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Paris Peace Treaty

In January 1919, representatives from twenty-seven nations met in Paris to prepare a peace treaty. Germany was not invited. The treaty was to be dictated to Germany.

The conference declared that Germany had started the war. Germany had supported Austria-Hungary's attack on Serbia but had not chosen war against Russia until Russia had mobilized against it, and Germany had not decided on war against France until it was sure that France was joining Russia in attacking Germany. And the German kaiser, Wilhelm, had not wanted war against Britain. Britain entered the war living up to its military agreement with France and afraid of Germany becoming more dominant on the continent. Germany had succeeded more with its offensives than had the Russians or the French, which put German troops on French soil, but the German people were not about to see this as Germany having started the war. The German nation was outraged at the declaration of guilt, and the conference appeared to Germans as something other than reconciliation and a settlement of differences.

Attending the conference, President Wilson joined those who consider Germany the guilty party but was not inclined to put it aside for the sake of the reconciliation that he favored. What was needed was repaired economies and a re-establishment of trade. According to Pope Benedict XV, rather than reconciliation the work of the conference was a "consecration of hatred" and a "perpetuation of war."

A big issue for the leader of France's delegation, Premier Georges Clemenceau, was his fear of a future invasion of France by Germany. He wanted assurance that it would not happen again. He recognized that an agreement on paper was not assurance enough. He proposed weakening Germany by dividing it into various smaller states. He wanted to weaken the Germans economically, reducing the power of their military. He wanted to take from Germany the Rhineland — although the Rhineland was clearly a land of Germans. And Clemenceau, along with many others in the French nation, wanted revenge and for Germany to pay for the war, including damages to French property and pensions to French war widows and orphans. For the French the best hope for peace with Germany was a regime in Germany that also wanted peace and the cooperation conducive to friendly relations and trade — rather than bitterness and revenge. But war generated fervor for the tough-guy "realistic" approach, and this held with the French.

Wilson was ineffective. He did not want to offend his allies, whose support he wanted to create his pet project, a League of Nations. The treaty that was signed (at Versailles, just outside Paris) redrew the map of Europe with ten percent of Germany's population outside of their new borders. Germany was to pay huge sums of cash for years as reparations to France and Britain. A British delegate to the conference, John Maynard Keynes, resigned from his delegation in protest. He denounced the treaty as ruinous for Germany and pointed out that the health of Germany's economy was important to Europe as a whole. The treaty would contribute to the economic depression that came to Europe in the late 1920s and soon after in the United States.

The Social Democrats in power in the new German republic did not want to sign the treaty. The military establishment advised the government that restarting the war would be futile, and the myth would hold that the German army had not been defeated but stabbed in the back by traitors including the Social Democrats, Communists and Jews.

The treaty made a lot of people other than Germans unhappy. Arabic speaking peoples felt betrayed by it. Arabs fighting with the Allied powers against rule by the Ottoman Turks had been promised independence, and they had been looking forward to the independence called for in Wilson's Fourteen Points. Instead they were given a British and French colonialism that made their part of the world more troubled.

Chinese viewed the treaty as a betrayal, as favoring Britain's ally, Japan, and against China's sovereignty. Student protests gave birth to the May 4th Movement, whose slogans were "struggle for sovereignty" and "throw out the warlord traitors."

Koreans also felt betrayed by the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson’s talk of a just settlement to the war in 1918 had inspired hope for freedom from Japanese rule. Koreans marched. Japanese forces attacked the marchers and burned Korea's Christian churches, an incident in which 6,670 Koreans died, 14,611 were wounded, and 52,770 arrested. Across Korea, outrage against the Japanese intensified, and rebellion took the Japanese months to control. Many Koreans – some armed – fled into Manchuria and into Korea's mountains, while at Paris the Peace Conference refused to allow Koreans to plead their case.

ARTICLE: The National Interest Magazine, Mar 25, 2017, "How Lenin and Wilson Changed the World"

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.