Versailles, 1919-2009: a new world order’s legacy

About the author
David A Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (Wiley, 2007)  

The real roots of many major recent and current political events - the convulsions surrounding Iran's Islamic regime, the bloody troubles in neighbouring Iraq, the ethnic cleansing and mass murders in the Balkans, even numerous wars and uprisings from Palestine to Indochina - lie in a ceremony that occurred ninety years ago. This was the gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, outside Paris, on 28 June 1919, when the representatives of the victors in the first world war dictated the terms of peace to the quivering representatives of Germany's Kaiser.

David A Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (Wiley, 2007)

"The stillest three minutes ever lived through were those in which the German delegates signed the Peace Treaty", the New York Times correspondent Charles A Selden reported in next morning's newspaper. As American delegate George Louis Beer wrote in his diary, "Two German delegates [were] led like felons into the room to sign their doom. It was like the execution of a sentence."

But it was no less an execution for the billion or more innocent people in territories whose borders were so cavalierly rearranged by the delegates in the fraught months of negotiation that preceded this signing. For the document called the Treaty of Versailles dramatically transformed the world and set the stage for so many contemporary problems (see A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today [Wiley, 2007]). 

This treaty, largely forgotten even as the world has so frequently been forced to cope with its consequences, set up a new system of global governance. The victors in what was then known as the Great War were effectively empowered to maintain, indeed expand, a series of entrenched, though already fading global empires.

When the Allied powers arrived in Paris at the end of 1918, barely days after the Armistice that brought an end to hostilities was signed on 11 November, they proclaimed themselves "the world's government" for the period they were assembled in Paris. So for the next six months, the statesmen of the victorious powers -  America's Woodrow Wilson, France's Georges Clemenceau, Britain's David Lloyd George, Italy's Vittorio Orlando, even Japan's Viscount Sutemi Chinda - proceeded to redraw the map of vast stretches of the planet. They created a host of new nations with little understanding - and barely a nod to the wishes or desires, prejudices or fears - of the people who lived within the new boundaries they were marking with blurry blue pencils, often in the wee hours of the morning.

A legacy and a lesson

Also in openDemocracy on war and peace legacies:

Carl Bildt, "Europe's future in the mirror of the Balkans" (3 April 2003)

Patrice de Beer, "Versailles to al-Qaida: tunnels of history" (9 November 2007)

Dan Todman, "How we remember them: the 1914-18 war today" (11 November 2008)

Dejan Djokic, "Versailles and Yugoslavia: ninety years on" (26 June 2009)

As the peacemakers sought to dismantle the great empires that had challenged them on the battlefields - the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and especially the Ottomans - they established a new world order with little real understanding of the consequences.

So Yugoslavia was created from a kaleidoscope of hostile religions, alphabets, languages and tribal passions in the most volatile corner of Europe (see Dejan Djokic, "Versailles and Yugoslavia: ninety years on", 26 June 2009) .

Germany was effectively pillaged by a reparations system, part of a Carthaginian peace; Japan was given free reign to do as it pleased in China, Korea and much of Asia. Both decisions set the stage for militarist resurgence in these defeated nations and, ultimately, for the second world war.

The mandate system awarded Britain control of Palestine, echoing the Balfour declaration's recognition of a Jewish right to a homeland in the entire territory of Palestine, with barely a nod to the native Arabs. A swathe of other nations was established in the middle east - from Iraq, Syria and Jordan (carved out of Mesopotamia), to a greater Lebanon seized upon by the French as its booty from the spoils of war.

Indeed it was the British - and their determined efforts to to break apart the Ottoman empire and cement control over vast stretches of the middle east - who were the most successful in forcing their will on their Allies in Paris. The efforts of Lloyd George and his most adroit team of diplomats and statesmen were designed to secure trade and military routes to their vast Indian empire, not to mention the rights to the newest strategic commodity, oil.

The Ottomans had played an important, and at the time little understood, role in the middle east. The Sunnis who ruled from the Sultan's palace in Constantinople (Istanbul) were a critical counterweight to the Shi'a of the Persian empire or indeed the Shi'a of much of Mesopotamia and the Gulf. With the Sunnis' power curbed, their ability to act as a restraining force on British, and eventually American, activities, especially in Iran, was effectively neutralised.

So it was not surprising that British interests would move with dispatch into the oilfields of the Persian Gulf, where they would eventually be challenged by American entrepreneurs as well. And Iran, especially its ruler Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, even before he assumed the throne in December 1925, would find a foreign power he was little able to control and on whose high-handed actions there was little restraint. By then, the Ottoman empire - that once stretched cross the middle east and north Africa, up through the Balkans, nearly to the gates of Vienna - was reduced to the small, rather powerless nation of Turkey. Britain was the force to reckon with across the middle east. So it should come as little surprise if today's rulers of Iran have replaced the United States with Britain as "the most evil" of Iran's enemies, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proclaimed during his Friday prayer message in Tehran on 19 June 2009.

The legacy of Versailles extends far beyond Iran, or Iraq, even the Balkans. It is a legacy of greed and hubris, ignorance and selfishness that should serve as a lesson for all governments, all statesmen who seek to impose their blinkered vision on other nations and other peoples.