Getting to grips with history
What strong opinion did Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler have in common? They both emphatically disapproved of the Versailles Treaty, which set out peace terms after the end of the First World War.
Negotiations for the Treaty began 92 years ago in January 1919, and it was eventually signed on June 28, 1919. Under its provisions Germany had to accept sole responsibility for the War; it lost substantial territory in both the West and the East, had restrictions imposed on its armed forces, and was obliged to pay compensation (‘reparations’); the latter amounted to 132 billion Marks (over €300 billion in today’s money), and the final payment was not made until September 2010.
The Versailles Treaty continues to determine the borders of what we might call Western Europe; the East was set by the Potsdam Treaty after World War 2, and by the post-Communist re-arrangements after 1989. But beyond that, Versailles is the basis, good and bad, for what became of Europe. It became the issue on which Hitler built his career, and in turn the actions of the ‘Third Reich’ and their consequences determined pretty much everything that followed. Indeed if, as some argue, Europe is in terminal decline, Versailles is possibly also connected with that.
Versailles clearly did not excuse the terrible things Hitler did, but did it create the conditions whereby he was able to do them? This issue is still debated by historians, and there are two schools of thought: those who argue that the Treaty’s excessively harsh and unreasonable terms set up the disasters that were to follow; and those who believe that the Treaty’s terms were rather mild and could, if anything, be faulted in that they didn’t dismantle German power enough. And then, did Germany alone cause the First World War? Or could it be said that all the original combatants were equally responsible?
Whatever version of history may be right, it seems to me to be clear that the Treaty of Versailles is one of the most important documents of recent European history, and I am regularly amazed at how few people know anything at all about it. Maybe it is felt that the European Union put an end to the tensions and currents that made Versailles significant. But as the European project comes under stress, it may be important for us to understand how we all got here, and what dangers and risks are out there should everything fall apart. It is time for Versailles to get a little more attention.