Peace That Led to War; Update: History

Article excerpt


HALL OF MIRRORS by David Sinclair (Century, [pounds sterling]16.99)

WORLD WAR I was fought by young men. The peace was made at Versailles by well-intentioned old men who made such a hash of it that a fresh generation of young men had to go to war in 1939.

Today, we look back at the treaty signed in the Hall of Mirrors in 1919 with bewilderment and rage.

How could the wartime sacrifice have been squandered? Worse still, why did the peacemakers deliver Hitler the political ammunition which he used to promote himself as Germany's saviour?

SINCLAIR provides the answers in a perceptive and exciting narrative. He adopts the style of a dramatic reconstruction of events, which is appropriate to a tragedy whose principal actors were driven by internal impulses and external forces they recognised but could not control.

When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, Europe was awash with hatred. It had been cultivated by governments who needed the support of the masses to wage total war and it had intensified as the casualties spiralled.

Look at the lists of the dead on war memorials in British cities, towns and villages and their counterparts in France.

In a small town in the Loire valley with a population of perhaps 3,000, I counted more than 500 names on a memorial in the church. Most had been killed in the battles of 1914 and at Verdun.

The emotions generated by such bloodletting did not evaporate the moment Germany asked for an armistice.

Those who mourned and suffered privation wanted revenge.

'Hang the Kaiser' was the popular cry in Britain and, however much he deplored it, the Prime Minister David Lloyd George could not ignore such passion.

The French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and the Allied commander-in- chief, Ferdinand Foch, demanded an emasculated Germany stripped of territory.

Exhausted and aware that their country's recent survival had been a close-run thing, the French desperately wanted security, even if it involved taking over chunks of the Rhineland as a barrier against another German invasion.

A weak Germany was the only guarantee of future peace and France remaining a great power.

This was what soldiers had died for at Verdun: to demand less was an insult to their sacrifice.

President Woodrow Wilson could afford to be dispassionate. The United States had entered what many Americans considered a European civil war in 1917 and tipped the balance.

When it was over, Wilson fervently hoped that he could mastermind the creation of a safer world. …