USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Paris 1919 II: European Territory

Woodrow Wilson came to Europe with an agenda—his so-called Fourteen Points. One of the points, as we saw above, was that military aggression was chiefly the domain of autocratic states and that the war was fought to “make the world safe for democracy,” in other words to rid the world of old-fashioned top-down empires. The “people,” for Wilson, would never have brought the world to war as their unelected leaders had done. A second fundamental principle for Wilson stemmed from the notion of inherent nationalism. Each “people,” according to Wilson, strove for independence and control over its political affairs. Each people, in other words, needed a nation. This idea was the underlying rationale for the “self-determination” of peoples, perhaps the most famous and most powerful of Wilson’s principles. National self-determination meant that all those groups within the older multi-ethnic empires deserved and required political agency and territory. But this also meant defining which territories belonged to whom. It meant drawing borders, inscribing boundaries. It meant carving up Europe at the negotiating table in Paris as the European powers had in Africa. It was a task that by definition meant that there would be winners and losers, that there would be animosities between claimants, that there would be dislocations on the ground.

In general, there were three main outcomes of this move to realize the ideal of national self-determination. First, the territories of the Central Powers were radically reduced. The Ottomans lost everything and eventually remade themselves as the nation of Turkey under new leadership. The Austrians were reduced to a tiny nation-state in the heart of central Europe, now smaller even than neighbors it once ruled from Vienna. Hungary lost territory to Romania, Serbia, and Czechoslovakia. And, of course, Germany lost everything it had gained on the eastern front, large sections of former Prussia (to Poland), Alsace and Lorraine, and other smaller areas. Perhaps the most contentious element from the German point of view was the isolation of East Prussia, now totally cut off from Germany proper, an island in a newly created Polish sea. New states—new creations—now defined central Europe: the state of Yugoslavia in the Balkans, the joining of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia into Czechoslovakia, the reconstitution of Poland, an independent Hungary, Austria, an expanded Romania, the creation of the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. As we will see in a later chapter, this territorial division was deep, traumatic, bloody, and resulted in, or exacerbated, conflicts lasting until this very day.

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