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Europe

100 years on, the Treaty of Versailles is still relevant

media Versailles meeting of the Committe of the inter-Allies Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

Two months after the fighting of World War One stopped, a conference was convened at Versailles here in France in January 1919. The text of the treaty was officially signed in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles on June 28 1919: exactly a hundred years ago today.

The aim of the conference was to work out a peace treaty that would officially end the conflict and also ensure that another one would never happen.

Crowd of German civilians, including children, surrounding a cannon which has a garland hanging from the muzzle Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

Nearly 30 nations attended, though the real terms of the treaty were written by the leaders of the main ally countries: the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Italy; referred to as the ‘big four’ or the Council of Four.

The defeated countries, namely Germany and its allies were not invited to participate.

 

But since that treaty, a second world war erupted a mere twenty years later and conflicts continue to arise today despite the creations of certain mechanisms put in place.

Is the treaty of Versailles still relevant today?

In one short answer, yes.

The treaty's relevance 100 years on

World war One was the first major international conflict the world had ever witnessed, including all the horrors of civilian casualties and damages.

But it also put in place certain principles that to this day are still going strong.

President Woodrow Wilson of the United States is often credited with the major outcome of this treaty, known as the ‘Wilson principles’.

These included European principles that had surfaced during the 19th century such as “self-determination, or the project of the league of nations” explains Isabelle Davion, an associate professor in modern history of germanic countries and Central and Eastern Europe at the Sorbonne University, whose research primarily focuses on the two world wars.

The greatest moment in history Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

“But Wilson was the one who had the power to enforce them. He added to this the necessity of a collective security…that is to say the international community should absorb the potential enemy within a collective system, like the League of Nations” or the United Nations afterwards.

The treaty also stressed this notion of a cooperation between the allies.

“But this solidarity blew away as soon early 1920. And we saw the consequences of that very quickly. One of the lessons learned was that the European post-states had to stay united… when there was one crisis at the end of the 20s and beginning of the 30s, the European powers should have stayed united to find a solution to absolve the problems instead of each state trying to fight it as it could. I think that was a big mistake” laments Davion.

Instead this main principle of cooperation came to fruition in the aftermath of the Second World War, just 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles.

The creation of the European Economic Community was established; the precursor to the European Union put in place a regimented system of cooperation.

Exclusion of certain key states

To this day, many refer to the Treaty of Versailles of what not to do when creating a peace agreement.

While the treaty itself was admittedly written with good intentions, it missed one simple but crucial element: inviting those that lost the war.

In this case, Germany and its allies.

'The lamb from the slaughter', caption from a political cartoon Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

“One of the lessons learned maybe was that a peace treaty should be discussed between both parties: the victor and the vanquish[ed]” adds Davion. “Never humiliate the party you need to be in contact with and this is why in 1945 there was never eventuality an armistice and furthermore peace treaty with a Nazi Germany. First it had to capitulate and be destroyed, and then negotiations could start with the new government."

The 240 pages of the treaty contained some 440 separate articles and at no point was Germany or its allies involved in the process.

Clause of blame

One article in particular dubbed the ‘war guilt clause’, article 231, required Germany to accept responsibility for causing “all the loss and damage” inflicted on the Allies.

That point became the stepping stone for demanding that Germany pay reparations that were set through a series of conferences in 1920.

“For Germany it was unbearable” points out Davion. “And I understand that. People may not understand that. If it had been more explained and maybe written with other words” then perhaps the feeling of guilt and responsibility firmly placed on the shoulders of Germany may not have been so heavy and palpable.

Prior to that, when countries fought, the one who lost had to pay a tribute.

“The tradition was that the vanquished party of the war had to pay a tribute like France did in 1871 for example, we paid a tribute to Germany because we lost” says Davion.

And that is what the clause laid out, beginning with reparations to Belgium, because “it was the first country that Germany entered”. So in essence, there was a “logic in fact behind all that” but it was never well explained stresses Davion, hence the quick conclusion that many jump to that it was dumping everything on Germany.

But others argue that at this crucial moment, both Britain and France were clinging on to their colonies.

And as Davion pointed out, France had already paid a tribute to Germany in 1870, so it was still sore from that.

The great day at Versailles when France effaced the memory of 1871 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

So both Britain and France were happy to push Germany to its limit to minimize any competition from its colonies and see the once-prosperous country turn pale and weak.

 Report: How the Treaty of Versailles precipitated what happened in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East

But while Davion and other historians have revised their reassessment of the Treaty of Versailles, she agrees that while it’s hard to say that the treaty is wholly responsible for the creation of world war two, the agreement itself “was full of flaws”.

clemenceau wilson and lloyd george leaving palace of versailles after signing peace treaty Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

History repeats itself

As mentioned earlier, the elements of collective security and an international community working together to ward of enemies was shortly cast aside as soon

But the ashes of World War Two helped set in place a new order of cooperation.

In the case of Europe this was the EEC later to be the EU.

And that system, despite its ups and downs over the years, is primarily responsible for the relative security across the region for over 70 years.

Recent events though, namely Brexit and the rise of nationalist parties has many questioning the relevance of the EU.

“I mean the Brexit and everything is just another proof that history [is] useless and that there are no such things as learning from history because one of the lessons we learned that at the beginning during the 50s and the 60s is the necessity to stay united, especially when there are crises” says an exasperate Davion.

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