Were the Post-War Peace Treaties of 1919-1922 Vicious and Short-Sighted?

The peace treaties signed at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference were certainly short-sighted, but they were not vicious, for while they did reduce nations such as Germany and Austria to dire economic situations, and fostered political climates which were counter to the interests of peace, they did so without the desire to cripple these countries; on the contrary, as evidenced by Lloyd George’s Fontainebleau memorandum, the victors wanted their former enemies to thrive and to serve as future trading partners. In matters economic, territorial and in the manner of the treaties themselves, too, the treaties were short-sighted but not vicious. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, however, was both vicious and short-sighted, compelling as it did the rebellion of Ataturk and the national crises which struck Turkey in the aftermath of its signing. But this itself serves to demonstrate how the Paris peace treaties were not vicious, for they did not resemble Sèvres in severity.

The Paris peace treaties were short-sighted but not vicious, as they were motivated by both sensible economic concerns and a streak of Wilsonian idealism, which included both the beginnings of the League of Nations and the makings of future disarmament within the preambles of these documents. Both of those factors do not suggest that these treaties were intended viciously or meanly. In his Fontainebleau memorandum, David Lloyd George warned that a restive Germany, laid low by economic privations, could pose a threat later on; John Maynard Keynes said similar things in his Economic Consequences of the Peace, but with more of an pecuniary focus, suggesting that the peace settlement of Versailles created a climate of economic difficulty which hung like a millstone over the German nation. His council was not listened to, but it was not deliberately disobeyed in a bid to hurt the German people.

The reparations themselves, which were the main point of contention for Keynes, were not mean-spirited and vicious, despite the desire by some in Britain to ‘make Germany pay’. (Eric Campbell-Geddes, a minister in Lloyd George’s cabinet, to some extent played up to this, declaring in a stump speech in 1918 that he would ‘squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak’; but the extent of Lloyd George’s Fontainebleau warnings suggest that his rational mind was made up in the other direction.) The reparations in fact give an impression of short-sightedness, as they were never paid back in full, and saw numerous moderations and moratoria on their continued payment. This was not, however, the same as a vicious settlement, which would have insisted on German payment in full; according to Sally Marks’ The Illusion of Peace, Bulgaria managed to pay almost every reparations bill presented to it, for example.

Other peace-treaties saw the same effects in economic terms. At Trianon Hungary was greatly reduced in area and economic development, and Austria was reduced to a rump state, unable to support itself now that the economic area of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed. But this attests more to a lack of forethought than malice. It was simply assumed by many that the customs union of the old empire could continue after its collapse, and when this did not occur, in the tide of protectionism and mutual distrust which categorised the post-war world, the effects were crippling; but they were not intended to be – and Lloyd George wanted both German and the former Austro-Hungarian territories to begin trading with Britain again, a clear demonstration of his lack of vicious intentions.

As do matters territorial. With borders still very fluid in the east – as demonstrated by Marks’ assessment in The Illusion of Peace – any attempt to force borders upon eastern European nations was an enterprise doomed to failure. In the aid of economic necessity, railways which fell predominantly into German-speaking lands were included as part of Poland in the Treaty of Versailles, and the Polish state was given its path to the sea, which was to stoke German resentment for decades to come. Similarly, but not exactly the same, in the Treaty of Sèvres Turkey was denuded of Smyrna, which was given over to a Greek sphere of influence, as well as Syria, Iraq and Palestine, which were awarded to victorious European powers as mandates. This, unlike the Paris treaties, was both vicious and short-sighted, as it spurred on irredentist feeling in Turkey and was done as a means of punishment; such methods were, it seems, behind some of the more opportunistic land-grabs made by European powers on former Ottoman lands. However, the latter example serves to demonstrate that the former – namely, the treaties with European nations – was not vicious, for it did not deliberately eradicate any nation’s livelihood at the expense of territory for the victors; apart from losing Alsace and Lorraine to the French, Germany only lost 13% of her territory, and most of that went to emerging nations in the east – this was not extraordinarily avaricious on the behalf of the victors, unlike in Turkey.

Finally, in the matter of how the treaties were themselves presented to the vanquished, there can be no mistake that the perceived ‘diktat’ of Versailles – and a similar sensation among the delegations of the defeated at Neuilly-sur-Seine (hereafter Neuilly), Trianon and St. Germain – did not help matters in terms of reconciliation and long-term stability. The same is true in the former Ottoman states. Defeated powers were simply presented with documents to sign, without the power of negotiation, which seems severe. However, while this manner – which shocked the German delegation and even the neutral press in nations such as the Netherlands – was brusque and unhelpful, it was not intended to be so. Wilson included, as mentioned above, the beginnings of the League of Nations in the Paris treaties, as well as a collective commitment to disarm, and he did so with the genuine desire to make a war, especially the likes of which they had just fought, less likely. The manner of the victors – which in its high-handedness gave the treaties the stamp of a ‘victors’ peace’ – was not intended to humiliate or insinuate in ways which hurt the governments who were forced to sign. In fact the allies and associated powers wanted peace, stability and – as Warren Harding put it – a return to ‘normalcy’. Thus, though the nature of the peace fostered the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth in Germany, and led to increased Turkish and Hungarian nationalism, this was not its intention, lending further credibility to the notion that it was certainly short-sighted, but not vicious in intention.

In conclusion, while the Treaty of Sèvres in particular offers an example which satisfies both parts of the question posed at the beginning, the other peace treaties only meet one of those criteria. Versailles, Trianon, Neuilly and St. Germain were not in intention meant to cripple the losing nations of the Great War; rather, the mission was to settle European borders and to begin reconstruction, perhaps within a Wilsonian framework of the League of Nations. Reality, of course, was dramatically different than this rosy interpretation; but this fact only exacerbates the extent to which the treaties were short-sighted and not vicious, for many among the victors thought that they were entering a new phase of history, in which the old rivalries could be diminished or minimised, and nations could grow closer in prosperity and peace. This did not work out, but it was – apart from in Sèvres – not the fault of ill-intent among the allies, whose only crime was that of short-sightedness.

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