Emmanuel Macron should get a new historical advisor. He continues to repeat – this time at his Kyiv press conference on Thursday – that Russia must not be humiliated following its invasion and war against Ukraine. Politicians indiscriminately pluck at historical examples to justify controversial policies. For Macron, the aftermath of the First World War serves as a warning against the dangers of humiliating adversaries. According to the French president, humiliation of Germany in the 1919 Versailles Peace treaty resulted in the allies losing the peace and Germany plotting revenge and renewed war twenty years later. He actually turned at this point to German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had accompanied him (with Mario Draghi of Italy), to emphasise the point.
Yet for modern historians of international relations, the view that the Allies humiliated Germany after the Great War has been hotly contested for years. We now know from German archives that that myth was lavishly financed and internationally promoted post 1919 by a powerful German propaganda campaign based in the German foreign ministry and organised by the grimly titled ‘Working Committee of German Associations for Combatting Lies Concerning War Responsibility’. It sought to disprove German responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War so as to contest the legitimacy of the Versailles Treaty and all its conditions. It was successfully targeted at the allies, neutral states and their civil societies. The economist John Maynard Keynes espoused the argument and penned a best-seller highly critical of the Versailles settlement as a ‘Carthaginian Peace’. More importantly, this ‘Revisionist’ interpretation was seized upon by Adolf Hitler to justify his violent overthrow of the whole Versailles settlement. It was not until the pre-war great powers’ archives were opened in the 1960s and 1970s that the ‘revisionist’ view could be seriously scrutinised. But for at least half a century internationally schools and universities trotted out the revisionist orthodoxy. Some suggest that the corrective of Franco-German reconciliation was built on the ‘humiliation myth’ with atop the ideal of a united Europe, which might also explain President Macron’s fondness for it.
In reality, the allied peace imposed on Germany in 1919 was far less punitive than the swingeing conditions Germany imposed on defeated France after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, or following French defeat in 1940 (58 per cent of Vichy’s revenue exacted by Germany). If the peace was lost – which it was – the cause was not German humiliation, but the allies’ failure to implement it rigorously. Moderate Weimar Germany wriggled out of many of the Versailles conditions because the allies – first among them Britain and the United States – turned a blind eye to German non-compliance. They did so because their interests lay in re-establishing commercial relations with the all-important German market. Economic historians have now shown convincingly that creative accounting, benign fiscal policy and American loans allowed Germany to pay no net reparations at all. Weimar even established a secret military agreement with the Soviet Union in 1922 to develop aircraft, tanks and chemical weapons undetected outside Germany in total contravention of the Versailles treaty. So president Macron’s much repeated contention that Germany was humiliated is well wide of the historical mark.
What Macron is seeking to do in claiming that Russia should not be humiliated at the end of its war on Ukraine is ensure that Russia can quickly be integrated into a European continent-wide settlement. This is what Macron spelt out in his 2019 speech to French ambassadors: bringing Russia in from the cold. This has been a French geostrategic aim since the Franco-Russian military alliance of 1892/3, intended as a counterweight to a mighty Germany. It was vainly attempted again in the interwar years. General de Gaulle tried again in 1944 and in the 1960s. Britain being a sea-going power, rather than a continental power like France, never saw the advantage of such a ploy (except in 1941).
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in the idea of such a continent-wide settlement; all depends on the terms. But while we’re on the subject of the First World War, Macron should beware of what he wishes; after Versailles the German propaganda campaign displaced responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War onto none other than…the Franco-Russian alliance.