Treaty to stabilize peace instead helped provoke a second global war

It’s common knowledge that the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 – enacted 103 years ago today – ceased First World War hostilities. A global conflict that in part stemmed from the pistol shots of a Serbian nationalist four years before resulted in a staggering 68 million military and civilian casualties between 1914-18.

Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo helped trigger the First World War, subsequently bringing the interconnected alliances sided with either Serbia or Austria-Hungary to face off against one another in the form of the Allied and Central Powers. And while the Treaty of Versailles would bring the war to its final conclusion when it was signed exactly five years after Ferdinand’s death, it also served as a major contributor in causing the Second World War.

By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed after four years of fighting a costly war in every extent of the term on multiple fronts, Germany was already in economic ruin. And as punishment for its role as the main belligerent, the German Empire was to pay dearly in war reparations to the prevailing countries of the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia). Paid dearly to the tune of 132 billion German gold marks – the 1921 equivalent of US$442 billion today. Additionally, the German army was required to largely disarm and reduce to inconsequential numbers, and the country was also forced to concede extensive territory to the French in particular.

Hyper-inflation soared in Germany, as did unemployment and starvation. There’s a famous photograph taken in the early 1920s of a German woman heading to the market to purchase a loaf of bread with a wheelbarrow filled with virtually worthless marks. It was scenes like this that were taken in closely by an Austrian-born German army veteran by the name of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was a lot of things, and his greatest strength early on in his political career was his oration proficiency and ability to manipulate a crowd. He used the Treaty of Versailles as a rallying cry for Germans wronged by the Allies, the communists, and their own government, which Hitler always believed ‘stabbed its army in the back’ when it agreed to the ceasefire and the halt in fighting when the First World War wasn’t technically lost.

He also saw Germany’s de-militarization as a national humiliation that left the country defenseless against its enemies. Hitler would of course later reverse that course by accelerating military buildup first in secret, then blatantly in defiance of the Treaty when he would obtain real power within the German government years later, and the rest of the world watched without intervening until it was nearly too late. The Nazis could not be ignored any further after Sept. 1, 1939, when the German blitzkrieg rolled into Poland and the Second World War officially began.

It’s a great historical irony that a document intended to heal the wounds of one catastrophic global war directly sowed the seeds in starting another one that was considerably worse measured in terms of lives lost.

The Treaty of Versailles in many ways effectively became a revenge tool for the Allied Powers against Germany in particular, while alienating other nations that would later take on significant roles in the Second World War.

Italy was technically allied with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire when the First World War broke out, but the Mediterranean nation had a hidden agenda to seize territories ruled by neighbouring Austria-Hungary. Relating back to a secret pact it had signed with France over a decade earlier, Italy officially announced its alliance with the Entente in 1915, in return for the territorial gains it coveted should the war be won in their favour.

Upon the signing of Versailles, Italian nationalists were angered by the lack of gains the country actually received through it, leading to a rise in fascist popularity and the man at the forefront of that movement in Italy, Benito Mussolini.

Most associate the First World War as battles fought in the trenches along the Western Front in the French countryside. But it was very much a global war. European colonies extended throughout the world at this time, and resources from the Far East and the Pacific nations were vital in the war effort.

Japan became a key player on the world stage because of its growing naval presence in the Pacific and its effectiveness at disrupting the shipping and naval strength of the Central Powers. Japan had already proven itself to be more than capable militarily when it whipped Russia in the short-lived Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

So when it came time for the details of Versailles to be hammered out, the Japanese expected to play a significant part at the negotiating table, and take its deserved place in the League of Nations as an emerging world power.

One of its biggest requests to be included in the Treaty was a racial equality proposal that would see itself on more of a level playing field amongst the predominantly white European and North American-led governments. Japan’s proposal was ultimately rejected by the U.S., Great Britain and Australia, which really came as little surprise considering what those countries were dealing with in terms of racial inequality on their respective domestic fronts and colonies. This rejection in part helped lead Japan through a wave of post-war nationalism and an industrial boom that created one of the world’s most feared navies and air forces, branches of their military that would display their might 20 years later in the Japanese Pacific occupation campaign.

A campaign that would lead the island nation on a collision course with the Pacific’s other naval power, the United States.

Some historians may argue that the Second World War was inevitable given the political unrest in so many parts of the world during the early to mid 20th century. The Treaty of Versailles certainly played its part, and the ripple effect that came of it helped shape the global landscape for the next century.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you back here in a fortnight.

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This is a bi-weekly opinion column; for question or comment contact Dan McNee at dmcnee@midwesternnewspapers.com.

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