Europe After World War I: November 1918-August 1931

The Reshaping of Europe After World War I

The cost of the World War I conflict in terms of human losses was colossal. More than nine million soldiers were killed, millions were permanently maimed, and an unknown number of civilians died from malnutrition, disease, and combat. In 1918 and 1919, an influenza epidemic wiped out millions more from a population debilitated by four years of growing privation.

It is against this background that the decision to blame the Central Powers for the war must be understood. When the Treaty of Peace was drawn up in the spring of 1919, a clause was inserted that made clear the responsibility of the Central Powers for reparation. Clause 231, the "War Guilt" clause, was signed by the German delegation, under protest, on June 28, 1919.

The Germans believed that the conditions imposed on them were exceptionally harsh. The German armed forces and fortifications were to be disbanded, and Germany was allowed to retain only a rump 100,000-man army to keep domestic peace. Germany was denied the right to possess aircraft, submarines, and most forms of heavy army weapons. All German colonies were taken and distributed as mandates to the victorious powers. Territory taken by Prussia or Germany in the past was returned to Germany's neighbors. France took back Alsace-Lorraine, seized by Germany in 1870, while the restored Polish state was awarded the rich coal and steel region of Silesia. To compensate for damages caused by the war, Germany was eventually required to pay 132 billion gold marks, in installments, up to the year 1988.

No other issue so united Germans in their resentment of the victors than the question of reparations. Though Germany managed to avoid paying much of what it was supposed to pay, and borrowed and then repudiated vast sums, the important point is that ordinary Germans perceived reparations to be a punitive sanction. They were determined to overturn the Diktat (dictated peace).

The final year of war had ushered in a period of momentous transformation worldwide. In 1917 the Russian war effort collapsed and the emperor, Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate. The revolutionary regime tried to continue the fight, but economic conditions and military capability deteriorated sharply. In October 1917, Lenin's Bolshevik Party -- the most radical wing of the Russian revolutionary movement -- seized power in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), and declared a Communist regime.

Bolshevik leaders expected that their revolt would herald the onset of worldwide revolution. After three years of bitter civil war, Bolshevik rule was secured by 1921 but world revolution did not follow. Short Communist revolts erupted in Hungary and Germany in 1919, and violent confrontations occurred between workers and the state in Italy and Spain in the immediate postwar years, but no other European society saw a Communist takeover. The Communist movement outside Russia was violently suppressed, and many of its leaders were murdered or imprisoned.

The end of the war transformed the political geography of Europe and the Middle East. After the fall of the Russian Empire, the German, Austrian, and Ottoman Turkish empires also disappeared. They were replaced by new, small states from the Baltic Sea to the Suez Canal. The former Turkish provinces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were handed over as mandates to Britain and France.

The former imperial territories in Europe held by Russia, Austria, and Germany all became independent national states. This was consistent with the demand expressed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson that the peoples of Europe should be allowed national "self-determination." From 1919 to 1921, more treaties were drawn up and signed with Germany's allies -- Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey -- which confirmed the new shape of the continent. In every case, the national settlements were messy. Small national fractions were isolated in the territory of other states.

The end of the war produced a paradox of crisis coexisting with a mood of optimism about the future. Parliamentary democracy was introduced everywhere in the areas dominated by the prewar monarchies (except for Russia), and in 1920 almost every European state was, in formal terms, democratic, even though millions of women still lacked the vote. The settlement in 1919 was supposed to pave the way for a new world order based on collaboration and mutual respect. At Versailles, the foundations were laid for the League of Nations, which was committed to isolating international aggression and providing a framework for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In 1920 the League of Nations finally met in session in the Swiss city of Geneva, chosen because of Switzerland's long tradition of neutrality. The League reflected a widespread revulsion against war. The Covenant of the League of Nations committed all its members to work toward universal disarmament.

On the next page, learn about how the hard-won peace after World War I began to collapse.

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