Bad history — why the Treaty of Versailles is an imperfect guide to future Russia-West relations

It is often claimed that ‘humiliating’ a vanquished state only ensures hostility later down the line. The reality however is far more complex.

Treaty of Versailles
Dr Johannes Bell signs the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

From the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political leaders and analysts alike have struggled to balance the moral obligation to aid a nation under attack, the practical objective of weakening the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s aggressive regime, and the need to manage conflict with a power that is too large, well-armed, and volatile to dismiss. While there is room to disagree about how to pursue each of these imperatives as events on the battlefield unfold, crises lack authoritative manuals and so we find ourselves turning to history to guide our thinking.

As is so often the case, however, the analogies we choose leave much to be desired. In a recent piece in the ongoing debate over the degree to which Ukraine and its allies should ‘weaken’ or ‘humiliate’ Russia, Michael O’Hanlon and Melanie W. Sisson of the Brookings Institution invoked the Treaty of Versailles as a cautionary tale. The Allies and Associated Powers’ approach to post-war peacemaking  ‘set the stage for the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and World War II,’ implying that punitive measures will exacerbate Russian enmity and set the stage for new crises.

Yet this characterisation of the Versailles settlement is problematic, both as history and a guide to policy. In the first instance, the differences between 1919 and 2022 are significant. By the time of the armistice, a blockaded Imperial Germany stood on the precipice of total military defeat and faced mutiny, revolution, and economic devastation — including widespread food shortages. The great powers aligned against Germany were in a place to dictate terms, having sacrificed significant blood and treasure to win the war. By contrast, we have yet to see much evidence of Putin’s faltering grip on power, a total military rout, or Ukraine and its supporters’ ability to dictate terms. While it is possible that this situation could change, the time is not yet ripe for a comprehensive settlement.

The second problem with the analogy is the erroneous idea that the Treaty of Versailles was unduly harsh. That caricature owes a great deal to John Maynard Keynes’ brilliant polemic The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). Keynes, who served on the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, argued that a self-interested Georges Clemenceau and a naïve Wilson imposed a ‘Carthaginian peace’ on Germany via crippling reparations and a refusal to stabilise the post-war economy leading to devastating inflation. Many Germans, including Hitler, cited these grievances as well as the loss of territory and restrictions upon their military throughout the Weimar period as justification for revisionism.

Yet subsequent research by many historians, most notably by Margaret Macmillan in Paris 1919 (2002), shows that the terms of the settlement were neither unusual by the standards of the time (territorial concessions by defeated powers were common) nor excessively burdensome (the size and impact of the reparations were grossly inflated). Furthermore, as David Stevenson observed in Cataclysm (2003), the treaty had provisions that provided for ‘relaxation and reconciliation if Germany’s behaviour changed’ — with concessions on trade and more. Frankly, these were better terms than those offered to occupied Japan and Germany in 1945. It is not clear that harsh settlements always lead to subsequent wars as the post-war occupation of Germany and Japan — or Rome’s reconstruction of Carthage under Caesar Augustus — suggest, though these examples are also unreliable guides to policy.

A third problem with the idea that Versailles paved the way for the rise of Nazism and the Second World War is that it sidesteps the question of when any effort to ‘weaken’ an adversary turns into ‘humiliation.’ It is worth remembering the nationalist sentiment in Germany was pervasive before and after the First World War, and included not only Nazis but traditional conservatives and liberals such as Gustav Stresemann. Any settlement that inhibited German power would have been seen as an affront to the feelings of the citizenry — and exploited by politicians as foil and pretext, whether via ‘stabbed in the back’ legends or excuses for their errors. Needless to say, Putin’s regime possesses far more sophisticated tools to propagate myths blaming others for its failures.

The fourth and final problem with invoking Versailles is that it sidesteps the role of contingency and choice. The interwar period was rife with potential opportunities to avert the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of the Second World War. The collapse of the centre during the Weimar Republic and the refusal to uphold the treaty’s provisions and principles when Germany rebuilt the Wehrmacht, remilitarised the Rhineland, or demanded the Sudetenland were the product of decisions made by people rather than historical inevitabilities. One cannot draw a straight line between the shortcomings of Versailles and the descent into the dark night of fascism and world war without considering the alternatives and what happened in between.

None of this is to say that O’Hanlon and Sisson are wrong to suggest that we need to consider what an enduring post-war Europe security settlement should look like or the prospect that a completely devastated and isolated Russian leadership might lash out in desperation. Indeed, it is important for those outside of government to be publicly candid about these considerations in ways that policymakers cannot — and to remind us that prolonged political and economic chaos in the wake of the Soviet collapse helped give us Putin in the first place. Yet by framing the central issue at this juncture as the need to avoid Russian ‘humiliation’ based on the Versailles metaphor, we run the risk of negotiating against ourselves to placate sentiments largely beyond our control. Reducing revanchist grandiosity may be a necessary consequence of an enduring settlement, even if practical exigencies eventually demand moderation. As my colleague Sergey Radchenko notes, Ukraine’s successes are a harsh tonic in a system where too few have reckoned with Russia’s failures. In any case, feelings don’t necessarily care about the facts. Rather than pursuing humiliation for its own sake or pre-emptively avoiding anything that might be perceived as humiliation, we would be better served by returning to first principles. That means remembering first and foremost that Vladimir Putin and his enablers are the authors of Russia’s present ruin. This bear poked itself.


Will Quinn