The Second World War and the Holocaust didn’t just happen because “the evil misguided Germans” voted Hitler into power. World War II was a product of the outcome of World War l. The peace treaties forced upon Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey by the US, Britain and France after World War I laid the foundation to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe with all its consequences.
On this day 100 years ago, the victorious Entente Powers, led by the US, Britain and France, signed the infamous Treaty of Versailles with Germany. It was the first of a series of so-called “peace treaties“ between the Entente and the Central Powers ending World War l.
In the US, Britain and France the treaties were sold as historic victories for democracy and the principle of self-determination. However, in reality they were dictates with little to no regard to the will of the affected population groups in regional Europe. They laid the foundation to the rise of authoritarian regimes across Europe, among them Hitlers Nazi dictatorship in Germany, eventually leading to the horrors of World War II and subsequently the Cold War and other ongoing conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.
The First World War was not a conflict between democracies and authoritarian dictatorships. The opposing parties were equally imperialist and contained a mixture of democratic, semi-democratic and virtually absolutist regimes. World War I started out as a regional conflict in the Balkans and ended up as a full scale War on territorial and economic supremacy across large parts of the globe.
In 1918, after four years of full scale war, in which both sides butchered millions of soldiers and civilians unnecessarily, people were finally ready to mount the barricades and stop the slaughter. Politicians on both sides continued to spread rumours of an imminent victory while making grandiose demands for territorial gains and war reparations. The so called “14 points” announced by US President Woodrow Wilson to Congress in early 1918 called for a new democratic world order based on equality, democracy and self determination. Wilson‘s promise was decisive in bringing about a ceasefire.
But the so called “peace conferences“ with Germany in Versailles, Austria in Saint Germain, Hungary in Trianon, Bulgaria in Neuilly-sur-Seine and Turkey in Lausanne turned into a farce. Representatives from the affected countries were not even allowed to join the conference table. They had to wait at isolated locations where they were presented with treaties that went beyond their worst expectations and that showed no regard to the will of the affected regional populations. The representatives of the “losing powers” had no other choice but to sign, otherwise the Entente would have continued or extended their food and coal embargo which had already cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. Any modern court would declare these treaties invalid as democratically elected representatives were blackmailed into signing something while some of the most basic human rights were ignored.
Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine to France, Poznania and parts of former West-Prussia and Upper Silesia to Poland, the region of Eurpen-Malmédy to Belgium, Northern Schleswig to Denmark, the Memel Territory to Lithuania and the so call Hultschin Region to Czechoslovakia. While there was certainly majority support in Poznania and parts of West Prussia to join Poland and Northern Schleswig voted to join Denmark, it is questionable if there was a majority in favour of joining France in Alsace-Lorraine. On the other hand, it is certain that the majority of the population in all other areas ceded from Germany wanted to remain German.
However, besides these forced and to a large extend undemocratic boundary changes, what hit the country hardest were the shocking reparations of $ 33 Billion Germany was supposed to pay to the victors in installments until the 1980s, an amount inconvincible at the time.
The Hapsburg Empire, a country with great potential to become a first democratic Central European Union at the time, was forcibly dismantled. The newly created purely “German” Austria lost the German speaking parts of Bohemia, Moravia and Austrian (later Czech) Silesia to newly founded Czechoslovakia. German speaking South Tyrol became Italian. Especially the forced detachment of South Tyrol was considered a great injustice as the territory had no connection with Italy whatsoever. It was merely a trophy Italy received for joining the War on the side of the Entente. The territory remains a kind of Italian colony to this day.
Historical Hungary was dismantled and much of it subdivided between her neighbours. Hungary did not only loose non-Hungarian speaking territories to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, but also areas with Hungarian majorities North of the Danube, in Crisana, the Vojvodina, the Banat and in Transylvania.
The Ottoman Empire was also dismantled. Due to an aggressive military campaign shortly after the War, the successor state, Turkey, kept much of her Kurdish territory against the will of the local population. Other parts of the Ottoman Empire were simply subdivided between the British and the French. New countries without any historic legacy emerged. The mess created by the Entente in 1919/20 sparked a fire that has irreversibly destabilized the Middle East. The emergence of Islamism, Islamic terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil Wars in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as well as the Iranian Islamic Revolution are a product of the failure of the US, Britain and France to create a democratic rather than a new imperialist and colonialist world order.
In Europe alone, more than 10 million people, many of them constituting regional ethnic majorities, were forced into neighbouring ethnic nation states against their will. This enormous injustice naturally led to mistrust between Germany, Austria and Hungary on the one hand and their neighbours on the other hand. In addition, enormous ethnic conflicts emerged domestically in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France, Romania and Yugoslavia between the majority and their forcibly created new large German and Hungarian minorities. All six countries added fuel to the flames by adopting Centralist constitutions preventing any form of autonomous self-government in German and Hungarian speaking regions.
The mess created by Britain, France and the US at Versailles, St Germain and Trianon eventually led to the rise of nationalist regimes in almost all European countries. With the economic crisis that hit the World in the 1930s, democratic and semi-democratic nationalist regimes eventually turned into outright dictatorships. Hitler was one of many radicals whose ideas could only flourish under conditions created by the Western Powers a few years earlier.
The legacy of the post-World War I peace treaties can be felt to this day. 50 Million War death, the holocaust, the post-War expulsions, 40 years of Cold War, the Balkan Wars, ongoing border conflicts as well as civil wars in the Middle East can be directly linked to the World War I peace dictates. Today some of the political decision makers in the US and Britain are at it again trying to undermine the much needed European unification process that has been the basis of peace and reconciliation for the last 74 years. If the nationalists in Europe win again, history will repeat itself. And this time it will most likely be the final World War.