The End is Near....
Bulgaria surrendered on September 29th, the Ottomans a little while later on October 30th, and Austria-Hungary on November 3rd. However, Germany was the big prize. For the sake of dramatic flare the Allies set the time of Germany’s unconditional surrender at the 11 O’clock on November 11th. Germany had actually surrendered at 5 O’clock that morning. Meanwhile on the front the war continued for those six hours and men continued to die senselessly. One American soldier had just written to his fiancé back home telling her that he would be coming home soon. His commanding officer had other plans. He ordered his men to make one final assault on German lines. That soldier died in No Man’s Land with a hole in his heart. Sadly, his story was typical of the last few hours of World War One.
When the clock struck the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, men climbed out of their trenches and stood amongst the carnage, dazed and relieved. Men exchanged cigarettes and food unafraid of being mowed down by machine gun fire.
A few hundred miles away, the Allied powers were meeting in a railway car outside of Paris– in the town of Versailles to sign the treaty that would bring the Great War to an end. The Germans were forced to surrender unconditionally and were not invited to take part of the negotiations.
Sitting at the negotiation table over cigars and brandy were the “Big Four” consisting of British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Primer Clemencau, Italian Primer Orlando, and American President Woodrow Wilson. The big question on everyone’s mind is “what now?”
The total cost of the war for all sides was 15 million dead, 20 million wounded. War is expensive and the figures came back both sides had spent $190 billion to kill one another. Then there was the cost of rebuilding the towns and cities, providing for the injured soldiers and the widowed wives. In Germany, the British blockade was still going and the people were rioting because of starvation.
Parade on Wall Street in New York City. Celebrations after World War One (among the Allies that is) brought millions to the streets to welcome their loved ones home.
Treaty of Versailles:
"Get Over It"
President Wilson saw the horrors of World War One as a great opportunity to change the world. Many people were calling the Great War by a new name–the war to end all wars. Wilson proposed a plan that he called “The Fourteen Points”. In his plan he laid out a vision of a world where domination of others and war would be replaced with cooperation and negotiation. Some of the highlights of his plan included:
Limiting the number of weapons a country could have.
Providing for human rights for colonial subjects.
Abolishing secret treaties.
Redrawing the map of based on ethnic boundaries. (this would solve the Balkans problem that caused the war)
Absolute freedom to navigate the seas and trade freely.
Establishment of a League of Nations.
Wilson was shocked when people both at home and in Europe rejected what he saw a permanent solution to war. Back home Congress wanted to return to the old days of isolationism and rather than be bothered with a peace treaty involving Wilson’s Fourteen Points they simply repealed the declaration of war on the Central Powers. That’s right, Congress simply pretended that war had never happened. In Europe, France who had suffered the most wasn’t at all impressed by the Fourteen Points. At one point during the conference, Primer Clemenceau declared “Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points”.
France had suffered the most and wanted revenge. Nearly all of the fighting along the Western Front was on French soil. 90% of French men had been called off to war–75% of them wouldn’t come back. Returning soldiers were missing arms and legs. Many of its villages and towns lay in ruins. Some had been wiped of the map. Its forests and farm fields had been transformed into a nightmarish landscape of bomb holes, trenches, and dead bodies.
The French demanded a harsh punishment of Germany. In their version of the Treaty of Versailles Germany was going to pay. On June 28, 1919 after more than 8 months of arguing over the details the Big Four finally agreed on Germany’s fate. In exchange for peace Germany would accept 100% of the blame for causing the war. It would give up some of its coal-rich territory to France. It gave up its entire air force, most of its navy and its army was limited to 100,000 men. Most humiliating of all Germany would have to pay for the entire cost of war–132 billion marks (or $400 billion in today’s money)– on its own, while trying to rebuild its own shattered economy. Germany would finish paying off its war debt in 2010.
World War One did more than just cause a whole of lot death and destruction. Once the smoke had settled the face of Europe was completely changed. Old empires had been carved up and new countries had been created. Wilson pushed hard for a free and democratic Europe. He wanted to ensure that the new countries not return to imperialism but instead be free to govern themselves. The old Ottoman Empire was gone and in its place was the new and democratic country of Turkey. The rest of the empire though was divided up between the French and British who made the Middle East into a mandate. The British took control of Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan. The French won Lebanon, and Syria. Technically, these lands were under the control of the new League of Nations and were given as mandates (sort of like foster care for nations). Bu tin reality they were colonies like any other. So much for the dawn of democracy.
Austria-Hungary was wiped off the map as well. New countries like Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia were born. Italy picked up a few territories along its border with Austria-Hungary as well.
Germany kept most of its land but was forced to give up its rich coal fields in Alsace-Lorraine and the Saar to France. It also gave up a large chunk of real estate to create the country of Poland. Germans in the Sudetenland now found themselves under the authority of Czechoslovakia.
The League of Nations
President Wilson had hoped that his Fourteen Points would be the guiding influence at the Paris Peace Conference, but the British and French had different ideas. Wilson had hoped to fight a war that would end all wars, and in his idealistic rhetoric, he had proposed that the world get rid of secret treaties, open up the seas to free trade, decrease arms, allow subjected peoples of the world to rule themselves, and create a transnational entity that would guarantee peace (the League of Nations). But some of these ideas, especially self-determination, flew in the face of the victors' plan for expanding their empires, not eliminating them. Wilson's idealism ran into the British and French buzz saw that wanted vengeance and reparations. Despite protests, Wilson came home with a treaty that saw some of his most cherished principles left on the cutting room floor. Among the major provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany took sole blame for the war (the war guilt clause) even though other Central Powers had been involved in the fighting and atrocities (including the slaughter of at least 600,000 Armenians by the Ottomans). Germany also lost territory, though not as much as Russia / the Soviet Union had. Germany also had to reduce the size of its army to a shadow of its former size. And worst of all, the Allies extracted billions of dollars in reparations from the German government which would cripple their economy for a decade or more.
When Wilson arrived home in the summer of 1919 with the Treaty, two dozen American senators were ready to scuttle the whole thing over the proposed League of Nations. These senators were called the ‘Irreconcilables’ because they did not want America to be sworn to defend other nations, nor did they want American soldiers to be called out as peacekeepers or enforcers. These isolationist senators, mostly Republicans like William Borah, played on Americans' fears of being pulled into foreign conflicts in which America had no interest. Some leftist members of the Senate and the president's party didn't like the League either because they saw America swearing to uphold the imperialistic notions of Britain and France (they conveniently forgot that America had its own imperialist holdings). The majority of the senators wanted to make changes to the Treaty, specifically dealing with the use of American soldiers, and weren't set upon scrapping it. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge proposed a series of reservations or changes but these were apparently too much for President Wilson.
Maybe he felt like he had compromised too much in Paris to let his brainchild be tinkered with, so he told Democratic Senators to vote it as is, and to exactly no-one’s surprise, the Treaty went down to defeat. Despite Wilson's whirlwind speaking tour to garner support for the Treaty, it kept falling to defeat in both 1919 and 1920. Even the 1920 election became a referendum on Wilson's vision for an internationalist America, and it seemed that America wasn't ready to take on the mantle of world leader when Warren Harding won the presidency. During the 1920s and 1930s, for the most part, America would retreat into isolationism while Wilson's brainchild, the League of Nations failed to prevent future aggression by Italy, Japan, and Germany. Would World War II have happened if America had been a member of the League? It's impossible to say, but the American people had more economic worries in the 1930s than stopping fascist dictators. Overall, 18 million people died in this first horrific modern clash between empires. The British, French, and American empires won out while the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires collapsed into the pages of history. America in 1920 stood on the brink of a decade that would see so many changes to its national character, yet by the end of the decade find the world teeter at the abyss of financial collapse. And to think, it all started with an assassination in June 1914.
The British magazine 'Punch' satirized Wilson's grand dreams of world peace through the League of Nations. In this cartoon, Wilson holds out a very large olive branch marked 'League of Nations' to a dove that is too small to grasp it. Punch March 26, 1919.
Why the Treaty of Versailles Matters
The British and Italians were tired of war too and went along with the French. Sadly, four years of terrible war had taught these politicians nothing.When word reached Germany of the terms of the treaty people were outraged. The other countries had done just as much to instigate the war as Germany had. Unlike the Allied forces who returned home to victory parades and celebration the returning Germans soldiers came home to country on the brink of starvation and in total chaos. The German Kaiser was gone–he fled to Holland– and the Communists were trying to start a revolution. Some soldiers survived the war only to be shot in a riot. Among the angry and bitter soldiers who came back to the new Germany was a lance-corporal named Adolph Hitler.
"The day must come when a German government shall summon up the courage to declare to the foreign powers: 'The Treaty of Versailles is founded on a monstrous lies' We fulfill nothing more. Do what you will! If you want battle, look for it! Then we shall see whether you can turn 70 million Germans into serfs and slaves!"
Germany After the War
In 1919, German citizens were up in arms over the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles that they had just been forced to sign by the victorious Allies. World War One was now officially over, European cities were reduced to rubble, farms were little more than crater holes, 15 million people were dead, and the economy was a total wreck. With the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires gone, that left Germany holding the hot potato called war guilt. France had suffered the most and wanted nothing short of revenge. In the treaty Germany had no choice but to accept some strict terms. The German monarchy was replaced with Germany’s first attempt at democracy known as the Weimar Republic.
The German Empire lost land to France and Poland. Its ability to raise an army was seriously limited and its navy and air force was completely dismantled. To make matters worse, while Great Britain and the United States were partying it up during the Roaring 20s, Germans were expected to repay the Allies for the war debt by the tune of 100 billion tons of gold. (Equivalent to half of the total amount of gold ever mined). Germans were bitter, disillusioned and angry. Nobody was more angry and bitter than Adolph Hitler who heard the news from his hospital bed as he was recovering from a gas attack. Like many right-wing nationalists, Hitler immediately pointed the finger at the Jews and Socialists for betraying the German people.
Hitler’s ideas were gaining support in the early 1920s mostly because inflation was out of control. Germany borrowed heavily to pay for the war and now it not only had to pay back its debt but also repay war reparations to France and Britain. To make matters worse the government was printing money to pay off expenses and inflation was totally out of control. German marks became worthless and people raced to buy foreign currency. By 1923, things had really gotten out of hand. The price of bread skyrocketed to one billion marks a loaf! People would go shopping using wheelbarrows of cash. Some folks wallpapered their homes with worthless German marks. The government was blamed and so were the Jews- many of whom were business owners and bankers. Reichsmarks were called "Jew Confetti". In this atmosphere of fear and hatred, Nazism began to take hold.