This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and we should reflect on the “lessons” we have been taught so often on how to avoid another such devastating conflict. Chief among them seems to be the canard that the Versailles Treaty of 1919 that officially ended the war caused a far worse one just 20 years later — usually in the sense of an unnecessary harshness accorded a defeated Imperial Germany.
But how true is that common argument of what John Maynard Keynes called a “Carthaginian peace”?
Carthage, remember, was truly emasculated after the Second Punic War and utterly razed after the Third; in contrast, Germany was mostly humiliated after 1919. Indeed, Versailles was mild compared with what Germany had subjected France to in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian war — and yet a vengeful France did not preempt Germany in pursuit of payback over the ensuing half-century. The humiliating terms that Germany forced upon Russia at Brest-Litosvk in 1918 were far harsher than anything that Germany suffered at Versailles, and yet did it not lead to Russian insurgencies against Germany, much less lasting enmity between the two states. Just 21 years later, Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact.
Perhaps the most draconian envisioned treaty in the history of Europe was what Germany might well have intended to inflict on a defeated France and Belgium, had the former won the war in 1914 — the infamous Septemberprogramm proposal, which, if adopted, would have redrawn the entire map of Western Europe. And what the Allies in 1945 demanded of a defeated Germany would have been considered unthinkable in 1919; and yet we have not had a World War III in the ensuing 70 years....