Modern World History

The Treaty of Versailles and its consequences.

It's normal these days to blame the Second World War on the first, or rather the treaties that ended it. The victors were in the mood for revenge, the vanquished were reluctant to accept defeat. America, which should have been the guarantor of the post-war settlement, withdrew into isolation and the merry-go-round of 'prohibition'. It was the French who appeared to dominate the proceedings. Catastrophic defeat in 1870 and near collapse in 1914 made them determined to cripple Germany, economically and militarily. With calls at home to 'hang the Kaiser' Britain under Lloyd-George could not dissent.

Germany at least remained mostly intact. Her allies were not so fortunate. The empire of Austria-Hungary disappeared from the map, replaced by a host of smaller countries. In theory each of these represented a distinct ethnic identity but wherever the peacemakers attempted to draw a line they created minorities: Hungarians were left in Austria, Germans in the new state of Czechoslovakia and the restored Poland. In the Balkans the Serbs got the greater Serbia they wanted, calling it Jugoslavia, but within its borders were many Croats and Muslims. Here were rich possibilities for future conflict.

Elsewhere in the world Britain and France divided Germany's colonies between them, creating yet another source of resentment to add to their demands for massive compensation. A revolt by Turkey's Arab subjects had been very useful to British in protecting the Suez Canal but instead of giving the rebels full independence (as had been promised by T E Lawrence) protectorates were established over Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, the latter already contributing to the world's growing demand for oil.

The most positive outcome of the settlement appeared to be the establishment of a League of Nations. The League embodied the hopes of those who believed in a better world to come. In the early years it had some success, being the agency through which various treaties were signed limiting the size of armaments. But in the longer term it appeared like a maiden aunt, full of moral authority without the strength to enforce it. It was all too easy for Fascist Italy to demonstrate its new found virility by invading Ethiopia, the only remaining independent state in Africa. Japan followed suit in Manchuria. In Germany Hitler built up his armed forces in defiance of the treaties signed in the 1920s. Last on the stage of international predators he had by far the greatest ambitions. With no force to intervene and no backing from the democracies the League faded into extinction.