“A Poisonous Spirit of Revenge”

INJUSTICE, ARROGANCE, DISPLAYED in the hour of triumph will never be forgotten or forgiven.1


Those three all-powerful, all-ignorant men…sitting there carving continents with only a child to lead them.2


AS WELLINGTON SAID of Waterloo, it had been a “damn near-run thing.” After the Italian rout at Caporetto and the defeat of Rumania and Russia, a million German soldiers had been released in 1918 to join their comrades on the Western Front for the last great German offensive of the war. By April, Ludendorff’s armies were back on the Marne and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was issuing his order recalling Nelson at Trafalgar: “With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each of us must fight on to the end…. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.”3

In the end, the Americans proved decisive. By spring 1918, 300,000 doughboys were in France; by summer, 1,000,000. With Yanks moving into the front lines at 250,000 a month, German morale sank and the German lines buckled.

On October 5, 1918, Prince Max of Baden sounded out President Wilson on a peace based on the Fourteen Points he had laid out in January. Three days later, Wilson asked Prince Max if Germany would accept the points. On October 12, Prince Max gave assurances that his object in “entering into discussions would be only to agree upon practical details for the application” of the Fourteen Points to a treaty of peace.4

Wilson now began to add conditions. Safeguards must be provided to guarantee Allied “military supremacy” and a democratic and representative government must be established.5 Prince Max agreed. The Kaiser had to go. On October 23, Wilson took the German offer to the Allies.

The British and French, after four years of bloodletting that had cost them together two million dead and six million wounded, balked at Wilson’s mild terms. Under a threat from Colonel House of a separate peace, Prime Minister Lloyd George went along, with one reservation. Britain could not agree to the second of Wilson’s points: freedom of the seas. The Royal Navy must be free to do whatever necessary to protect the empire. France succeeded in inserting a claim to full compensation “for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea, and from the air.”6

Matthias Erzberger, the leader of the Catholic Center Party who had urged fellow Germans to agree to an armistice, was given the thankless task of meeting Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, and signing the armistice in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest on November 11, 1918. Erzberger would be assassinated in the Black Forest in 1921 for the “crime of November 11.”7


IN GREAT BRITAIN, a “khaki election” was called by the government to exploit the triumph of British arms and war’s end, as the Unionists had done in the first khaki election in 1900, when Joe Chamberlain had campaigned on the slogan “A seat lost to the Government is a seat won by the Boers.”8

In echo of Wilson, Lloyd George began his campaign November 12, one day after the armistice, with a statesmanlike call for a magnanimous peace.

We must not allow any sense of revenge, any spirit of greed, any grasping desire to over-rule the fundamental principles of righteousness. Vigorous demands will be made to hector and bully the Government in the endeavour to make them depart from the strict principles of right and to satisfy some base, sordid, squalid idea of vengeance and avarice. We must relentlessly set our faces against that.9

Lloyd George had misread the mood of his country and of press baron Alfred Lord Northcliffe, the Napoleon of Fleet Street whom he had denied a place on the delegation to the peace conference. Whipped up by Northcliffe’s papers, the public rejected such noble sentiments and took up the cry “Hang the Kaiser!” Ever attentive to popular opinion, Lloyd George was soon pledging to bring home a peace in which Germany would be made to pay the “full cost of the war.” They will pay to the utmost farthing, he roared to one crowd; “we will search their pockets for it.”10

“Squeeze the lemon until the pips squeak!” was the theme of one Liberal candidate. The Parliament elected that December that gave Lloyd George a majority of 340, the greatest in British history, has been described as “one of the most insular, reactionary and benighted in the annals of Westminster,” made up, said Stanley Baldwin, of “hard-faced men who look as if they had done well out of the war.”11

From the House of Commons to Lloyd George came a “Round Robin” letter signed by 237 coalition members, a “vengeance telegram,” demanding “the utmost severity for Germany.”12 The signers wanted every last pound of German flesh. Among its chief sponsors was the MP for the Ripon Division of Yorkshire, Edward Frederick Lindley Wood. A generation later, “Major Wood,” now Lord Halifax, would be the foreign minister forced to deal with the consequences of the punitive peace he and his colleagues had demanded.

The khaki election of 1918 and the peace of vengeance British voters demanded that Lloyd George bring home validate the insight of George Kennan: “[S]uffering does not always make men better…. [P]eople are not always more reasonable than governments…[P]ublic opinion…is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics.”13

Arriving in Paris with a mandate for no mercy, Lloyd George found his resolve to impose a harsh peace more than matched by Georges Clemenceau, “the Tiger of France,” whose ravaged nation had lost 1.3 million of its sons.

The Tiger had one great love—France; and one great hate—Germany. As a young man of twenty-nine he had seen Paris under the heel of the German invader, and the smoke billowing up from the brutal burning of the palace at St. Cloud. As an old man of seventy-two, he had seen the gray German hosts pour into his beloved France. He was determined that it should not happen again. Motivated though he was by this great hate, he was not so vindictive as Marshal Foch or President Poincaré.14

Clemenceau was determined to impose on “le Boche” a treaty that would so cripple Germany she could never menace France again. His fear and hatred were caught in a remark attributed to him: “There are twenty million Germans too many.”15


“DEMOCRACY IS MORE VINDICTIVE than Cabinets,” Churchill had told the Parliament in 1901. “The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.”16 The twentieth century would make a prophet of the twenty-six-year-old MP. And the peace the peoples demanded and got in 1919 would prove more savage, for, wrote one historian, “it was easier for despotic monarchs to forget their hatreds than for democratic statesmen or peoples.”17

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand had sat with Castlereagh of England, Metternich of Austria, Alexander I of Russia, and Frederick William III of Prussia, the coalition that had destroyed Napoleon’s empire, to create a new structure of peace. At Brest-Litovsk in 1918, Germans and Russians had negotiated the terms. But though Germany’s fate was to be decided, no German had been invited, for the Allies had come to Paris to punish them as the guilty nation responsible for destroying the peace.

“We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering upon this war,” Wilson had said on April 2, 1917, as America entered the war.18 By 1919, Wilson had concluded that people were “responsible for the acts of their government.”19

When German representatives were summoned to Paris to receive the terms of the Allies, they were stunned at the amputations to be forced upon them. Eupen and Malmédy were to be taken from Germany and given to Belgium. Alsace and Lorraine were to be reannexed by France.

Clemenceau wanted to annex the Saar but Wilson balked. The Saar was placed under the League of Nations—de facto French control—and its coal mines given to France. The 650,000 Germans of the Saar were granted the right, in fifteen years, to vote on whether they wished to return to Germany. Should they so decide, Germany must buy her mines back. In Schleswig, a plebiscite was to be held to divide the land with Denmark.

The East Prussian port of Memel was seized by Lithuania.

Only on the insistence of Lloyd George, who reportedly said he would no more transfer Upper Silesia to the Poles “than he would give a clock to a monkey,” was a plebiscite held in those lands that had been under German sovereignty for centuries.20 In the plebiscite, 60 percent of the people voted to stay with Germany, but five-sixths of the industrial area and almost all the mines were ceded to Warsaw. A disgusted British observer, Sir Robert Donald, called the plebiscite a “tragic farce” and the stripping of Upper Silesia from Germany “robbery under arms.”21

The Hanseatic League port city of Danzig, German for centuries, was declared a Free City and placed under League of Nations administration and Polish control. East Prussia was separated from Germany by a “Polish Corridor” that put a million Germans under Warsaw’s rule.

Versailles stripped from Germany one-tenth of her people and one-eighth of her territory. Germany’s overseas empire, the third largest on Earth, was wholly confiscated. All private property of German citizens in German colonies was declared forfeit. Japan was awarded the German concession in Shantung and all German islands north of the Equator. The German islands south of the Equator went to New Zealand and Australia. Germany’s African colonies were divided among South Africa, Britain, and France. Germany’s rivers were internationalized and she was forced to open her home market to Allied imports, but denied equal access to Allied markets.

Territories cut away, colonies gone, Germany was to have her limbs broken so she could never fight again. Germany was forbidden ever again to build armored cars, tanks, heavy artillery, submarines, or an air force. The High Seas Fleet was seized as war booty, as was the German merchant fleet. Her navy was to consist of six small battleships, six light cruisers, twelve destroyers, and twelve torpedo boats. The General Staff was abolished and the army restricted to one hundred thousand men. Germany was to remain forever naked to her enemies.

Goaded on by Lord Northcliffe’s newspapers, Lloyd George made good on his pledge that Germany be made to bear the full cost of the war—to include the pensions of Allied soldiers. But Wilson’s public pledge of no indemnities had first to be circumvented. And someone else would have to persuade Wilson, for the president had come to detest Lloyd George.

“Mr. Prime Minister, you make me sick!” the president blurted, after listening to another shift of position by the “Welsh witch” of John Maynard Keynes’s depiction.22 Keynes, who was with the British delegation, would return home to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the savage book charging the Allied leaders with having crafted a vindictive peace that must, by crushing Germany with debt, set the stage for a new war.

The British were behind this scheme to include pensions. For as the damage done to the British Isles by air or naval attack was minimal, and the confiscation of Germany’s merchant ships had replaced British losses at sea, Britain was entitled to perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent of reparations. If Germany could be made to pay the pensions of millions of British soldiers, however, Britain’s share of reparations could soar to more than 20 percent. Including pensions would also triple the reparations bill for Germany.

Lloyd George enlisted South Africa’s Jan Smuts, a lawyer one historian calls “the great operator of fraudulent idealism,” to persuade Wilson that forcing Germany to fund the pensions of Allied soldiers would not violate his pledge to limit reparations to civilian damage done in the war.23 An outraged U.S. delegation implored Wilson to veto the reparations bill, arguing that it did not follow logically from any of his Fourteen Points.

“Logic, logic, I don’t give a damn about logic,” Wilson snarled. “I am going to include pensions.”24 Henry White, one of five members of the official U.S. delegation, reflected the dejection and disillusionment idealistic Americans felt: “We had such high hopes of this adventure; we believed God called us and now we are doing hell’s dirtiest work.”25

In 1920, the Allies would set the final bill for reparations at thirty-two billion gold marks, an impossible sum. Under Article 231 of the treaty, the “war guilt clause,” Germany was forced to confess to and accept full responsibility for causing the war and all the damage done. Under Article 227, the Kaiser was declared a war criminal to be arrested and prosecuted.

Forcing the Germans to confess to a historic crime and agree to a lie—that they alone were to blame for the war—was as foolish as it was unjust. Though the Kaiser had been bellicose throughout his reign, by 1914 he had been in power twenty-five years and never fought a war. In the two Moroccan crises, it was he who had backed down. Though he had foolishly given the Austrians a blank check to act against Serbia, when the Austrian archduke was murdered by Serb nationalists on June 28, 1914, by the last days of July, no monarch in Europe was trying more desperately to arrest Europe’s plunge to war.

The effect on the German psyche of forcing the nation to confess to a crime Germans did not believe they had committed was poisonous:

There is no better way to generate hatred than by forcing a person to sign a confession of guilt which he is sacredly convinced is untrue. The wanton humiliation, unprecedented up to that time in the annals of Christendom, created the thirst for revenge which the National Socialists so cleverly exploited.26

“The forced admission of German war guilt in the Treaty of Versailles would have been a colossal political blunder even if it had been true: and it was not true,”27 adds British historian Russell Grenfell.

Today, men do not appreciate what Versailles meant to the Germans, who, triumphant in the east, believed they had laid down their arms and accepted an armistice and peace in the west based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. British Labour leader Sir Roy Denman offers this analogy:

These terms are difficult to bring home to British readers. But, supposing that Britain had lost the U-boat war in 1917 and Germany had imposed an equivalent peace; it could have meant British recognition that its policy of encirclement [of Germany] had caused the war; confiscation of British colonies and the British merchant fleet; Dover and Portsmouth occupied; the Royal Navy reduced to half a dozen destroyers; south-east England demilitarised; Liverpool a free port, with a corridor under German rule to Harwich; crippling reparations. No post-war British government would have accepted this indefinitely.28



Germany faced invasion and death by starvation if she refused. With her merchant ships and even Baltic fishing boats sequestered, and the blockade still in force, Germany could not feed her people. When Berlin asked permission to buy 2.5 million tons of food, the request was denied. From November 11 through the peace conference, the blockade was maintained. Before going to war, America had denounced as a violation of international law and human decency the British blockade that had kept the vital necessities of life out of neutral ports if there were any chance the goods could be transshipped to Germany. But when America declared war, a U.S. admiral told Lord Balfour, “You will find that it will take us only two months to become as great criminals as you are.”29

U.S. warships now supported the blockade. “Once lead this people into war,” Wilson had said in 1917, “and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.”30 America had forgotten. The blockade was responsible for the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children after the Germans laid down their weapons and surrendered their warships. Its architect and chief advocate had been the First Lord of the Admiralty. His aim, said Churchill, was to “starve the whole population—men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound—into submission.”31 On March 3, 1919, four months after Germany accepted an armistice and laid down her arms, Churchill rose exultant in the Commons to declare, “We are enforcing the blockade with rigour, and Germany is very near starvation.”32


Five days later, the Daily News wrote, “The birthrate in the great towns [of Germany] has changed places with the death rate. It is tolerably certain that more people have died among the civil population from the direct effects of the war than have died on the battlefield.”33

Even the entreaties of “brave little Belgium” for whom the British had gone to war fell on deaf ears. Herbert Hoover, who would be credited with saving a starving Belgium, “spent as much time arguing with the British as with the Germans about getting food to the Belgians,” writes U.S. historian Thomas Fleming.

The “poor little Belgium” of British propaganda meant little to the British admirals and bureaucrats who were sure the Germans would make off with the victuals…. Churchill, who favored letting the Belgians starve and blaming the Germans, called Hoover “a son of a bitch.”34

Americans “have been brought up not to kick a man in the stomach after we have licked him,” said Hoover. “We have not been fighting women and children and we are not beginning now.”35 Put in charge of all relief efforts, Hoover wanted to feed the starving Germans. Congress refused.

In February 1919, Congress appropriated $100 million for food, but Germany was not to get a loaf of bread or a bowl of soup.36 So severe was the suffering that, on March 10, the British Commander on the Rhine publicly urged that food be sent to the population as the specter of starving children was damaging the morale of his troops. General Sir Herbert Plumer’s letter was read to the Big Three in Paris:

Please inform the Prime Minister that in my opinion food must be sent into this area by the Allies without delay…. The mortality amongst women, children, and sick is most grave and sickness due to hunger is spreading. The attitude of the population is becoming one of despair, and the people feel that an end by bullets is preferable to death by starvation.37

His troops, said General Plumer, could no longer stand the sight of “hordes of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal from British cantonments.”38 Pope Benedict XV’s plea for an end to the blockade was ignored. One visitor to Germany who witnessed it all wrote:

The starvation is done quietly and decently at home. And when death comes, it comes in the form of influenza, tuberculosis, heart failure or one of the new and mysterious diseases caused by the war and carries off its exhausted victims. In Frankfurt, even as late as March 1920, the funerals never ceased all day.39

In 1938, a British diplomat in Germany was asked repeatedly, “Why did England go on starving our women and children long after the Armistice?”40 “Freedom and Bread” would become a powerful slogan in the ascent to power of the new National Socialist Workers Party.

Decades later, Hoover, a former president and senior statesman, was still decrying the post-Armistice “food blockade” of Germany as “a wicked thrust of Allied militarism and punishment” that constituted “a black chapter in human history.”41

“Nations can take philosophically the hardships of war. But when they lay down their arms and surrender on assurances that they may have food for their women and children, and then find that this worst instrument of attack on them is maintained—then hate never dies.”42


ON MAY 7, 1919, at Trianon Palace Hotel, Clemenceau, Wilson beside him, handed the Germans the terms of peace: “The hour has struck for the weighty settlement of your account,” said Clemenceau. “You have asked for peace. We are ready to give you peace.”43

As the German foreign minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau read his reply to Clemenceau, he refused to stand:

We can feel all the power of hate we must encounter in this assembly…. It is demanded of us that we admit ourselves to be the only ones guilty of this war. Such a confession in my mouth would be a lie. We are far from declining any responsibility for this great world war…but we deny that Germany and its people were alone guilty. The hundreds of thousands of non-combatants who have perished since 11 November by reason of the blockade were killed with cold blood after our adversaries had conquered and victory had been assured to them. Think of that when you speak of guilt and punishment.44

When he heard this bristling German defiance, “Clemenceau’s face turned magenta.”45 Lloyd George snapped the ivory paper knife he was holding and said, “It is hard to have won the war and to have to listen to that.”46


Wilson exploded. “What abominable manners…the Germans are really a stupid people.”47 “Isn’t it just like them?” he whispered to Lloyd George.48 Said Balfour, “Beasts they were, and beasts they are.”49

Still, the Germans refused to sign. “What hand would not wither that binds itself and us in these fetters?” said Chancellor Philip Scheidemann.50 He resigned his office.

But with families starving, Bolshevik uprisings in Munich, Cologne, Berlin, and Budapest, Trotsky’s Red Army driving into Europe, Czechs and Poles ready to strike from the east, and Foch preparing to march on Berlin at the head of an American-British-French army, Germany capitulated.

Five years to the day after Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, German delegates signed what Wilson had promised his countrymen would be “peace without victory.”

“A huge crowd and two German delegates led like felons into the room to sign their doom” was how an American observer in the Hall of Mirrors that day described it. “[I]t was like the execution of a sentence.”51 The New York Times’s Charles Selden wrote, “[T]he stillest three minutes ever lived through were those in which the German delegates signed the Peace Treaty today.”52

The same day, June 28, “the government of the new ‘Czechoslovak Democracy’ sent a wire to the leaders of Yugoslavia congratulating them on the anniversary of the Sarajevo murder of the archduke and his wife and expressing their hopes of ‘similar heroic deeds in the future.’”53

By forcing German democrats to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which disarmed, divided, and disassembled the nation Bismarck had built, the Allies had discredited German democracy at its birth.

At Scapa Flow, naval base of the Grand Fleet in the Orkneys, northeast of Scotland, where the High Seas Fleet had been interned, Adm. Ludwig von Reuter, rather than surrender his warships, ordered them scuttled. With a signal from the flagship at noon on June 19, German sailors pulled the sea cocks, sending ten battleships, nine armored cruisers, eight heavy cruisers, fifty torpedo boats, and one hundred submarines to the bottom.54 As the unarmed German sailors fled in lifeboats, they were fired on by enraged British sailors.55 Not until July 12, 1919, did the Allies fully lift the starvation blockade. When Admiral von Reuter returned to Wilhelmshaven in 1920, thousands of Germans thronged the docks to hail him as “the last hero” of the High Seas Fleet.

The Germans felt utterly betrayed—and blamed America.

“President Wilson is a hypocrite and the Versailles Treaty is the vilest crime in history,” said the social democrat Scheidemann, who had brought down his government rather than sign.56 “If these are the peace terms, then America can go to hell,” said General Ludendorff.57

Men who believe in the rule of law believe in the sanctity of contract. But a contract in which one party is not allowed to be heard and is forced to sign at the point of a gun is invalid. Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles only when threatened that, should she refuse, the country would be invaded and her people further starved.

Though Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand had been invited to Vienna to negotiate the peace of Europe, no German had been invited to Paris. Francesco Nitti, the prime minister of Italy when Versailles was signed, in his book The Wreck of Europe, expressed his disgust at the injustice.

In the old canon law of the Church it was laid down that everyone must have a hearing, even the devil: Etiam diabolus audiatur (Even the devil has the right to be heard). But the new democracy, which proposed to install the society of the nations, did not even obey the precepts which the dark Middle Ages held sacred on behalf of the accused.58

From the hour of signature, the Germans never felt bound. Said Vorwarts, the unofficial voice of Berlin, “We must never forget it is only a scrap of paper. Treaties based on violence can keep their validity only so long as force exists. Do not lose hope. The resurrection day comes.”59


LLOYD GEORGE HAD WANTED a peace that would enlarge the empire, satisfy Northcliffe, have the Jingoes cheering him in the House, and eliminate Germany as a commercial rival and world power. He got it all: the High Seas Fleet, the Kaiser’s colonies, the German merchant marine, the promise of full reparations. He could afford to appear magnanimous.

But France had lost 1,375,000 soldiers and millions more were wounded, maimed, or crippled. She demanded full compensation for the ruination of a fourth of the country and terms of peace that would guarantee that Germans would never again attempt what they had done in 1870 and 1914.

Clemenceau wanted to detach all German lands west of the Rhine and create a “Rhenish Rhineland,” a buffer state—and to occupy the east bank of the river with Allied troops for thirty years. Poincaré, a Lorrainer, wanted to annex all 10,000 square miles of the Rhineland, as did Foch, who warned, “If we do not hold the Rhine permanently, no neutralization, nor disarmament, nor any kind of written clause can prevent Germany…from sallying out of it at will.”60

Annexing the Rhineland would have put five million Germans and much of Germany’s industrial plant under permanent French control. Lloyd George was adamant that no German land be annexed by France. He feared a spirit of revenge would be created in Germany like that created in France by the 1871 loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Wilson also recoiled at so flagrant a violation of his principle of self-determination. But as the French negotiator André Tardieu argued, to France, such measures were matters of national survival:

For France, as for Great Britain and the United States, it is necessary to create a zone of safety…. This zone the naval Powers create by their fleets, and by the elimination of the German fleet. This zone France, unprotected by the ocean, unable to eliminate the millions of Germans trained to war, must create by the Rhine, by an inter-allied occupation of that river.61

What the Channel and Royal Navy were to Britain, what the Atlantic and U.S. Navy were to America, the Rhine and French army were to France, the moat and sword of national survival. “To ask us to give up the occupation [of the Rhine],” said Tardieu, “is like asking England and the United States to give up their fleets of battleships.”62

France was forced to settle for a fifteen-year occupation. But the price Clemenceau exacted for giving up any claim to the Rhineland was high: an Anglo-American-French alliance. Under a Treaty of Guarantee, America and Britain were to be obligated to come to France’s aid should Germany attack her again.

Incredibly, Wilson agreed, though he knew such an alliance violated a cardinal principle of U.S. foreign policy since Washington: no permanent alliances. Moreover, a commitment to go to war for France must be seen as a vote of no confidence in the new League of Nations’ ability to maintain the peace by replacing the old balance-of-power politics with the new world’s ideal of collective security.

There was also a huge element of impracticality about the Treaty of Guarantee. As the war had demonstrated—when U.S. troops had not begun to enter Allied lines in great numbers until a year after war had been declared—no U.S. army could be raised, trained, and transported across the Atlantic in time to stop a German invasion. The Treaty of Guarantee thus entailed a permanent commitment by the United States to liberate France. No Senate in 1919 would approve such a commitment, as no U.S. vital interest was involved. President Grant had never thought to intervene when France was invaded in 1870, and, from 1914–1917, as Germans occupied the northeast of France, America had remained neutral. Even Theodore Roosevelt, an enthusiast of U.S. intervention in the war, wrote in 1919, in an article published after his death, “I do not believe in keeping our men on the other side to patrol the Rhine, or police Russia, or interfere in Central Europe or the Balkan peninsula…. Mexico is our Balkan peninsula.”63

Only German U-boats sinking American ships had brought the United States into the war. And the America of 1919 was not going to commit to war for any other country. This was not isolationism. It was a foreign policy tradition of 130 years. Americans went to war when American interests were imperiled. And whose flag flew over Alsace was no vital interest of the United States.

Lloyd George had cooked up this scheme, but built into it an escape hatch. If either the Senate or Parliament refused to approve the Treaty of Guarantee, the other nation was absolved of its commitment. Without a dissenting vote the House of Commons and House of Lords issued France the war guarantee. But the Senate never even took up the treaty. Britain was off the hook. France was left with no security treaty and no buffer state, only a fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland.

Both banks of the Rhine were to remain demilitarized in perpetuity. But, after 1935, when the occupation was to end, the sole guarantee of their permanent demilitarization would be the French army.


AFTER GERMANY MOUNTED THE scaffold came the turn of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under the treaties of St. Germain and Trianon, that ancient empire was butchered, cut into pieces to be distributed to the nations that had supported the Allies. Northern provinces went to the new Poland. Czecho-Slovakia, which had emerged as a new nation in 1918 under Thomáš Masaryk, was ceded rule over three and a half million ethnic Germans, three million Slovaks, one million Hungarians, 500,000 Ruthenes, and 150,000 Poles. All resented in varying degrees being forced to live in a nation dominated by seven million Czechs.64


Whether to coerce three million Germans to come under a Czech rule most of them despised was fiercely argued at Paris. On March 10, the chief of the field mission for the U.S. delegation, Archibald C. Coolidge, called it a grave mistake and “filed a memorandum in which he proposed a frontier almost the same as that established in 1938 after ‘Munich.’”65

Coolidge’s reasoning was as follows:

To grant to the Czechoslovaks all the territory they demand would not only be an injustice to millions of people unwilling to come under Czech rule, but would also be dangerous and perhaps fatal to the future of the new State. In Bohemia, the relations between the Czechs and the Germans have been growing steadily worse during the last three months. The hostility between them is now intense…. The bloodshed on March 3rd [sic] when Czech soldiers in several towns fired on German crowds…was shed in a manner that is not easily forgiven.66

South Africa’s Jan Smuts also warned that the Czech lust for land, Hungarian as well as German, might bring disastrous results: “With some millions of Germans already included in Bohemia in the north, the further inclusion of some 400,000 or 500,000 Magyars in the south would be a very serious matter for the young state, besides the grave violation of the principles of nationality involved.”67

The Big Four did not heed Smuts and Coolidge. They listened instead to Eduard Beneš, the Czech foreign minister who was promising to model Czechoslovakia on the Swiss federation, where minorities would enjoy equal standing and cultural and political autonomy. On the eve of Munich, 1938, Lloyd George would charge Beneš with having deceived the Allies at Paris.

Why did the Czechs succeed at Paris at the expense of their neighbors? First, they had chosen the winning side. Second, their new territories would come at the expense of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, who were to be punished and weakened. “No pity must be shown to Hungary,” said André Tardieu, the “Father of Trianon,” who chaired the committee dealing with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.68 Third, Beneš and Masaryk were, like pianist Ignace Paderewski who represented the Poles, great favorites at Paris:

In Allied eyes, and this is especially true of Woodrow Wilson, T. G. Masaryk had become a George Washington, William the Conqueror and Jeanne d’Arc rolled into one. Masaryk, “the father of his country,” the “outstanding democrat and patriot,” could do no wrong. His word was accepted as gospel.69

Fourth, the Czechs knew what they wanted and were resolute and ruthless in taking it. As Hungary and Austria were reeling in defeat in 1918, Czech troops moved into Slovakia. They then seized the Polish enclave of Teschen, “whose coal heated the foyers and powered the industry of Central Europe from Krakow to Vienna,” and occupied German Bohemia, which would come to be known as the Sudetenland.70 Masaryk told Parliament, “The Germans will have to be satisfied with self-determination of the second class….”71 Clemenceau supported the Czech seizures.

By the time Masaryk, Beneš, and the Allies were finished, they had created in the new Czechoslovakia the tenth most industrialized nation on earth, having stripped Austria and Hungary of 70 to 80 percent of their industry,

from china and glass factories to sugar processors…to the breweries of Pilzen and the Skoda works producing world-class armaments, locomotives, autos, and machinery. The wealth these companies generated would make Czechoslovakia coveted by Germany and envied by its other, less amply endowed neighbors.72

The new nation—one-half Czech, one-fourth German, with Slovaks and Hungarians constituting a fifth of its population—was bordered by four nations (Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Poland) all of which bore deep grievances against her. “[T]he Peace Conference,” writes David Andelman in A Shattered Peace, “had turned Czechoslovakia into a polyglot highway from Germany to the Balkans…with a fifth column in its midst.”73

South Tyrol, to the bitterness of its two hundred thousand Austrian inhabitants, was turned over to Italy as war booty for switching sides and joining the Allies in 1915. Vienna, seat of one of the greatest empires of Christendom, became the capital of a tiny landlocked country of fewer than seven million.


HUNGARY, HOWEVER, WAS THE “ultimate victim of every sort of prejudice, desire, and ultimate diplomatic and political error of the powers gathered in Paris. It had no real advocate there….”74

By the Treaty of Trianon, signed June 4, 1920, Hungary was mutilated, the kingdom reduced from an imperial domain of 125,000 square miles to a landlocked nation of 36,000. Transylvania and the two million Hungarians residing there went to Rumania as a reward for joining the Allies. Slovakia, which a predominantly Catholic Hungary had ruled for centuries, was handed over to the Czechs. Other Hungarian lands went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. A slice of Hungary was even ceded to Austria.

“Hungary, which might have played a key role in Clemenceau’s cordon sanitaire,” writes Andelman, “instead became a victim on every side.”75

The U.S. Congress refused to approve the Treaty of Trianon and in August 1920 signed a separate peace. Hungarians regarded the imposed peace of Trianon as a national crucifixion, the greatest national disaster since the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, which led to a century and a half of Ottoman occupation.

On February 1, 1918, Wilson had told the world:

There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages. People are not to be handed about from one sovereignty to another by an international conference…. “Self-determination” is not a mere phrase…. Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the population concerned, and not as part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival States.76

What Wilson had promised the world, and the nations that laid down their arms, would not happen, did happen, with his collusion. József Cardinal Mindszenty, primate of Hungary, looked back in his Memoirs upon the injustice done his nation and people at Paris:

Before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Hungary comprised almost 109,000 square miles of land. When the treaty was signed, only 35,000 square miles remained…. Benes and Masaryk showed fraudulent maps and statistics to the other delegates at the conference…. President Wilson had proclaimed the right of self-determination; but this principle was completely ignored when the Allies lopped off two-thirds of Hungary. No one bothered to consult the people about their wishes.77

Of the eighteen million under Hungarian rule in 1910, ten million were taken away. Of the lost ten million, Cardinal Mindszenty estimated that more than three million were of Hungarian nationality. Hungarian bitterness at the Wilsonian peace was as deep as it was in Germany.

At Paris, Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians had no right of self-determination not subject to Allied veto. Germans were handed over to Denmark, Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Lithuania without their consent. Plebiscites were granted to peoples who wished to break free of German rule. But in Alsace, Lorraine, Danzig, the Corridor, Memel, Bohemia, and South Tyrol, Germans were denied any plebiscite or voice in choosing the nation to which they wished to belong. Three million Hungarians had been force-marched into new nations. By 1920, 885,000 were under Czech rule, 1.7 million under Rumanian rule, 420,000 under Serb rule. The Little Entente of Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia was created partly out of fear of a Hungary whose lands and peoples each had torn away.

And though it was promoted by and allied with France, serious statesmen regarded it with scorn, like George Kennan:

The Little Entente, on which the Czechs, with French encouragement, had tried to base their security, had seemed to me an artificial, unwise arrangement founded in the quicksands of the vengeful, emotional, and unrealistic spirit that dominated French policy in the years just after World War I.78

As for the newborn nations baptized at Paris, they were almost as multiethnic as the Habsburg Empire, but lacked her history, lineage, and moral authority. Czechoslovakia was but half Czech. Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews had been handed over to Prague. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes contained Bosnian Muslims, Montenegrins, Hungarians, and Bulgarians, the last forcibly transferred to the new kingdom by the Treaty of Neuilly. Poland was a polyglot nation. In a 1931 linguistic census,

Poles formed only 68.9 per cent of the total population. The Ukrainians with 13.9 per cent, the Yiddish-speaking Jews with 8.7 per cent, the Byelorussians with 3.1 per cent, and the Germans with 2.3 per cent made up nearly one-third of the whole. In specific areas, they constituted a dominant majority.79


LIKE THE CZECHS, the Rumanians would emerge as one of the great winners at Paris. Wedged between the Allies, Serbia, and Czarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rumania began the war as a neutral. In August 1916, however, after receiving a secret offer of Transylvania and the Banat, to be taken from Hungary, Bucharest joined the Allies.

Prime Minister Ian Bratianu, who had negotiated the secret treaty, had also been assured of Russian military aid, which never came. By year’s end, 1916, Austro-Hungarian and German armies occupied Bucharest. King Ferdinand, Queen Marie, and the government had fled to the protection of the Russians in Bessarabia.

Not until the final weeks of war did Rumania rejoin the struggle. Yet Bratianu and Queen Marie, a granddaughter of Victoria and first cousin of George V, arrived in Paris to demand full payment for having fought on the side of the Allies, though Bucharest had violated Article V of the 1916 treaty by concluding a separate peace. Between them, Bratianu and Queen Marie succeeded in doubling the size of Rumania. They got Transylvania and the eastern Banat from Hungary, Bessarabia from Russia, northern Dobruja from Bulgaria, and Bukovina from the dismantled Habsburg Empire.

Western Banat went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes—a polyglot nation, 43 percent Serb, 23 percent Croat, 8.5 percent Slovene, 6 percent Bosnian Muslim, 5 percent Macedonian, 3.6 percent Albanian, and the rest a mixture of Germans, Hungarians, Vlachs, Jews, and Gypsies.80

So it was that the men of Paris redrew the maps of Europe, and planted the seeds of a second European war.

The winners at Paris were the Czechs, Rumanians, and Serbs. The losers were the Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Russians. The Italians felt cheated of what they had been promised in the Treaty of London. The Poles felt they had been denied Teschen because of favoritism toward the Czechs. Thus was Europe divided between satiated powers, and revisionist powers determined to retrieve the lands and peoples that had been taken from them.

With the treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, Trianon, and Neuilly, the Allies at Paris had made a dog’s breakfast of Europe. For America, they had stripped the Great War of any morality. When Wilson came home with a peace that denied the defeated their right of self-determination, made a mockery of his Fourteen Points, honored the secret treaties he denounced, and enlarged the British, French, Italian, and Japanese empires by a million square miles and tens of millions of subjects, Americans concluded that their 116,000 sons died for nothing. In The World Crisis, Churchill would express puzzlement as to why the Americans ever went to war.

American historians will perhaps be somewhat lengthy in explaining to posterity why the United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917…. American ships had been sunk before by German submarines; as many American lives were lost in the Lusitania as in all the five American ships whose sinking immediately preceded the declaration of war. As for the general cause of the Allies, if it was good in 1917, was it not equally good in 1914?81

“There were plenty of reasons of high policy for [America] staying out in 1917 after waiting so long,” Churchill concluded. History has proven him right.

Lloyd George sensed the tragedy the Allies were setting in train. Perhaps with Burke in mind—“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom”—he retired to Fontainebleau on the last weekend of March and wrote one of the more prophetic documents of the century:

You may strip Germany of her colonies, reduce her armaments to a mere police force and her navy to that of a fifth rate power; all the same, in the end if she feels that she has been unjustly treated in the peace of 1919 she will find means of exacting retribution from her conquerors…. Injustice, arrogance, displayed in the hour of triumph will never be forgotten or forgiven….

I am, therefore strongly averse to transferring more Germans from German rule to the rule of some other nation than can possibly be helped. I cannot conceive any greater cause of future war than that the German people, who have certainly proved themselves one of the most vigorous and powerful races in the world, should be surrounded by a number of small states, many of them consisting of people who have never previously set up a stable government for themselves, but each of them containing large masses of Germans clamoring for reunion with their native land.82

About the creation of a Polish Corridor, severing Germany in two, Lloyd George warned:

The proposal of the Polish commission that we should place 2,100,000 million Germans under the control of a people which is of a different religion and which has never proved its capacity for stable self-government throughout its history must, in my judgment, lead sooner or later to a new war in the East of Europe.83

Rather than loosen the bonds Bismarck had forged among Germans, the peace of Versailles reinforced a spirit of nationhood. The treaty had defeated its own purpose, writes John Laughland, for it

allowed the Germans to think of themselves as victims. The debt itself, which obviously fell uniformly on the entire nation, also made the Germans feel solidarity with one another; they became united in their common protest. It made Bavarians and Saxons feel for the territorial losses of Prussia, whereas fifty years previously, such losses would have concerned only Prussians. The tribute which the Germans had to pay to the French thus united them in common resentment. With Germany bordered to the East with nothing but new weak states, this was a fatal combination.84

When you strike at a king, you must kill him, Emerson said. At Paris the Allies had scourged Germany and dispossessed her of territory, industry, people, colonies, money—and honor by forcing her to sign the “War Guilt Lie.” But they had not killed her. She was alive, united, more populous and potentially powerful than France, and her people were now possessed of a burning sense of betrayal. Novelist Anatole France had written, as he saw victory with America’s entry into the war, “Even if beaten, Germany will pride itself on having resisted the entire world; no other people will be so inebriated by their defeat.”85

The treaty writers of Versailles wrote the last act of the Great War and the first act of the resurrection of Germany and the war of retribution. Even in this hour men saw what was coming: Lloyd George in his Fontainebleau memorandum; Keynes as he scribbled notes for his Economic Consequences of the Peace; Foch (“This is not peace, it is an armistice for twenty years”); and Smuts (“This Treaty breathes a poisonous spirit of revenge, which may yet scorch the fair face—not of a corner of France but of Europe).”86

Secretary of State Lansing said of the peace he and President Wilson brought home: “[T]he Versailles Treaty menaces the existence of civilization.”87 In Italy, the wounded war veteran and Fascist leader Benito Mussolini warned: “The dilemma is this: treaty revision or a new war.”88 Hans von Seeckt of the German General Staff agreed: “We must regain our power, and as soon as we do, we will naturally take back everything we lost.”89

Versailles had created not only an unjust but an unsustainable peace. Wedged between a brooding Bolshevik Russia and a humiliated Germany were six new nations: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. The last two held five million Germans captive. Against each of the six, Russia or Germany held a grievance. Yet none could defend its independence against a resurrected Germany or a revived Russia. Should Russia and Germany unite, no force on Earth could save the six.


THE BRITISH EMPIRE CAME out of Paris the great beneficiary of the Great War. The Hohenzollern, Romanov, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires had crashed in ruins. The challenge of a Wilhelmine Germany that had surpassed British production by 1914 was history. Germany was no longer a great power. The High Seas Fleet, the greatest threat to the Royal Navy since Trafalgar, had committed suicide at Scapa Flow. Britain had taken over Germany’s Atlantic cables and most of her merchant fleet to compensate for the loss of 40 percent of her own to U-boats. Germany’s islands in the South Pacific had been mandated to Australia and New Zealand. German South-West Africa had gone to South Africa. German East Africa (Tanganyika) had become a British mandate. The Cameroons and Togoland were divided between Britain and France. Mesopotamia and Palestine, taken from the Turks, had gone to Great Britain. Out of the war fought to make the world safe for democracy, the British Empire had added 950,000 square miles and millions of subjects. Said Lord Curzon, “The British flag never flew over more powerful or united an empire than now; Britons never had better cause to look the world in the face; never did our voice count for more in the councils of the nations, or in determining the future destinies of mankind.”90


After the treaties of Versailles and Sèvres had been imposed on the defeated Germans and Turks, a man could walk from Kuwait to Cairo, turn south, and walk the length of Africa to Cape Town without leaving a British Dominion, colony, or protectorate. The dream of Cecil Rhodes, the Cape-to-Cairo railroad, could now be built without asking for transit rights from any power other than a fellow member of the British Imperial Conference. In 1921, Jan Smuts, now prime minister of South Africa, told his fellow prime ministers that the British Empire “emerged from the War quite the greatest power in the world, and it is only unwisdom or unsound policy that could rob her of that great position.”91

“When Lloyd George returned from Paris with the Treaty of Victory,” wrote Churchill, King George V “took the unprecedented course of…driving him in his own carriage to Buckingham Palace. History will not overlook the significance of this act.”92


BRITISH GAINS, HOWEVER, had not come without costs. The war had proven the disaster Norman Angell had predicted in his 1909 The Great Illusion.

The total number of fatalities for the British empire as a whole was 921,000: the originator of the Imperial War Graves Commission, Sir Fabian Ware, calculated that if the dead were to march abreast down Whitehall the parade past the Cenotaph would last three and a half days.93

The highest casualty rate had been among young British officers, striking home with all the leaders of Britain’s great parties. The Liberals’ Asquith, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, and the Irish Nationalists’ John Redmond had each lost a son. The Unionists’ Bonar Law had lost two. British debt was fourteen times what it had been in 1914. While it appeared to the world that the British Empire had made out wonderfully well, Britain had sustained losses, tangible and intangible, from which she would never recover.

Charles Mee, whose grandfather lost all ten brothers in the war, wrote in his book on Versailles that not only had there been a collapse of the political order in Europe, but

the war had discredited much of the rhetoric of national pride, honor, and sacrifice, as well as faith in the notions of reason, progress, humanism. Nor did the notions of God, representational art, or Newtonian physics appear to be in such good repair. The “modern” Western civilization that had grown up since the Renaissance was under siege from outside, and from within, and offered scant support to the disintegrating political order.94

“A generation had been decimated on the battlefields of Europe,” Mee continued. “No one had seen the likes of such slaughter before: the deaths of soldiers per day of battle were 10 times greater than in the American Civil War,” heretofore the bloodiest conflict in the history of Christendom.95

Then there was her loss of moral authority. How could British and Europeans, who had just concluded four years of butchering one another with abandon, assert a moral superiority that gave them the right to rule other people? With the Turks’ defeat of the British at Gallipoli, word had gone out to Asia and the Arab world, as it had after Adowa and Tshushima: Europeans were not invincible. Awe of Western military prowess and power had been irreparably damaged in the eyes of subject peoples. The myth of Western invincibility had been destroyed.

Also, Wilson’s sermons on “self-determination” and Lloyd George’s hymns to the “rights of small nations” had been heard beyond the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. The genie of nationalism was out of the bottle. Balfour had promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine. To defeat the Turks, T. E. Lawrence had stirred up the smoldering embers of Arab nationalism. Not a day passed that some popular leader did not arrive in the lobby of Wilson’s hotel to plead for independence for a province or colony he had never heard of. At Paris, British diplomat Harold Nicolson spoke of “that sense of a riot in a parrot house.”96 A “chastened Wilson” returned to tell Congress: “When I gave utterance to those words [that “all nations had a right to self-determination”] I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day.”97

The right of all peoples to self-determination, to which the Allies paid homage at Paris, was an ax that would strike the roots of every Western empire. By the time Lloyd George returned to London, Ireland was in revolt. Rebellions had broken out in Egypt, Iraq, and India.

While Germany had been diminished, a more formidable rival had arisen. World financial leadership had passed to a United States that had profited from selling to the Allies while avoiding heavy combat until the summer of 1918. America had shown herself to be a mighty military power, perhaps the greatest. From three hundred thousand men in arms in 1917, she had raised an army of 4 million and transported two million soldiers to France, where they had been decisive in the final victory.

Britain had ceased building warships in 1918. America had just begun. By 1921, the United States had become the first nation in a century to achieve naval parity with Great Britain. And an epidemic of Anglophobia had broken out in America over the belief that the British Empire had gorged itself in a war where 116,000 Americans had made the supreme sacrifice to make the world safe for democracy. Then there were those “six British votes” in the League of Nations: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Canada.

Disillusionment with the treaty Wilson brought home would deepen in the 1920s and 1930s, as all the Allied powers, save Finland, defaulted on their war debts and America fell deep into Depression.

Perhaps the greatest loss Britain suffered was in her standing and credibility with the American people. British propaganda had convinced us the Germans were beasts and we must join the good war for a new world where Prussian militarism would never menace mankind again. But after Versailles enlarged the British Empire by 950,000 square miles, as the Allies walked away from their war debts mocking Uncle Sam as “Uncle Shylock,” Americans came to believe they had been hoodwinked and swindled. They came to concur with British historian H.A.L. Fisher: Versailles had “draped the crudity of conquest…in the veil of morality.”98

France and Britain got the peace they had wanted. Twenty years later, they would get the war they had invited. And the next time Britain rang for help, America would take her time answering the call. The Yanks would not be “coming over” until after France had been overrun and Britain thrown off the continent at Dunkirk. Americans’ bitterness over the belief they had been played for fools was something the British never understood. I yet recall hearing, as a child in the 1940s, of how the British had cut the cables, how the Lusitania had been carrying contraband, how the tales of German atrocities in Belgium had been lies, how the British had sent “Black and Tans” to shoot down Irish patriots, how we had been deceived by “lying British propaganda” into sending our boys into a war “to pull Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire.”

The revisionist historians of World War I did their work well.

And something new and ominous had come out of the war. The Russia of the Romanovs was gone. Atop the largest nation on earth sat a grisly gang of Bolshevik terrorists committed to world revolution and the destruction of all the Western empires and nations. In March 1920, after a trip to Europe, Churchill, who had been almost alone in urging Allied intervention in Russia, wrote Lloyd George what one historian calls “one of the great prophetic documents of European history.”99

“Peace with the German people, war on the Bolshevik tyranny” was Churchill’s message.100 “We may,” he wrote, “be within measurable distance of a universal collapse and anarchy across Europe and Asia.”101

You ought to tell France that we will make a defensive alliance with her against Germany, if, and only if, she entirely alters her treatment of Germany…. Next you should send a great man to Berlin to help consolidate the anti-Spartacist anti-Ludendorff elements into a strong left-center block. For this task you must have two levers: first, food and credit, which must be generously accorded in spite of our own difficulties (which otherwise will worsen); secondly, early revision of the Peace Treaty by a Conference to which New Germany shall be invited as an equal partner in the rebuilding of Europe.102

What alarmed Churchill was the prospect of civil war in Germany, leading to a dictatorship of Right or Left. Communist coups had briefly succeeded in Budapest and Bavaria, and an attempt had been made to seize power in Berlin. All had been brutally suppressed by German Freikorps.

There was fear that a man of the right like Gen. Erich Ludendorff might sweep aside the democratic regime that had arisen on the Kaiser’s abdication but been discredited in many German eyes by having submitted to the Allied diktat at Versailles. In March 1920, the Kapp putsch, a rightist attempt to seize power in Berlin, was blocked only by a general strike called by the Social Democrats. Churchill had perceived the real threat: Germany was now so prostrate she could no longer fulfill her ancient duty—to keep the Russians out of Europe.

Lloyd George’s attitude toward Churchill’s obsession with Russia was dismissive. When Churchill’s name came up over dinner at Lady Astor’s, the prime minister became irritable, remarking that Winston “has bolshevism on the brain.”103

In his memoirs, Lloyd George mocked Churchill’s preoccupation with the Bolsheviks, “blaming it on his aristocratic lineage. ‘His ducal blood revolted against the wholesale elimination of Grand Dukes in Russia.’”104

Yet it is to Churchill’s eternal credit that, almost alone among Allied statesmen, he recognized the danger of the regime of Lenin and Trotsky, and, at risk to his relationship with Prime Minister Lloyd George, repeatedly urged Allied intervention to kill the viper in its crib. So prescient was Churchill that his subsequent behavior toward Stalin seems inexplicable.


THOUGH HE BELIEVED THE “Germans had behaved disgracefully in the war and deserve a hard peace,” Prime Minister Smuts argued that this was “no reason why the world must be thrust into ruin.”105 It was he who first branded Versailles a “Carthaginian peace,” laying responsibility for the vindictive treaty at the feet of Woodrow Wilson:

“Making the world safe for Democracy!” I wonder whether in this reactionary peace—the most reactionary since Scipio Africanus dealt with Carthage—he [Wilson] still hears the mute appeal of the people to be saved from the coming war…. What a ghastly tragedy this is.106

A dissent is in order. Carthage, torched and pillaged, its soldiers put to the sword, its women violated, its children sold into slavery, vanished from history. Germany had suffered, but Germany had survived. Historian Correlli Barnett calls Smuts’s characterization of Versailles as a Carthaginian peace “sentimental nonsense.” Henry Kissinger, too, regards German complaints over Versailles as “self-pitying nonsense”:

Germany had ignored the Fourteen Points as long as it thought that it had a chance of winning the war, and had…imposed a Carthaginian peace on Russia at Brest-Litovsk, violating every one of Wilson’s principles. The only reason Germany finally ended the war had to do with pure power calculations—with the American army involved, its final defeat was only a question of time…. Germany was exhausted, its defenses were breaking, and Allied armies were about to drive into Germany. Wilson’s principles in fact spared Germany much more severe retribution.107

Undeniably, there is truth here. For while the stories of raped nuns and Belgian babies being tossed about on bayonets were propaganda lies, the German army in Belgium and France had behaved less like Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia than Sherman’s army in Georgia. At Brest-Litovsk, Berlin had imposed far more extensive surgery on a Russian empire that was stripped of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, White Russia (Belarus), and the Caucasus. One-third of Czarist Russia’s population, half of her industry, three-fourths of her iron ore, nine-tenths of her coal mines were gone, and the nation was made to pay an indemnity of six thousand million marks.108

However, as Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn argues, Germany had simply applied to that “prison house of nations,” the Russian Empire, the Wilsonian principle of self-determination, permitting its captive peoples to go free.

To understand the German outrage, one must view Versailles through German eyes. As of November 11, 1918, Germans did not see themselves as defeated. German armies were in retreat in the west, but no Allied soldiers stood on German soil. “At the moment of the November 1918 ceasefire in the West,” writes German historian Andreas Hillgruber, in the east,

newspaper maps of the military situation showed German troops in Finland…down through Pskov-Orlov-Mogilev and the area south of Kursk, to the Don east of Rostov. Germany had thus secured the Ukraine…. In addition, German troops held the Crimea and were stationed in smaller numbers in Transcaucasia.109

Also, Germany had accepted an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, enunciated in his address to Congress January 8, 1918. The fourteen were amended to twenty-four by addresses to Congress, February 11, at Mount Vernon on July 4, and in New York City on September 27. These Twenty-four Points were to serve as the basis of the peace. So Wilson had pledged to the Germans. Under Points Seven and Eight, Germany was to depart Belgium and restore French rights in Alsace-Lorraine lost in 1871.

But where Point 1 called for “open covenants, openly arrived at,” South Tyrol, Austrian for six hundred years, was given to Italy under a secret treaty with Britain in 1915, and all German islands in the North Pacific were given to Japan to comply with a secret treaty with Britain in 1917.

Point 2, “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas…in peace and war,” except for “international action” to enforce “international covenants,” was dropped by Wilson at the insistence of the British.

Point 3 called for “removal of all economic barriers and establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations.” But Germany was denied the right to enter a customs union with Austria and forced to grant unrestricted Allied access to her markets, while being denied equal access to Allied markets.

Point 4 declared that “national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” Germany was forced to disarm, but the Allies, while demobilizing their huge armies and reducing the size of their fleets, never fully did. Hitler would use the Allied refusal to match German disarmament to justify German rearmament in 1935.

Point 5 called for the “free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims.” This was trampled underfoot as the Allies scrambled to seize and confiscate every German colony as well as the private property of German citizens who lived there.

Point 9 read, “A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” Yet, ceding South Tyrol all the way to the Brenner to Italy, to honor a secret treaty, made Wilson and the Americans appear to the Tyrolese and their Austrian kinsmen as liars and hypocrites.

Point 13 declared an “independent Polish state…should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations.” But the Poland created at Paris held captive millions of Germans, Ukrainians, and White Russians, ensuring conflict with Russia and Germany when those nations got back on their feet.

Point 17, enunciated on February 11, 1918, amended on July 4, was the self-determination clause: “The settlement of every question, whether of territory, of sovereignty…[or] of political relationship, upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned.”

On February 11, a Joint Session of Congress had roared its approval as Wilson had declared the principle forever associated with his name:

National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self-determination” is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.110

Prophetic words, but in dealing with the defeated the statesmen of Versailles not only ignored the “imperative principle,” they violated it again and again and again. In a letter home, May 31, 1919, Charles Seymour, head of the Austro-Hungarian division of the American delegation and future president of Yale, described a memorable scene:

We went into the next room where the floor was clear and Wilson spread out a big map (made in our office) on the floor and got down on his hands and knees to show us what had been done; most of us were also on our hands and knees. I was in the front row and felt someone pushing me, and looked around angrily to find that it was Orlando [Italian premier and leader of the Italian delegation to the conference] on his hands and knees crawling like a bear toward the map. I gave way and he was soon in the front row. I wish that I could have had a picture of the most important men in the world on all fours over this map.111

Thus were sown the seeds of the greatest war in the history of mankind.

Point 18 declared that “all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction…without introducing new…elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe and consequently of the world.”

Point 18 is a parody of what was done at Paris.

There was scarcely a promise Wilson made to the Germans at the time of the armistice that was not broken, or a principle of his that he did not violate. The Senate never did a better day’s work than when it rejected the Treaty of Versailles and refused to enter a League of Nations where Americans soldiers would be required to give their lives enforcing the terms of so dishonorable and disastrous a peace.

Lloyd George, who had realized all of Britain’s ambitions and was, as T. E. Lawrence said, “head and shoulders above anyone else at the peace conference…the only man there (in a big position) who was really trying to do what was right,” saw what was coming.112 He returned home triumphant but grim. Awarded the Order of Merit by George V, he said, “We shall have to do the whole thing over again in twenty five years…at three times the cost.”113

The dilemma at Paris was that Allied goals were irreconcilable. No peace could meet Wilson’s ideals and Foch’s demands. Clemenceau had wanted a truncated, disarmed Germany, weighted down with reparations so heavy she could never rise again to threaten France. Wilson had wanted a peace of no victors, no vanquished. As U.S. historian Thomas Bailey wrote, “The victor can have vengeance, or he may have peace, but he cannot have both” from the same treaty.114

At a London dinner party soon after Adolf Hitler had taken power in Berlin, one of the guests asked aloud, “By the way, where was Hitler born?”

“At Versailles” was the instant reply of Lady Astor.115

Rising from obscurity to build a mass movement in a demoralized Germany, Hitler first drew public notice, then attracted ever-larger crowds by delivering again and again a vitriolic speech he titled simply “The Treaty of Versailles.”116

On April 8, 1945, when Hitler was holed up in his bunker, Germany was smashed and ablaze, and Stalin was at the gates of Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, Churchill, too, in a memo to the Foreign Office traced the origins of the unnecessary war back to Versailles—and Woodrow Wilson:

This war should never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer onto the vacant thrones. No doubt these views are very unfashionable.117

The men of Versailles had brought home the peace of vengeance the people wanted. Their children would pay the price for their having failed to bring home a peace of justice. That price would be 50 million dead in the war that would come out of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!