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International Relations 1919-1939

Updated on August 19, 2013
'The Big 4' - the leaders that composed the treaties in Paris
'The Big 4' - the leaders that composed the treaties in Paris
David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Brtiain
David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Brtiain
Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France
Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France
Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States of America
Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States of America

Who was most justified in their aims?

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The Treaty of Versailles

On the 11th November 1918, Germany signed the armistice, surrendering from World War I, signalling the end of a four year bloody war that had claimed the lives of millions of Europeans, on a scale unparalleled up to that point in history. In 1919, the 'Big Three': Britain, France and USA had their leaders meet in Versailles, Paris to discuss how to treat Germany (and the other offending countries) as a punishment and to deter the re-occurrence of war.

David Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister of Britain, had perhaps the hardest task of the three at the Paris Peace Conferences: to strike an appropriate balance between harshness (to prevent re-occurrence and to ensure re-election in the next British General Election - the Britons wanted justice for what had been done to their nation) and kindness (to not provoke revenge, directed at Britain and to maintain a good economic relationship, which Britain depended upon with Germany). He had clear ideals to strip Germany of its navy and colonies - two aspects of international relations that Britain prided itself on, its control of the seas and its vast empire. Germany's equivalent was threatening to the British.

The French President George Clemenceau, wanted the harshest treatment possible for Germany, and rightly so, France had experienced the worst deal, with the vast majority of fighting (and as a consequence civilian casualties) occurring on French soil. France had felt threatened by German neighbors for decades and they saw it as a good opportunity to crush the nation. They wanted Alsace-Lorraine, a region adjoining the border, which had been taken from France during the Franco-German war in 1871, returned. The French proposed splitting Germany into smaller states; this would make them less vulnerable, since the smaller states would have a tougher time trying to invade France individually. He wanted Germany crippled to stop any chance of potential revenge and that France should be more powerful than Germany. The idea of treating Germany harshly was furthered strengthened by the scandal of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, published in 1918. Germany had stripped the USSR of lots of land and a quarter of its population, proof of the ‘evil German regime’ for the allies.

Woodrow Wilson, the American President of the time had very different plans for Paris, almost the opposite of Clemenceau. He wanted to ensure no revenge was ever pursued, by making the treaty fair and not vindictive. Furthermore, he believed this would allow America not to be resented by Germany by thinking in this way. His plans for the Paris Peace Conference were summed up in Wilson's Fourteen Points. These included: To establish an international peacekeeping body (The League of Nations); for free trade; universal disarmament; no secret treaties; self-determination for all (i.e. for nations to rule themselves) and free access to the seas, both during times of peace and times of conflict.

Eventually the allies concluded their peace talks, reaching compromises on how to best reprimand Germany. Firstly, they dealt with German territory: they took away all overseas colonies (Togoland and Cameroon to Britain and France, German East Africa to Britain, German South West Africa to South Africa, New Guinea to Australia, Samoa to New Zealand and the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline Islands to Japan); were forbidden to ever ally with Austria; returned Alsace-Lorraine to France (whom had lost it in the Franco-German war of 1871); they lost North Schleswig to Denmark, following a plebiscite; they lost West Prussia and Posen and Upper Silesia to Poland; the Saarland became under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years; Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia became independent states (taken from Russia in 1918) and the Rhineland became a demilitarized zone. Consequently, 10% of German Land and an eighth of its population were lost; 16% of its coal industry, 50% of its iron industry and 50% of its steel industry were lost and other empires grew at Germany’s loss. The German people felt injustice by this decision as it was contradictory for Wilson to promote self-determination, when an eighth of German people were governed by foreign powers.

Map to show German Territory lost under the Treaty of Versialles
Map to show German Territory lost under the Treaty of Versialles | Source

Germany was ordered to pay £6.6 billion in reparations, for the damage caused by war; which was blamed on Germany under the war guilt clause of the Treaty. The amount of money was huge, and equivalent of $54 trillion in today’s money. This led to food shortages and a crippled economy, leading to the Ruhr Crisis and hyperinflation in 1923, seen in my Germany hub. Furthermore, the Germans were outraged by the war guilt clause. They did not feel to blame, nor did they feel fully responsible for the war. They were under the impression that the armistice was a ceasefire as opposed to surrender. They felt angry at their government and that they should have been involved in Versailles.

Germany were restricted greatly from a military perspective, as it fulfilled France’s aim to cripple Germany, Wilson’s aim of disarmament and peace, as well as Britain’s aim to prevent revenge and maintain naval dominance. Germany was restricted to just 100,000 men in the army and six battleships only. They were forbidden to have an air force; they were refused submarines and could not have conscription. No troops were allowed to enter, the now demilitarized Rhineland. This made Germany vulnerable, since other countries did not disarm equally. The army was a symbol of Prussian pride that had been stripped of them. Furthermore, due to restrictions in number of men in the armed forces, thousands were rendered unemployed.

Finally Germany was refused admission to the newly set up League of Nations (see below). They were eventually admitted in 1926, once they had proven they were peace-loving. They felt insulted for not being invited.

Germany was not the only country punished by the allies for their involvement in the war. The Paris Peace Conferences also composed peace treaties for the countries Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey and Austria under the treaties of Neuilly, Trianon, Sevres and St. Germain respectively.

The Treaty of Neuilly, 1919, dealt with Bulgaria. They lost land to Greece and Yugoslavia and thus lost access to the Mediterranean Sea. It was ordered to pay £100million in reparations and had its armed forces limited to 20,000 men. However, in comparison it did well compared to the other countries, and even gained land from Turkey. Nevertheless many Bulgarians were still governed by foreign powers by 1920.

Map of Bulgaria after Treaty of Neuilly had been enforced. Dark orange represents land stripped and red, land gained.
Map of Bulgaria after Treaty of Neuilly had been enforced. Dark orange represents land stripped and red, land gained.
The signing of the Treaty in 1920
The signing of the Treaty in 1920

The Treaty of Trianon, 1920, dealt with Hungary. They lost territories to Romania (Transylvania), Czechoslovakia (Slovakia and Ruthenia) and Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia), so much land was lost that three million Hungarians were moved to other states. Its industry suffered from less people and was due to pay reparations but the economy was so weak it never did.

Map to represent land lost by the Treaty of Trianon
Map to represent land lost by the Treaty of Trianon
Interesting map to show European demographic after the Treaty was enforced and showing the three million displaced Hungarians.
Interesting map to show European demographic after the Treaty was enforced and showing the three million displaced Hungarians.
Mustafa Kamal
Mustafa Kamal

The Treaty of Sevres, 1920, dealt with Turkey. They lost land to Bulgaria, Italy and Greece, and thus lost control of the Black Sea. They had to accept independence for countries of their former empire. The Treaty was unsuccessful as Turks were outraged and the Turkish uprising led by Mustafa Kamal challenged the terms of this treaty. Consequently, the territory Smyrna (given to Greece) was returned to Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Furthermore, the original treaty was condemned as the motives of Britain and France seemed only to gain land.

Map to show territorial losses under the Treaty of Sevres
Map to show territorial losses under the Treaty of Sevres
Artistic representation of the Treaty of St. Germain
Artistic representation of the Treaty of St. Germain

The Treaty of St Germain, 1919, dealt with Austria. The Treaty separated Austria from Hungary to make them less powerful. Austria lost land to Poland and Italy; spare land formed Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia) and Yugoslavia (Serbia). The Austrian army was restricted to 30,000 men and the country was forbidden to ever unite with the Germans. Their economy suffered as lots of industry had gone to the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia.

Map of territorial losses of the treaty of St. Germain
Map of territorial losses of the treaty of St. Germain

League of Nations

The League of Nations was designed to be an international body to solve international problems peacefully. Its foundation was discussed at the Paris Peace Conferences: David Lloyd George (Britain) wanted a simple organisation, meeting for emergencies only; Georges Clemenceau (France) wanted a strong league with its own army; whereas Wilson wanted a World Parliament. Wilson won and took charge.

The aims of the League were to: stop war; achieve international peace; improve global living and working conditions; to work towards universal disarmament and to enforce the Treaty of Versailles.

Wilson’s Vision was for all major nations to join and take any disputes direct to the League; the League’s decision had to be accepted and if ignored would lead to sanctions, e.g. trade boycotts. Wilson wanted the member countries to protect each other and work towards universal disarmament. The League, a system based on collective security, would replace the former balance-of-power system that had caused the Great War.

The League began with 42 members, but by the 1930s there were nearly 60. Despite championing the idea of the League in the first instance the USA did not join. It was seen as a way to defeat Wilson by his opposition; they did not approve of trade sanction; the USA’s power had come from isolation, they had kept out of European affairs in the past; the League was heavily linked to Treaty of Versailles and America had many German immigrants it did not wish to offend; the economic cost of the League was likely to be mostly paid by the United States and they did not want to send troops to conflicts they were not involved in themselves. Germany was not allowed to be admitted into the League of Nations until 1926, after having signed the Locarno Treaty, to prove it was a responsible/peaceful nation. Finally, the USSR did not join until 1934; they disliked the League as they deemed it a club of capitalist countries, who were to be considered the enemy.

The organisation of the League was to enable it to be as effective and efficient as was possible. The Assembly was where all the representatives from each member country met, to discuss and decide on any matter. To pass anything decisions had to be unanimous. They usually met only once a year, as it was just too big and too to deal with crises (thus the need for the council). The Council was comprised of four permanent members (Britain, France, Italy and Japan), Germany later became fifth; and four temporary members (six after 1922) elected by the assembly. Each council member had a veto to decision making. The Secretariat was the League’s civil service. From its base in Geneva, Switzerland, it organised papers, minutes and reports. The Court of International Justice based at The Hague, Holland, composed judges from different countries to decide on disputes between members. It had no actual method of enforcing decisions but did settle more than seventy major cases despite this. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established to improve working conditions. Each country sent representatives to its annual meeting with workers, employers and governments all represented fairly. The organisation collected information about working conditions around the world and made suggestions on how best to improve conditions. Lastly, Special Commissions were set up for specific problems, e.g. slavery.

It is debatable if the League was overall a useful or useless; good or bad; successful or failure of an organisation, as both arguments have merit.

In some respects the League can be successful, due to the following reasons:

  1. Human Rights Activism: The League got 100,000 refugees and prisoners of war to their homes and freed 200,000 slaves from Sierra Leone.
  2. The International Labor Organisation introduced many changes to improve the lives of workers, most notably the 48 hour week and 8 hour working day limits.
  3. The League made huge progressions with health: wiping out Leprosy and dramatically reducing the number of cases of both malaria and yellow fever.
  4. The League blacklisted companies involved in illegal drugs to try to reduce corruption.
  5. The League dealt with many cases, including the Aaland Islands, passively solving a territorial argument between Sweden and Finland, preventing the outbreak of war. They also democratically solved the case of Upper Silesia, another territorial dispute between Germany and Poland.
  6. The League improved international relations by admitting Germany to the League after it had signed the Locarno Treaty, accepting its borders under the Treaty of Versailles, in 1925. The League also got the Kellog-Briand Pact, agreeing to future peace and solving conflicts through other methods than war, by 54 countries.

However despite its many positives, the League had also a large number of shortcomings too.

They failed on several minor conflicts between countries in the 1920s. Firstly, the city of Vilna. Poland invaded Lithuania to regain the city of Vilna, but the league did nothing as both countries acted in their own best interests, despite this going against the aims of the League. Furthermore the league failed to act correctly on the crisis of Corfu. Italians in Greece were shot and as a consequence Mussolini demanded compensation from Greece; he was refused. Mussolini then decided to bomb Corfu breaking the League’s rules. However, he was not condemned, instead the League pressured Greece to pay, showing issues within the league.

Next, the League struggled to enforce its decisions. This is because of several factors:

  1. No armed forced to enforce its decisions and so the League was easily ignored and appeared unthreatening.
  2. Economic sanctions harmed the countries enforcing them, in some cases (e.g. Abysinnia) more than the countries they were punishing.
  3. Decisions had to be unanimous to pass any laws. In the council, whom decided upon crises, the five permanent members (France, Britain, Italy, Japan and Germany) they each held a veto, thus it was virtually impossible to pass any rulings against one of these countries.
  4. The success of the League's decisions depended on member countries putting their interests second. Many were not willing to do this.

America did not join the League and this provided many fundamental problems to the League. There was a lack of founding influence, since Wilson, whose idea the league was built upon, did not partake in it. The League missed the USA's prestige, they were revered and feared by other countries. The absence of America undermined punishments as they were less threatening since economic sanctions did not work as the main trading partner of many countries. It highlighted the instability, hypocrisy and credibility of the League; plus American funding was lost. American absence encouraged others not to join or to leave as America had not lost much from not being a part of the League.

The attitudes of Britain and France compromised the success of the League. Their non-committal behavior saw them making secret plans away from the League and they openly refused to co-operate with the League on some occasions.

The Wall Street Crash in October 1929 triggered economic depressions around the world and caused vast unemployment as a direct consequence. International trade declined, countries added import tariffs and this damaged international relationships.Countries did not want to solve international disputes when they had their own problems. As a consequence, Hitler rose to power and promised to overthrow the Treaty of Versailles prompting France to refuse to disarm, for fear of attack. This compromised both the aims of disarmament and enforcement of the Paris Peace Conference Treaties. The Wall Street crash also sparked Abyssinia (used by Mussolini to distract Italian attention from the economic crisis they faced) and Manchuria (to prevent Japan’s industrial collapse) which are covered next.

The Manchuria Crisis (1931) also proved failings and faults within the League and contributed to its eventual failure. Japan invaded Manchuria due to economic depression caused by a lack of trade with America, and prompted it to want to expand its empire for resources and space. Japan claimed Chinese soldiers had sabotaged the Japanese built Manchuria railway, so they decided to invade. China appealed to the League to deal with the crisis, who carefully assessed the situation and ruled in China’s favor. Japan simply ignored the League, They kept invading and withdrew from the League. The League discussed economic sanctions but these were meaningless without US, the main trading partner to Japan. Besides, Britain wanted to maintain a positive relationship with the Japanese, and feared banning arm trades for fear of retaliation. The case of Manchuria highlighted that the League could not control a strong nation; that withdrawal from the League was an easy option and that the League was powerless without the USA.

The Abyssinian Crisis (1935-6) further added to the misery of the League by exposing weaknesses. Italy wanted to expand their empire by colonizing neighboring Abyssinia. Abyssinia wanted the League to arbitrate, which took over a year. The League made arm sales banned and suggested a compromise which both sides declined. A preexisting French-Italian treaty prevented French involvement and Britain would not act without France; thus, Britain did not shut the Suez Canal. Members of the League agreed how to act and agree plans without consulting the League first. Economic sanctions enforced affected Abyssinia worse that the aggressors, Italy. Italy broke the Geneva Convention unpunished and Britain and France showed no respect, nor commitment to the League. This highlighted that the League was powerless, weak and corrupted.

Japanese soldiers invade Manchuria.
Japanese soldiers invade Manchuria.

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