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

Paris 1919 Part IV: Perpetual Peace

Perhaps the most famous or infamous signature applied to the First World War was the “war to end all wars.” This was a deeply held belief and was reflected in Wilson’s Fourteen Points and his call for the establishment of global governance in the form of the League of Nations, a body charged with mediating disputes in the conference rooms instead of the battlefields. The League was also meant to drag foreign policy out of the secrecy of backrooms and into the open for all to see. Secrecy led to paranoia, which had led to massive bloodshed. Openness, thought Wilson, would maintain the peace.

That the vision of peace broke down within a generation of 1919 has cast a dark shadow on the work of the diplomats in Paris and especially on the leadership: Clemenceau for France, Lloyd George for Britain, and first and foremost Wilson for the United States, whose brainchild, the League, failed to win ratification in the U.S. Senate and excluded both Germany and Soviet Russia, severely crippling the international body. How much of the violence of 1937-1945 can be blamed on Paris 1919? Did Paris 1919 lead Japan to seek equal status as a great power, principally by challenging the West in China and Southeast Asia? Did the exclusion of Bolshevik Russia from the process heighten tensions between Europe and the newly forged Soviet Union? Did Paris 1919 contribute to U.S. isolationism in the 1930s, which was an important precondition to the rise of a heavily militarized Germany in the 1930s?

Did the reparation payments contribute to German instability and economic collapse? Did the new world configuration lead or contribute to the great global economic catastrophe that began in 1929? Did the division of central and southern Europe create the preconditions for a more explosive war—especially between Germany and its neighbors? Did 1919 result in an insatiable German desire for revenge—not only against the allies but also against the internal “traitors,” those “November criminals,” as they were called, who signed the treaty and ushered in the Weimar Republic?

That the treaties to end WWI helped create not peace but an even more destructive war only twenty years later is one of the darkest ironies of modern history. The “war to end all wars” became the staging ground for the biggest human-caused catastrophe in history: World War Two.

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