Thursday, October 2, 2014

Was Versailles a "Carthaginian Peace"?

Roger Kimball does not agree that the Treaty of Versailles was a harsh peace, let alone a great crime that somehow caused World War II:
Think about it. The one thing that everyone knows about the Treaty of Versailles is that, because of the overly harsh terms the Allies imposed upon Germany, it led directly to Hitler and World War II. An article in The Economist in 1999 epitomized this bit of folklore: The “final crime” of the Great War, the article proclaimed, was the Treaty of Versailles, which “would ensure a second world war.”

As usual, Mark Twain came closer to the truth. It’s not so much the things you don’t know that get you into trouble, Twain wrote, as the things you do know that ain’t so.

In fact, as the historian Andrew Roberts argues in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, there are good reasons for believing that the Treaty of Versailles ought to have been a good deal harsher than it was. Had it divided Germany into two parts, as happened after World War II, or perhaps returned it to its 1870 status of several independent principalities, or even had the Allies merely enforced its original terms, the world would probably have been spared Hitler and the horror of Nazism. . . .
Kimball particularly hates John Maynard Keynes' famous book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which argued that the terms imposed on Germany would lead to hunger in Germany and bad economic times for all of Europe:
Let’s linger over that word “reparations.” Can anyone hear the word straight any longer? Keynes’s book took the word out of normal circulation and invested it with an aura of malignancy and unreality that persists to this day. But Germany started the war, which was fought almost entirely on foreign soil, and, along with the other Central Powers, it inflicted horrendous property damage and killed millions. As the historian Sally Marks points out, “France’s ten richest industrial departments were only horrific ruins, over 1,000 square miles now a desert.” German industry was intact. Why shouldn’t Germany pay? Keynes claimed that the Allies sought to revenge themselves upon the Germans. But restitution is not revenge (even if it happens to be mistaken policy). It is merely justice.

Keynes predicted that if the treaty were put into effect, Europe would be threatened with “a long, silent process of semi-starvation, and of a gradual, steady lowering of the standard of living.” . . . In fact, ten years later, Europe’s production and standard of living were well above the pre-war level. Keynes predicted that the iron and steel output of Germany would diminish, but by 1927 it was producing nearly 30 percent more iron and 38 percent more steel than the record year of 1913. It was the same story with other commodities. Keynes initially warned that Germany could not afford to spend more than 20 billion goldmarks in reparations per year (in 1913, $1 equaled about 4.1 goldmarks). Hitler, by his own reckoning, spent seven times that much every year from 1933 to 1939 in rearming Germany.
Interesting. But here's a question for Roger Kimball: given what did happen in Europe --World War II, the worst event in human history -- how can he sensibly argue that some other course might not have been better? And as for a harsher peace, the western allies lacked the strength or the will to enforce even the limited territorial re-alignment they did impose; where would the muscle have come from to keep Germany divided? In 1945 it was provided by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but they were not on hand in 1919 to do the job. I don't accept simple argument of the "Versailles caused World War II" type, but I do believe that to insist on humiliating your enemies is generally very bad policy and often leads to renewed war.


G. Verloren said...

Does he touch upon Italy, at all? Because the rise of Fascism under Mussolini and his Blackshirts is directly tied to Italian discontent with their own treatment under the Treaty of Versailles, which nullified the earlier Treaty of London under which Italy joined the Triple Entente in the first place.

I mean, forget mistreating and humiliating your enemies! How callous and short-sighted do you have to be to do the same to your critical allies?

Italy was promised quite a lot of territory if they turned traitor and helped defeat the Triple Alliance, with special emphasis on their traditional holdings in regions such as Dalmatia, previously taken from them in other wars by their longtime rival of Austria. When the Treaty of Versailles utterly nullified the Treaty of London, the Italians felt justifiably betrayed. They had just suffered the ravages of a monstrously brutal war and become burdened with a savagely crippled economy. In the face of rebuilding and reintegrating their huge number of now-jobless war veterans, the loss of their promised territorial gains was a huge blow.

Add to this general climate of discontent vague fears of a Socialist uprising, and you get a country which is very proud, very angry, and desperate enough to hand itself over to a madman who promises to rule with an iron fist in the name of an absolute Italian state.

Unknown said...

I would say two things:

1) It is certainly true that Hitler, the Nazis, the Stahlhelm, and the German right generally were not so much angry about the harshness or unfairness of the peace, as that they were angry that Germany had lost the war and lost its chance to impose a harsh peace on its enemies. And they were even more enraged by their belief that the war had been lost on Germany's home front, which they thought was undermined by socialists, Jews, insufficient race-mentality, and so forth. So for that segment of the German population, Versailles' terms were scarcely relevant.

2) On the other hand, a "kinder" peace would have made it much easier for mainstream Germans to see the Republic as legitimate, to be attracted to a peaceful, commercial relationship with the outside world, and to reject the German Right.

Thus, while a kinder Versailles might not have prevented the rise of right-wing movements, it might well have meant that they never took sole power in Germany.