Give Peace in ‘Full Meaning’ a Chance?

Editor’s Note: The Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, five years to the day after an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo sparked a global conflict claiming over 20 million lives. Sean Howard reflects on a momentous centenary receiving remarkably little political or media attention. 


Mischief and Madness


A new world emerges,” British political commentator Edward Salmon wrote in The British Dominions Yearbook 1919:

…but the millennium looked for by those who dream dreams is not yet in sight. We are on the eve of a mighty peace, a peace to be fraught with trials no less great than those faced in more than four years of war.

“Are we prepared,” he asks, “for peace in the full meaning of the term any more than we were prepared for war?”

Johannes Bell of Germany is portrayed signing the peace treaties on 28 June 1919 in The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors by Sir William Orpen.

Johannes Bell of Germany is portrayed signing the peace treaties on 28 June 1919 in The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors by Sir William Orpen. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

For Salmon, such ‘fullness’ required the flourishing of Pax Britannia, an Empire transformed in “the furnace” of the War from “pig-iron” to “high-tempered steel.” He quotes Prime Minister David Lloyd George claiming, in September 1918. that the “Empire has never been such a power for good,” and that “to suggest that such an organization could fall to pieces after the war would be a crime against civilization.” (Twelve years, Mahatma Gandhi, visiting England, would be asked what he thought of British civilization. “That,” he would say, “would be a good idea.”)

What mattered now, Salmon insisted, was “the enjoyment by the Empire of the things belonging to the Empire,” a phrase Lloyd George might have adopted for his cynical snap election of December 1918: ‘The Mad Election,’ as George Bernard Shaw called it, won with “mischief” that “could not be undone,” pledges “to be thriftlessly wicked, cruel, and vindictive,” obliterating “nobler” vows to friend and foe.


Another contributor to the Yearbook, historian J. Ellis Barker, argued that “the best guarantee for future peace would surely lie in an Anglo-American reunion,” co-guardianship of the globe by those two “peaceful” powers “of similar character, aims and traditions.” The danger otherwise, he worried, was that “even among” the other “democratic nations…there are such great differences in character that the experiment” of more collective governance “might be a hazardous one.”

The flaw in Barker’s argument, of course – aside from the ‘dog-whistle’ racism of his “differences in character” –  was that the ‘experiment’ in question was the League of Nations, proposed by US President Woodrow Wilson as the main means of delivering a durably post-War, necessarily post-colonial world.

In his famous ‘Fourteen Points’ speech to the Senate on 8 January 1918, Wilson – in addition to demanding German withdrawal from all territory occupied since 1914, and from Alsace-Lorraine, seized from France in 1870 – envisaged a “general association of nations affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike” (Point 14).

This to be backed by “guarantees…that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety” (Point 4), a demilitarization facilitating “a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle” — so mistrusted by Barker — that “the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined” (Point 5).

But radical though such ‘self-determination’ was, the plan’s first Point advocated an even cleaner break with the past, demanding that “diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view,” producing “open covenants of peace…after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind.”


On 3 October 1918, German Chancellor Prince Max of Baden telegrammed Wilson, calling for “the immediate conclusion of an armistice” and accepting the Fourteen Points “as the basis for peace negotiations.” Forty days of utterly unnecessary slaughter followed – with the Canadian Expeditionary Force suffering and inflicting particularly severe casualties  – while Wilson sought clarification and assurances he was dealing, as he asked in a October 23 telegram, with “the real rulers of Germany.”

Initially, indeed, Berlin’s offer was prompted largely by strategic desperation, though weeks before the final fall of the Kaiser it also reflected the authentic aspiration of a new civilian leadership for a democratic Republic, a thoroughly ‘new Germany’ no longer willing or able – in the words of an October 20 telegram to Wilson – to act as an “arbitrary power” disturbing “the peace of the world.”

For the United States, a German commitment to a ‘Fourteen-Points Peace’ was the essential precondition of an Armistice. For Germany, an American commitment to build peace in this ‘fuller sense’ was the essential precondition to accepting an otherwise too-bitter pill.  And for both America and Germany, the stated commitment by Britain, France and Italy to a settlement transforming not just their enemies’ but their own foreign and defense policies was taken as a pledge honorably made and thus certain to guide future conduct.

But though their countries had only been saved from shipwreck by the US, Prime Minister Lloyd George, French President Georges Clemenceau and Italian President Vittorio Orlando were leaders with many ‘private international understandings’ between them to divide and rule the mouth-watering spoils of ‘victory.’ And though they didn’t always mean to honor those ‘deals’ – arriving at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919 with ‘knives out’ for each other as well as Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey – they certainly didn’t mean what they said about a peace to end war and Empire.



Crawling with Contradictions


What unfolded over the next six months, wrote John Maynard Keynes – a senior member of the British economic delegation – was “a nightmare”:

A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene; the futility and smallness of man before the great events confronting him; the mingled significance and unreality of the decisions; levity, blindness, insolence, confused cries from without—all the elements of ancient tragedy were there. Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and of Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterization, were really faces at all and not the tragi-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show.

Was Keynes exaggerating for effect? In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin quotes an Italian diplomat lamenting a “common sight” at Paris:

…one or other of the world’s statesmen, standing before a map and muttering to himself: “Where is that damn’d…?” while he sought with extended forefinger for some town or river that he had never heard of before.

Photograph Signed by the "Big Four" of the Versailles Peace Conference, WOODROW WILSON as President of the United States, GEORGES CLEMENCEAU as Premier of France, DAVID LLOYD GEORGE as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and VITTORIO ORLANDO as Prime Minister of Italy. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Photograph Signed by the “Big Four” of the Versailles Peace Conference, WOODROW WILSON as President of the United States, GEORGES CLEMENCEAU as Premier of France, DAVID LLOYD GEORGE as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and VITTORIO ORLANDO as Prime Minister of Italy. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 is replete with scenes from the twilight zone, including an account of how “the Big Four” leaders “and their experts…crawled together over Wilson’s huge map of Europe, which had to be unrolled on the floor.”

Lloyd George, by all accounts, was jaw-droppingly ignorant of geography, history and culture, “demanding,” in one of Fromkin’s many examples, “that Britain should rule Palestine from (in the Biblical phrase) Dan to Beersheba,” though he “did not know where Dan was” and impatiently “searched for it in a nineteenth-century Biblical Atlas…”

“In defiance of geography,” MacMillian writes, he also insisted “Palestine lay west of the Aleppo-Damascus line;” and turning his myopic gaze to Europe, he once “briefly worried about the Tyrol…because he had once been on holiday there and it was one of the few parts of the continent he knew.”

The historian Arnold Toynbee, an adviser to Lloyd George, recalled him muttering aloud:

Mesopotamia…yes…oil…irrigation…we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine…yes…the Holy Land…Zionism…we must have Palestine; Syria…h’m…what is there in Syria? Let the French have that…


Perhaps the two biggest questions facing the stunned student of such absurdities are why the Americans so badly ‘lost the plot,’ and why the Germans signed a settlement running so violently counter to expectations?

The questions are related, as the fateful decision to exclude the new governments of the defeated Powers from the ‘talks’ left the Americans at the Machiavellian mercy of the predatory ‘victors.’ Wilson, Fromkin writes, “had predicted that the peace would not endure if its terms were not basically fair to all sides,” and:

…the terms that the Allies imposed…were perceived by many at the time, and have been perceived by many since, as a failure in that respect.

Felix Frankfurter, representative of the American Zionist leader Louis Brandeis, spoke for many in recalling that his “months” at the Conference were probably “the saddest” of his life:

The progressive disillusionment of the high hopes which Wilson’s noble talk had engendered was not unlike the feelings that death of near ones brings.

Tactically, Lloyd George and Clemenceau ran rings round Wilson, pretending devotion to his cause while robbing it of substance.  As Keynes said, the true “purpose of French policy, to limit the population of Germany and weaken her economic system,” was “clothed, for the President’s sake, in the august language of freedom and international security.”

In occupying the Rhineland and securing control over German coal, steel and other production – agricultural as well as industrial – the French, Keynes concluded, were acting “in the spirit of Bismarck,” their conqueror 50 years before, to the extent that “little has been overlooked which might impoverish Germany now or obstruct her development in future.”

But Clemenceau’s Bismarck somehow managed to pass himself off as Wilsonian!


Lloyd George and Clemenceau were also able to exploit contradictions and double-standards in Wilson’s own, not entirely ‘Wilsonian’ stance: his insistence, for example, that the US retain the ‘right’ to act without interference in its Western Hemisphere ‘backyard’ (the Monroe doctrine of 1824), in return for which Wilson agreed to back the call to try — and preferably hang — the Kaiser.

Nor, as the following episode – recounted by historian Michael Kazin – shows,  did Wilson’s ‘nobility’ of spirit extend to African-Americans:

Disguised as a merchant seaman, Monroe Trotter, Wilson’s leading black critic, traveled to Paris to demand that the peace treaty include am endorsement of racial equality. Unsurprisingly, neither the president nor [his main advisor] Colonel House agreed to meet with him.

Insertion of a racial equality clause in the Treaty was also strongly opposed by Britain’s ‘White Dominions’ (Canada, Australia, New Zealand), as well as South Africa, and its eventual omission proved decisive, as MacMillan writes, in turning Japan – itself in racist occupation of Korea and parts of China – “away from cooperation with the West and toward more aggressively nationalistic policies.”

Double-speak and deception also flourished in the critical area of self-determination, where South African leader Jan Smuts quickly grasped, as David Reynolds’ writes in The Long Shadow, that “British imperial interests could be dressed up in Wilsonian garb” and so “developed the idea of mandates.”

Under the scheme, instead of decolonization, three classes of colony were established, two of which (the ‘B’ and ‘C’ Mandates) gave “virtually a free hand” to the occupying power (such as South Africa in formerly ‘German Africa’), while the ‘A’ Mandates in the former Ottoman Empire were, in theory, to be ‘transitional arrangements’ leading to independence – “which meant,” Reynolds writes:

…that although the British and French were free to partition the region between them, they had to engage in what has been called a “protracted, wearisome, and public debate about how undemocratic rule over alien peoples…could  be justified.

Meanwhile, as Fromkin notes, Lloyd George’s “Middle Eastern strategy was to direct the Americans’ anti-imperialist ire against the claims presented by Italy and France, distracting the president from areas in which he might make difficulties for Britain,” while Britain and France joined diplomatic forces in denouncing the imperial avarice of Italy (which had only entered the War after grandiose promises of European and Ottoman booty).


In Europe, the logic of ‘self-determination’ clearly suggested a merger of Germany with Austria (minus their predominantly non-German regions). In the context of the radical demilitarization promised by the Fourteen Points – but imposed at Versailles only on the ‘losers’ – such a union would have threatened no one, avoided immense humanitarian suffering, and created a stable economic base for the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. Instead, the concept was applied so selectively – treated so blatantly as a prize, not a principle – that it led, as Alexander Watson grimly details in Ring of Steel, to:

Kaiser Wilhelm II (Source: US Library of Congress)

…grievous injustices, most notably the transfer of unambiguously German Danzig to the League as a free state (a measure taken to given Poland access to the sea).

From that ‘Polish Corridor,’ cutting:

…East Prussia from the rest of interwar Germany, 575,000 of the 1.1. million Germans who had resided there in 1919 had six years later moved [to impoverished and overcrowded Weimar Germany while] as many as 200,000 of the 300,000 strong German population left or were expelled from Alsace-Lorraine.

As this ethnic cleansing proceeded, it dramatically undercut Germany’s capacity to repay the immense reparations ‘scheduled’ to stuff French and Belgian coffers for the next 50 years, justified by Versailles’ notorious Article 231, the so-called ‘war guilt’ – more accurately, ‘collective punishment’ – clause. And as early as January 1923, Watson writes:

…after the German state had continually defaulted on payment, the French and Belgians, who together with the British were already in occupation of the left bank of the Rhine, invaded the industrial Ruhr region. The propaganda of fear spread by the imperial authorities in 1917 now seemed uncannily prescient. Enemy invasion, German workers coerced to labor for a hated oppressor…had all come about in the wake of defeat.

In Keynes’ summary:

The German observations on the draft Treaty of Peace were largely a comparison between the terms of this understanding, on the basis of which the German nation had agreed to lay down its arms, and the actual provisions of the document offered them for signature thereafter. The German commentators had little difficulty in showing that the draft Treaty constituted a breach of engagements and of international morality comparable with their own offense in the invasion of Belgium.

But the gravest offense of all wasn’t Article 231 of the Treaty, but Point 26 of the Armistice, the blackmailing mechanism under which “the existing blockade conditions set up by the Allied and Associated Powers are to remain unchanged.”


By the ‘end’ of the War, the British-led blockade, demonstrably illegal under the international law of the day, had killed hundreds of thousands of Austrian, German, and Hungarian civilians (a ‘tactic’ subsequently applied, with equally ‘effective’ results, to ‘Red Russia’).

In Vienna in late 1918, food rioters killed and ate police horses; “as a result of malnutrition,” the Austrian Neue Freie Presse reported in May 1919:

…a bloodless generation is growing up with undeveloped muscles, undeveloped joints, and undeveloped brain.

The report is quoted in Keynes’ study of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which also cites a German newspaper account from June 1919 of “large country districts where ninety per cent of all the children were rickety and where children of three years are only beginning to walk.” “Accompany me,” the journalist asks, “to a school in the Erzgebirge [the Ore Mountains, a range that today is on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic]”

You think it is a kindergarten for the little ones. No, these are children of seven and eight years. Tiny faces, with large dull eyes, overshadowed by huge puffed, ricketty foreheads, their small arms just skin and bone, and above the crooked legs with their dislocated joints the swollen, pointed stomachs of the hunger œdema….

And yet, Keynes comments:

…there are many persons apparently in whose opinion justice requires that such beings should pay tribute until they are forty or fifty years of age in relief of the British taxpayer.



Drawing (in Blood) the Wrong Lesson…


Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 has been justly acclaimed for its breadth, depth, and style. Yet the main lesson she draws is perverse:

Of course, things might have been different if Germany had been more thoroughly defeated.

The rise of Hitler, she argues, was proof not that Versailles went too far in punishing Germany but that, because “Germany had not been emasculated” and “remained too strong,” the “German problem was still there to trouble Europe.”

Tellingly, this conclusion is cited approvingly in the Foreword to the book’s Second Edition (2002) by the late Richard Holbrooke, one of America’s pre-eminent post-Cold War diplomats. For while the settlement reached, at least in Western Europe, after World War II sought to avoid the worst mistakes of Versailles, after the fall of the Berlin Wall the specter of hubristic triumphalism returned to frustrate hopes of achieving a ‘common European home’ finally free of the ‘menace and mischief’ of military division and nuclear threat.


With the defeat of Nazism, the American Marshall Plan (for all its Cold War contradictions and biases) sought durable peace on the strength of shared prosperity: a platform on which France, West Germany and other former foes could build structures of economic and political cooperation – starting with the Economic Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952 –  now grown into a European Union (EU) with the potential to form part of what Keynes called for in 1919 – a “council of Europe” dedicated to the truly noble causes of “life and happiness”. (The other main ‘part’ should logically be the currently marginalized, and financially malnourished, Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a child of 1970s détente never allowed to grow to maturity.)

Map showing NATO expansion.

NATO expansion.

The prospect of such a ‘European Spring,’ however – the blossoming of post-Bloc ‘human security’ across the continent – was wrecked by the Siamese twins of Western self-interest to emerge ‘victorious’ from the Cold War.

Economic self-interest inflicted ‘casino capitalism’ on the former Soviet Union and eastern Bloc, generating severe socio-economic and psychological distress (and the rise of corrupt, oligarchic elites).

Military-industrial self-interest, drove NATO to the borders of Russia, reducing complex but solvable security issues, such as Crimea/Ukraine, to the zero-sum calculus of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ fueling Russophobic, often neo-fascist movements in the Baltic and elsewhere.

The West, in sum (and as detailed in previous Spectator analyses), kicked Moscow when it was down, only to proclaim ‘I told you so!’ when the wounded ‘Bear’ – insufficiently ‘emasculated’? – started growling again. But NATO still has a ‘Russia problem’ only because Russia still has a ‘NATO problem.’ And the real problem, a hundred years after Versailles, is that the war machine remains too strong: that ‘peace in the full meaning’ still hasn’t been given a chance.

Featured image: London Illustrated News from 10 May 1919 showing German delegation arriving at Paris Peace Conference.


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.