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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 -------------------------------------------------------------------- Review by: David Stevenson, <D.Stevenson@lse.ac.uk> Professor, Department of International History London School of Economics and Political Science The failure of the Treaty of Versailles raises fundamental questions about the efficacy of force in international politics. After 52 months of the first general European war between industrialized Powers, costing the victorious Western allies alone some $130 billion and 3.6 million lives, Germany accepted ceasefire terms that reduced it militarily to helplessness in return for the promise of a peace based on the apparently moderate and altruistic terms of the American President. In the formulation of the Allied Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, one made war in order to achieve results: if the victors were strong enough to impose their terms further bloodshed was needless. The Allied leaders at the Paris Peace Conference considered victory had given them the right and duty to legislate into existence a new body of public law, by which both they and their former enemies would be bound. They might today be seen as Private Ryans, exhorted to 'use this' by those who had sacrificed their lives. They came expecting some negotiation with the Germans, but not simply to concede the latter all they wanted, or for what purpose would the war have been fought? To be sure, the peace terms proposed by the Weimar Government in May 1919 were more moderate than the war aims of the Second Reich. It offered substantial reparations (if less than the headline figure of 100 million gold marks suggested) and to accept some disarmament and territorial loss. In its interpretation of the American peace programme, however, self-determination would leave Germany with more territory and citizens than in 1914 while the Allies would pay for much of their reconstruction themselves. The Germans rejected the thesis that the Allies took for granted, that the Central Powers' aggression was responsible for the war. In these circumstances there was little prospect of the victors and defeated agreeing on terms that the latter would comply with voluntarily. The Allies faced the prospect of interminable vigilance and confrontation at a time when most of their citizens desperately wanted to return to normalcy and cultivate their private lives. The fundamental judgement for the peacemakers was therefore what balance to strike between coercion and conciliation, in order to safeguard their economic and security interests while demanding the minimum in continued effort from their electorates. Yet these were not the only terms in which the debate in Britain and America was conducted. Both President Woodrow Wilson and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, implied that the peace treaty should not simply be effective in addressing the 'German Question' but also that it should be 'just' in more universal senses. It should establish restitution and compensation for Berlin's crimes and limit the victors' gains to what progressive and humanitarian opinion found reasonable. Yet to frame the debate thus was to open Pandora's Box, and expose the treaty to an onslaught from both the Germans and disillusioned Anglo-American liberals from which its reputation has never recovered. For writers such as John Maynard Keynes, Harold Nicolson, and Ray Stannard Baker, the peace conference witnessed a cosmic struggle against selfishness and vindictiveness, between the cynical traditions of European power politics and the promise of a more enlightened international order. Perhaps Wilson sensed this with his presentiment that Paris would be a 'tragedy of disappointment'. The dramas of the peace conference encapsulate many of the dilemmas of peacemaking in general, and it has lent itself to more intensive investigation than the more piecemeal and extended settlement after 1945. Yet a rush of memoirs between the wars by conference participants was followed by a generation of scholarly neglect until the relevant archives began to open in the 1960s. Over the next two decades, in contrast, academic historians pored over almost every detail of the post-World War I peace process. Many of those involved in this re-examination, from the USA, Germany, France, and Britain, attended the conference at Berkeley in 1994 on whose proceedings the volume under review is based. Like the peace conference itself, however, that meeting had a middle-aged air. Few of the participants were under the age of 40, in this reflecting the more recent waning of research and publication on the topic. The historiographical caravan has moved on, to the Cold War and beyond, facilitating comparisons between the two world war aftermaths but also indicating that the effort of reappraisal treated in this volume is largely complete. The centenary gathering in 2019 looked forward to by one contributor (Keylor, p. 505) may find surprisingly little extra has been added to our knowledge. The volume is marked by its origin as a set of conference papers. It does not supplant Alan Sharp's _The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking in Paris, 1919_ (London, 1991) as the most compendious general account. It focuses entirely on the treaty with Germany rather than the other Central Powers and its coverage even of that is uneven. Several aspects of the Versailles territorial settlement, notably Germany's frontiers with Austria and Czechoslovakia, are treated only in passing. So is the League of Nations Covenant. The problem of the Allies' response to the threat of revolution, raised by Arno Mayer and John M. Thompson a generation ago, is not reappraised. A number of contributors evidently strayed from their briefs, with the result that some topics are neglected while others recur repeatedly. Partly for this reason, the book is unnecessarily long. All the same, it represents a very considerable contribution to historical understanding. Every essay contains enough new information and/or commentary to repay reading, and several of them are outstanding. In short, this is the most important study to appear for many years of an event that ranks alongside episodes such as Sarajevo, Munich, and the Cuban missile crisis among the classic watersheds of twentieth-century diplomacy. The 28 component essays are divided into five parts. The first considers wartime planning for the peace and the November 1918 armistice. The second addresses the relations of the peacemakers with domestic pressures on their 'home fronts'. The third concentrates on the crucial weeks in March and April 1919 when the Allied leaders in the Council of Four took the key decisions about Germany's fate. The fourth investigates the impact of the settlement on international politics in the 1920s, and the fifth is more historiographical, tracing the rise of anti-treaty 'revisionism'. The opening discussion of the wartime antecedents is essential, for it brings out the differences of purpose underlying the apparent agreement of all sides at the armistice to conclude a peace based on Wilson's Fourteen Points and subsequent speeches. As the Danish historian Inga Floto has described it, the armistice was 'one big diversionary manoeuvre', which halted the fighting by means of a thoroughly ambiguous agreement. Klaus Schwabe's essay here reminds us that the patriotic socialists who led the German revolutionary government gambled that the American programme, or something like it, would be the basis of the peace settlement, or if not, at least the springboard for a subsequent campaign against it. Woodrow Wilson was willing to halt the war when he did because he feared a more complete victory would make it impossible to restrain Britain and France (p. 122), but they too were willing to halt now because they feared, paradoxically, that continuing the war would enhance American influence. David French's chapter documents the British leaders' perception that further months of fighting would weaken their army and their prestige relative to France and the US, and now was therefore the time when, as they had always intended, they could make peace with the maximum say in the settlement (pp. 73-80). At the time of their decision they did not understand how completely German resistance had crumbled and almost immediately afterwards some members of the Cabinet suspected they had been precipitate. The French leaders, in contrast, did appreciate the desperation of Germany's plight, but believed the military terms of the armistice, largely devised by Foch and placing Allied occupation troops in all the territories where France had aspirations, would determine the settlement much more than would Wilson's idealistic pronouncements. Exactly how the Fourteen Points would be applied was left for the peace conference to clarify. Wilson was ill prepared for this test. He sailed for Paris believing that America was 'the only disinterested nation', and should strive within the framework of his principles for a 'scientific' peace, designed by the academics, lawyers, and bankers who staffed his delegation. His hope, which would be cruelly disappointed, was that once the League Covenant was in place his negotiating partners would feel reassured, calm down, and be reasonable. Yet, as William Keylor points out, none of the other delegates took the League seriously, or espoused it except to humour Wilson (p. 472). This still left the President with economic means of leverage, which, however, he conspicuously failed to use. True, he insisted on easing the blockade of Germany in order to rush in food supplies as a prophylactic against Bolshevism, but he neither applied the stick of withholding credits from London and Paris during the conference nor dangled the carrot of American aid for reconstruction. As for Wilson's second potential weapon - an appeal to public opinion - the enthusiasm demonstrated for him among the European progressive Left was marginal and transitory. In Britain, as Erik Goldstein shows, Lloyd George was on balance under pressure to show firmness, especially over reparations and the treatment of war criminals, and the overwhelming majority of French opinion urged Premier Georges Clemenceau to win adequate reparation and security against renewed aggression. Having broadcast the principle of open diplomacy in the first of his Fourteen Points in January 1918, Wilson found himself obliged to insist on negotiating in strict secrecy when he arrived in Paris a year later (pp. 481-485). If he kept the weapon of economic pressure in its scabbard, that of public opinion, when he tried to wield it against the Italian leaders in April, broke in his hand. All the same, it was essentially in this negative sense, of not being available to Wilson, that public opinion mattered. Georges-Henri Soutou concurs with other contributors that it had little influence on the French peace programme, and Goldstein contends that after April Lloyd George established his ascendancy over the House of Commons and enjoyed considerable leeway. As for Wilson, apart from incorporating respect for the Monroe Doctrine in the League Covenant, he ploughed his furrow in defiance of the growing opposition to his policies at home. If the peacemakers had a free hand from their domestic public opinion, the shape of the peace treaty would depend primarily on the proceedings of the leaders in the conference's Council of Four. The contributions in Part Three illuminate the most problematic issues in these proceedings - Poland (Carole Fink and Piotr S. Wandycz); the Rhineland (Georges-Henri Soutou and Stephen Schuker); and reparations (Elisabeth Glaser, Sally Marks, and Niall Ferguson). They also highlight the links between these issues. Clemenceau supported the Polish claims less energetically once France had been promised an Anglo-American guarantee in the West (p. 327); France pursued its reparations claims partly as a pretext for staying on the Rhine (p. 309). Generally the authors share in the tendency in the literature since the opening of the Paris archives in the 1970s to show sympathy for France's viewpoint and for Clemenceau in particular, in contrast to the demonization of both in older accounts. Clemenceau appears in Soutou's analysis as willing to experiment with several options - an Anglo-American alliance, collaboration with Rhenish separatists, and a bilateral entente with the German Government. Soutou's portrayal of the clandestine negotiations for the latter is intriguing, although Antony Lentin is probably correct in saying that he over-plays their significance (pp. 179-181, 232-233). Soutou and Schuker agree, however, that Clemenceau's priority was a continuation in some form of the wartime alliance with Britain and America, coupled with as much of a military and political presence in the Rhineland as was compatible with it. Reparations interested him less, and the contributors accept the new orthodoxy established twenty years ago by Marc Trachtenberg: French reparations policy was more moderate than Britain's and Clemenceau's advisers pressed their claims in part because the denial of continued American assistance left them with no alternative short of reconstructing their own country from its own resources and to Germany's power-political gain. In contrast, Clemenceau's negotiating partners both emerge badly. Lloyd George was two-faced over reparations and hypocritical in seeking to conciliate the Germans at other people's expense, most of Britain's own claims having been satisfied in the peace conference's opening weeks. Wilson had little idea of how to lead his delegation or of what he wanted in the substantive clauses of the treaty. Preoccupied with the largely irrelevant distraction of the League, he allowed his economic experts to pursue a laissez faire course that undercut his plans for European political stabilization. He treated his guarantee of France lightly, and reneged on his pledge to submit it to the Senate. Clemenceau's fault, in fact, so far from his being the Machiavellian of Keynes's caricature, was to ignore warnings from his critics and to commit France to the peace treaty before Britain and America had delivered on the guarantee. As Schuker ruminates, 'Clemenceau had struck the best deal he could for his country under the circumstances. The deal he had struck did not work out. But so it is with many reasonable choices - in diplomacy as in life.' (p. 310). Several essays in the volume address the rise of British and American anti-treaty revisionism, which emerged in the two countries' delegations almost as soon as Germany received the terms and drove Lloyd George into a last-minute effort to redraft them (cf. especially chapters 8, 23, and 24 by Lawrence E. Gelfand, William C. Widenor and Michael Graham Fry). Gordon Martel comments at the end of the volume that the Berkeley proceedings showed how 'the revisionist agenda still organizes our discussions of Versailles' (p. 616). Manfred Boemeke, introducing it, agrees, but adds that 'Scholars, although remaining divided, now tend to view the treaty as the best compromise that the negotiators could have reached in the existing circumstances' (p. 3). This overstates the case. There is undoubtedly a contrast between the research presented here and the revisionist dismissals of the treaty that still figure in many textbooks (p. 503). But over the reparations issue, and possibly others, the specialists remain divided. True, it seems accepted that the Article 231 'war-guilt clause' formed part of a package that was intended to protect the Germans by exempting them from liability for Allied war costs. But whereas Marks asserts that a 'substantial degree of scholarly consensus now suggests that paying what was actually asked of it was within Germany's financial capacity' (p. 357), and Schuker apparently accepts that compliance with the 1921 London Schedule of Payments was feasible, Gerald Feldman expressly disagrees with Marks (pp. 445-446) and Niall Ferguson considers that the Schedule 'put an intolerable strain on the [Weimar] state's finances' (p. 425). Ferguson appears also to have little time for Keynes, however, and the burden of a complex argument in his chapter is that German payments to the Allies after 1919 did not result in an uninterrupted depreciation of the mark or a surge in Germany's exports to the country's former enemies. He implies that a more deflationary, stabilization-oriented policy might have had more success in persuading the Allies to amend their policy (p. 436). But if that is so, the obstacles to raising taxes and complying with the London Schedule were as much political as technical, which is essentially Marks's contention (pp. 360-361). To this reviewer it seems that to an extent the two sides are talking past each other. Another conference may be needed at which their arguments can be juxtaposed directly. The issue is important because it bears on the conclusion to be drawn about Versaillles as a whole. Was the treaty too repressive or too lenient? The sorry saga of inter-war diplomacy could be cited on behalf of either viewpoint. The treaty terms helped undermine Weimar democracy and yet were inadequate to contain Hitler. In the words of the French royalist Jacques Bainville, cited by more than one contributor, the treaty was 'too gentle for what is in it that is harsh' (pp. 108, 275). Yet such a judgement - that Versailles fell between two stools - may be too glib, and there is merit in Soutou's and Lentin's contention (pp. 187, 243) that it was more supple than is commonly credited. It would be, Clemenceau told the Chamber of Deputies, 'what you make of it' (p. 101). It included provision for the Rhineland occupation, the main enforcement instrument, to end before or be prolonged beyond the stipulated fifteen-year term; reparations could be modified by agreement, and the League itself was created as an instrument not only for enforcement but also for peaceful revision. Between 1924 and 1932 the treaty's operation was indeed substantially modified by multilateral negotiation. On the other hand, its disarmament and occupation clauses, together with the guarantee of France, contained enough to prevent another all-out war with Germany for as long as they were implemented. When Hitler came to power in 1933 this was still the case, as he himself acknowledged. For many reasons, conditions in Germany being foremost among them, the prospects for stability in Europe after 1919 were poor, but it is going too far to see the treaty as foreordaining a second war. Probably the best course open to the victors in the 1920s was to seek a combination of both coercion and conciliation, as was achieved after 1945. This would have entailed leniency over reparations but a resolute upholding of the security clauses until such time (if ever) as a pacific democracy in Germany was solidly established. Naturally such an enterprise would have required inter-Allied solidarity and the patience for a very long haul indeed, conditions which in Britain and America (with their isolationist traditions) were sadly lacking, and were beyond the reach of France alone. Where next? As implied at the beginning of this review, this volume testifies both to the vigour of the historical reappraisal of Versailles in the 1970s and 1980s and the slackening of scholarly activity in the last decade. Is the treaty doomed to become as neglected a field of study as those of 1814-15? The events of 1989-91 have now given us a third example of 'peacemaking' to juggle with, alongside those after 1918 and 1945 (as discussed in the introductory essay by Ronald Steel), and several writers, including Ferguson and Charles Maier, have attempted longer-term comparisons and contrasts. Whether this work will lead to a wholly new interpretative 'paradigm' for peace conference history seems doubtful. The last attempt to construct such a paradigm was Mayer's in the 1960s, but although later writers have felt obliged to address his contentions there seems agreement among the contributors here that the peacemakers' primary concern in framing the treaty was containing Germany rather than Bolshevism. But even short of a radical reinterpretation there is still work to do. Over reparations there remains no scholarly consensus, and exhaustively though the German inflation has already been analysed it may be that further macro-economic research on the early 1920s may help to clarify the limits of the possible and narrow the gap between the opposing views. Moreover, the strategic context of the conference's decisionmaking has been neglected. We need to know more about Allied and German planning and preparedness for a possible resumption of hostilities. New intelligence sources (such as the French Deuxieme Bureau archives in the process of repatriation from Moscow) may help reconstruct the perceptions held by the parties of their antagonists' and allies' strengths and weaknesses and of their negotiating postures. They may also shed light on the assumptions about national characteristics that formed part of the negotiators' mental furniture. Manfred Boemeke suggests a way forward in this latter respect with his essay on 'Woodrow Wilson's Image of Germany' (ch. 25), and other contributions attempt the same for Clemenceau. Finally, the peace conference marked a turning point in the history of international institution building, and it is remarkable, as Antoine Fleury points out, how the League of Nations continues to be sidelined as a research field (ch. 20). One of the most arresting contrasts between 1919 and the European peace processes after 1945 and 1989 was the virtual absence in both later cases of the quasi-millenarian enthusiasm that Wilson inspired. Rhetorical catchphrases apart, few statesmen or lobbyists after him genuinely aspired to found a new world order or establish a peace of 'justice' at one fell swoop. A more pragmatic and incremental approach predominated. If the experience of 1914-1918 made all later generations cynical about war, that of 1919 may have similarly disabused them about peace. Notes: 1. Including this reviewer, who contributed Chapter 3, 'French War Aims and Peace Planning', pp. 87-109. 2. Arno J. Mayer, _Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Revolution and Counter-Revolution at Paris_ (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968); John M. Thompson, _Russia, Bolshevism, and the Versailles Peace_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968). In his chapter in this volume on 'The Soviet Union and Versailles' Jon Jacobson deals (as he was asked to) with events after the conference. 3. Inga Floto, _Colonel House in Paris: A Study of American Policy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919_ (Aarhus: Universitetsforlaget i Aarhus, 1973), p. 60. 4. Stephen A. Schuker, _ American "Reparations" to Germany, 1919-33: Implications for the Third-World Debt Crisis_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 19. 5. This is of course not to deny that the Allies and Americans wished to check the expansion of Bolshevism in Russia and Central Europe, and that in order to do so they carried out executive acts such as the food relief programme. But anti-Bolshevism had little influence on the drafting of the Versailles Treaty. 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. 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