Last week, I attended a fantastic given by Michael S. Neiberg at the Pritzker Military Museum and library about his latest book the Treaty of Versailles: a Concise History (which I also read) and I thought I’d write about the experience.

Mr. Neiberg modeled the structure of his lecture on the structure of his book, starting with a breakdown on how complicated of a situation the Big Three were facing when they drafted the treaty, America’s role in the treaty, and ending by focusing on an interesting, but often overlooked aspect of the Treaty: the case of Shandong. He wrapped his lecture up by quickly assessing the impact of the Treaty of Versailles immediately after it was written and the decades that followed.

Mr. Neiberg encapsulates the problem that was facing the end of the world by briefly reviewing how hard it is to determine when the war ended. There are some theories that consider World War I and II as one war, known as a Second Thirty Years War. Some believe it didn’t even until 1923, when Eastern Europe reached a somewhat stable structure until the Second World War. There is even a theory that it didn’t end until 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union. I personally would learn more towards the Second Thirty Years War, as the Cold War seems more of a conflict that came out of World War I as oppose to a continuation of that conflict. Then there is the issue of the Middle East and Central and South Asia, areas of the war that have continued to suffer from the imperialism that came out of the Victorian Era and the two World Wars.

Enormity of Problems

What can be gleamed from both his book and his lecture, the extent of the problems can be broken into three major issues: the victors felt more insecure after the war ended then when it began, the extent of the loss was too much for anyone to handle, and four of the world’s most ancient empires (the Ottoman Empire founded in the 1400s), empires many believed would last forever, collapsed within a span of four years and no one knew what to do with the territories. This was complicated by Wilson’s vague promise of self-determination and national identity.

The war had not only shattered empires, but drastically changed society, culture, politics, and the economy for everyone involved, no matter how periphery their involvement. The British, French, and Americans were facing the three-prong problem of wrapping up the war before it restarted, dismantle massive armies, and deal with the discontent that was growing on the home front.

Britain wanted to go back to business as usual, strengthening its hold on the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, resume trading with Germany, and countering the Soviet Union. Wilson wanted to recreate the world order (but ignoring the true meaning of racial equality, for example he didn’t think the Irish, Africans, or Jewish people could handle self-rule) and America wanted to leave the continent. France was panicking because they were devastated by the war, facing a Germany they felt wasn’t being punished enough, and terrified that the Eastern European states couldn’t counter a resurgent Germany and Soviet Union. Finally, Italy and Japan were treated, in their opinion, poorly and weren’t properly ‘rewarded’ for their part in the war.

The big four: David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson

The only thing the three major powers seemed to agree on was the threat of communism. Mr. Neiberg stresses that fact that neither Germany nor the Soviet Union were invited to help write the treaty. It is an interesting thought exercise to figure out how the Soviet Union could have affected the drafting of the treaty (and the affect that would have on the home front in Russia), but it’s also hard to see the allies inviting the Communists to the negotiation table, especially considering the support the allies were giving the White army. Again, it’s an interesting thought exercise to think about how inviting Germany to the negotiation table, but it’s hard to see that happening with France as livid as it was. While France’s determination to punish Germany would be used for various propaganda reasons, Mr. Neiberg makes a big point in explaining that the treaty was no harsher than the one Germany imposed on Russia after they were defeated, nor the treaty issued during the Franco-Prussian War. France’s fear of Germany and Russia would lead them into heavily supporting Poland so it could serve as a counter weight between the two dangerous powers.


After discussing the insecurities the leaders of the world felt, Mr. Neiberg briefly discussed the mass trauma endured by the major powers and how the ‘war’ mentality wasn’t something that could be turned off like a switch.

To learn more about the Treaty of Versailles and the Culture of Violence of the early 20th Century, check out this episode of The Great War channel: Post War Violence Theory – Paris Peace Conference

The First World War lead to great dehumanization of the enemy, but also of oneself. The war saw the Armenian Genocide, the mass deportation of huge populations all over Europe, the sanctioned targeting civilian populations, and the creation of weapons that slaughtered people on a level never seen before. This was only possible through the turning the enemy into a thing or other, but also by turning oneself into a cog in the giant war machine that was eating up land and home. This also worked on the home front, where people had to adjust to the sudden loss of hundreds of thousands of young men and new technologies that were changing the world right before their eyes and new ideologies that were challenging how people saw themselves, their relations with others and with the state.

If this wasn’t enough, the losing and shattered states (the remains of Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empires) also had to deal with who lost the war and why and what could be salvaged from the wreckage. For the states like Germany, there had to be a logical reason as to why they had loss. After being laid to via state propaganda and censorship, it was impossible for the people of Germany to believe they had actually loss. There had to be a scapegoat. Additionally, many Germans believed that Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be used to shape the treaty and when it wasn’t, they felt betrayed by the new world order that was being created.

America and the Treaty of Versailles

One of the few powers (besides Japan) who ended the war richer after the war was the United States. When the war started, American industrialists and businessmen

Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. Faisal would be just one of the people betrayed by the allies.

saw it as a chance to become the money centers of the war and made a profit. This made the United States one of the strongest players coming into the negotiations, and many people had high hopes for what they could achieve. Many people, especially the minorities now free from the old empires as well as the minorities who were about to be swallowed by the English and French, believed the Fourteen Points applied to their situation. Wilson claimed to believe in the universality of these principles, but was selected over who he was willing to apply them to. Additionally, Wilson was determined to build a system that could foster dialogue to avoid war while also placing America in a position to serve as an alternative to the Bolshevik system.


However, Wilson had never paid attention to foreign policy nor did he trust his own State Department to handle their French and British counterparts. So, he created an Inquiry (which would later turn into the Council of Foreign Relations). This group of men were experts in history, politics, international relations, etc. and helped Wilson redraw the lines of borders for new states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc., despite knowing nothing about diplomacy or how to interact on the international stage. Mr. Neiberg claims that this was the first time a theoretically ‘unbiased’ group of academics were gathered together to advise a president.

Wilson wanted to use history to help determine how the new states should be drawn, but history complicated things, especially since these were ancient lands that had gone through a numerous changing of hands and populations. Wilson’s reliance on history caused the Italian president to joke that Italy should get most of Europe since they were once home of the Roman Empire. A perfect example of this would be the problem of Alsace-Lorraine. If Wilson used his own idea of national self-determination in the Alsace-Lorraine case and took a plebiscite, the majority German population would vote to stay with Germany and France would be furious. The French wanted to use the majority of history to support its claim over Alsace-Lorraine, which ran counter with the current population’s desires. And that was easy. When reviewing the history of Eastern Europe, the Inquiry played with an idea of a Federal Republic of Greater Austria-combining the idea of allowing minorities to rule their own land with the idea of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire

Australian infantry with gas masks, Ypres 1917, one of the next technologies developed during the war


Finally, there was the problem of what to do with the excess weapons. The Americans wanted to sell their weapons surplus to the new states who were either fighting civil wars or defending their borders from each other. As the impossibility of Wilson’s position grew more apparent, people began to deride the treaty and some advisors such as John Maynard Keynes, one of the most famous economists in the world, walked out on the negotiations predicting that the treaty was going to bring about an economic collapse that would turn into a depression.

Shandong: Japan or China?

A fascinating example Mr. Neiberg discussed in his lecture and book to highlight the complications facing the Big Three is Shandong. Shandong was once a German port that Japan wanted. They claimed that they had troops already stationed in the port and that China had agreed to a treaty to give this port to Japan. After all, wasn’t World War I about upholding treaties? China, on the other hand, used the Fourteen Points to claim that their port belonged to them because the majority of the populace was Chinese, and the allies owed them for sending 140,000 labors to Europe to help the war effort. The war may have been about upholding a treaty, but what about self-determination?

Japan knew that the allies didn’t really care about national self-determination, so they decided to call the allies on their bluff. They proposed to insert a racial equality clause into the Versailles Treaty. This clause would make it impossible for the allies to justify their empires and would cause problems within the United States and their African-American population. Japan said they would revoke the clause if the allies gave them Shandong.

The allies were now in a bind. If they gave Shandong to Japan, then they had to admit that the self-determination was a sham and this treaty wasn’t anything more than allies trying to punish a defeat power for losing the war. If they gave Shandong to China, then they had to deal with the repercussions of the Racial Equality Clause.

Word soon broke out that the allies were considering giving Shandong to Japan, a mass riot of Chinese nationalists broke out on May 4th. Many Chinese consider this the beginning of Chinese Nationalism and is a huge part of their modern identity. Many American delegates were disgusted with the idea of giving Shandong to Japan. They rightfully felt that this was betraying everything they had fought for. Also, they believed they were better than many Europeans, but by playing politics, they would be no different and that wasn’t the point of the war. There was a mass threat of resignation from many American staffers and some did resign after Shandong was officially given to Japan. Mr. Neiberg argues Americans weren’t disillusioned by World War. They were disillusioned by the peace.

Mr. Neiberg started and ended his lecture with a quote from one of my favorite historians, Basil Liddel Hart: “War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good

American President Woodrow Wilson

might come of it.” This quote applies perfectly to the Treaty of Versailles. The best thing that can be said about it, is that it set the groundwork for both the evil that occurred during WWII and the international system that would come out of it. Mr. Neiberg stresses that the negotiators at Potsdam tried their best to learn from the mistakes of Versailles. I have a lot of issues of how Potsdam was negotiated, but like the end of WWI, I’m not sure if there was anyway to end WWII with a perfect treaty.


Mr. Neiberg argued that if there are any enduring lessons from the Treaty of Versailles, it’s that a treaty must be flexible, the defeated have to be involved in the negotiations (which seems relevant considering the US is currently considering talking with the Taliban), and the importance of dealing with the need for scapegoats and the trauma and horrors that come from being the defeated power.

Image sources:

Big Four: Wikicommons, Edward N. Jackson (US Army Signal Corps) [Public domain]

King Faisal: Wikicommons, See page for author [Public domain]

Gas masks: Wikicommons, Photo by Captain Frank Hurley. [Public domain]

Woodrow Wilson: Wikicommons, Pach Brothers, New York [Public domain]

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