By Victor Davis Hanson
Review by James L. Abrahamson, Contributing Editor
Many writers eager to draw lessons from the Great War of 1914-1918 focus on how the European powers came to blows and from that learn how to avoid a similar future catastrophe. Historian Victor Davis Hanson includes in his essay the usual explanations for the war: “arms races, entangling alliances, unchecked nationalism, miscalculation and accidents, lack of diplomacy, ethnic tensions in the Balkans, irrevocable mass mobilization, the lack of a League of Nations, and so on”—to include why Germany thought it could invade Belgium without drawing in Britain, France, and the Russians, followed eventually by the collapse of the latter two empires.
The unique part of Hanson’s discussion of “lessons,” however, is his response to the postwar notion that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was so harsh as to cause another European war within twenty years. According to Hanson, economist John Maynard Keynesâ€”and subsequently many others who sympathized with the resentful Germans—wrongly labeled the treaty’s terms a “Carthaginian Peace,” one very much like the losses Rome imposed on Carthage in 146 BC: destruction of the city, annexation of all its territory, and death or enslavement of its population—though the claim that the Romans plowed under the city and salted its agricultural land is likely a nineteenth-century invention. The Allies imposed no such settlement on Germany, whatever Keynes, the Germans, or later historians chose to believe.
To assess that claim, Hanson also considered the severity of the Versailles Treaty as compared to the settlements Germany had imposed on nations it had recently defeated. In the 1871 agreement ending the brief Franco-Prussian War, France had to pay Prussia a five billion Franc indemnity, surrender forts that had once made Paris defensible, permit the Prussians to hold a victory parade in the French capital, and accept Prussian annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Germany also greatly humiliated Russia in the short-lived 1918 treaty of Brest-Litovsk. To keep the German army from advancing further into Russia, the new Bolshevik government agreed to pay Germany six billion gold marks, recognize the independence of Ukraine, cede the Baltic states to Germany, and grant to the Ottoman Empire a province in the Caucasus.
Had the Western powers lost the 1914-1918 war, Germany planned even worse for Russia and its former allies when it redrew the map of Western Europe in Germany’s favor: France would surrender parts of northern France, pay Germany ten billion Marks, and cease all trade with the British Empire; Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of the Netherlands would be joined to Germany; new buffer states would be created out of Poland and western Russia; and Germany would acquire French and Belgian colonies in central Africa.
That would have been a truly harsh peace. Later observers with clairvoyant powers might also have suggested to resentful Germans the terms of the peace it would have to accept after a second world war.