The Failed Peace

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The Failed Peace

On January 8, 1918, nine months after the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies, American president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) stood before the U.S. Congress to deliver the "Fourteen Points Address." In this speech he outlined a plan that would end the war and provide the structure for a lasting world peace after the war. Though this plan was greeted with praise from many, it did not impress the leaders of the warring nations. The Germans rejected the Fourteen Points out of hand, for they still expected to win the war. The French ignored the Fourteen Points, for they were sure that they could gain more from their victory than Wilson's plan allowed. Even the British, who were otherwise allied most closely with the United States, had doubts about Wilson's grand plans for world peace. As the war moved to a conclusion during the summer and fall of 1918, Wilson's Fourteen Points helped guide each country's thinking about how the postwar world might look. But when the warring countries actually sat down to settle their differences, the results were far from what Wilson imagined. The treaties that finally ended World War I reflected all the bitterness and hatred that had started the war; in fact, these treaties would pave the way for another generation of conflict.

Wilson's Fourteen Points

Wilson and the United States were in a unique position to shape whatever peace might come from four long years of war. First, the United States held what it considered to be the moral high ground. The United States had steered away from a war that clearly did not serve the interests of the people of any country, and it had been critical of the failure of European leaders and diplomats to resolve issues peacefully. Second, the high costs of waging war had severely weakened the once powerful countries of France, Germany, and Great Britain, and revolution was tearing Russia apart. By 1918, the United States stood as the most powerful nation in the world. It was with these conditions in mind that Wilson offered the world his Fourteen Points.

Wilson's Fourteen Points can be grouped into several sections. The first five points proposed general rules governing the behavior of all warring parties. They called for "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at" (as a protection against secret treaties), freedoms of the seas, free trade among nations, smaller armies, and new negotiations on colonial holdings that respected the people in those colonies. Points six through thirteen proposed specific territorial adjustments, most of which were interpreted as punishments for members of the Central Powers. These points granted territory to France and Italy, granted autonomy (self-rule) to the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and established an independent Poland. The fourteenth point—key to Wilson's view of the postwar world—demanded that "a general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." This point, which came to be seen as a call for the creation of the League of Nations, was the most radical of Wilson's proposals and was met with the most intense opposition in the United States.

Wilson's announcement of his Fourteen Points well before the end of the war may have strengthened Germany's resolve to fight on, for the German kaiser and his military leaders wanted nothing to do with this peace plan. But no amount of German resolve could withstand the collapse of every one of Germany's allies and the growing strength of the American

army in Europe. Germany surrendered to the Allied forces on November 11, 1918, despite the fact that the Germans still remained in control of territory in Belgium and France. Many in Germany felt that they had not actually been defeated but instead had agreed not to fight any longer. But it was Germany who had surrendered to the Allies, and thus it was the Allies who would get to dictate the terms of peace. The question was whether that peace would be made under Wilson's idealistic plan or under the punishing demands of leaders from France and Great Britain.

The Peace Conference

When the Peace Conference began in the spring of 1919, twenty-seven nations gathered to deliberate. The interests of the smaller countries were quickly decided, and the major issues were soon left to four men: President Woodrow Wilson of the United States; Prime Minister David Lloyd

George of Great Britain; Premier Georges Clemenceau of France; and Premier Vittorio Orlando of Italy. These four men alone would decide the fate of the postwar world.

It quickly became apparent that the four men had very different ideas for how the peace should be settled. Wilson had succeeded at setting the agenda with his Fourteen Points, but he alienated his fellow leaders with his superior attitude and unyielding air. Quoted in Jay Winter and Blain Baggett's The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, Lloyd George said of Wilson, "I really think that at first the idealistic President regarded himself as a missionary whose function it was to rescue the poor European heathen from their age-long worship of false and fiery gods. He was apt to address us in that vein, beginning with a few simple and elementary truths about right being more important than might, and justice being more eternal than force." Clemenceau, quoted in Zachary Kent's World War I, raged, "How can I talk to a fellow who thinks himself the first man for two thousand years who has known anything

about peace on earth?" Wilson supplied the sweeping visions of peace that the newspapers loved to quote, and he clung to his lofty notion that eventually became the League of Nations. But it was Lloyd George and Clemenceau who were determined that their countries would benefit from the ordeal they had just suffered.

Clemenceau's demands were extensive and held great moral weight, for his country had suffered the deepest scars from the fighting, both in terms of the numbers dead and the damage inflicted on French property. France wanted the Alsace-Lorraine region back—it had been lost to Germany in 1871—and it wanted to strip Germany of the power to wage offensive war. France wanted Germany to pay for the war, in every meaning of that phrase. Italy's position was also straight forward. Italy had entered the war to gain territory from Austria-Hungary, and it expected that the Allies wold honor their early promises of land gains for Italy.

David Lloyd George had a mixed agenda. Political pressures required that Lloyd George ask Germany to pay a high price for its defeat. After all, the British, too, had paid dearly for the war, and Germany ought to be made to repay British losses. Yet Lloyd George knew that crippling the German economy would also damage Great Britain, for Germany had been Britain's second-largest trading partner before the war. Lloyd George also sought to protect his country's colonial interests and its control of the seas.

The Treaty of Versailles

As they began to debate the issues, the Allies could agree on little. Key elements of Wilson's Fourteen Points were dropped; reparations—the penalty that the losing countries must pay to the winners—could not be agreed upon; control of distant colonies was hotly contested. The negotiations dragged on. Wilson returned home to shore up support for his position, and other leaders also returned to their countries for a time. Finally, by May of 1919, five separate treaties were prepared. The most important of these treaties, the one with Germany, is known as the Treaty of Versailles.

The Allies presented the treaty to the Germans for their signature on May 7, 1919. The language of the treaty was difficult for the proud Germans to swallow, but one element of the treaty was especially troublesome. Article 231 declared that "Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and all their nationals have been subject as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies." In short, this article insisted that Germany accept all the blame and guilt for starting the war. The Germans refused to sign. Within days the Allies announced their plans to march their armies into Germany, and the German government gave in.

The treaty visited a string of humiliations on Germany. First, Germany was to be forced to pay the Allies for all the damages German forces had inflicted (payments were to be made over a period of thirty years). Germany was stripped of her foreign colonies, forbidden from keeping an army in the western part of her territory (the Rhineland), forbidden from joining in union with Austria, stripped of her rights to import any war materials, deprived of the right to buy or build submarines, and barred from having an air force. Finally, her delegates were forced to sign the treaty at a humiliating ceremony at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France, on June 28, 1919.

Dealing with the Other Central Powers

Germany, of course, was not the only loser of World War I. The other Central Powers—Austria-Hungary, Turkey (also known as the Ottoman Empire), and Bulgaria—were also forced to pay for their part in the war in separate treaties signed in 1920. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had already paid the ultimate price when it broke apart during the waning days of the war. Despite the fact that the empire no longer existed, the separate states of Austria and Hungary were forced to pay war damages to the Allies. Austria ceded large chunks of territory to Italy, and the new nation of Yugoslavia was formed out of the southern remnants of the empire. (The several states of Yugoslavia, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, eventually fragmented during the Balkan Wars of the late 1990s.) Poland and the new nation of Czechoslovakia also claimed portions of the previously proud empire. Bulgaria,

too, was split up, with portions of its territory parceled out to the Romanians, the Yugoslavs, and the Greeks.

The Ottoman Empire was similarly dismantled by the Treaty of Sèvres.

One of the most vexing issues following the war was how to handle distant colonies. The French and British wanted to simply claim the German colonies they had defeated in war, but Wilson and the leaders of smaller countries wanted to preserve the idea that these colonies were independent. The Allies thus agreed to assign the former German colonies to the League of Nations, which in turn allowed them to be governed under the mandate, or loose control, of individual countries. Britain gained a mandate over two former German colonies in Africa, which are known today as Tanzania and Namibia; France gained control in Cameroons. Later in the century, each of these African countries gained its independence.

A Failed Peace

The various treaties signed at the end of the war settled territorial issues and laid the blame for the war squarely on the heads of the Germans. But these treaties could not bring the one thing that Europeans desired most: lasting peace. In fact, many historians have argued that the peacemaking of 1919 provided the conditions that led to World War II. The redrawing of the map of eastern Europe placed hostile ethnic groups in close contact with each other, as in Yugoslavia, and placed ethnic Germans in foreign countries, as in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Economic collapse and political turmoil fed the rise of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy and fueled the revolution and the rise of communist dictators in Russia. Most troubling of all for world peace, the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the Germans' postwar economic distress helped fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. The same bitterness and distrust between countries that had fueled the start of World War I lay like a fog of poison gas across Europe. In 1939, the German army would burst through this cloud of gas and take Europe and the world back into the horror of war.

For More Information

Bosco, Peter. World War I. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Clare, John D., ed. First World War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

"The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century." [Online] (accessed October 2000.)

Heyman, Neil M. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Stewart, Gail. World War One. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1991.

"World War I: Trenches on the Web." [Online] (accessed October 2000.)


Elson, Robert T., and the editors of Time-Life Books. Prelude to War. New York: Time-Life, 1976.

Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Kent, Zachary. World War I: "The War to End Wars." Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow, 1994.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Winter, Jay, and Blain Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.

"Stabbed in the Back": German Reactions to the Treaty of Versailles

Friedrich Ebert, who led the German government when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, had little to do with waging the war his country had lost. He had come to power only late in the war, as the kaiser abdicated his throne and military leaders stepped down in early November 1918. Ebert and his governing Social Democratic party had little choice about signing the treaty; Ebert's generals had told him that Germany could fight no more. But Germans looking for an explanation of their failure in World War I soon made this civilian government their scapegoat.

At war's end, German soldiers returned home—not with their heads bowed in defeat, but with pride. After all, many argued, the German army had not truly been defeated, for it had never allowed the enemy on German territory and still held enemy ground it had conquered. Chancellor Ebert fueled this belief when he saluted a parade of soldiers with these words, quoted in Prelude to War: "I salute you who return unvanquished from the field of battle." Thus when Ebert signed the humiliating treaty, many in the army and throughout Germany believed that the German army had been betrayed—"stabbed in the back"—by Ebert's civilian government.

Ill feelings about meeting the high costs imposed by the Treaty of Versailles grew in the coming years. More and more Germans denied their responsibility for causing the war and supported politicians who wanted to return Germany to its former power. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, former army soldier Adolf Hitler reflected on how anger about the treaty could be used to rouse the German people: "What a use could be made of the Treaty of Versailles… . How each of oneof the points of that Treaty could be branded in the minds and hearts of the German people until sixty million men and women find their souls aflame with a feeling of rage and shame; and a torrent of fire bursts forth as from a furnace, and a will of steel is forged from it, with the common cry: 'We will have arms again!'" Adolf Hitler tapped into such feelings in Germany and rose to power in the 1930s as the head of the Nazi Party.

Woodrow Wilson: Loser of the Peace

Woodrow Wilson, architect of the Fourteen Points and the strongest proponent of the League of Nations, was singularly defeated by his role in the peacemaking process. When he announced his Fourteen Points plan, Wilson set the agenda for the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. However, Wilson soon found himself forced to compromise on many major issues. He gave in on reparations, on control of the seas, and on setting national borders, but he was not willing to compromise on his plans for a League of Nations, an international ruling body that would help settle disputes between countries. Wilson dreamed that the League of Nations—which would later become the United Nations—could solve any remaining problems between countries.

Wilson's position as the president of a democratic country gave him great moral authority. But trying to navigate U.S. democracy soon led to his undoing. From the moment Wilson took his country into World War I, he had run into political opposition. A core group of primarily Republican senators known as isolationists did not want the United States involved in European wars. They resisted Wilson's Fourteen Points, and they were firmly opposed to American involvement in the League of Nations. Isolationists believed that getting involved in the League of Nations would strip American leaders of their ability to make decisions to protect U.S. interests.

Wilson was unable to sign the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919 because the U.S. Senate had not yet approved the treaty. Determined to get it approved, the ailing Wilson set out on a whirlwind tour of the United States to build support for the treaty. He covered eight thousand miles in twenty-two days, but the trip ruined his health. He soon suffered a stroke and was virtually incapacitated for several months. The Senate voted down the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson's great hope for world peace, and kept the United States out of the League of Nations. It was not until July 1921 that Congress passed a simple resolution declaring that the war was over. By then the rest of the world had moved on.