Lecture Series Examines Treaty of Versailles and Its Impact on the Modern World

soldier in trench with machine gun

The British author H.G. Wells was under no illusions about the horror of war. In 1914, not long after the start of World War I, he wrote knowingly about the “stench of the battlefields,” the “blood and filth,” and the “agonies of the spirit worse than pain.”

And yet, as horrific as it all was, Wells saw a greater purpose in the defeat of Germany, its subsequent disarmament, and “a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever.”

“This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war,” he wrote in “The War That Will End War.” “It is the last war!”

A New Community Lecture Series

The “last” war and the Treaty of Versailles that ended it, were followed 20 years later by an even greater conflict, World War II, which resulted in more than 60 million deaths, the Holocaust, and the start of the Nuclear Age. What Wells thought was the end of an era, was, in fact, the dawn of an even more destructive one.

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Great War, Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies is hosting a four-part lecture series in October and November titled “The Consequences of World War I Peacemaking.” Sponsored by the University’s Graduate Liberal Studies programs, this inaugural “Think Again” community lecture series is intended to highlight the exemplary scholarship and teaching of Georgetown faculty members.

The first talk, by Professor of History Aviel Roshwald, Ph.D., is called “Paris 1919: The Dilemmas of National Self-Determination.” Subsequent lectures will be given by Mustafa Aksakal, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History and Nesuhi Ertegun Chair, Modern Turkish Studies; Professor of History David Goldfrank, Ph.D.; and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Chairman of the Board for Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

A World Forever Changed

World War I, and the Treaty of Versailles, which ended it, changed the world forever and had a major, enduring impact on the political geography, politics, and economies of Europe and the Middle East, Pickering said. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire, much of the Arab world was carved into new colonies and nominal states comprising multiple ethnic groups that lacked a common national identity.

The treaty itself, and the harsh terms it imposed on Germany, helped foster the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and created the political blueprint for World War II.  Yet Pickering said that, while there is certainly evidence for that conclusion, the causation is not that simple: Rather, Versailles was a kind of “benchmark” on the destructive path that numerous forces—militarism, imperialism, and nationalism  among them—had already set in motion.

“Had we done Versailles differently, it’s not a sure thing that it would have turned out different,” said Pickering, who, in his long career, served as ambassador to Russia, Israel, El Salvador, India, and the United Nations.

Idealism—and Hypocrisy

World War I was the most destructive event Europe had witnessed since the Black Death. Yet, despite, or perhaps because of, its very horror, there arose the idealistic belief that nations might face their conflicts differently in the future. President Woodrow spoke of self-determination for all people and championed a new League of Nations. But the U.S. balked at joining the League, while the ascendant colonial powers divided sections of the Middle East and the Third World with the promise that the people living there would gain independence—once they showed they were prepared for it.

“It was an arrangement that reeked of hypocrisy,” said Roshwald, referring to League’s Mandate System, which transferred to the victors control of territories held by Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Within those territories were—and, to a large extent, still are—competing groups clamoring for national recognition, Roshwald said. Recently, for example, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence, causing consternation in Baghdad and Washington.

Such aspirations are exploited by the great powers even today, Roshwald said, such as when Russian President Vladimir Putin champions the separation of pro-Russian minorities from Ukraine and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, arguing that he is only advocating what the West did for Kosovo when it split from Serbia in 2008.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Treaties, the lessons they taught us continue to fade, Roshwald said, but their repercussions are still very much among us.

“We’re still facing many of the dilemmas of national self-determination that we faced in 1919,” Roshwald said. “The very phrase begs the question: “Who constitutes the national self that is to be in charge of its own determination?”

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