11th Grade: War Narratives and the Failure of Peace

Greetings,

We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record.  When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself.  And yet, often these treaties fail.  We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example.  Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena.  Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.

Some treaties do work.  The Civil War will not restart anytime soon.  Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany.  But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general.  The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:

1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole

Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens.  World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end.  Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started.  As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started.  But this is a mistake.  A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle.  If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.

I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action.  Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet.  For them, there remains more to the story.

I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle.  Any analysis of the causes  of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations.  Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well.  Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story.  The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.

2. Failure to Look Ahead

Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict.  Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made.  This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily.  We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.

Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects.  The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible.  We want to move on, relax, be happy.  The victors feel this way, at least.  But often the losers don’t want to move on.  They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel.  They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.

I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815.  Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered.  My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution,  back in the box.  They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water.  Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise.  Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.

3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages

Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided.  As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in.  The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent.  We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children.  Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable  and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.

Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene.  Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality.  The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.

Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance.  The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this.  Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict.  The infamous Article 231 reads,

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires.  Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace.  So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc.  Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.”   Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French.  We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.

Europe, 1919

Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany.  Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines.  The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.

4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down

This applies to Germany, but also Russia.  The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles.  They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland.  Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities .   But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance.  In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.

Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

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