The Great War, in Woodrow Wilson’s view, had to become precisely what the delegates to the Congress of Vienna feared: a moral crusade, an instrument of social and political revolution…

Signing of Versailles

For American president Woodrow Wilson, the First World War was the “war to end all wars” by making “the world safe for democracy,” not least because Wilson believed democracy would make the world safe. The only way to justify the terrible conflict was to fashion a peace settlement that embodied the liberal and democratic principles he espoused. All the sacrifice, all the suffering, all the sorrow that the war had engendered would have been in vain, Wilson lamented, if in the end liberalism and democracy did not replace despotism and autocracy.

“The Allies must not be beaten,” wrote Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing in a private memorandum. “It would mean the triumph of Autocracy over Democracy; the shattering of all our moral standards; and a real, though it may seem remote, peril to our independence and institutions.”[1] In agreement with his secretary of state, Wilson concluded that the First World War was more than a conflict among nations. It was also an internal struggle, a contest within nations, a confrontation between tyranny and democracy. One reason the war had occurred in the first place was because the old social and political order of Europe was decadent. Its most damning flaw, Wilson thought, was the unwillingness to address and, in fact, the repeated efforts to crush, the aspirations to independence and self-government that had arisen among the peoples of Europe, and especially among those who lived under the despotic rule of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires. Although he pledged American neutrality when war broke out, from the outset Wilson’s sympathies lay almost entirely with the Allies. Great Britain and France were democratic nations threatened by authoritarian powers. Under those circumstances, the war, in Wilson’s view, had to become precisely what the delegates to the Congress of Vienna feared: a moral crusade, an instrument of social and political revolution.

At the same time, the peace settlement, even in the wake of an Allied victory, could not permit the triumphant nations to divide up the spoils, making territorial gains at the expense of their defeated enemies. That outcome was as unacceptable as a restoration of the political arrangements that had existed before 1914. Any meaningful peace, Wilson insisted, had to sweep away the old order and inaugurate a new age of democracy. Otherwise, the costs of war would be indefensible and the peace settlement could not last. Unless European leaders devised and implemented a new world order that nurtured rather than suppressed popular democratic sentiments, Wilson was certain that the world would again succumb to war.

Two principles guided Wilson’s foreign policy: international cooperation and national self-determination. In a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918, he outlined the specific contours of the new liberal, democratic world order that he hoped to create. Known as the Fourteen Points, Wilson’s statement of policy emphasized a respect for national sovereignty and independence as well as the protection of individual rights and freedoms. Nearly a year earlier, on January 22, 1917, Wilson had declared that any meaningful peace in Europe would have to be a “peace without victory” for only “a peace among equals” could endure. Damaging economic, political, and military competition, secret alliances, and anti-democratic governments had brought about the present disturbance. All had to be reformed or forsaken.

In important ways, Wilson’s vision constituted a revival of nineteenth-century liberal nationalism, of which he was perhaps the last serious proponent. Wilson imagined a world composed of free, independent, and cooperative states each peopled by free, independent, and self-governing citizens able to determine their own political fate and future. Wilson intended the liberal, democratic international order as the antidote both to the old menace of autocracy and the new menace of communism, the specter of which had become frighteningly real after the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. But neither autocracy nor communism turned out to be the principal threat to world peace during the twentieth century. In the decades before the First World War, nationalism had grown more belligerent and dangerous. Unlike their precursors, twentieth-century nationalists were not inclined toward collaboration but stoked rivalry and advocated conquest. They sought to exalt the power and to enhance the prestige of their nations, often at the expense of others that stood in the way of their ambitions. They asserted the strong not only had the right but also the duty to subdue the weak. Against this unyielding conviction that might makes right, Wilson’s liberal internationalism, however prudent and appealing it may have been, was overmatched.

When Wilson arrived in Paris late in January 1919, the French welcomed him with great fanfare. The war-weary masses of Europe looked to Wilson as a secular messiah destined to restore peace and prosperity. Two million Parisians lined the streets to cheer him. They tossed bouquets at his carriage as it passed, much as they had done five years before when young men had marched off to war. In Rome, the Italians hailed Wilson as the “god of peace.” Wounded soldiers in Milan touched the hem of his garments. Polish university students spoke his name with reverence whenever they greeted one another. For his part, Wilson agreed with this assessment of his person and his mission. He, too, saw himself as the savior of civilization in the West.

Despite this enthusiastic reception, Wilson’s peace plan was doomed from the outset, and not only because his European allies opposed most of it. Wilson pursued two mutually exclusive goals. He initially encouraged the German government to work with the Allies to forge a compromise peace—a “peace without victory” that would become the foundation upon which to construct a new democratic Europe. But if democracy were to prevail, Wilson affirmed that Germany (as well as Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey) had to be destroyed. The establishment of a liberal, democratic world order required not a “peace without victory” but rather the dismantling of the German and other European empires. To put it bluntly, the worldwide triumph of liberalism and democracy required the subjugation of Germany and similarly despotic nations, which left little room for a negotiated peace settlement, especially once the United States entered the war in April 1917.

Wilson, of course, recognized no such confusion or inconsistency in his thought. He remained adamant that the victorious Allies should not unduly punish Germany. It was, on the contrary, in their interest to transform German government and society to make both more democratic. Yet, toward the end of the war, even Wilson had assumed a severe tone in his diplomatic communiqués with German leaders. In a note dated October 23, 1918, Wilson informed the German Chancellor, Prince Max of Bavaria, that “if the Government of the United States must deal with the military masters and monarchical autocrats of Germany . . . it must demand not peace negotiations but surrender.”[2] At the gathering of Allied representatives in Paris, Wilson suggested a more generous agreement. Before the peace conference got underway, he announced that it must not be the object of the allies to inflict a humiliating defeat on Germany. If Allied leaders imposed an unjust treaty, the Germans were sure to take their vengeance and involve Europe and the world in another disastrous war.

In addition, Wilson was concerned that should the Allies weaken Germany beyond recovery, they would effect a power vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe. This unstable political situation would not only increase the likelihood of future conflicts, but would also enable the Bolsheviks to extend their influence. Wilson found the prospect of communist domination as repellent, and as unacceptable, as he found autocratic supremacy or the prospect of another war. Wilson endorsed a democratic Germany as a buffer against communist expansion. At the peace conference, the allure of communism was among his foremost concerns. The degenerate authoritarian regimes had, ironically, enhanced the communist appeal among the downtrodden masses. If the peace accords had to mollify the Germans, they had also to inspire confidence in the citizens of the Allied nations. The failure to do so, Wilson advised, would make it easier for the communists to instigate their promised worldwide socialist revolution.

Wilson never fully appreciated the counter-arguments of his allied partners, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau. Both Lloyd George and Clemenceau agreed with Wilson that Europe could not return to the order that had been in place at the beginning of the war. But they also recognized that the Russia of 1914 – the Russia that at the outbreak of war had been the most important ally of France – no longer existed. Communist ascendancy notwithstanding, the Russia of 1918 was shattered. In postwar Europe, Russia would become little better than a German satellite unless Germany, too, were incapacitated. As a consequence, Lloyd George and Clemenceau wanted no part of Wilson’s recommendations. Bitter, angry, and resentful, Clemenceau in particular demanded retribution. Nearly the entire war in the west had been fought on French soil. The French economy was in ruins. The French mourned the loss of a generation. Regarding the Germans as savages and vandals, many French men and women, however much they may have revered Wilson, were, like Clemenceau, skeptical of his idealistic program.

The First World War had revealed that without the aid of Great Britain and the United States, France would have been at the mercy of German aggression. Clemenceau pointed out that France could not always rely on Great Britain or the United States to come to the rescue. He therefore urged that Germany be permanently crippled in the interest of preserving French security and European peace. Clemenceau demanded a guarantee that the hostilities of 1914-1918 would never be repeated. He went so far as to mock what he took to be Wilson’s irrational and impractical commitment to a new liberal, democratic order, observing that Wilson required fourteen points to remake the world while God Himself had needed only ten.

Such nationalist hatreds complicated Wilson’s agenda at Paris. The European masses and their leaders entertained unrealistic expectations. No one was willing to compromise or even to moderate their prerogatives; some group was sure always to complain of receiving unjust treatment and calling for redress. To countless Europeans, the satisfaction of their nationalist dreams had become an absolute necessity not subject to discussion. The savagery of the war had destroyed compassion and magnanimity among the peacemakers. Their enemies were far worse than mere rivals vying for power. They had instead been transformed into the personification of evil. Having crafted an adversary of monstrous proportions in the effort to sustain public support for the war, the victors could not then negotiate with them in a spirit of amity as if they were civilized gentlemen, even had some of them wanted to do so. There were national bills to pay and national scores to settle. Nothing Wilson could say or do changed their minds.

A century earlier, after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, European statesmen managed to set aside their animosity, ignore the call of their peoples for revenge, and reconcile with France. The agreement they crafted at the Congress of Vienna had kept the peace in Europe for ninety-nine years. Ignoring the demands of their citizens proved far more difficult, and finally impossible, for democratic statesmen who had to answer to their constituents than it had been for the despotic monarchs and the aristocratic diplomats who were responsible to no one but themselves. In 1919, it was, ironically, democratic nationalism, a more noxious expression of the ideology that Wilson himself espoused, which spoiled the chances to build a just and lasting peace.

As a result, the German people almost unanimously denounced the Treaty of Versailles, despite the efforts of the Weimar government to abide by its provisions. They had regarded the armistice, harsh though it was, as a prelude to negotiations among equals.[3] Instead, the Allies barred German participation in the peace conference and imposed a treaty on Germany that most Germans viewed as disgraceful and vindictive. Adolf Hitler subsequently referred to it as the “diktat.” What standard of justice, the Germans wondered, permitted the Allies to seize German colonies, to reduce the size of the German military, to prohibit German membership in the League of Nations, to coerce Germany into accepting sole responsibility for the war, and to impose on Germany a financial burden that it could not bear? When the United States entered the war, President Wilson had proclaimed that the enemy was not the German people but the Kaiser’s government. The Germans now asked why the allies were punishing them for the crimes of the monarchy and the military, especially since a new, more liberal government had taken power. To the German people, the Treaty of Versailles did not herald the dawn of the democratic age that Wilson had promised. On the contrary, it marked the beginning of German degradation and enslavement.

For the Allies, and especially for the French who had suffered so much, justice required such exacting retribution. Anything less would have made all the hardships seem pointless. The French people would have felt betrayed. Advocates of the Treaty of Versailles pointed out that had Germany won the war, the Germans would have inflicted far more severe terms on the defeated Allies. As evidence of German ruthlessness, proponents cited the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Germans had compelled the Soviets to sign in March 1918. In truth, the Russian delegation had been shocked at what the Germans demanded of them. General Erich Ludendorff, who was by this time the most powerful man in Germany, demanded that the Russians yield Estonia, Livonia, Finland, and Ukraine. He also insisted that the German army continue to drive eastward and overthrow the Bolshevik government, which he had helped to put into power by enabling Lenin to return from exile in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Kaiser Wilhelm II proposed breaking the old Romanov Empire into four separate entities consisting of Russia itself, Estonia, Livonia, Finland, and Ukraine, Siberia, and the Union of the South East.

Conducting negotiations for the Bolshevik government, Leon Trotsky informed the Germans that he neither could nor would accept such a treaty. When talks broke down, the Germans quickly put fifty divisions in motion along the Eastern Front. The Russians were so helpless that the German army advanced 150 miles in only five days. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, fell on March 1, 1917. Furious, Trotsky maintained that Russia ought to rejoin the Triple Entente and resume the war. But Lenin, willing, indeed constrained, to trade land for time, and fearing especially that the Germans would capture Petrograd and destroy his fledgling regime, moved the government to Moscow and ordered Trotsky to continue negotiating. Trotsky refused and resigned.

Accordingly, with Trotsky no longer able to prevent it, the Russians signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. Among the most punitive treaties in history, Brest-Litovsk forced the Russians to relinquish Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Livonia, and Belarus. Along with these territories, the Soviets gave up fifty million persons, approximately thirty-three percent of the population of the former Russian Empire. Russia also lost thirty-three percent of its railroads and farm land; more than fifty percent of its factories; seventy-five percent of its iron ore deposits; and ninety percent of its coal mines. Finally, the Russians agreed to demobilize what remained of the army. The severe treatment that the Germans had afforded the Russians convinced British and French leaders of what they could expect if Germany won the war. The treaty seemed to vindicate those who wanted to ravage Germany. The influence of others, such as President Wilson, who advocated a more charitable peace, had begun to diminish long before the peace talks ever got underway.[4]

Whether the Allies or the Germans had the better part of the argument, one consideration remains paramount. The Treaty of Versailles did not solve, and in most cases made worse, the chief international problem of the twentieth century: the problem of nationalism in general and the problem of German nationalism in particular. The treaty left Germany weak and the German people angry, but it did no more than temporarily contain German industrial and military potential. The nationalist fervor of the German people was undiminished, and, if anything, was intensified by the disdainful treatment they thought their nation had received from the Allies. The principal threat to European security and peace during the first half of twentieth century was the German unwillingness to accept defeat or to surrender the dream of conquest, domination, and superiority. The Florentine political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli argued that a rival must either be caressed or crushed. On the one hand, the Treaty of Versailles had only wounded, but had not destroyed, Germany. On the other hand, the treaty did nothing to console or reassure the German people, but instead allowed their grievances to fester and grow without relief.

In addition, the practical question of what nation or nations would be responsible for enforcement remained unanswered. The war had demonstrated that Europeans could no longer solve their own problems. Allied victory had depended on American intervention. But in 1920 the United States Senate, led by Republicans Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the influential Senate Majority Leader and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and William Borah of Idaho, the head of a faction known as the “Irreconcilables,” rejected of the Treaty of Versailles. Lodge, Borah, and their fellow Republicans voted against ratification because they feared the treaty would involve the United States in too many foreign entanglements and future conflicts. Although Wilson had campaigned vigorously in behalf of the treaty when he returned to the United States, even many members of the Democratic Party joined Republicans in rejecting it. In its abuse of Germany, the treaty violated the principles that Wilson had invoked to justify American entry into the war.

On November 19, 1919, the Senate voted on an initial version of the treaty, which contained fourteen reservations that Lodge had inserted to counter Wilson’s Fourteen Points. In essence, Lodge’s reservations, directed against the League of Nations, prohibited the United States from relinquishing national sovereignty or from being obliged to intervene in foreign disputes.[5] Wilson instructed his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to vote against this version of the treaty. Along with the Irreconcilables, who had vowed to oppose the treaty even with Lodge’s reservations attached, Democratic resistance assured that the treaty fell short of a two-thirds majority by a vote of 55 in favor to 39 opposed. A second vote on a version of the treaty that excluded Lodge’s reservations brought a similar outcome: 53 in favor and 38 opposed. On March 19, 1920, the United States Senate again rejected the Treaty of Versailles by a vote of 49 in favor to 35 opposed, seven votes short of a two-thirds majority necessary to win approval. The next day, March 20, The New York Times reported that “after the session ended Senators of both parties united in declaring that in their opinion the treaty was now dead,” and unlikely to experience a miraculous resurrection.

As a prelude to negotiating a formal treaty, Congress passed the Knox-Porter Resolution in 1921, ending the war against Germany. Not until August 25, 1921 did the United States sign the Treaty of Berlin, which stipulated that the United States was to enjoy all “rights, privileges, indemnities, reparations or advantages” conferred by the Treaty of Versailles, but made no mention of Wilson’s cherished League of Nations, which the United States never joined. The United States was not about to enforce a treaty to which it had refused to become a party.

The British government not only lacked the means but also increasingly the will to enforce the treaty. Although the Empire survived, the war had nearly bankrupted Britain itself. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the British government came to advocate revisions of the treaty on terms more favorable to Germany. As a consequence, primary responsibility for upholding the settlement rested with France. Given the disarray and volatility into which French politics descended after the war, the weakness of the French military, the decline of French international prestige, and the enduring bitterness the French harbored toward Germany, the prospects for keeping the peace were uninspiring.

The Treaty of Versailles had left the Germans aggrieved and resentful, but had only rendered Germany dormant and awaiting an opportunity to reassert its power. The Germans never abandoned the conviction that they were preeminent among the peoples of Europe, and that Germany by right deserved her “place in the sun.” Although Germany had lost the First World War, the Germans had not lost it so decisively that they were prepared to admit ultimate failure and defeat. A number of prescient witnesses recognized the dire implications that the treaty augured. When he read the terms, Marshal Ferdinand Foch exclaimed: “This is not peace! This is a truce for twenty years!”[6] Foch’s calculations were wrong, by a little more than two months. The Allies signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Twenty years and sixty-six days later, on September 3, 1939, Great Britain and France again declared war on Germany.

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1 Quoted in Daniel M. Smith, The Great Departure (New York, 1965), 20. Italics in the original.

2 Quoted in Roger Parkinson, Tormented Warrior: Ludendorff and the Supreme Command (New York, 1979), 181. See also G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914- 1918 (New York, 2015), 701.

3 The conditions under which the Allies agreed to a thirty-day armistice were: first, Germany had to withdraw all military forces east of the Rhine within two weeks of the signing; second, the German government had to repudiate the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk; third, in the East, German forces had to withdraw to the borders that were in place on August 1, 1914; fourth, the German government had to surrender to the Allies 5,000 pieces of heavy artillery, 3,000 mortars, 30,000 machine guns, and 2,000 airplanes; fifth, Germany had to surrender all of its African colonies; sixth, the British naval blockade would continue, alarming news for the representatives of a nation desperate for food and medicine. But with only a few minor adjustments, the German delegation accepted and signed. The Allies feared a communist revolution in Germany. As a consequence, they reduced the number of machine guns that had to be surrendered to give German authorities the means with which to restore order should it become necessary to do so.

4 Yet, even in the short term, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a greater misfortune for Germany than for Russia. In acquiring so much territory, the Germans assumed enormous liabilities. At a time when they needed every available man to fight in France, the Germans had taken on a vast and ungovernable eastern empire, which had no relevance to the outcome of the war. The occupation required 1,500,000 troops. In addition, the payoff never came. Ukraine, for example, was supposed to provide enough food to feed the starving German masses. But the troops sent to police Ukraine consumed thirty railroad cars of food per day. Only 10 percent of the food that the Germans had hoped for ever reached the home front.

5 For a more complete discussion of Lodge’s reservations, see Edward J. Wheeler, ed., “The Struggle over Reservations,” Current Opinion LXVIII (February 1920) and David Mervin, “Henry Cabot Lodge and the League of Nations,”Journal of American Studies 4/2 (1971), 201-214.

6 Quoted in Ruth Henig, Versailles and After, 1919-1933, 2nd edition (New York, 1995), 52.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919″ (1919) by William Orpen (1878-1931), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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