Treaty of Versailles: Still important 100 years later

Mark Albertson
Mark Albertson

Each year adds its own imprint to world history and 1919 is notable for many reasons. Here in the U.S. there were many remarkable events, including:

  • Establishment of the Grand Canyon as a national park.
  • Birth of the American Communist party.
  • Passage by Congress of the Volstead Act, establishing Prohibition.
  • Babe Ruth’s trade from the Red Sox to the Yankees.
  • The births of author J.D. Salinger and singer/songwriter/activist Pete Seeger were born.
  • The deaths of President Theodore Roosevelt and industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of several events that might be described as cataclysmic in U.S. and world history and they will be the focus of the scholarly lecture series presented by Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society, now in its 12th year. Each program will be presented on a Sunday afternoon from 4 to 5:30 at either the library at 137 Old Ridgefield Road or the historical society at 224 Danbury Road. The Bulletin is the media sponsor for the series.

Sex, Scandal and Upheaval: 1919 — What’s Changed? will examine four topics that still reverberate today:

  • Versailles — False Promise, Jan. 27, Wilton Library.
  • Conflict on the Homefront: Connecticut and the Nation, Feb. 24, Wilton Library.
  • Men in Black Sox, March 10, Wilton Historical Society.
  • Votes for Women, March 31, Wilton Historical Society.

Not least of these is the presentation on the Treaty of Versailles, with speaker Mark Albertson, an author and adjunct professor at Norwalk Community College.

The treaty, signed on June 28, 1919, brought an end to the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. Along with other treaties signed by Germany’s allies, it brought World War I to an end. Among its many provisions was the War Guilt clause, which required Germany to accept responsibility for the loss of life and damages during the war. It also required Germany to disarm, give up territory, and pay reparations in an amount that would decimate its economy.

According to Albertson, the treaty did not put an end to anything and the effects continue to play out today in Iraq, Ukraine, and Libya.

“There really is no such thing as World War I or World War II,” he said in an interview with the Bulletin. What was known as “the Great War lasted from 1914 to 1918, then they take a break and are at it again from 1931 to 1945.”

The Great War was fought for money, politics, colonies, and power, Albertson said. It was extremely costly in terms of lives, money, and territory lost:

  • German dead amounted to 1,171,000 and it lost its colonies.
  • Great Britain lost 965,000 to keep its colonies.
  • France lost 1,500,000 to keep its colonies.

Japan, an Allied power, suffered only 300 to 400 casualties and received many of Germany’s possessions in the Pacific.

“It gives you a perspective on what it will cost the marines to kick the Japanese off those islands in 1945,” Albertson said.

Monetarily, British investment in the U.S. shrank from $3.7 billion in 1914 to $1.8 billion by 1918. France had to liquidate 75% of its assets here to fight the war.

By 1917, Dupont is producing 40% of this country’s munitions. Dupont’s stock price skyrocketed from $20 a share in 1914 to $1,000 a share in 1918.

Before the U.S. got into the war, J.P. Morgan’s network of banks loaned the Allied nations approximately $2.3 billion. In 1915, Morgan loaned Russia $12 million and France $50 million. By 1918, Morgan could no longer afford to be the prime lender for the Allies and U.S. taxpayers were tapped for $10 to $12 billion in 1918.

“The government will spend $22 billion [on the war] and that’s when the dollar bought something,” Albertson said, citing the U.S. federal government spent more money on World War I than the it spent from 1791 to 1914.

“Hence, the beginning of the military industrial complex Eisenhower warns about in 1961,” he said.

During World War I, the horse-mounted cavalry gave way to vehicles run on oil and combustion engines. There were machine guns, airplanes, submarines and torpedoes. “The more factories you have, the more weapons you have,” Albertson said. “War is being industrialized, you need more people. The casualty rate is going up.”

“The Versailles Treaty would not stop the next war,” Albertson said. One person who understood that, he said, was Josef Stalin.

“Stalin understands one thing. When the czar mobilized Russia in 1914, with six million men, only four million had rifles. How is that going to work?

“After Lenin dies, Stalin, beginning in 1926, collectivizes the peasants” and builds factories. From 1927 to 1949, “Stalin will move the country from a backward peasant economy to the atomic bomb in a generation.”

German reparations

One of the major reasons Albertson and others see the Versailles Treaty as a “big fraud” has to do with the monetary reparations expected from Germany.

“If the British and French were dedicated to democracy, they would have supported the Weimar Republic,” Albertson said. “How could Germany pay $33 billion with a busted economy?”

Ensuing uprisings, along with the Depression, helped Adolf Hitler rise to power.

Europe fades

The period of 1914 to 1918 marked the beginning of the end of European dominance from a global political perspective, Albertson said. “After 1918, the monarchical families are gone, it’s a cataclysmic collapse,” he said, explaining that people who were previously tied to the land for survival were making their way in a world of industrial revolution and capitalism.

“Hitler is the heir to the Kaiser. The Ottomans are gone,” he said. Expressing their colonial appetites, the British and French draw borders in the Middle East. “You see Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan — countries that did not exist 100 years ago. You don’t think you’re going to have a problem?”

In 1920, Jews are being killed in Ukraine while Poland tries to take territory from Bolshevik Russia. “The Syrians are rising to throw the French out. Turkey puts together an army and throws out the British, French, Greeks and Italians. Turkey as you see it, is the result of that war.

“The war has led to other problems we are still having today. The war is not over,” Albertson said.

Even Vietnam is a product of World War I colonialism. “Ho Chi Minh went to Versailles believing in [President Woodrow Wilson’s] 14 Points. He doesn’t even get a hearing.”

It has left us with what we have today, Albertson said. “War has changed society, government, the economy and helped to create the American Corporate State.”

Series details

Mark Albertson is the historical research editor at Army Aviation magazine in Monroe and is the historian for the Army Aviation Association of America. He has authored several books: USS Connecticut: Constitution State Battleship; They’ll Have to Follow You! The Triumph of the Great White Fleet and On History: A Treatise. He is working on a two-volume history of Army Aviation, Sky Soldiers: The Saga of Army Aviation, of which volume 1 is written.

In addition, he has taught courses on World War I, Iraq, Vietnam, and the Third Reich.

In the remaining lectures in the scholarly series, on Feb. 24, historian and author Cecilia Bucki will survey the domestic unrest that plagued the United States following the end of World War I in the form of general strikes, labor unrest, race riots, and Palmer raids. On March 10, ESPN sports writer Steve Wulf will discuss the infamous cheating scandal that enveloped the 1919 World Series, and Pam Dougherty of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame will tell how women finally got the right to vote in 1919. Her talk is on March 31.

Each talk is free and registration is highly recommended. Register for lectures at Wilton Library online at www.wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-6334. For lectures at the historical society, visit wiltonhistorical.org or call 203-762-7257.

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