Treaty of Versailles: 90 years old this weekend

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The Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the victorious Entente powers was signed 90 years ago this weekend. Can the details of the settlement at the end of a war almost now beyond living memory still have any relevance for us?

Without the events of 11/9 (the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989) and 9/11 (the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001), it might have been easier to suggest that the results of the Paris Peace Conference and the subsequent gatherings that formally concluded the First World War had indeed faded into the background.

Even then, however, the widely held view that Versailles, and the other treaties signed in palaces in the Parisian suburbs in 1919 and 1920, held a key responsibility for the outbreak of a new major war in 1939 and hence for its consequences, might still have offered important reasons for reconsidering their negotiation and results. But there are more compelling contemporary reasons. When Woodrow Wilson came to Paris, the first American president in office to travel to Europe, liberal intellectuals like John Maynard Keynes or Harold Nicolson expected him to use America's overwhelming economic, financial and industrial muscle, backed by a growing military presence, to enforce the ideals he had articulated in his 1918 speeches, most famously the Fourteen Points. He disappointed them, but Richard Nixon still chose his portrait to hang in the White House Cabinet Room, and George Bush Senior and Junior, as well as Bill Clinton, invoked Wilsonian ideals about the role of democracy in creating peace to justify the use of military force. As Henry Kissinger acknowledged"Whenever America has faced the task of constructing a new world order, it has returned in one way or another to Woodrow Wilson's precepts".

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