(Note: This article appeared in abbreviated form at Veterans For Peace: Reclaim Armistice Day)
Historians debate to what extent the Treaty of Versailles was responsible for Hitler's march to World War II, but there can be little doubt that the treaty ending the "War to End All Wars" continues to be a major factor in our ongoing "War Without End."
On November, 11, 1918, Europe laid exhausted and nearly bled dry. Just months before the war ended on that date, fresh, motivated U.S. troops entered the fight and assured an Allied victory. As a result, President Woodrow Wilson played an oversized role in the fateful redrawing of borders across half the globe.
Wilson was the primary proponent of American Exceptionalism, an idea promoted by the U.S. elite ever since. The myth that somehow America would always advance humanitarian interests attracted many, particularly the dispossessed encouraged by Wilson's "Fourteen Points." The president took to his messianic mission in Paris with paternalistic passion but as the record shows, imperialism infected not only European powers, it also drove Wilson. Nonetheless, millions were mesmerized by this outspoken advocate of some vague form of self-determination. He was an empty vessel into which whole nations poured their hopes for a better life.
True, there was a stated effort at Versailles to rise above the centuries-old tradition of "to the victor goes the spoils" by introducing plebiscites and theoretically grounding decisions more frequently on justice than revenge. However, plebiscites were omitted when troublesome and justice often morphed into "just us."
Regarding the treaty's effect on Germany and ultimately World War II, Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world," provides illuminating background in an in-depth history of the Versailles negotiations,
For context, she reminds that the horrors of WWI did not visit German soil nor did Germans see occupying troops except in the Rhineland. Few Germans knew that after the Allied advance of August 8, 1918, 16 German divisions disappeared within a few days and the remaining troops fell back miles at a time. They didn't know that a week later General Ludendorff told the Kaiser to consider negotiating with the Allies and the next month demanded peace at any price. Few Germans regarded the armistice for what it basically was, a surrender. Consequently, the Nazi's myth of how the Kaiser stabbed Germany in the back found ready listeners.
MacMillan disputes that Germany's reparations were overly burdensome. Here's what the record shows.
* France got back Alsace-Lorraine which it had lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 (Prussia was one of several states that formed the nation of Germany in 1871 after that war). Allied troops occupied Germany's Rhineland as a buffer for France. France also got ownership of Germany's coal mines in the Saar which the League of Nations administered until a 1935 plebiscite in which people voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Germany.
* Poland was given use of the German port of Danzig/Gdansk as well as ownership of Silesia, with 3,000,000 German-speaking people, 25% of Germany's coal and 80% of its zinc. After Germany protested, an international commission awarded most of the land to Germany and most of the industry and mines to Poland. (Additionally, Poland fought a border war with Russia until 1921 when Lenin agreed to the Treaty of Riga, drawing Poland's eastern border 200 miles further into Russia than the Allies recommended and adding 4 million Ukrainians, 2 million Jews and a million Byelorussians to Poland.)
* Czechoslovakia was given the Sudetenland, a region bordering Germany and Austria with 3,000,000 German-speaking people, as well as Austria's Bohemia that contained another 3,000,000 German-speaking people. Hitler was to make the cause of these "lost Germans" his own and occupied the former Sudetenland after the Munich agreement in 1938.
* Denmark regained, via plebiscite, two duchies previously seized by Prussia.
The reconstituted nation of Lithuania got the German port of Memel on the Baltic.
* Germany turned over its entire naval fleet, airplanes, heavy guns and 25,000 machine guns. It was allowed an army of 100,000 and a navy of 15,000, but no air force, tanks, armored cars, heavy guns, dirigibles or submarines. Arms imports were forbidden, and only a few German factories were allowed to produce arms.