The signing of the Treaty of Versailles The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Treaty of Versailles was the continuation of the First World War by other means, finds Dragan Plavšić

War and peace are opposites for the obvious reason that one is a state of killing and the other is not. And yet, war and peace are inseparable because we cannot think war without thinking peace and vice-versa. This underlying complicity between opposites also finds expression at another very important level. For war is often the continuation of peace, and peace is often the continuation of war, notwithstanding their contrasting means. The common factor that keeps driving them into each other’s arms is the mercilessly competitive drive of capitalist states for economic and political power beyond their national limits. This is why, for example, the peace after 1945 came to be known by its opposite, the Cold War, given the struggle between the US and Russia.

The First World War which ended in November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles signed a century ago in June 1919 were therefore, in their opposing ways, products of this same unquenchable competitive drive. Indeed, when the victorious leaders of the war – the so-called Big Three, Britain’s Lloyd George, France’s Clemenceau and the US’s Wilson – met in Paris for the first six months of 1919 to hammer out the peace terms they would impose on Germany, they were determined to press home in peace the competitive advantage they had won in war.

They had three broad aims. First, to make Germany pay for the war and to neutralise it as a competitor power. Second, to counter the revolutionary wave set off by the Russian Revolution of 1917. And third, to ensure that the resulting peace terms were as compatible as possible with their own competing interests.

Neutralising Germany

The economist, John Maynard Keynes, participated at the Paris Peace Conference as an adviser before resigning and departing in disgust. In the excoriating classic he then swiftly penned and published in 1919, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he made his feelings about Germany’s treatment crystal clear, attacking the victors’ preoccupation with ‘the future enfeeblement of a strong and dangerous enemy’, with ‘revenge’ and with ‘the shifting by the victors of their unbearable financial burdens on to the shoulders of the defeated.’[1]

However, there are historians who have over the years turned away from Keynes’ searing critique. In fact, in certain historical circles, it has become fashionable to claim that the terms dictated to Germany were not so harsh after all.

In a prize-winning study, Margaret MacMillan, an exponent of this view, has been dismissive of the very idea that Versailles was a ‘vindictive peace’.[2] Instead, she argues that depriving Germany of 13% of its pre-war territory (or the equivalent of Britain suddenly losing Wales, Cornwall and Devon) was merely the ‘inevitable consequence of losing the war’. And she asks us to remember that a victorious Germany would have annexed Belgian, French, Dutch and Russian territory, which is of course true (MacMillan, p.492). Indeed, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918 provides ample proof of Germany’s predatory character. Russia lost 50% of its industry, 90% of its coalfields, 25% of its railways, not to mention having to pay six billion marks in reparations.

Even so, this punitive loss of territory was not at all the ‘inevitable consequence’ of the war. In reality, it was a political choice consciously made by victors determined to further weaken and ‘enfeeble’ their defeated enemy. There were other options; in particular, the ‘peace without annexations’ advocated most prominently by the Bolsheviks in their Decree on Peace, which they issued in 1917 upon overthrowing the pro-war Russian government. No less untenable is MacMillan’s attempt to justify Versailles by appealing to Germany’s own predatory standards. Perhaps the irony of doing so is lost on her, but it does illustrate MacMillan’s wholesale embrace of the competitive logic shared by victors and vanquished alike that led to war in the first place.

In any event, the more we broaden our horizons and consider some of the other key terms of the Versailles Treaty, the more Keynes’ view becomes persuasive.

As one American historian, Michael S. Neiberg, has recently noted, the initial reparations bill demanded by the victors was, in a word, ‘crippling’.[3] By 1926, Germany was required to pay 60 billion gold marks or an amount equal, according to some estimates, to the country’s national income for one whole year. For a period of fifteen years, Germany’s coal-producing Saar district was to be occupied by Britain and France (albeit under the fig-leaf authority of the League of Nations) and its mines ceded to France, though Germany was generously allowed the option of repurchasing them in gold at the end of the occupation. In addition, for a period of ten years, Germany had to deliver an annual average of 25 million tons of coal to France, Belgium, Italy and, if required, Luxemburg. It also had to deliver 140,000 dairy cows, 120,000 sheep, 40,000 horses and 4,000 bulls to Belgium and France (Neiberg, p.73; Keynes, pp.75-77, 80). The list goes on. To add insult to injury, Germany was required to accept sole responsibility for the war.

Given its decisive importance for the victors, the question of reparations provoked much controversy and intrigue. Keynes described the negotiations as ‘so contorted, so miserable, so utterly unsatisfactory’ that no-one could look back on it ‘without shame’ (Keynes, p.139). Clemenceau wanted to ‘crush the economic life of his enemy’ (Keynes, p.211); Lloyd George wanted to punish Germany without unbalancing Europe in France’s favour; and Wilson wanted to expedite the repayment of American war loans by Britain and France. In their blind pursuit of their narrow goals, wider economic questions were ignored. As Keynes commented:

‘It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problems of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes, was the one question [in which] it was impossible to arouse [their] interest…Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it…from every point of view except that of the economic future of the states whose destiny they were handling’ (Keynes, pp.211-12).

That Germany kept defaulting on its reparations was not therefore surprising. In 1923, in retaliation for persistent defaults, France occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, an occupation that led to 130 German deaths. By 1932, after two American-led attempts to ease Germany’s economic woes, reparation payments were cancelled in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929 and the resulting depression. By then, Germany had managed to pay one-third of the original 60 billion-mark bill.

When we further take into account the limits imposed on Germany’s army and navy (an air force was prohibited), it is clear the victors were intent on more than just making Germany pay. They sought to disable Germany as an economic, political and military power of global or indeed regional significance, regardless of the social consequences for ordinary Germans.

There was a clear alternative to this brutal logic, however; besides calling for a ‘peace without annexations’ in their Decree on Peace of 1917, the Bolsheviks had also called for a ‘peace without indemnities’. Instead of paying for post-war reconstruction by the competitive impoverishment of the defeated enemy, the Bolsheviks sought a co-operative approach to reconstruction which did not overburden any one nation or the working class, but which necessitated radical political change to bring it about.

Countering revolutionary Russia

When one of Wilson’s advisers later commented that ‘Russia played a more vital part at Paris than Prussia’, he may have been exaggerating, but not by much (MacMillan, p.73). The Decree on Peace issued by the Bolsheviks in 1917 when they seized power was a decisive political intervention. As E.H. Carr described:

‘the peace decree approved by the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on the morrow of the revolution…was a proposal for the immediate conclusion of peace, addressed ‘to all the belligerent peoples and their governments’ and broadcast throughout the world. It demanded not a socialist, but a ‘just, democratic’ peace – a peace without annexations or indemnities, a peace based on the right of self-determination for all nations by ‘a free vote’. It declared secret diplomacy abolished, and announced the intention of the government to publish the secret treaties of the past and conduct all future negotiations ‘completely openly before the whole people.’’[4]

It is easy to see why a peace based on the right of nations to self-determination and open diplomacy would have struck a resonant chord with millions of oppressed across empires in Europe, Asia and Africa. Perhaps the most immediate chord was struck in war-torn Eastern Europe, where the oppressed nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in particular – Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Ukrainians, Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, Bosnians, Slovaks, Romanians – suddenly pricked up their ears and glimpsed freedom.

The clear danger for the Allies was that these oppressed nations would come to regard Moscow as their champion and not Paris, London or Washington. It was Wilson who grasped most clearly the need to counter this revolutionary challenge by championing the very ideals the Bolsheviks had been the first to raise. Of the Big Three, he was best placed to do so. Although the US had colonies too – most notably, the Philippines – its growing power did not rest on them in the way it did for Britain and France with their established empires stretching across continents. This gave Wilson the political latitude to make the kind of globally eye-catching, attention-grabbing statement of political principle that was needed to counter the Bolshevik Decree on Peace of November 1917.

Thus, two months later, in January 1918, Wilson issued his famous Fourteen Points in which, despite some revealing ambiguities, he strove to champion the right of self-determination.[5] He also put his weight behind an idea that was to be much trumpeted in Paris, that of a League of Nations to restrain the competitive, predatory instincts of capitalist states which the Bolsheviks had pointed to as the root source of global conflict. As E.H. Carr noted, the Bolshevik Decree was the ‘immediate precursor’ of the Fourteen Points and the part it played ‘in inspiring Wilson’s fourteen points speech is well attested’ (Carr, p.10).

However, it was not long before much of this heady Wilsonian rhetoric about self-determination lay exposed, precisely in the case of Russia itself. In July 1918, Wilson agreed to send US troops to join British and French ones to overthrow the Bolsheviks. In fact, throughout the six months between January and June 1919 that the Paris Peace Conference was in session, the combined military forces of the Big Three were on Russian soil seeking to crush the right of its people to self-determination.

As for the regimes that emerged from the ruins of empire in Eastern Europe at the end of the war – in particular Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia whose borders Versailles would finalise – they took their inspiration from Wilson. They were as dutifully anti-Bolshevik as they were anti-German. It mattered little that they reproduced brutal oppressions of their own. In multinational Yugoslavia, for example, the excess of respect the pro-Allied Serbian ruling class showed for the right of nations to self-determination before the country’s formation was inversely proportional to the miserable lack of respect for the rights of its multiple nations after it.[6]

The one – short-lived – exception here was Hungary. In March 1919, with the Big Three ensconced in Paris, a Soviet Republic took power. It lasted just 133 days, crushed by the combined armies of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania, with Hungary subsequently losing a third of its territory to Romania.

Protecting empires and betraying nations

When Wilson arrived in Paris for the Peace Conference, it was to much popular acclaim but also to fellow ruling class unease over the potential implications of his Fourteen Points. After all, it was one thing to proclaim the right of self-determination for the former nations of the defeated enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but quite another for it to apply to the victors themselves, in particular France and Britain, as the Bolsheviks were disturbingly demanding.

Lloyd George and Clemenceau were therefore anxious to curb Wilson’s so-called ‘idealism’, claiming it to be impracticable, by which they meant unsettling for their empires. Clemenceau’s attitude can be gleaned from his sarcastic comment that Wilson had Fourteen Points but God only ten. They need not have worried. As the American historian, Michael S. Neiberg, has bluntly written:

‘[Wilson] was himself too much of a racist to believe that most non-Europeans were ready for self-government. He did not even believe the Irish were ready to rule themselves, let alone the Koreans, Egyptians or Senegalese’ (Neiberg, p.22).

Thus, in Europe, Sinn Fein’s request to see Wilson in Paris was briskly rebuffed.

In Asia, the Big Three decided that the Chinese-populated Shandong peninsula, a German colony before 1914 when it was annexed by pro-Allied Japan, would remain Japanese, provoking mass protests across China. Korean nationalists, speaking for two million Koreans who had in March 1919 risen in protest against Japanese colonial rule leaving several thousand dead, were brusquely told that Korea was Japanese. Vietnamese nationalists, among them the future Ho Chi Minh, seeking rights in French Indochina, were simply ignored. And Indian nationalists modestly seeking Home Rule from Britain fared no better, even as several hundred Indians perished under a hail of British bullets in the infamous Amritsar massacre of April 1919.

In Africa and the Middle East, Germany’s African colonies were transferred to Britain and France with no quarter given to self-determination. Egyptian nationalists, freshly released from detention during the 1919 Revolution against British colonial rule, arrived in Paris to discover that Egypt would, of course, remain British. As for the rest of the Middle East, Britain and France were left to divide and rule it between them along the lines of their secretly negotiated Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which the Bolsheviks had embarrassingly exposed to the world. Instead of the single, self-determined Arab state the Arabs had fought the Ottoman Empire for, Britain and France established a set of puppet regimes that were as multiple as they were pliable.

The Egyptian writer, Mohammed Heikal, could have been commenting on all these betrayals when he wrote angrily of Egypt’s treatment, “Is this not the ugliest of treacheries? Is it not the most profound repudiation of principles?”[7] For many the lesson would be simple: what had not been given would have to be taken.

Assessing consequences

The decisions made in Paris in 1919 and incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles had one common and abiding theme – the establishment of a world order exclusively dominated by the victors of the First World War.

This is why the victors supported self-determination for their defeated enemies in Eastern Europe but not for their own empires; why they promoted a phalanx of pro-Western, anti-German and anti-Bolshevik independent nation-states in Eastern Europe; why they intervened militarily to overthrow the Bolsheviks; and why, above all other considerations, they were so obsessively determined to cut Germany down as an economic, political and military competitor on the world stage. In so doing, they drove German society into crisis, humiliation, resentment and anger, with deeply polarising political consequences (all of which were brought to renewed pitch by the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression).

In an illuminating and far-sighted passage in his 1919 critique of Versailles – notwithstanding his own support for the ‘moderate forces of order’ – Keynes astutely outlined the likely shape of these polarising consequences for German politics.

On the one hand, he contemplated the possible ‘victory of Spartacism’, a reference to the Spartacist League, the German pro-Bolshevik revolutionary force associated with Rosa Luxemburg that had tried and failed to seize power in January 1919 just as the Paris Peace Conference was to open. Such a Bolshevik victory in Germany, he wrote, could be ‘a prelude to Revolution everywhere.’

On the other hand, Keynes contemplated the potential ‘victory of reaction’ in Germany giving rise to ‘a threat to the security of Europe’ that might found ‘a new military power’ and ‘a new Napoleonic domination’ (Keynes, pp. 271-2)

Keynes here outlined the two forces that were indeed to be key players in crisis-ridden inter-war Germany – the revolutionary left and fascism. In the first half of the 1920s, the German Communist Party arguably had the upper hand, while in the early 1930s, Hitler’s Nazis began to edge ahead because of ruling class support, but above all because of the disastrous failure of the German Communists and Social Democrats to join forces in a united front to defeat Hitler.

Versailles did not therefore lead with crushing inevitability to Hitler in power and the Second World War, but it contributed to the birth of the Nazi monster and gave it much to feed on and grow. To claim, as Margaret MacMillan feebly does, that Versailles ‘is not to blame’ because the story might have, for example, turned out differently ‘without Hitler to mobilise the resentments of ordinary Germans’ (MacMillan, p.493) is to engage in the most fanciful thinking possible, for the story of Versailles is unthinkable without Hitler or someone like him, as Keynes foresaw. The real question is what forces could have stopped him. Here the tragedy is that those best placed to defeat Hitler – the German left – failed where they could have succeeded, so that it fell to the reluctant ruling classes of the east and west to lead millions into global war to defeat the Nazi monster, at very much greater human cost.

The competitive drive of states for economic and political power beyond national limits that lies at the heart of the capitalist system has been the root cause of two world wars in modern times, leading to the loss of some 100 million lives. This same drive has also given us repeated periods of turbulent peace peppered with wars and, in the case of the Cold War, the threat of our nuclear self-annihilation. As we lurch towards a new era of tense international competition between the US and China, a clear understanding of the systemic roots of these disasters and failures will be essential for the left if we are to succeed where others have failed.

[1] J.M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Macmillan 1920) p.51.

[2] Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: six months that changed the world (John Murray 2019), p.492. Originally titled Peacemakers when first published in 2001, this centenary edition has been renamed. Tellingly, the book has garnered enthusiastic endorsements from Tony Blair and from conservative historians and commentators such as Andrew Roberts and Simon Heffer. The American edition was introduced by one of the arch-imperialist diplomats of our times, the late Richard Holbrooke. MacMillan is also Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter.

[3] Michael S. Neiberg, The Treaty of Versailles: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2019) p.73.

[4] E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 (Norton 1985) pp.10-11.

[5] For example, it often goes unremarked that Wilson’s Fourteen Points provided that the ‘people of Austria-Hungary…should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development’. ‘Autonomous development’ was ambiguous. Did it mean the right of self-determination including independence as demanded by the Bolsheviks or merely a degree of autonomy compatible with a reformed Austria-Hungary? The ambiguity was intentional. Wilson and the Allies were keeping open the possibility of concluding a separate peace with the Hapsburgs.

[6] At the time, Yugoslavia was known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. I am using shorthand.

[7] Quoted in Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford University Press 2007) p.149.


Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).