Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The peace to end all peace

The settlement in Versailles not only reinforced German resentment but also described borders in Europe which took another war and the break-up of the Soviet Union to redraw into something more sensible - and there are still anomalies here and there. The effect on the Middle East was even more dire. We are living with its consequences today and there is no sign of a resolution.

But before that there was the German humiliation in November 1918 in the forest of Compi├Ęgne described by John Lichfield in one of the closing articles in the Independent's History of the Great War in 100 Moments. It was fitting that Lichfield, a train buff as well as the newspaper's Paris correspondent, should write this particular article, because it was in a Wagons-Lit carriage that a party of ministers and generals from Germany were forced to sign an armistice on Allied terms.

The reason for France's apparently unreasonable and vindictive settlement terms became clear to me when BBC showed the Great War film archive of Albert Kahn. The German strategy had been not just to defeat France but to destroy her fighting forces and her economy so that she would be powerless to support her ally Russia, Germany's ultimate target. The smoke and flames of burning farmland, so graphically shown in those early colour films, must have been fresh in the memory of the French in Compi├Ęgne and at Versailles, at a time when farming was even closer to the heart of Frenchmen and women than it is now.

There was, though, a price to pay. As Lichfield explains, Hitler used the point that the armistice was signed by moderate German politicians and obscure generals (the German commander Paul Hindenburg having carefully distanced himself from the surrender) to proclaim that political treachery, not defeat in the field, had forced capitulation. Thus, the seeds of another war and even greater German crimes against humanity were sown. The cycle of humiliation and revenge would only be broken by the more enlightened settlement after the second world war.

In an instance of failing to learn from history, the victors in Operation Desert Storm failed to force the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to sign that surrender document. He would claim that he was undefeated and continue in power for another twelve years, to the detriment of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. It is reasonable to assume that if Saddam had been humiliated by a personal surrender, he would have been deposed by the Iraqi elite that had previously supported him.

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