When Peace Gives Way to War

“The Second World War took place not so much because no one won the First, but because the Versailles Treaty did not acknowledge this truth.” Paul Johnson, British Historian

One hundred years ago today in Versailles, France, a weary group of some sixty diplomats signed a 240-page “Treaty of Peace” which formally ended World War I.  The terms were so complex, and composed in so much anger, that virtually no signer was happy with the final document.  Nor were their represented nations.  Military hostilities may have ended that day, but resentments began to simmer, and would approach a boiling point not too many years in the future.  As Pat Buchanan summed it up, the treaty “had created not only an unjust but an unsustainable peace.”  One political cartoonist of 1919 made the eerie prediction that infants born at the time would be cannon fodder for a new war in 1940, thanks to the disastrous terms of the treaty signed in 1919.  He was right.  World War II erupted right on schedule and mowed down some 25 million young soldiers, and another 80 million civilians.  That war involved all those nations which signed the treaty and led to the slaughter of the Jews and tens of millions of Christians, the devastation of Europe, Stalinization of half the continent, the fall of China to Maoist madness, and half a century of Cold War.

What can be learned from the errors of Versailles?

1.       Pride and childish bickering can lead to serious, long-term, kinetic war.  The same vices can lead to useless peace treaties which make no peace.  Then the same vices create new wars.

2.       The details of treaties which bind nations to policy positions are always religious.  Justice is a religious concept, and the rules of jurisprudence are always based on someone’s morality.  The general thrust of the treaty was “War is bad and we must punish those Germans for starting the war we willingly joined to fight.”  One war-guilt clause forced the Germans to pay out some $400 billion in reparations, which took them more than 90 years to complete.  This debt did not prevent them from embarking on a new war in the 1930s.

3.       The religious content of all treaties can shape the religious identity of nations.  Versailles was a game-changing document.  The great historian Paul Johnson said “at Versailles, the 20th century was set on its course. And its course was set on the basis of 3 great overriding principles that threw out all of the traditions of Christendom, perhaps forever.”

Johnson identifies those principles as bureaucracypluralism, and faith in contemporaneity.  What this means is that the peace delegations were not looking for moral solutions from the foundations of Christianity.  They were looking for modern solutions to problems of anger, conflict, and disagreement.  They were looking for modern schemes to manage the childish bickering going on between proud nations.  The architects of the treaty believed that new-fangled ideas of scientific social engineering, managed by secular governments, would solve all modern problems.  These 3 principles were ideas which had consequences.   The incredible repression and violence seen throughout the 20th century’s secular regimes brought in fresh opportunities for unending global war.  

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