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---------------------------------------------------------------------- H-DIPLO-ROUNDTABLE Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds,_ The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years_ (Cambridge: German Historical Institute, Washington, D. C., and Cambridge University Press, 1998) Roundtable Editor: William Keylor Reviewers: Robert Hanks, William Irvine, Gordon Martel, David Stevenson -------------------------------------------------------------------- 'Oh, What an Ugly Peace' Review by: Gordon Martel, <firstname.lastname@example.org> Professor of History University of Northern British Columbia In the land of missed opportunities the Treaty of Versailles dwarfs all other twentieth-century landmarks. The failures of Anglo-German diplomacy to end the naval race in the decade before 1914, of Austro-Russian to keep the Balkans 'on ice', of Franco-German to heal the wound of the lost provinces were regrettable but -- given the profound causes that produced the First World War -- none of them in themselves are considered to have been sufficiently vital to have reversed the tidal wave produced by nationalism, imperialism and militarism. The failure to stop Hitler when he took his first fateful step in the Rhineland, to confront him at the time of the Anschluss, to stand up to him at Munich seem puny in comparison with the failure of Versailles - which, after all, has been widely regarded for producing Hitler in the first place. Even after Hitler was defeated, the failure to convert the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union into an enduring system of Great Power co-operation and the failure to foresee the quagmire that was Vietnam can be traced back to 1919 and the isolation of the Soviet Union based on ideological antipathy and the voracious territorial appetites of the victors for the failure to abolish colonialism. The peacemakers of 1919 had the opportunity to create a New World Order that would abolish imperialism and militarism while enshrining the right to national self-determination and instituting the rule of international law. But they blew it, and we have been dealing with the consequences of their inadequacies ever since. At least this has been 'the judgement of history' contained in the memoirs and recollections of participants in the 1930s, in the monographs of the 1950s and 1960s and in the textbooks and surveys of twentieth-century history. How ironic then that the Germans, having won the battle for the hearts and minds of students everywhere, of having their interpretation of the treaties as a Diktat that imposed a Carthaginian peace, should have convened a conference seventy-five years after Versailles to 'reassess' it. Who, having won, wishes to reassess the victory? This struck me as peculiar at the time I received an invitation from the German Historical Institute to participate - but no less ironic than convening at a spot as far from Paris as Hong Kong - at Berkeley, California. And, in spite of the unseemingliness of doing so, I must here bite the hand(s) that fed me. The _Reassessment_, if it does anything, reverses the previous judgement of history: the Germans won at Versailles but, having won, proudly declared themselves losers and, as losers, went on to win the sympathy that is the reward of the unfortunate. First a few words about what this volume is not. It is not a set of new explorations or fresh perspectives. Looking at the assembled throng of experts around those tables at Berkeley I felt - unusually these days - a youngster again. I would estimate the average age as 60-ish; certainly those under 50 were few and far between (again, in ironic contrast, the 'experts' gathered at Paris were remarkably young - many were in their 20s and most were under 40). Anyone coming to this volume looking for new research, new approaches, for new avenues of investigation, will go away disappointed. Although there are a few bits new enough to whet the appetite of jaded palates, this is a subject without a Said, without a Subaltern Studies; there is no equivalent here to the phenomenon of post-colonialism in which the very meaning of the subject is resituated as the ethics and ideologies of those who gave it meaning in the past comes under hostile fire from below. Instead, what we have here is a collection of essays in which the essayists have, for the most part, transformed their monographic work into a shorter piece, usually with a more focused point of view and an expanded argument. Invited because of their expertise, experts are not likely to pass on the opportunity to display it. Thus, to give an example from each of the five parts of the book, Klaus Schwabe (in Part One - 'Peace Planning and the Actualities of the Armistice') builds upon the foundation of his Deutsche Revolution und Wilson-Frieden to demonstrate how Brockdorff-Rantzau attempted to use Wilsonianism against the Allies and allow Germany to retain her stature as paramount power in Europe; Georges-Henri Soutou (in Part Two - 'The Peacemakers and Their Home Fronts') extends his _L'Or et le Sang: Les buts de guerre economiques de la Premiere Guerre mondiale_ to argue that Clemenceau was a liberal admirer of Anglo-American values who accepted the Fourteen Points and believed in a 'just' peace that accepted the validity of a large, unified German state; Sally Marks (in Part Three - 'The Reconstruction of Europe and the Settlement of Accounts') conflates articles on reparations written over a period of twenty years to re-assert her view that the payments required of Germany have been vastly overestimated and the capacity to make these payments underestimated; Jon Jacobson (in Part Four - 'The Legacy and Consequences of Versailles') considers the implications of Bolshevik dualism that he portrayed in When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics for the chronic instability of the new order established at Versailles; and finally Wolfgang Mommsen expands his Max Weber und die Deutsche Politik to demonstrate Weber's hostility to Versailles (in Part Five - 'Antecedents and Aftermaths: Reflections on the War-Guilt Question and the Settlement'). Predictable as they are, the essays do add up to a valuable reassessment of the peace settlement of 1919. It was, after all, most unlikely that Carole Fink would suddenly discover that the Polish Minority Treaty was a fair and equitable way of solving the problem of ethnic minorities in Europe, or that Antoine Fleury would denounce the League of Nations as one of mankind's mistakes, or that Erik Goldstein would reveal that the Department of Political Intelligence did not matter in the making of British policy after all. Unlike the politicians that they study, historians make their reputations by staking out a claim to their interpretive territory and defending it until they retire. Or die. Thus their disparaging treatment of those who are inconsistent may be no more than envy. Politicians can argue that the times change and that they must change along with them; historians, recognizing that things change, resent it and then compensate by refusing to change along with them. A fortress is a fortress still, even if constructed entirely of footnotes. Rather than change their own positions historians find it more alluring to play with the positions of those they study. We know better than our subjects (or are they objects)? We know what they ought to have done, what could have, would have, should have, been had they only been as objective, fair-minded and far-sighted as we. Thus, _A Reassessment_ is filled with a longing for things to come out differently, with arguments both naive and sentimental, with certainties unprovable and assumptions contestable. Perhaps Romeo will not swallow the poison this time around; if not, who knows what will happen? Thomas Knock longs for Wilson to have kept the liberals and progressives within the Wilsonian camp, which he believes might have engendered enough support to have kept the United States in Europe. Antony Lentin longs for reparations to have been set at a fixed sum in order to mitigate the poisoning of the international atmosphere and the obsessive perpetuation of German bitterness over Versailles. Elisabeth Glaser wishes her German diplomats had abandoned their erroneous interpretation of Wilson's Fourteen Points and chosen instead to enter into constructive negotiations in March and April of 1919. Carole Fink wishes that the victors had explored different avenues in dealing with minority rights, that they had sponsored bilateral talks between interested governments or promoted direct talks between their governments and their minorities. David Stevenson wonders how 'incalculably different' the results might have been had his British soldiers recognized just how weak Germany truly was in November 1918 and thus pressed on to destroy the German army and been able to ignore Wilson's strictures. Incalculable indeed, as all such fantasies are. Seventy-five years later and we still don't know whether the peace was too Wilsonian or not Wilsonian enough, whether the restrictions imposed upon Germany were too fluid or too fixed, whether national groups were given too much opportunity to determine themselves or too little. We shall never know. And we can never know. Instead of torturing ourselves with what might have been, we need to focus on what was. Instead of encounters over counterfactuals we ought to confine our debate to what is knowable. The assumptions that the 'people' want peace and the right to 'determine' themselves remains unquestioned. What do we know? What can we know? We now know more about the aims and anxieties of the participants than anyone in 1919 would have thought imaginable (and probably thought desirable) and this is due in no small measure to the efforts of the distinguished group of historians who attended the conference in Berkeley in 1994, most of whom have contributed to what constitutes a truly magisterial Reassessment. Disagreements continue. The old animosities remain. But the bitterness is located in the realm of fantasy-land as those who long for Weimar to succeed continue to attack those they see as having a hand in its ultimate demise, as those who long for a meaningful American presence in Europe search for the villains who prevented it, as those who long for an earlier New World Order blame the cynics and the realists for missing the opportunity to make the ideal real. Strip away the wistfulness and I believe that these essays reveal the world as it actually was - and actually is. First, no one who counted was an idealist. Not Lloyd George, not Clemenceau, not Orlando, not Brockdorff-Rantzau and not even Wilson. Neither were those closest to them - neither Kerr nor Curzon, neither Berthelot nor Tardieu, and certainly not House, Sonnino or Melchior. The desire and the need to create a new structure and a new process of relations among states does not mean that they were striving to realize some philosophical ideal. Strive they did, but their struggle was to produce a system designed to accomplish their national interests as understood through the prism of political ideology and historical experience. Mesmerized by 'the German problem' and the presumed failure at Paris to solve it, we have missed the essence of what was being sought by each of the Big Four - and that essence was empire. And Powers number Five and Six - the new Germany and the new Russia - sought it too. Each used whatever weapons it had at hand in its armoury - armies and navies, publicity and principles, treaties and contracts - in order to accomplish its design on the future. Britain wanted a vastly expanded territorial empire that would immunize her from renewed threats that might come from continental Europe; France wanted an Afro-Asian empire that would enable her to act as one of three World Powers; Italy wanted a Mediterranean empire that would enable her at last to act as a true Great Power in Europe; The United States wanted an end to the territorial empires of Europe and an expansion of the commercial empire of America. With one eye on the past and one on the present the politicians who made the peace of 1919 imagined a historical future. Everyone who counted was convinced that the age of the small state had passed; Mahan, Mackinder, Delbruck and all of the others who thought big thoughts at the turn of the century had persuaded the politicians who reached their prime during the war that only great continental states or seaborne empires had the capacity to lead the world of the twentieth century. Those who wished to turn the clocks back, to dismantle the work of German unification, to reconstruct the Habsburg empire, were regarded as cranks. The lessons of 1814/15 hung over the conference like a cloud: what had the Belgian revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the wars of Italian and German unification, the Balkan wars demonstrated if it was not the power of unfulfilled national dreams? The imperial visions dancing in front of the peacemakers in 1919 required a different Europe, one free of disgruntled and rebellious Greeks, Hungarians, Rumanians, Bulgarians, Poles and Serbs. A series of small states jealous of their independence, promising to respect the rights of the inevitable minorities found within their frontiers and encouraged to co-operate in trade and commerce would not trouble the Big Four in their pursuit of charting a new World History. The essays in this volume have little to say about these aspects of the settlement, about what was readily agreed to and taken for granted amongst the Allies. With the assumption that the settlement was a failure, and with all eyes focussed on Germany, we forget what we know. Those who do look elsewhere - Fleury to the League, Fink to the Minorities, see things with idealist eyes: they imagine that real solutions were being sought in dealing with minorities, with labour, with disease. The truth is that the Powers were doing what the powerful always do - creating mechanisms of control, laying down the law, setting about to take control of the future. There would be no permanent solutions to perennial problems, only a new, modern way of solving difficulties as they arose, according to the wishes of the Powers. The Council of the League would enshrine once and for all the right of the strong to sort out the differences of the weak; and even Germany - once she agreed to play by the rules, to be satisfied with behaving as a large and powerful European state (no more, but no less) would take her place among the rulers. This is why Germany was soon joined by Italy in the revisionist cause when the Italians discovered that their future too was to be limited to a European (and not a Roman) one. The Italians are still ignored in spite of the paramount role they played in challenging the new system from Corfu to Ethiopia: they barely rate a mention in this volume. But then the Japanese - that third element of revisionism between the wars - fare even worse. So of the three states that would dismantle the work of the peacemakers in 1919 we have here a discussion only of Germany. The assumption behind this is obvious: the real failure at Versailles was the failure (dare I say it?) to 'appease' the vanquished. So did Versailles fail? Gerald Feldman is absolutely confident that it did. The territorial, economic and financial settlements (and there was, in truth, little else that mattered) 'were horrendous failures by any standard one wishes to employ and whatever position one takes on the historical debates surrounding them.' He is joined by Lentin who finds the failure in 'a settlement bedeviled overall by a lack of genuine consensus both between former enemies and former allies.' This is frustrated wishfulness carried to its logical extreme, and one which portrays Versailles according to the narratives of those publicists and idealists that they admire, by imagining that the war was really fought to end wars, that it was really fought to make the world safe for democracy. It suggests that there can be, has sometimes been, a 'genuine consensus' both within a coalition of great powers and between victors and vanquished. Look closely at the Napoleonic Wars or the Crimean and what will one see? allies competing with one another for advantage, for control of the future even as they confront the common enemy. Ought we to be surprised that two of the essential ingredients in the armistice recipe of November 1918 were the British assessment that they risked losing influence over their allies if the war was prolonged (as David French shows) and the American assessment that keeping Germany intact would increase the dependence of the Allies on the U.S. (as Knock shows)? The view of Wilson, as quoted by Stephen Schuker is perfectly clear and readily understood: 'When the war is over, we can force them [the Allies] to our way of thinking, because by that time they will, among other things, be financially in our hands'. Look closely at the settlements that followed 1815 and 1856 and what will we see? losers content to resign themselves to their fate because they had reached a 'genuine consensus' with the victors? This will come as news to those Frenchmen and Russians who spent the next generation attempting to overcome the results. But Feldman and Lentin, in spite of the confidence that their conclusions are widely shared, are now in a distinct minority. Those who look closely at Germany now agree that Germans of practically every political persuasion were resolved to retain their paramount position in Europe - and even to save the colonial empire beyond it. Schwabe, Mommsen and Fritz Klein demonstrate in various ways how the German delegation and the politicians behind it were determined to use (or distort) Wilsonianism in order to preserve what they regarded as rightfully theirs - that their definition of 'self-determination' would have denied independence to the Poles if as little as 34 per cent of the voters in a plebiscite were opposed to having it, that it would have meant the addition of German-speaking Austria and an actual increase in German territory and population that would have amounted to 80 million (i.e. twice the size of postwar France). They also show how the Germans were prepared to launch a revisionist campaign against anyone and everyone who stood in the way of their interpretation of the Fourteen Points. Of course, as we now know, that campaign succeeded. The idealist experts who filled the delegations of the Allies at Paris, those who had been mobilized as part of the unprecedented effort to persuade the public to volunteer for service, to support conscription, to pay higher taxes, to subscribe to war loans, saw for the first time the real way of the world at Paris. And they didn't like what they saw there. It made a nonsense of their efforts to combat militarism and autocracy, to replace these evils with democracy and liberty. The unfortunate fate of the politicians and the professionals who were ultimately responsible for the peace was that their neophyte experts and amateur diplomats truly believed in the ideal that they had been encouraged to conjure up, and which they had themselves embellished. It was the disillusionment of the experts among the allies that fertilized the ground upon which the Germans would begin to sow the seeds of their discontent. As Lawrence Gelfand and William Widenor, Michael Fry and Manfred Boemeke show, popular support for the treaty settlement began to unravel almost immediately, as the Germans successfully connected reparations with the 'war guilt' clause - which Goldstein, Marks and others show was actually designed to reduce the payments, not add to them. Finally, there is a consensus that the 'failure' of the treaty settlement came after 1919, that there was nothing inherently wrong with the settlement per se. The conditions regarding the payment of reparations, concerning the terms of the Rhineland occupation, providing for disarmament and for adjusting frontiers in the future were all flexible enough that they could be adjusted to changing circumstance and adherence to the principles of the treaty settlement - which were, contrary to popular myth, fundamentally fair. Glaser shows that - contrary to Keynes - the Allied economic terms 'did not frame a Carthaginian peace' and that they consciously agreed to preserve the essence of Germany's economic potential; Ferguson shows that reparations did not devastate the German economy. Stevenson argues that it was the abandonment of disarmament in the 1930s that destroyed the security system put in place in 1919; Soutou argues that Clemenceau deliberately designed terms that would permit either the conciliation or the repression of Germany; Piotr Wandycz passes a verdict of 'not proven' on the charge that the Polish provisions contained the germs of war in the future; Klein cannot agree 'that Versailles made Hitler's takeover of power inevitable. The Germans had a choice when they decided to take this path.' A world in which people are reasonable and behave reasonably, in which good will and good intentions will overcome bad feelings and a bad past would indeed be a pleasant place to live. But this is certainly not the world as it was in 1919, nor is it the world as it is now. The best essays in this marvellous book build on this common experience an enable us to understand a world that we only thought we had lost. Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu or H-Diplo@h-net.msu.edu.