Russia, Ukraine and Versailles: Bogus lessons from history won't solve this crisis

NATO's critics summon up the 1919 Treaty of Versailles as a warning not to "punish" Russia. That's fake history

By Mike Lofgren

Contributing Writer

Published August 19, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Ukrainian soldiers take infantry training in Donetsk Oblast as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Ukraine, on August 11, 2023. | Government Officials Drafting the Terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers take infantry training in Donetsk Oblast as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Ukraine, on August 11, 2023. | Government Officials Drafting the Terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Across the political spectrum, a persistent minority of voices insists that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was provoked by the eastward expansion of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s. Others couch their criticism in more nuanced terms, but suggest that Russia should not pay a significant price for its invasion and war crimes, the better to get back to business as usual.

Political scientist John Mearsheimer, a conservative, blames the U.S. and NATO for the invasion. So does Noam Chomsky on the far left, propounding a few historical distortions along the way. Academic gadfly and tax delinquent Cornel West, wading into the unfamiliar waters of foreign policy, claims that NATO expansion "provoked" Russia into attacking Ukraine. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman and public nuisance, hasn't explicitly blamed NATO for the invasion, but her demand that the U.S. cease all aid to Ukraine and withdraw from NATO is a tacit endorsement of the opinion that Kyiv got what it deserved because of its dangerous liaison with America and NATO. The argument has become a leitmotif of the American far left and far right.

A more serious, and subtler, condemnation of current U.S. and NATO policy asserts that an outright military defeat of Russia (meaning the expulsion of Russian forces from all the Ukrainian territories they have seized by force) would be destabilizing and dangerous for the world. The operative phrase is that NATO must not "humiliate" Putin.

Henry Kissinger, our centenarian former secretary of state and self-appointed intermediary with China, has asserted that the West should not force "an embarrassing defeat" on Russia. He also said Ukraine must be prepared to accept Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, which would effectively predetermine the outcome of any future negotiated settlement. Oddly, though, Kissinger has flip-flopped on his previous opposition to Ukraine becoming a NATO member, albeit as a diminished state, with Crimea "subject to negation." That, however, could leave Ukraine vulnerable to a close Russian blockade of its Black Sea grain ports. Kissinger, the ultimate realist, evidently thinks it is acceptable to allow the Russian navy to have its hands around Ukraine's windpipe.

French President Emmanuel Macron, a key leader in the coalition supporting Ukraine, has not gone as far as Kissinger. But on several occasions he has advanced this argument: "We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means." French media, calling Macron a "keen student of history," says "he is also wary of the desire among some allies to punish Moscow for its aggression, citing the Versailles Treaty imposed on a defeated Germany at the end of World War I in 1919." 

Brookings scholar Michael O'Hanlon has offered a more carefully hedged analysis, writing that an overly lenient settlement would give Russia little incentive not to attack again. On the other hand, in decrying hypothetical harsh terms, he also mentions World War I, claiming that "the Versailles peace wound up establishing the predicate for World War II more than producing stability."

Versailles has become a shorthand for critics of NATO's Ukraine policy, from those who think Washington and Brussels should offer Putin soft terms to those who explicitly blame the West for his war of aggression.

This invocation of the Versailles Treaty has become a form of shorthand for many critics of NATO's Ukraine policy, from those who think Washington and Brussels should offer Vladimir Putin soft terms to those who explicitly place moral responsibility on the West for his brutal war of aggression. Versailles has become a metaphor whose supposed "lessons" are that aggressors must not be humiliated or punished. The thesis also slyly shifts blame for criminal behavior from the aggressor to third parties.

The frequent castigation of Versailles in popular histories over the past century has established a narrative implying that seeking justice for international crimes will boomerang, and that wise statesmen should know better. It is a disguised insinuation that the Allied leaders of 1919, by humiliating Germany after four years of ghastly slaughter, paved the way for Hitler, thereby placing at least some of the moral onus on themselves. The so-called lessons of Versailles appeal to many because they are easy to grasp: a simplistic, determinist picture of history moving inexorably in a straight line and devoid of human actions, contingency and the complex interplay of events.

This argument, which reinforces both the purported lessons of history and a shallow realpolitik, falls readily to hand for those eager to accuse the West of provoking the Ukraine war. Supposed Allied triumphalism and harsh punishment of Germany in 1919 appear analogous to the situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when NATO expansion allegedly pushed a shamed and demeaned Russia into the mud. The argument hints that payback is to be expected, and perhaps deserved.

Like the origins of the Cold War, the legacy of the Versailles Treaty has been subject to so much revisionism, tendentious pleading and misinformation that closer examination is warranted. The treaty is called "draconian" (even the website of the Palace of Versailles describes it thus) and a reflection of victors' justice. There is no question that the post-World War I settlement, of which that treaty was a major part, failed to prevent a second, even more disastrous war. But the question is why it failed; after all, treaties are not self-enforcing.

In particular, the treaty's reparations demands were allegedly so crushing that the price was beyond Germany's ability to pay. This issue will be salient if the international community is ever in a position to pressure Russia to repair the vast material damage it has inflicted on Ukraine. (Last November, the UN in fact adopted a resolution calling on Russia to pay reparations.)

Given the widespread belief that World War I was a meaningless great-power bloodbath, the revisionist critique asserts that it was unjust to saddle Germany with guilt for starting the war, since every power involved was responsible. But during the treaty deliberations, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau supposedly quipped that one thing was certain: "The historians will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

Not only in Belgium, but also in the richest and most industrialized part of France, the Germans invaded, systematically plundered, and took many civilians as forced labor. The official German policy against civilians was described as Schrecklichkeit — frightfulness. According to Belgian records, "German soldiers murdered over 6,000 Belgian civilians, and 17,700 died during expulsion, deportation, imprisonment, or death sentence by court." The land was so devastated in Northern France and Belgium that to this day, farmers and construction workers constantly discover unexploded ordnance. It was this vast human and material destruction that reparations were meant to compensate.

The bill presented to Germany came to 132 billion Reichsmarks over 30 years — something like $500 billion in 21st-century dollars. From the beginning, Berlin fell behind on payments, not from an objective inability to pay, but because nearly the entire ruling class — the civil service, the aristocracy, big capital and the political parties — along with the middle class, swallowed the German Army's lies. 

The army general staff had received everything it had demanded during the war, including a virtual dictatorship over the country, yet it botched the job and then washed its hands, passing off the mess to the civilians while claiming it had been "stabbed in the back." Hoodwinked citizens refused to believe Germany had been "genuinely" defeated, choosing to believe instead that political leaders had fallen for the tricks of the Allies and domestic subversives, the most insidious such trick being Versailles.

Despite this intransigence, the Allies, except for France during the first few years, were not unyielding. The Dawes Plan of 1924 issued loans to help restructure Germany's finances, and the Young Plan of 1928 stretched out the reparations payments. In 1932, the Allies granted Germany, which had been continually in arrears on its payment schedule, an indefinite moratorium. By then, Germany had paid less than a sixth of the total reparations due: a pittance compared either to what it spent on the war or the damage sustained in the invaded territories.

Allied actions did not incite the extremism of Weimar Germany that led to Nazi rule; that was the result of an authoritarian society that modernized without gaining a democratic culture.

Did Versailles immiserate Germany? Not exactly. By 1929, its GDP was 12 percent higher than it had been in 1913, the last full prewar year, despite losing two million prime-age male workers in the war, with millions more disabled. What crushed the German economy by the end of the Weimar period was the Great Depression, a storm that swamped all boats: the United States itself was suffering 25 percent unemployment when Hitler came to power. Allied actions did not incite the endemic extremism of Weimar which culminated in Nazi rule; it was the toxic result of a traditionally militarized, authoritarian society that had industrialized and modernized without gaining a democratic culture.

Nor were the territorial clauses as onerous as typically depicted. Alsace-Lorraine, forcibly annexed by Germany in 1871, was returned to France. Formerly German territories awarded to Poland and Denmark had Danish- and Polish-speaking majorities who voted decisively in League of Nations plebiscites that they did not wish to remain with Germany. German speakers in what became Czechoslovakia had never been German subjects.

Both the territorial and indemnity provisions of the treaty were no worse than those Germany had imposed on France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and were vastly more lenient than the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918, in which the brand new Bolshevik regime in Russia was forced to hand over to Germany lands making up 34 percent of its population, 54 percent of its industry, 89 percent of its coalfields and 26 percent of its railways. This outcome warned the Allies what they could expect if Germany won the war.

From the beginning, Germany violated the Versailles clauses intended to prevent it from rearming. The Allies banned German possession of U-boats in view of their massive submarine campaign in the war, which had sunk not just Allied but neutral shipping. In the early 1920s, however, the German Navy secretly used shell companies to establish facilities in Sweden and the Netherlands to test new U-boat designs. Around the same time, the German Army agreed to a technology transfer scheme with the Bolsheviks that allowed the army to test new weapons and tactics at secret sites deep inside the Soviet Union

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The Western powers were aware of most of Germany's secret rearmament schemes, but did nothing to stop them. During the 1920s, they were complacent; by the early 1930s, they were preoccupied with their own economic problems; by 1935, when Hitler formally renounced the treaty, the reaction was silent dread, rationalized by the excuse that maybe Germany had been treated unfairly, and that countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland rightfully belonged in Germany's sphere of influence anyway. It should have been evident by then that the treaty's provisions were not the problem; it was the Allies' lack of will to enforce them. 

This overview of the Versailles Treaty is not merely of antiquarian interest; the same issues arose immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like Germans who were shocked and unaccepting that they had been militarily defeated, many ordinary Russians couldn't believe they had lost the ideological competition with the West. The revanchist mentality of Vladimir Putin, who has said the USSR's demise was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," echoes that of the German militarists of 1919. Independent Ukraine assumed the same position in the minds of Russian revanchists as independent Poland did to the right-wing movements of Weimar: territories unjustly taken from the homeland by fraud and force majeure.

There is a lingering belief, analogous to the notion that reparations exploited Germany economically, that Western countries consciously wielded free-market radicalism to loot the Russian successor state to the Soviet Union during the 1990s. It certainly appears true that many foreign investors and companies took advantage of the Wild West atmosphere of post-collapse Russia to reap huge profits. 

There is a lingering belief that Western countries wielded free-market radicalism to loot Russia after the Soviet collapse. But the rise of Russia's oligarchs was a homegrown phenomenon.

But Russian émigré journalist Arkady Ostrovsky, in his book "The Invention of Russia," explains how that Wild West atmosphere came to exist in the first place. He says that even before the fall of the Communist regime, former KGB operatives had already transformed themselves into oligarchs who divided up the Russian economy like a giant cake. This economic warlordism, like the endemic violence of Weimar, was a homegrown phenomenon, largely resulting from the lack of a democratic culture. By the same token, if Western governments had restricted their nationals from doing business in Russia (which would have amounted to imposing sanctions), the newly opened Russian economy would have been even more starved of capital. No doubt that too would have become a new charge in the critics' bill of indictment against the West.

Those who claim that NATO expansion provoked adverse Russian behavior typically present it as a process initiated and executed by Washington, with the existing and candidate members being passive subjects. This construct ignores the fact that the candidate states of Eastern Europe, many of which had experienced decades or centuries of Russian political domination and even forced Russification, had solid historical reasons for desiring NATO membership, rather than simply trusting in the Kremlin's good intentions. This year's protracted obstruction by Turkey of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden shows that member states are hardly U.S. vassals; had there not been unanimity within NATO, the expansion would not have proceeded.

The "lessons" of the Versailles Treaty are far more complex than the conventional wisdom will admit. On balance, Germany was not treated as a pariah: reparations terms were eased, disarmament violations were winked at and the country was admitted to the League of Nations in 1926. If the Allies had actually enforced the treaty, maintained a tolerable state of military readiness, and concluded mutual assistance agreements with Czechoslovakia and Poland, the most cataclysmic war in history might have been averted.

The invasion of Ukraine is but one component of an extraordinarily complex global crisis that requires the U.S. and its allies to rally global support for defending Ukraine while balancing our overall policies towards Russia and its de facto ally China. How the international community will eventually settle with Russia is an open question, but it should not be determined by a selective and misleading reading of history.

By Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a historian and writer, and a former national security staff member for the House and Senate. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted."

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Commentary History Nato Russia Treaty Of Versailles Ukraine World War I