David A Andelman: Versailles, 1919-2009: a new world order’s legacy

Roundup: Talking About History

[David A Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (Wiley, 2007) ]

The real roots of many major recent and current political events - the convulsions surrounding Iran's Islamic regime, the bloody troubles in neighbouring Iraq, the ethnic cleansing and mass murders in the Balkans, even numerous wars and uprisings from Palestine to Indochina - lie in a ceremony that occurred ninety years ago. This was the gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, outside Paris, on 28 June 1919, when the representatives of the victors in the first world war dictated the terms of peace to the quivering representatives of Germany's Kaiser.

"The stillest three minutes ever lived through were those in which the German delegates signed the Peace Treaty", the New York Times correspondent Charles A Selden reported in next morning's newspaper. As American delegate George Louis Beer wrote in his diary, "Two German delegates [were] led like felons into the room to sign their doom. It was like the execution of a sentence."

But it was no less an execution for the billion or more innocent people in territories whose borders were so cavalierly rearranged by the delegates in the fraught months of negotiation that preceded this signing. For the document called the Treaty of Versailles dramatically transformed the world and set the stage for so many contemporary problems (see A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today [Wiley, 2007]).

This treaty, largely forgotten even as the world has so frequently been forced to cope with its consequences, set up a new system of global governance. The victors in what was then known as the Great War were effectively empowered to maintain, indeed expand, a series of entrenched, though already fading global empires.

When the Allied powers arrived in Paris at the end of 1918, barely days after the Armistice that brought an end to hostilities was signed on 11 November, they proclaimed themselves "the world's government" for the period they were assembled in Paris. So for the next six months, the statesmen of the victorious powers - America's Woodrow Wilson, France's Georges Clemenceau, Britain's David Lloyd George, Italy's Vittorio Orlando, even Japan's Viscount Sutemi Chinda - proceeded to redraw the map of vast stretches of the planet. They created a host of new nations with little understanding - and barely a nod to the wishes or desires, prejudices or fears - of the people who lived within the new boundaries they were marking with blurry blue pencils, often in the wee hours of the morning. ...

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