More or less everybody has a basic idea about how World War I ended. Whether it involved signing papers on a railroad car, or the quiet that came on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the details are not especially important. The war ended, the Entente Powers prevailed, and the rest was more or less history. Yet, the fact remains that the treaty signed at Versailles in 1919 (along with several separate treaties with outher combatants, including the Treaty of Sevres, 1921, that dismantled the Ottoman Empire officially) was ultimately an abject failure. The fact that there was a second world war is sufficient proof that the 'war to end all wars' did not.

Problems Going in to Versailles

I was passing the Champs Elysees-Clemenceau Metro stop in Paris a few days ago when I realized, with a certain amount of amusement, that I cannot image Woodrow Wilson receiving a major monument in Washington D.C. It is entirely possible that I am wrong, and he has his building or street, but the fact that George Clemenceau lives on today in France, while Wilson has largely vanished from America is an indication of something. I believe that something to have to do with expectations.

Georges Clemenceau did not have to sell the war to the men (and women) of France in 1914. They went willingly, and with enthusiasm. This was not a war in which abstract concepts were bandied. France entered World War I to revenge its inglorious defeat of 1871, take back the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, and regain its position as the dominant power in western and central Europe.

When the war ended in 1918, the war was won, but the cost high. 1.4 million Frenchman were killed in the Great War, more than 1/5 of all those mobilized. Millions more suffered wounds that would last to the ends of their lives. Eastern France was turned into a moonscape which was not fully restored until long after WWII.

Obviously, therefore, Clemenceau's motivations going in to Versailles were clear. He wanted to regain Alsace and Lorraine, sure, as well as war reparations, but at least as important was the idea that Germany be made to pay in a way that would make it impossible to ever wage another war against France.

To a large degree, France's primary ally, Lloyd George's Great Britain had similar aspirations. Britain had sought to prevent the rise of a power which could challenge it, particularly on the high seas. This idea did not change.

For Woodrow Wilson, the background was manifestly different. From the start, many Americans had been strongly anti-interventionist. To bring the United States into the war, Wilson sold it not merely as aiding one or another imperial European power, but as spreading democracy. In his now infamous 14 points, he laid out an ideological framework which allowed him to bring the United States into a conflict, which for the first time, was not justified primarily as being defensive. Wilson never made the case that imperial Germany would, if unchecked seek to attack and control America. Rather it was that to make the world safe for democracy (and not just our own), this was the right war to participate in.

Thus the concerns of Wilson at Versailles were not that Germany be utterly destroyed as a power, but that Germany be redeemed as a democracy. And to all appearance, that is what occurred with Weimar. For Wilson, the mission at Versailles was a permanent peace treaty. Obviously, Wilson's views and those of Clemenceau and George were far from compatible.

The Outcome.

Although it may be hard to imagine today, the U.S. in 1919 was very much a junior partner in the victorious coalition. It had entered late, and suffered little. While crucial, American support was judged as largely secondary to British and French commitments. Still considering themselves the preeminent powers, and with Germany out of the picture, thus George and Clemenceau were not willing to accede fully to a Wilsonian postwar world order.

In practice, this meant that Germany was to be humiliated and forced to pay reparations. Humiliation came in the form of full acceptance of war guilt, and being kept largely demilitarized.

Yet Germany was not dismantled. While it lost territory, it nonetheless remained the most populous state in Europe, outside the Soviet Union. It lost territory, and was forced to pay reparations, but it was not, so to speak, ground into the dust. For this, one has Wilson to thank (the other two states that lost, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were, after all, completely dissolved). Because of Wilson's insistence on national self-determination, it seems that Germany as a state could not be fully broken up.


The irony of all this is that the British, and especially the French, got far less than they thought they did. Partly on account of the astronomical reparations, partly on account of the depression, the German mark was so devalued as to become worthless, and by 1931, reparations had completely stopped. Yet while it was economically injured, Germany was intact to the extent that it had more industry and a high population than France or Britain. American interests in keeping Germany viable (economically, as well as politically, by this point, under presidents Coolidge and Hoover) meant that the U.S. was willing to cancel its share of reparations, and indeed, even poured reconstruction monies into Germany for a brief period before the depression hit.

Ultimately, both sides got the worst possible bargain. Germany was sufficiently injured by territorial concessions, humiliation, and economic depression, that Fascism proved attractive to a critical mass of usually conservative forces. Yet it was also sufficiently intact that the addition of an authoritarian leadership could raise it out of depression to become, again, the greatest military and economic power in all Europe, and thus to wage war again

Germany was neither strong enough to satisfy Wilson's vision, nor weak enough to satisfy Clemenceau's. It is tragic how in this case negotiation yields an outcome which is indeed more disagreeable to both sides than either original position. While clearly few could have predicted Hitler's rise in 1919, it is equally hard to see how those who imposed the Versailles treaty could have seen a happy outcome from where they sat. Nationalism does not take defeat well, and extra humiliation merely adds flames to the fire. Security is a matter for the present, not the future, and thus reparations are not in the long-term useful, nor are minor border adjustments sufficient.

Thus, if as historian Eugen Weber says, "The 1930s begin in August 1914 (1)," it may safely be added that September 1939 began indeed with the negotiations and eventual signing of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, a treaty that tried to split the difference between two contrasting visions, and thus abjectly failed to realize either.


(1) from Eugen Weber, "The Hollow Years", 1994 published by W.W. Norton and Company Inc., New York, NY, p.11.

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