Getting Versailles Right

by I.A. Isherwood

The title of this post is completely misleading. Anyone teaching the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and subsequent treaty has an uphill battle. The issue is not so much as getting the treaty right, which is easily done by having your students actually read it, but in not interpreting the treaty wrongly. But ‘Getting Versailles Not Wrong’ is a terrible title so . . .

Why is it so easy to discuss the war but so hard to discuss the peace? With Versailles comes a hell of a lot of historiographical baggage – we have to wade through all kinds of historical muck to finally move backwards – to try to understand the motivations of the people trying to make the peace despite our natural inclinations to just blame the peacemakers for everything that’s wrong with the twentieth century.

What do I mean by this?

We simply cannot see Versailles except through the lens of the Second World War. We are apt to see the treaty as a doomed document, its creators as flawed and sinister figures lacking in foresight, who plotted and compromised and then finally failed to accomplish the one thing they set out to do, to create a lasting peace. You had one job, big four . . .


The Big Four. Wikipedia Commons.

So I began the class with a declarative sentence: ‘The Treaty of Versailles did not start the Second World War.’ Why start in such a way? Because I wanted us to move past the treaty’s legacy and instead focus on its writer’s intentions and the war culture that gave birth to its articles. The issue of the day for us was not the causes of the Second World War, it was instead the difficulties in creating peace after the First World War, a conflict that was greater in its scale and suffering than any before.

So, how did I teach this monster? I began with a twenty minute overview of the treaty and positions of the peacemakers. Then I did a rough poll of my students: who thought Germany was treaty unfairly?; who thought Germany should be punished, perhaps, more than they were?; who saw the peace as an idealistic lost opportunity for a new world order?; and finally who took  pragmatic middle ground between punishment and progress?

I suspected that those who sided with Germany would be slow to raise their hands – I made it very clear that they could have whatever opinions they wanted and that I wouldn’t hold their opinions against them – and as soon as the first hand went up, others followed. I then broke students up into groups according to their sympathies.

Then . . .

I had them draw up the best argument they could against their own position. Those who sympathized with Germany had to see the notion of peace through the eyes of the French, who wanted lasting security and reparations. My idealists had to see peace as a chance for maintaining the international imperial status quo. My punishers had to argue sympathetically on behalf of Germany. And my British Empire pragmatists had to turn Wilsonian.

Was it a perfect exercise? Certainly not. Was it useful? By all means. I think it helped students see through their own ideological biases towards the treaty, argue another side of the coin, and articulate their arguments as peacemakers in 1919. It made them, I think, realize exactly why the Paris Peace Conference is so difficult to study, so messy in its legacy, but so essential to our understanding of the war and its ramifications. And I suppose that’s all I was going for.