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A century after the Treaty of Versailles, its anniversary passes largely unobserved

Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919 (candid photo) From left:  Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britain) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson -  Edward N. Jackson (US Army Signal Corps) - U.S. Signal Corps photo, Public Domain
Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919 (candid photo) From left: Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britain) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson - Edward N. Jackson (US Army Signal Corps) - U.S. Signal Corps photo, Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons

The treaty that formally ended the First World War was widely seen as a failure, but to forget about it is to risk romanticizing the war

One hundred Junes ago, the world had a go at ensuring peace for Europe. Heads of state convened in a palace in the suburbs of Paris and tried to resolve 51 months of war. One of the products of the meeting, the Treaty of Versailles, is now treated as a failure.

“I think that Versailles is tinged almost forever with this kind of air of disillusionment and sorrow that all that suffering didn’t lead to something more conclusive and inspiring,” says Ian McKay, director of the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. “So maybe that’s why we’re not celebrating the anniversary.”

June 28 marks the centennial of the signing of the treaty, the document that formally ended the First World War. It was a product of the Paris Peace Conference, which also created the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. The treaty focused on Germany, to which it assigned new borders and — most controversially — blame for the war.

Other centenaries of the Great War have attracted great ceremony. For the anniversary of the D-Day landings earlier this month, the Armistice in November 2018 and the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined other world leaders in France.

The Prime Minister is not marking the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles; his office says Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will post about it on social media. The lack of celebration could be explained by the treaty’s failures. It is criticized for being too harsh on Germany and contributing to its aggression in the 1930s and ’40s. The treaty also did not prevent wars in the Balkans, Turkey and Eastern Ukraine. Still, some historians urge people to remember the treaty not so much to learn from it as to prevent them from romanticizing the war’s legacy.

“What Versailles really did was humiliate Germany,” says McKay. “I really appreciate people who want to say, ‘Okay, thank goodness our boys died for something heroic and noble, and the world is a better place as a result of it.’ I would really love to believe that, but when you look soberly at the history of the 20th century, maybe 90 million deaths caused as a direct application of warfare, it’s hard for me to draw that optimistic conclusion.”

The treaty’s most famous clause is Article 231, known as the “war guilt clause.” It affirmed “the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected.”

This clause is criticized for contributing to German sentiments that in turn contributed to Hitler’s rise, although some historians reject the idea that the treaty caused the Second World War, says Catherine Lu, a political science professor at McGill University. She says the construction of the League of Nations enabled colonial order to continue, and the shortfalls of the Paris peace process point to the formidable challenge of settling wartime accounts.

“This is sobering because the architects of Versailles really wanted to create the conditions for peace, but at the same time there were flaws in the way they designed the institutions,” she says.

Violence also arose from less famous treaties that were part of the Paris Peace Treaties, signed between 1919 and 1923. The Treaty of Lausanne included the forced transfer of Greek Orthodox Christians to Greece and the Muslim population in Greece to Turkey. This transfer set a precedent for forced population transfers until after the Second World War.

“This idea of national self-determination was rising, and this idea led to the idea that a nation sort of required a homogenous population ethnically,” Lu says.

The Canadian War Museum held a conference in mid-June to mark the centenary of the end of the conflict, but Lu is not aware of any commemorative events on June 28. Nor is McKay of McMaster University. He refers to the treaty as, “the forgotten foundational moment,” which at the time provided “missed opportunities galore, but no great breakthrough to a better world.”

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