[January 18, 2019] With the 100 anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, there has been a renewed focus on the mistakes that started the war. That is a noble and worthwhile cause. On the other hand, today is the anniversary of the beginning of the WWI peace talks; January 18, 1919. I will address some of the failures inside those peace talks.
I am fortunate and honored to have known a World War I veteran. While attending college in central Pennsylvania during the mid-1980s, I would often sit with my doughboy neighbor to discuss his wartime experiences. His openness about the war, the loss of friends, the dreadfulness, and waste of human lives was a common theme; one that shocked me but also drove me to learn more about that war.1
The Paris Peace Conference that followed WWI is often said to be a failure. The reason is simple; it failed to bring about long-term peace. Twenty years later, the world would enter another, and more costly world war as a result of the conditions came about from the peace talks. Twenty years of “peace” is hard to argue as a failure, but the horror of WWII largely destroyed that line of thinking.
Three major problems troubled the conference which took five months to complete. Of the 32 countries participating, Germany and Russia did not play a part. Three countries dominated the conference process; the U.S., England, and France. Leaders of each of these three had their agenda which led to an outcome that was to help precipitate another conflict.
One of the biggest problems was that leaders from France demanded revenge and punishment for Germany. There is no doubt, looking back on the reparations (money and territory) demanded of Germany. Reparations were the key cause of the German economy collapse and the rise of extremists in the Nazi Party. A worldwide economic depression that followed the war by a few years made the conditions in Germany worse.
Another problem imposed upon Germany was the reduction of its naval fleet. England demanded protection for its navy. Furthermore, reparations regarding the loss of German territory helped the English expand their empire and economy.
And finally, leaving Germany out of the conference was a major blunder. With its dependence upon the U.S. to prevent harsh conditions (which failed), the German peoples were left believing the process was unfair and one-sided. The rise of nationalism and worsening of social problems was not surprising. The League of Nations was created, but it was a paper tiger with little power to help Germany.
The conditions imposed upon Germany did not automatically signal a failure of the Big 3’s leadership. Conditions they could not have expected, like the Great Depression, would come back to haunt Europe and eventually the rest of the world.
- Speaking with his son, I was surprised to learn that the vet never talked about what he saw while in the U.S. Army fighting in France. Maybe it was the fact that I was an Infantry Captain in the Army and we shared a fraternal bond that provided the impetus for him to discuss such an intimate part of his life.