Lessons from Versailles

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Lessons from Versailles

In the autumn of 1918, World War I entered its final stage and Germany realized defeat was near. On Nov. 8, Bavaria established its own republican government, and German Emperor Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands in the morning the following day.

At 5 a.m. Nov. 11, two representatives of Germany met Marshal Foch, the supreme commander of Allied armies, in the forest of Compiegne and signed an official document that ended the war. Six hours thereafter, cease-fire orders were delivered to all military units.

When the news reached civilians, people across London, Paris and Rome poured into the streets to celebrate. They danced and sang just as they had done four years earlier when war was declared.

In the aftermath of the war, the victorious countries wanted compensation for the many sacrifices they endured during the war. They demanded that Germany pay for its “wickedness” in blood and money.

David Lloyd George, who led the Liberals in the 1918 general elections in the United Kingdom, campaigned under the slogans “Hang the Kaiser!” and “Make Germany Pay!” One of his party members stumped around the country saying, “Let’s squeeze the lemon called Germany as hard as we can.”

The Allies called the war a “crusade against evil,” and this was reflected in the language of the peace treaty.

Ninety-one years ago this week, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in a suburb of Paris. It was exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which had led to the outbreak of the war.

The treaty was highly controversial among Germans. After having lost the war, they were humiliated to have to give the enormous reparations and territory requested of them. Germany was supposed to pay 132 billion marks (then $31.4 billion) - an amount that economists said would take them until 1988 to pay.

Article 231, or the “War Guilt Clause,” especially evoked the rage of the Germans. The clause asked Germany to accept full responsibility for starting the war and laid the blame of all of the losses and damages the Allies sustained during the war on Germany.

To rub salt into their wounds, the victors used particularly harsh language when translating this clause into German.

The goal of the Treaty of Versailles was to pacify and permanently weaken Germany. But the hostility Germans felt toward the Allies because of the peace treaty paved the way for the rise of the Nazis.

The treaty provides us with a lesson that still resonates today: Retaliation that goes beyond the bounds of common sense will bring about an even bigger conflict.

*The writer is a professor of history education at Woosuk University.


By Park Sang-ik
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