After the Great War

Margaret MacMillan
Provost of Trinity College and Professor of History at the University of Toronto

For Canadians, the First World War is a defining moment. For Canada, as for Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the war brought a deeper sense of nationhood. “We were content to be Colonials,” said one of the Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge, but afterwards “National spirit was born...; we were Canadians.” Although Canada remained a part of the British Empire, Canadian leaders were learning how to represent Canadian interests and to stand up to the British.

Sir Robert Laird BordenDuring the war itself, the Canadian prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, increasingly dealt with his British counterpart as an equal. When David Lloyd George became British prime minister at the end of 1916, he summoned an Imperial War Cabinet, a sign of how much the British war effort was relying on the resources and the men from its empire. At the Paris Peace Conference, which followed the war, Canadians, along with Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Newfoundlanders, gained valuable experience in international diplomacy. As Loring Christie, one of Canada’s earliest distinguished diplomats, put it, Canada had become “an international person.”

To Canadians, as to Europeans, the First World War was simply the Great War. Few people imagined that Europe could ever put itself through that horror again. The years between 1914 and 1918 marked an end, for those at the time, and for historians ever since, between the long period of peace and prosperity that so much of Europe had enjoyed since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The wreckage was appalling. Europe’s capacity for destruction had increased immensely over the century before 1914. Its science and technology, its industrial capacity and its political and social organization allowed its nations to put huge armies in the field and keep them there for years on end. Over 140,000 Canadians were wounded between 1914 and 1918, and 60,000 out of a total population of 7.2 million were dead. An equivalent proportion of deaths today would be close to 270,000 Canadians.

Altogether, nine million soldiers died in the war and perhaps another five million civilians. At the end of the war, economic and social collapse across large swaths of Europe brought starvation, premature death, and diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which had not been seen for generations. The ghastly influenza epidemic swept across the world in 1918 and 1919 killing, so it has been estimated, three times as many as the war itself. The world had not yet become used to death on such a scale. Or such destruction.

Ypres Cloth Hall & Cathedral after Destruction, 1914Although aircraft did not yet have the capacity to destroy whole cities, towns, villages, farms, factories and mines lay in ruins. Priceless parts of Europe’s culture had vanished: the magnificent Gothic cloth hall in Ypres; the great medieval library at Louvain, with its priceless manuscripts; great cathedrals and smaller churches built laboriously over the centuries. Europe had lost something more, a sense of confidence and pride in its own civilization. Its political landscape had changed out of recognition. Russia had had a revolution in 1917 followed by a civil war that raged on into 1920. At the end of the war the Germany monarchy was overthrown, and Austria-Hungary—that huge multi-national empire that had dominated the centre of Europe for centuries—fell to pieces. The hideous cost of the war was to be much on the minds of the Allied statesmen when it came to drawing up peace terms.

While the collapse of Russia gave the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire the opportunity to break the stalemate on the Western Front, they were unable to capitalize on it before the United States—which had entered the war in April 1917—started to pour its huge resources of men and materiel into Europe. Even so, the Great War ended surprisingly abruptly. Allied leaders had expected to fight on into the spring of 1919, but by the autumn of 1918, the Central Powers had reached the end of their tether. Bulgaria was the first to sue for an armistice, then the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary, in one of its last acts as an empire, asked for its armistice in November.

With its allies falling away and its armies running out of men and resources, Germany asked Woodrow Wilson, the American president, to help arrange an armistice. On November 11, 1918, the Great War came to an end. Germany surrendered all its heavy land equipment and its navy. German troops withdrew from all occupied territory and Allied troops, Canadians among them, moved into the Rhineland, that part of Germany west of the Rhine, and occupied bridgeheads on the east side of the river.

The armistice has given rise to much controversy ever since. Wilson had promised a peace without vengeance or retribution and his Fourteen Points outlined a new world order based on principles of fairness and justice, where nations could decide their own fates. The Germans felt that they had made their armistice on this understanding. Many hoped, unreasonably, that Germany would pay no penalty for losing the war. As the weeks and then the years went by, many Germans, perhaps most, persuaded themselves that Germany had never been defeated on the battlefield. To the General Staff and its right wing supporters, defeat had come at the hands of disloyal Germans at home, left wingers, liberals and Jews.

Returned Soldiers in Job RetrainingAfter November 1918, the huge citizen armies started to melt away. Societies already damaged by the war struggled to provide jobs and housing. For the men themselves, returning to civilian society was often difficult. Their wives and sweethearts had managed without them, taking on jobs and roles previously done by men. Rapid demobilization also created problems for Allied leaders as they tried to deal with what was a rapidly changing and turbulent world. While the Allies were powerful on paper, in reality, their capacity to impose order was increasingly limited.

The range of problems was growing. The war had turned much of European society upside down. The Russian Revolution had destroyed an empire as well as an old political and social order. Russia’s possessions along the Baltic—Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—won their independence. Ukraine tried and failed. In the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia enjoyed their brief moments as independent nations. Russia’s Polish territories vanished into a reborn Poland. The end of Austria-Hungary left chaos and fighting in the centre of Europe, as states—some old like Hungary and Poland, some quite new like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia—struggled to emerge and stake out their territories.

Farther afield, there was trouble brewing in the Middle East. It was only a matter of time until the Ottoman Empire, which controlled present-day Turkey and much of the Arab Middle East, went the same way as Austria-Hungary. Who would inherit its possessions? The British and the French, uneasy allies, manoeuvred to stake out choice bits for themselves while Arab nationalists saw a chance for independent Arab states.

Russia’s revolution was not the only one. For a time, it looked as though much of Europe would be engulfed by a triumphant Bolshevism. In Germany and Austria, there were communist-inspired insurrections. Hungary had a communist government for several months in 1919. In France and Italy, the left brought the workers out in violent strikes and demonstrations. Even Britain and Canada, both stable democracies, had general strikes. The peacemakers who met in Paris at the peace conference in 1919 feared that if they did not make peace quickly, the misery in much of Europe would increase and revolution would spread. They also had to decide how to deal with the new Bolshevik government of Russia. The answers ranged from intervention to accommodation.

European statesmen also had to confront the fact that they no longer dominated the world. New powers—Japan in the East and the United States to the West—were cutting into European markets and European influence. Within the British Empire, still the largest political organization in the world, the Dominions and India were challenging the United Kingdom. Sir Robert Borden, Canada’s prime minister, complained bitterly that the British treated Canadians as ‘toy automata’ and demanded that Canada share in decisions about the conduct of the war and the shape of the peace to come. Borden insisted that Canada be represented in its own right at the Paris Peace Conference.

The end of the war had come so quickly that Allied leaders did not have time to think about what happened next. As always happens with the coming of peace, the wartime alliance began to fall apart. Each statesman had the interests of his own nation to consider. For France, the key issue was how to safeguard against a revival of German power, but there were many views on how to do this, from breaking Germany up to imposing strict peace terms. For Britain, it was protecting the empire and its trade and eliminating the menace from Germany’s navy. Italy wanted territory, along its northern frontier and along the eastern side of the Adriatic. Japan came with two goals: to retain captured German colonies (including concessions in China) and to gain recognition as the racial equal of the white powers. China, also an ally, wanted the German possessions on its soil.

Smaller allies all had their own demands. Greece wanted huge swaths of Anatolia, and Belgium asked for reparations for the damage done by the war. The United States, by contrast, had no demands for territory or reparations. President Wilson talked of building a better world; on the other hand, he and his advisers insisted that the Europeans repay their considerable debts. Canada took a line similar to the United States although there were moments when Canadian delegates dreamed of winning back the Alaska panhandle, perhaps in exchange for Britain handing over territories in the Caribbean to the United States.

The peacemakers also confronted pressures from their own publics, often contradictory ones. On the one hand there was a strong sense that the defeated nations, Germany above all, were responsible for starting the war and for all its damage. It was probably impossible to get much in the way of reparations out of Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria, but Germany remained relatively unscathed and with much of its industrial plant and infrastructure. Why, as the French asked pointedly, should French taxpayers pay for repairing the destruction done on French soil by what had been a German invasion?

Allied publics also demanded that the guilty be punished and that meant Kaiser Wilhelm II and his generals. On the other hand, the same Allied publics also called for a better world, where nations would settle their disputes peacefully and work together to prevent aggression. The League of Nations had huge support across Europe.

Allies around Conference TableThe Paris Peace Conference lasted for a year, from January 1919 to January 1920, but the most intense period was during the first six months when the major Allied statesmen and their advisers gathered. It started out as a preliminary conference, where the Allies would agree on the terms to be offered the defeated. The intention was then to have the old-style conference, like the Congress of Vienna, where victors and losers sat down together and haggled until they came to terms. The negotiations over the League of Nations, which Wilson insisted must come first, and over the German terms, took so much time and involved so many difficult compromises that the Allies dared not open them up again. The Germans, and this caused much resentment then and later, were given two weeks to comment on the terms in writing and told that there would be no face to face negotiations. The other defeated nations received similar treatment.

The peace settlements have been criticized ever since. The Italians were deeply disappointed with what came to be called “The Mutilated Peace.” The Japanese gained the German colonies they wanted but not the racial equality clause in the League they hoped for. In the centre of Europe, it is said, the peacemakers created unstable, quarrelling states. In the Middle East, the British and the French created countries such as Iraq to suit their own needs, not those of the locals. By encouraging a Jewish homeland in Palestine while also promising Arab independence, the British helped to drive a wedge between Jews and Arabs. Some of these criticisms are fair; in the Middle East, for example, where the powers behaved like 19th century imperialists. Others are less so. The peacemakers did not bring Poland to life again or create Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. Those nations established themselves on the basis of ethnic nationalism. The peacemakers helped in drawing the boundaries and tried very hard to create ethnically homogeneous states, something that could not be done given the population mix.

The most controversial part of the settlements remains the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. John Maynard Keynes attacked it at the time as vindictive and short sighted and many, Germans among them, have echoed him. If the Weimar republic of the 1920s had severe economic and political problems, so the argument goes, that was the fault of the harsh terms. If Weimar failed and Hitler came to power, that too can be traced back to the decisions of 1919. So, following a reasoning which is still popular today, the end of the First World War leads directly to the outbreak of the Second. In recent years, historians have challenged this simplistic view.

Weimar’s economic problems were not so much the fault of reparations payments (Germany only ever paid a fraction of its bill), but fiscal and economic mismanagement. If the German government had been willing to tax its citizens at the same rate the Allies were taxing in their countries, it could have paid off its bill. Hitler came to power partly because he capitalized on German resentments, partly because the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s made the Nazis seem like a real alternative to the misery Germany was suffering, and partly because of foolish decisions by key German leaders. Even in the 1930s, when Hitler was determined on expanding German power even if it meant war, he could have been stopped if Allied leaders, particularly those in Britain, had been willing to move. To say that 1919 lead directly to 1939 is to ignore the promise of the 1920s, when it looked as though the world was putting the Great War behind it, as well as the decisions, both for good and for evil, that were taken in those twenty years.

Margaret MacMillan
Provost of Trinity College and Professor of History at the University of Toronto

Margaret MacMillan was an undergraduate at Trinity (6T6) and did an Honours B.A. in History. Her graduate work was at the University of Oxford where she did a B.Phil. in Politics and a D.Phil. on the British in India. She was a member of the History Department at Ryerson from 1975 to 2002 and also served as chair of the Department. Teaching areas include Asian history, modern European civilization and international relations. She teaches a fourth-year seminar on the Cold War in the University of Toronto’s International Relations Program.

She was editor of the International Journal between 1995 and 2002. She has served on the boards of the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library and the Ontario Heritage Foundation and is currently on the boards of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, the Churchill Society for Parliamentary Democracy, the Canadian Council for Christians and Jews, the Toronto Rehabilitation Foundation and the Atlantic Council of Canada. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Senior Fellow of Massey College, Toronto, and Honorary Fellow of St.Antony’s College, Oxford. In 2004 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of civil law from the University of King’s College, Halifax, and from the Royal Military College, Kingston.

She has written numerous articles and book reviews for both scholarly and non-scholarly publications. Her books include Women of the Raj (1988) and Peacemakers: the Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (2001), published in the United States as Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2002). In the United Kingdom, the book won the Duff Cooper Prize, the PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize for history and the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction; in the United States the Silver Medal in the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award, and in Canada the 2003 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction as well as the Canadian Booksellers Libris Award for non-fiction book of the year. In 2003 she co-edited with Francine McKenzie Parties Long Estranged: Canada and Australia in the Twentieth Century (2003). Her most recent book is Canada's House: Rideau Hall and the Invention of a Canadian Home, written with Marjorie Harris and Anne L. Desjardins (2004). Dr. MacMillan appears frequently in the media commenting on both history and current international affairs.