Questioning the narrative about the Treaty of Versailles

In the first half of the 20th century the most glamorous place to spend the night in London, with the possible exception of Buckingham Palace, was the ornate, green-domed Carlton Hotel, which rose up above the theater district like a gaudily iced cake. The simile perhaps gains from the fact that in the years immediately before and during World War I, the head chef at the Carlton was none other than Auguste Escoffier, the celebrated pastry chef who brought us the pêche Melba and bombe Nero, among other toothsome confections. To stay or even to dine in the Carlton was a memorable moment in life.

If you had found yourself at the Carlton in 1913 and had navigated a maze of corridors leading off the sumptuous gold-and-white dining room, with its rococo side-tables and huge, gilt-framed portrait of King Edward VIII as the Prince of Wales, and had you pushed through a double pair of green-baize doors into the hotel’s football field–sized kitchen, you might have seen a bone-thin young man hard at work, bent over a gas stove or peeling potatoes in his role as one of Escoffier’s junior assistants. The man’s full name was Nguyen Sinh Cung, although he was known to his English co-workers simply as Bac. He had been born in 1890 in a village in central Vietnam, then part of French Indochina, and as a 20-year-old had decided to set off on an extended world tour after his father, a regional magistrate, had been demoted for abuse of power—a petty criminal had been flogged 102 times under his supervision, and had subsequently died of his wounds.

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Here was one of those individuals who later emerged from World War I firmly convinced that the old social order should now be blasted off forever.

The younger Cung seems not to have been particularly concerned about the man’s death per se, but he quickly recognized the implications for his own future prospects as a local administrator in a society where one’s good family name ranked above any other professional consideration. After various adventures as far afield as Marseilles and New York, where he worked as a baker, the young man reached London in January 1913, where he was said to have cut a somewhat forlorn figure, largely keeping to himself and walking the seven miles from his unprepossessing cold-water room to the hotel each morning and back again late each night.

It is worth dwelling on this otherwise unremarkable drifter a moment longer, if only because he was one of those individuals who later emerged from World War I firmly convinced that the old social order, and in particular the “colonial shackles” that he believed had confined millions of his fellow countrymen, should now be blasted off forever. The records of the former kitchen worker’s travels are incomplete, but we know that in May 1919 he arrived in Paris as part of a small group of like-minded Vietnamese nationalists. They found themselves in what was then the capital of the world. Beginning on Jan. 18 of that year the representatives of the four major allies—the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy—along with the delegates of 29 other states and territories, met to set the peace terms for the defeated Central Powers.

The records of the former kitchen worker’s travels are incomplete, but we know that in May 1919 he arrived in Paris as part of a small group of like-minded Vietnamese nationalists.

In addition to the formal appointees, many fringe groups were also in attendance at Paris. Private deputations formed everywhere. “The zealots and the crackpots were well represented; the city thronged with them,” a British observer wrote. Some achieved an audience, but many others were simply thought too obscure. The ad-hoc group from Vietnam drafted a petition to President Woodrow Wilson of the United States asking him to grant independence to their little country. Wilson declined even to answer the letter with a form acknowledgement.

How characteristic this was of the 28th president, who labored under a grueling workload in Paris, is hard to say. But had he known that he was inadvertently snubbing not just a London hotel worker but also someone who would remember the slight until the very end of his long and unusually disruptive life, he might at least have found time in his schedule for a brief interview. After World War II, Cung relocated to Hanoi and in due course became the president of the Communist-led, one-party state of North Vietnam, having meanwhile taken the nom de guerre of Ho Chi Minh, which loosely translates as “Bringer of Light.”

The Great War Revisited

The folk memory of the so-called Great War—at least in the Allied countries—is of an aggressive and nationalist Germany provoking her European neighbors into four years of futile butchery amid the mud and blood of the Western Front. It is a caricature, if one with a grain of truth. In fact, right up until the declaration of hostilities the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg pursued a policy of what he called “limitation and localization.” As late as July 31, 1914, Bethmann Hollweg proposed a European congress in order to avoid what he correctly foresaw would be “the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever known.” But by then the reflexive steps arising from a system of continental alliances and rivalries had assumed an unstoppable momentum.

“The zealots and the crackpots were well represented; the city thronged with them,” a British observer wrote.

It remains debatable whether the carnage of 1914–18 arose from any fundamental philosophical or ideological rift between the main combatants. But it is undeniable that the war itself produced dramatic change. It was—literally—revolutionary, as events in Russia in 1917 confirmed. And its eventual settlement at the Paris Peace Conference was no less transformative. When the senior German representative was presented with the Allies’ demands in June 1919, his shock was palpable. It would be easier to say, “Germany renounces its existence,” he remarked.

The victors of the war also sought to impose order on a mass of regional disputes and simmering ethnic tensions, like that in Cung’s Vietnam, in the process giving shape to ideals that are still familiar today: the rule of international law, the value of global assemblies, the sanctity of human rights and the belief that liberal democracy should be the basis for progress. These concepts were not widely accepted in the pre-1914 European order.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed at the Paris Peace Conference, brought about other changes, too. It broke all the ancient European empires, with the notable exception of Britain’s, thrust the United States forward as a superpower and inadvertently laid the seeds for the still-continuing conflicts in the Middle East. It also fomented revolutionary change in countries that felt themselves unfairly treated or inadequately rewarded as a result of the war.

It remains debatable whether the carnage of 1914–18 arose from any fundamental philosophical or ideological rift between the main combatants.

In March 1922, a young Italian journalist-turned-politician wrote in the magazine Gerarchia that the Paris treaty was “shameful.” Just nine months later, Benito Mussolini arrived in London at the head of a black-shirted delegation to an international conference on Germany’s failure to pay the full war reparations imposed on it three years earlier.

Mussolini thought the treaty as a whole was fatally flawed and successfully agitated for Italian withdrawal from the League of Nations. The future dictator was not interested in greeting-card pleas for world peace nor in promoting the brotherhood of man.“It is not a question of making men equal,” he had written in the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia in 1918, “but of establishing with fortitude hierarchies and discipline…. It is a question of organizing the state, to ensure the greatest collective and social well-being.”

‘Somebody Had to Pay’

Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, ensured that the Paris Peace Conference opened on the anniversary of the coronation in 1871 of Wilhelm I as the first kaiser of a united Germany. This gesture set the tone for the five months of debate that followed: Of the Big Four leaders, Clemenceau was the one most clearly set upon not just Germany’s disarmament but her humiliation. He clashed in this regard with President Wilson, whose Fourteen Points, and his earlier proclamation when he took his country into war that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Clemenceau viewed as hopelessly idealistic.

“I can get on with you,” the Frenchman told Wilson’s “fixer,” the diplomat Edward House. “You are practical. I understand you, but talking to your boss is something like talking to Jesus Christ.” In time, Franco-American relations at Paris deteriorated to the point that Wilson ordered his ship to be made ready for an immediate departure. His threat caused a sensation. “Peace Talks at Crisis,” read The New York Times headline.

Wilson stayed, but the fundamental breach in the Allied ranks at Paris was never resolved. In due course this tension reached its climax over the contentious matter of German reparations. On one level, the issue was straightforward. As the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George later distilled it: “Somebody had to pay. If Germany could not pay, it meant the British taxpayer had to pay. Those who ought to pay were those who caused the loss.”

On another level, of course, the process was dementedly complicated. Were “reparations” merely an estimate for the physical ravages of the war, or were they also a punitive fine on the losers? As the historian Margaret Macmillan later wrote in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World: “Should [reparations] include uncollected taxes or earnings lost because of invasion, death or damage? Pensions to widows and orphans? Compensation for animals that had died when their owners fled?” If so, it was an incalculable sum, although the victors eventually hit upon the figure of 132 billion gold marks ($33 billion in U.S. dollars at the time, or roughly $500 billion today) to cover the material damage caused during the war. Of this, Germany was required to pay 50 billion marks unconditionally, while a future Allied committee would convene to review the outstanding balance.

On June 16, 1919, the German delegation in Paris was informed that they had three days to accept the terms of the treaty presented to them, or else their country would be invaded. 

On June 16, 1919, the German delegation in Paris was informed that they had three days to accept the terms of the treaty presented to them, or else their country would be invaded and in all likelihood be broken up into a patchwork of states—some under Bolshevik rule, others under right-wing dictatorships. For months beforehand, Germans of all stripes had clung to Wilson’s Fourteen Points like shipwreck survivors to a raft, apparently in the belief that the Paris conference was primarily in business to formulate a new European forum like the League of Nations, not to settle old scores. Their delegates had brought with them trainloads of documents and maps for negotiations that never took place. As well as the reparations, the treaty also included, in Article 231, a clause that would come to be the object of particular loathing in Germany and to represent a political rallying point a generation later. It read:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Blaming the Peacemakers

A century later, many commentators still blame the peacemakers of 1919 for everything that subsequently went wrong in Europe. “The final crime” of the war, The Economist declared in its issue of Dec. 31, 1999, was “the Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms would ensure a second war.” This is perhaps too great an emphasis on the material bill presented to the Germans at Paris, relatively little of which was ever collected.

The actual schedule of payments was pushed ever further into the future, and, under the terms of the Lausanne Conference of 1932, cancelled altogether, with a final, single request for 3 billion marks in cash and kind. The historian Niall Ferguson has estimated that Germany paid no more than a total of 19 billion marks over the course of 13 years, and that this represented only 2.4 per cent of its national income over the period. There was no inevitable link between the financial penalties imposed in 1919 and the outbreak of renewed European hostilities 20 years later.

Adolf Hitler could, and did, use the provisions of the Paris treaty as a potent propaganda tool when it came to convincing the German people that they had been wronged in 1919. But there was nothing in the treaty about Germany’s treatment of her Jewish minority, nor about her relations with Poland or Czechoslovakia, let alone her coexistence with Bolshevik Russia. These were issues that Hitler would have forced to the surface even had the word “reparations” never been heard at Paris. He mobilized the resentments of ordinary Germans about their living conditions in the early 1930s without ever demonstrating—for he could not have done so—that they had been crushed by a vindictive peace process.

There was no inevitable link between the financial penalties imposed in 1919 and the outbreak of renewed European hostilities 20 years later.

Hitler’s success, if it can be called that, was to rouse a nation more obviously affected by the short-term consequences of the global economic depression than by the fitfully collected penalties levied on them by a treaty signed more than a generation earlier. There were no banners on the streets of Berlin protesting the peacemakers of 1919 when war broke out in 1939.

Of course, the Allied delegates who signed the treaty in Paris on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, made mistakes. Some of their attempts to redraw national borders in the Middle East and Africa threw together peoples who in some cases have still not managed to fully integrate themselves into a unified, civil society. In retrospect, they needlessly handed Hitler and his adherents a gift in the rhetoric that accompanied the notional terms of reparations. The Nazis later used the language of Article 231 to attack the peace settlement as a whole. The widely held assumption that the financial penalties imposed on Germany crippled that nation’s ability to function as a self-supporting, democratic state owes more to myth than reality, however. In the end Germany paid about 14 percent of her total obligations, and for the most part simply ignored the military disarmament clauses of the treaty. The overriding failure of the Allied peacemakers at Paris was one of a lack of willpower, not of humanity.

In hindsight, perhaps the greatest single mistake of the four major powers at the Paris conference was not so much their vindictive treatment of the vanquished Germany. It lay, instead, in the West’s offhand attitude toward the non-European world, where they stirred up resentments that lingered for decades to come.

Following his rebuff by President Wilson, Ho Chi Minh left his position at the Carlton Hotel and joined a group of expatriate Vietnamese nationalists living in France. In time he came to the attention of the new Soviet Comintern, who arranged for him to study at the suggestively named Communist University of the Toilers of the East in downtown Moscow. When Minh emerged from this institution, he was able to return to Vietnam to quickly assemble a guerilla force to press for national independence. This probably marked the point at which a wholly peaceful coexistence of Western and ethnic Vietnamese interests in the area became impossible.

When questioned by a reporter about the likely future course of the struggle, the former kitchen helper replied simply: “Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
arthur mccaffrey
1 month ago

and the point of this article is........?

Joan Sheridan
1 month ago

All my life I heard about Wilson's 14 points. My father a young man in Ireland thought it would help Ireland. Even as a proud American he was still disappointed. Only in reading this article do I realize they were never passed.

James Mullin
1 month ago

“Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.” This quote by Ho Chi Minh certainly doesn't agree with the patriot portrait of "Uncle Ho" that the anti-war American press - AND Catholic hierarchy - led with during the Vietnam War.

Joe Mcmahon
4 weeks 1 day ago

What a vast topic! Yes, thank you, Mr. Sandford for explaining how the enormous bill for reparations served mainly as a false narrative. One of my interests is how some faction (Wilson?) enlarged the new nation of Czechoslovakia by padding its borders with folk who did not want to be inside: Not only the Sudeten Germans, but Hungarians along the south, and Ruthenians and Ukrainians on the east. There may have been Poles snagged on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. If Wilson believed in self-determination, he ignored Irish nationalists. One also needs to mention the decisions made after the Upper Silesia plebiscite of 1921. A friend who was young in Hitler's Germany used Silesia as the excuse for Hitler's 1939 attack on Poland.

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