Tuesday 20 February 2018

Revisiting Versailles

History: A Perfidious Distortion of History: The Versailles Peace Treaty and the Success of the Nazis, Jürgen Tampke, Scribe, hdbk, 328 pages, €28

Divided opinion: signing of the Treaty Of Versailles in 1918
Divided opinion: signing of the Treaty Of Versailles in 1918
A Perfidious Distortion of History
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

A provocative new book argues against the prevailing view that the harsh treatment of Germany in the wake of the First World War was to blame for the rise of Nazism.

It is one of the great ironies of the modern era that the country which was most damaged in the Second World War, and, gallingly, the one that  clearly started it, is today the most successful nation in Europe.

Indeed, such is the success of Germany as a sophisticated economic powerhouse that it is now the engine of Europe, and certainly of the EU, over which it presides as a reluctant master. With the relative decline of France, and the withdrawal of Britain, this has become even more the case.

But this was not so desired. As a former German Ambassador to Ireland once told me, Germany is now exactly where it didn't want to be in Europe - 'in the driving seat'.

Given the recent past and the appalling atrocities inflicted by Nazi Germany, this is the feeling that many would have shared, even if a thoroughly tamed, cautious, successful and humane Germany is actually exactly what one would now want in dealing with an aggressive Russia, unpredictable America and a fractious and still unreformed Eastern Europe. Yes, those German-inspired ECB bailouts have been punitive but the alternative does not bear thinking about.

It is by sheer political gravity that Germany comes to dominate Europe again, but it was not the plan, and certainly not the plan of the rightly retiring West Germans and their loyal role on the NATO front line.

This is doubly ironic given how, up to this, Germany had actually sought to dominate Europe, fuelling two world wars. According to Jürgen Tampke, this desire to be in 'the driving seat' and to take territory from its neighbours goes right back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the creation of a culture of expansionist militarism which defined Germany for the subsequent 70 years.

Having lost out on the colonies carve-up, Germany (only united since 1871) sought to compensate by building a big navy, a large standing army and a craving for more territory, especially in the east. 'Lebensraum' did not begin with the Nazis, and nor did many other features of German militarism, such as the cruelty against civilian populations and destruction of recently departed territory.

Tampke argues that this aggression led to the First World War and then, when Germany was thwarted, continued on into the Nazis and the Second World War. Of course, this militarism was fed by a huge sense of grievance at the apparently punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1918, which settled the outcome of WW1. But Tampke argues that, far from such resentment being the central reason for the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War, the desire for German militarism was always there.

Indeed, for many, the Versailles Treaty didn't go far enough and its terms were neatly side-stepped, or simply not honoured, by the cunning and non-contrite Germans. The Germans continued re-arming and evading reparations. This was certainly the view of the French, but not of the British, where a forgiving and more lenient view immediately set in, led by 'constructive' diplomats and academics such as the economist John Maynard Keynes, and then by the British Premier Lloyd George himself.

The United States, which presided over the Versailles talks, was torn between the two perspectives, but also wanted German co-operation in a new, peaceful world order. Woodrow Wilson is a key figure here, with his Fourteen Points.

But unlike the US, France and Belgium had suffered huge physical damage, including the wanton destruction wrought by the occupying Germans, as well as theft of assets and machinery. (None of the war was fought on German soil.)

The view of Lloyd George, which has become the prevailing view, is that the combatants of the First World War 'slid into' conflict, in a chain reaction following the infamous shooting of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.

Tampke has a particular problem with this phrase, but in fact it is a fair and accurate one. The fact that the Germans were bellicose and wanted war does not change it. He also stresses how much it did not suit the UK to get involved in such a war, but that didn't prevent the British from acting with divine imperialism (or a sense of duty and protection) and taking a plunge that would be catastrophic. English nationalism is a powerful and unquestioning force. Just look at Brexit.

There is also the fact that the Versailles Treaty attributed primary 'war guilt' (Kriegsschuld) to Germany, something which really enraged the Germans, and with some justification: it is a strange and excessive concept, with limited and mixed effect. Would the blame have been so harsh if the Austro- Hungarian empire hadn't collapsed and was around to share the blame?

However, Tampke is right to stress the unrepentant war aims of the Germans and, with the notorious Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, a rapacious Germany shamefully managed to force Russia, weakened by revolution, to surrender huge swathes of its own territory and resources. No 'moderation' there.

It is interesting to compare the aftermath of the two world wars. After 1945, Germany was allowed to rebuild quickly and even, in 1955, to re-arm - even though there were many voices, especially American, who wanted to crush the industrial Germans into the clay.

In fairness, the Germans were (unlike in 1918) mostly contrite after the Nazi horrors, but there was also a growing international feeling that crushing surrenders and punitive reparations were not the way to build future security and stability. Interestingly, it is a philosophy which holds good for much smaller conflicts today, such as indeed in the North and now in Colombia (but not in Israel/Palestine). Punishing one's enemy is often just a recipe for building him up.

This is a fascinating and provocative re-assessment of one of the great conventional wisdoms of recent history, made all the more compelling by the Australian-based author's forceful and often witty delivery.

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