1919, but throughout
1. See generally,
Germany Under Hitler, World Affairs Pamphlets, No. 8,
2. Stokesbury, "A Short History of World War I," 1981, p. 323.
3. Gelfand, "The American Mission to Negotiate Peace: An Historian Looks Back," inThe Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 8, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 191.
4. Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, "Introduction," inThe Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 3.