One hundred years ago as of today World War I officially ended.
And today ends the four-year celebration of this pivoting moment in the world’s history (certainly in the Western World’s history).
Honestly, considering the importance of this event, I was expecting a lot more interest in these four years, but for me, it was indeed a revelation. I had never thought that I would become interested in a war. I normally prefer social history, everyday life. But WWI was everyday life for millions of people in the four years it lasted, and it impacted the everyday life of millions of people in the decades that followed, at least to the end of WWII.
I slid into WWI without realising it. Through my several years of studying 1920s America, the war had hardly touched my research. But as I moved my interest to 1920s Europe, the Great War started to colour everything I research. Every aspect of life in Interwar-Years Europe was touched, impacted, morphed, changed, transformed, and even created by WWI. The Great War had destroyed life as Europeans knew it and it was from the ashes of the Great War that a new Europe arose – in good and bad."One hundred years ago as of today World War I officially ended #WWI #ArmisticeDay100 #LestWeForget Click To Tweet
Some historians go as far as postulating that WWI didn’t end on 11th November 1918. The Armistice was just writing on papers, but in the minds of Europeans (and especially Germans) the war had not ended and kept casting its ominous shadows over everything the European nations did from that point onward to the breaking of another horrible war.
These historians speak of a European Civil War that started with WWI and ended with WWII.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month
For months in 1918, Germans believed that they were about to win the war. If this may have even been true on a strategic level (since Germany technically never lost a battle), the harsh reality of life was that the army was starving, as was the population behind the frontline. The nation was depleted and all her allies had surrendered in the previous few months. In November 1918, Germany had no other choice but accepting that the war was over.
As it was customary, a treaty was written that would dictate the relationship between the belligerent nations after the war. But there was nothing customary about WWI. The Great War had been unlike any previous war. It had brought about an unthinkable conflict that lasted years, not months, and brought to the battlefields weapons and practises that destroyed people in body and mind to a level previously unseen.
All the nations that accepted to sign the Treaty of Versailles carried the scars of that unforeseen hell on earth. All of the politicians that sat at that table expected that the suffering of those years would be acknowledged. But especially on the Allies’ side, the proceedings were dominated by the hard feelings of vengeful electorates. French Premier George Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in particular, made harsher demands of their adversary than they might otherwise have made.
It was an unprecedented situation, and probably nobody was prepared to face it with efficient tools.
In the previous month, US President Woodrow Wilson had proposed Fourteen Points on which to base a ceasefire. This document had been offered to Germany, who even considered it, but then discarded it, assured by her generals that the war would be won. Wilson’s document rested on ideals of collective responsibility and ethnic self-determination, which were lofty and far-sighted but didn’t take into any account the realities of the Great War.
The victorious Allies didn’t have any intention to share the responsibility of war and crafted their treaty on the base that Germany was alone responsible for the massacre and destruction of WWI. They could do this because they crafted the treaty on their own. Germany – that at that time was going through a hard revolution – was never ask to that table. It was therefore easy for the Allies to write their treaty.
Among the four great Allies (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) France was the fiercer one. The Western Front had torn apart the French land and soil and the French population had known war in their very homes. France and Germany had been the major powers in continental Europe for several centuries and had often clashed one against the other. Only fifty years earlier, France suffered a humiliating loss on Germany in the Franco-Prussian Wars, from which the Great German Empire arose.
Britain, who had a great interest in keeping a balance of powers between the nations of continental Europe, made a great effort of mediation. Nevertheless, France succeeded in writing into the treaty many punitive clauses: the complete de-industrialization and demilitarization of Germany, the payment of millions of dollars of reparation, the stripping of all her colonies, the relinquishing of 10% of her territory and the creation of a client state in industrial Rhineland. But the one clause that Germans always resented was the one that was ever after known as the War Guilt Clause.
Germany didn’t take a seat at the table of the writing of the treaty not only because she was not invited, but also because she was trying to settle internal revolution. After the war ended, many political forces called for the abdication of the Emperor (who finally acquiesced) and the creation of a republic, a new political entity which (so the German politicians hoped) would be considered more leniently by the Allies.
When Germany finally joined the treaty concession, though, she found out that not only Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not at the base of the treaty and that nobody considered the new Republic a different entity from the Empire, but that, crippled by her domestic unrest, she had very few possibilities to counter the treaty’s many points.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, as WWI might have officially ended, Germany was cast as the sole nation responsible for the destruction of the Great War.
Not the End of It
Was Germany the only responsible nation for WWI? After one hundred years, historians are still debating it. Many historians consider the breaking out of WWI one of the most enigmatic events in contemporary history, which was triggered by many correlated causes rather than one clear event.
In any case, Germany never accepted that guilt. At the beginning of the XX century, she was chasing the ideal of a pan-German nation that would unite all peoples of German language. That’s what she saw her need for expansion to be: a movement toward a natural state, which after all, even Wilson’s Fourteen Points acknowledged.
Besides, Germany had suffered just like all others for the war. No nation would have accepted to be considered the cause of such destruction as that of WWI.
Still, weakened by internal rebellion and division, the Weimar Republic had to accept the treaty as it was.
Not so her population. Germans always considered the War Guilt Clause a horrible injustice and resented the government that had accepted it. In the years that followed the Treaty of Versailles, all German governments tried to renegotiate the treaty conditions and all opposition parties took advantage from the uneasy position of the republic government, fuelled by the rage and disillusionment of the population.
Adolf Hitler, who was a WWI veteran and one of those soldiers who had believed to the very end that the war would be won, took up that resentment and disillusionment and cast them into words of power and vengeance. Germany would have won WWI if not for the stab in the back from her own politicians. The Weimar government – the “November criminals” as he called it – was the main reasons for the despicable situation Germany found herself in after the war. And the War Guilt Clause was so obviously unjust that anyone with an honest mind would see it.Were the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles the cause of WWII? #ArmisticeDay100 #Armistice100 #ArmisticeCentenary #Armistice #ArmisticeDay #LestWeForget Click To Tweet
Like so many other nationalistic movements but with a greater power of persuasion, Hitler told Germans what they wanted and needed to hear. He capitalised on the widespread resentment of the Treaty and how weak it had made the nation. The national anthem of the Reich “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (Germany, Germany above all else) drew German people together.
Hitler offered easy reasons and solutions to very complex problems to a population who was tired of problems and blame. But there was no true solution in his propositions. In the end, Germany, Europe and ultimately the entire world slid not into a better future, but into a war beyond the War to End All Wars.
Even if they would have never imagined a second Great War, many politicians of the time saw the shortcomings of the Treaty.
“This is not peace. This is an Armistice for twenty years.”Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French General
“The Treaty breath a poisonous spirit of revenge which may yet scorch the fair faces – not of a corner of France, but of Europe.”Jan Christiaan Smuts, South Africa Statement
“The peace to end peace.”Alfred Lord Milner, British Colonial Secretary
Personally, I think history is never this easy and clean-cut. There is never just one cause, just one person. It is always a cluster of different causes and events. The Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles were probably among those causes, but I don’t believe they were the more influential.
What I do think is that the Treaty of Versailles was a lost occasion.
All the nations that sat at the treaty table had suffered the same deprivation, destruction, horrors and fatigue. All of them had lost life as they knew it and faced a future that nobody could envision. They did have an opportunity to create something for the benefit of all their population by working together, as Wilson hoped.
They chose instead to pursue each their goals, which – in the face of the terrible experience – was only human, I understand that. But had they taken up that opportunity to cooperate, we may have never known nationalism and its hate, WWII, the razing down of entire cities, the death of millions of people, the atomic bomb and the holocaust of millions of lives.
Our ancestors didn’t know what they were in for, but we know what happened and can avoid making similar disastrous decisions. After all, twenty years later, in Ventotene, a new spirit arose in the face of another terrible war.
If the Armistice of 1918 – which might have ended the Great War – may ever teach us something, this is it.
Happy Armistice Day
Imperial War Museum – How Did the Armistice End the First World War?
Section 117 – Yes, Germany Did Lose WWI
Channel 4 – How Did the First World War Actually End
Daily History – How did the Versailles Treaty lead to World War Two?
BBC – The Ending of World War One, and the Legacy of Peace
The Treaty of Versailles: The Major Cause of WWII (pdf)
The Atlantic – The Fading Battlefields of World War I
History with a Twist – The Dying Minutes of World War I