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Seeds of Disaster, Part 2
By David H. Lippman
October 2016

The story began with Part One.

A major absentee is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Allied powers are refusing to recognize the Bolshevik state as long as the Russian Civil War rages, and White armies may grasp Moscow's spires from Lenin and Trotsky. Also absent are the Germans, Austrians, Turks, Hungarians, and Bulgarians. The defeated Central Powers and their successor states will have to accept the peace as a fait accompli.

From the very start, Wilson's great dream of "Open covenants openly arrived at" disintegrates under the weight of complexity. The Allies have to create 58 commissions to deal with a variety of issues. They also create a Council of Ten, with two members of each of the principal allied powers - Britain, France, United States, Italy, and Japan - as the ruling body of the conference. They meet privately, without keeping minutes.


Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson (left to right) arrive at the first session.

France's Georges Clemenceau is the conference's chairman, and this hard-bitten politician answers Wilson's idealistic rhetoric with harsh realism. "God gave us Ten Commandments and we broke them," snarls the Tiger of France. "Wilson gave us his Fourteen Points and we shall see." Clemenceau is committed to ensuring that Germany can never again invade France. Despite British and American protests, the French insist on maintaining the blockade, to ensure German weakness and compliance with the peace terms.

Britain's David Lloyd George, known at home as a feisty womanizer and social reformer, is standing for re-election on a platform of "Hang the Kaiser" and "Squeeze the German orange until the pips squeak." Britain has no intention of yielding her empire or the world's oceans.

Italy's gentle and courteous Vittorio Orlando, whose English is virtually nil, clutches solemn promises from England and France that Italy's reward for joining the Allied cause will be territorial gains in the Balkans.

Wilson, on the other hand, lacking interest in territorial or financial gain, is determined to find exact and impartial solutions. The world should be run in a manner in which solutions are sought according to ethical principles, rather than national security. He says to his staff, "Tell me what's right and I'll fight for it." However, Wilson is vague on how that will be achieved. The staff isn't sure, either. Wilson winds up receiving vast delegations of national movements, armed with maps, treaties, charts, demographic data, and emotional arguments.

The conference starts off with the debate on the Covenant of the League of Nations, Wilson's own term. From the start Wilson has to give ground. The Covenant will not supersede the cornerstone of American foreign policy, the Monroe Doctrine. It waffles on racial equality. Instead of ending colonialism, it converts former German and Turkish holdings into colonial "mandates" under League of Nations supervision.

When Italy demands a chunk of Dalmatia, Wilson demands that Italy place world peace over national interest. Orlando politely stomps off home. Japan demands chunks of German-held China, even though China is an Allied power that has sent 175,000 laborers to dig trenches in France, under German shelling. Wilson, facing Japanese and Italian withdrawal from the League, acquiesces, irritating the Chinese.

Soon enough the debates and divisions of vast tracts of the world are taking on an almost casual nature. The leaders carve up the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a separate Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia (calling that nation the unwieldy Kingdom of the Croats, Serbians, Bosnians, and Slovenes).

One thing the Allies manage to agree upon is that Soviet Russia must be dealt with. Lloyd George and Wilson hope for a truce to end the Russian Civil War. Clemenceau, in his skullcap, fears Bolshevik revolution, having seen his own Army mutiny in 1917. They offer truce talks to the warring sides. Lenin is evasive. The Whites refuse. When this plan fails, Winston Churchill, now Secretary of State for War and Air, dashes over to France to suggest a 10-day ultimatum to the Reds, followed by intervention by the Allied troops already in Russia. Wilson is cool. Frustrated, Churchill has dinner with the young American Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Probably Roosevelt doesn't think too much about Churchill's rhetoric: his wife Eleanor has just discovered his love letters to Lucy Rutherford, and has threatened divorce. To patch the marriage up, Eleanor has joined FDR on this trip. Instead she finds the atmosphere of adultery and scandal hard to bear. FDR and Churchill do not impress each other. Neither do the Allied leaders. Wilson has to go home twice to tend to domestic business, where the cost of living is jumping, as does Lloyd George. Clemenceau takes a bullet from a French anarchist but returns to action in 10 days, snarling defiance. In April, all three leaders threaten to go home for good.

The exhaustion takes its toll on Wilson, who on April 3, suddenly has to return to his residence, suffering stomach, back, and head pain, and a temperature of 103. Historians and doctors still argue over the ailment: stroke, influenza, or respiratory disease. Already Wilson suffers from neuralgia, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, and strokes, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. Easily tired and stressed out, he normally works only five hours a day. In Paris, he is working 14, trying to resolve the arguments.

The big debate is over Germany's fate: Clemenceau wants it weakened, Lloyd George does not want German power turned over to France. Clemenceau accuses Lloyd George of being an enemy of France. "Surely," Lloyd George retorts. "That is our traditional policy."

If the victorious powers cannot agree on anything, neither can the defeated Germans. Despite the gleaming new Weimar Constitution, chaos reigns in the defeated Reich. The Allied blockade of German ports ends in April, and American engineer Herbert Hoover mobilizes fleets of trucks to feed Germany and all Europe, earning him the title of "world's greatest humanitarian." But it's not enough.

Insurgent Communists stage riots and rebellions in cities, mines, and factories. As 1919 wears on, real power is not vested in the new National Constituent Assembly, but in the Army and the Freikorps it finances. In stark contrast to the gunfire and bayoneting in German streets is the politely-concealed acrimony at the conferences in Paris, where diplomats and statesmen are doing more damage to European peace and hopes for democracy than any Freikorps rifle.

As April wears on, the peace is hammered out. An ailing Wilson has to give way on many issues. He discovers that America's traditional view of Britain as an enemy and France as a friend is obsolete. Britain and America now share common interests and traditions, while the French are proving aggressive and intransigent. Wilson is amazed. So are many Americans, who remember Lafayette and King George III.

Clemenceau loses his demand to turn the Rhineland into a separate buffer state, but all agree to its demilitarization. Alsace and Lorraine return to France. Chunks of Silesia go to the new Polish state. Allied forces will occupy the Rhineland for five to 15 years. Germany is forbidden to station troops in this important region. This will, in theory, prevent feldgrau legions from marching into France and Belgium again. Japan agrees to join the League of Nations and drop its "racial equality" demands in return for China's Shantung Province, a former German concession.

Germany's Army is cut down to 100,000 men, consisting of 96,000 enlisted (other ranks) and 4,000 officers. Enlisted men must serve 12 years, officers 25, to prevent swift promotion and creation of a large reserve army. Conscription, military aircraft, tanks, submarines, poison gas, are all forbidden. So is manufacture of war material. The German Navy is cut down to a tiny fleet, whose largest ship is no more than 10,000 tons. The existing ships, interned at the Royal Navy's base at Scapa Flow with her crews aboard, will be divided up amongst the Allied powers.

Yet this, while humiliating to Germany, actually works to the Reich's advantage: unburdened by a requirement to build armaments, her arms barons can turn their factories to producing peaceful and profitable consumer goods, aiding their long-term economic recovery.

The treaty also carves up the German Empire into a group of League of Nations mandates, run by victorious powers. France gains Syria and Lebanon from Turkey, Britain Iraq and Palestine. The British have already committed themselves to turning over a chunk of the latter into a Jewish "national home." South Africa gains German Southwest Africa (today Namibia), Britain and France divide Cameroon and Togoland, Australia receives German New Guinea, run out of a plantation station named Lae, and the island of New Britain next to it, which includes a superb natural harbor named Rabaul. New Zealand wins German Samoa.

And the Japanese gain permanent control of the islands they seized in 1914: the Marianas, Caroline, and Marshall Islands, which include such unknown islands as Palau, Peleliu, Truk, Saipan, Tinian, and Eniwetok. Only phosphate merchants and missionaries seem interested in these island outposts. They are soon replaced by Japanese naval officers and engineers, who admire Truk's vast harbor.

The Saar and the German port city of Danzig become separate entities under the League of Nations, with their own commissioners. Danzig itself stands at the end of a Polish "Corridor" driven through German Pomerania to link the new nation with the sea.

The map of Europe is also re-drawn with astonishing alacrity. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire gains validity with the division of its two central nations. With the throne of Hungary up for grabs, one of the last admirals of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Navy, the equally imperious and anti-Communist Niklos Horthy, is appointed Lieutenant of the Realm (similar to Regent), replacing the failed Bela Kun regime. Horthy soon takes full power for himself, suppressing all opposition, wearing his braided admiral's uniform at any occasion. The result is that Hungary becomes a kingdom without a king, ruled by an admiral without a navy or a seacoast.

The mapmakers are busy in Central Europe, creating Poland and Czechoslovakia. With an eye towards defensible frontiers, Czechoslovakia includes the mountainous Sudetenland on the German border, with its 1 million German-speaking residents and easily-held passes. The kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro also vanish from the map, replaced by the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes," which changes its name to "Yugoslavia." Made of six different nationalities who hate each other's existence, Yugoslavia is divided from the start by race, religion, culture, and history. By 1929, the affable King Alexander I is forced to rule his nation as a royal dictatorship, like Rumania and Bulgaria, and even Greece.

The kickers in this treaty include the issues of war guilt and reparations.

The Allies hurl Germany's own diplomacy in its face. At the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans ordered the new Soviet Union to yield a third of Russia's agricultural land, more than half its industries, and six billion marks. Britain and France want Germany to pay the entire cost of the war, while Wilson only wants Germany responsible for the damages it created directly - despoiling France and Belgium, for example.

In the end, nobody can fix a value upon reparations, so the Allied powers dump the whole question on a separate reparations commission. In the interim, the Reich will have to pony up $5 billion in gold by May 1921. By then, it is hoped, the reparations commission will have determined the Reich's bill. The demand for reparations is a source of fury to Germans of all politics, as the bill ultimately comes to 1,000 million pounds. In reality, the Americans and British float Germany a 1,500 million pound loan to cover the bill.

To be continued.

David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J.