The real roots of many major recent and current political events – the
convulsions surrounding Iran's Islamic regime, the bloody troubles in
neighbouring Iraq, the ethnic cleansing and mass murders in the
Balkans, even numerous wars and uprisings from Palestine to Indochina –
lie in a ceremony that occurred ninety years ago. This was the gathering
in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, outside Paris, on 28 June 1919,
when the representatives of the victors in the first world war dictated
the terms of peace to the quivering representatives of Germany's
"The stillest three minutes ever lived through were those in which the German delegates signed the Peace Treaty", the New York Times correspondent Charles A Selden reported
in next morning's newspaper. As American delegate George Louis Beer
wrote in his diary, "Two German delegates [were] led like felons into
the room to sign their doom. It was like the execution of a sentence."
But it was no less an execution for the billion or more innocent people
in territories whose borders were so cavalierly rearranged by the
delegates in the fraught months of negotiation that preceded this
signing. For the document called the Treaty of Versailles dramatically transformed the world and set the stage for so many contemporary problems (see A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today [Wiley, 2007]).
This treaty, largely forgotten even as the world has so frequently been
forced to cope with its consequences, set up a new system of global
governance. The victors in what was then known as the Great War were effectively empowered to maintain, indeed expand, a series of entrenched, though already fading global empires.
When the Allied powers arrived in Paris at the end of 1918, barely days
after the Armistice that brought an end to hostilities was signed on 11
November, they proclaimed themselves "the world's government" for the
period they were assembled in Paris. So for the next six months, the
statesmen of the victorious powers – America's Woodrow Wilson, France's Georges Clemenceau, Britain's David Lloyd George, Italy's Vittorio Orlando,
even Japan's Viscount Sutemi Chinda – proceeded to redraw the map of
vast stretches of the planet. They created a host of new nations with
little understanding – and barely a nod to the wishes or desires,
prejudices or fears – of the people who lived within the new boundaries they were marking with blurry blue pencils, often in the wee hours of the morning.
As the peacemakers sought to dismantle the great empires that had
challenged them on the battlefields – the Germans, Austro-Hungarians,
and especially the Ottomans – they established a new world order with
little real understanding of the consequences.
So Yugoslavia was created from a kaleidoscope of hostile religions,
alphabets, languages and tribal passions in the most volatile corner of
Europe (see Dejan Djokic, "Versailles and Yugoslavia: ninety years on", 26 June 2009) .
Germany was effectively pillaged by a reparations system, part of a Carthaginian peace; Japan
was given free reign to do as it pleased in China, Korea and much of
Asia. Both decisions set the stage for militarist resurgence in these
defeated nations and, ultimately, for the second world war.
The mandate system awarded Britain control of Palestine, echoing the Balfour declaration's recognition
of a Jewish right to a homeland in the entire territory of Palestine,
with barely a nod to the native Arabs. A swathe of other nations was
established in the middle east – from Iraq, Syria and Jordan (carved
out of Mesopotamia), to a greater Lebanon seized upon by the French as
its booty from the spoils of war.
Indeed it was the British – and their determined efforts to to break
apart the Ottoman empire and cement control over vast stretches of the
middle east – who were the most successful in forcing their will on
their Allies in Paris. The efforts of Lloyd George
and his most adroit team of diplomats and statesmen were designed to
secure trade and military routes to their vast Indian empire, not to
mention the rights to the newest strategic commodity, oil.
The Ottomans had played an important, and at the time little understood, role in the middle east. The Sunnis who ruled from the Sultan's palace in Constantinople (Istanbul) were a critical counterweight to the Shi'a of the Persian empire or indeed the Shi'a of much of Mesopotamia and the Gulf. With the Sunnis'
power curbed, their ability to act as a restraining force on British,
and eventually American, activities, especially in Iran, was
So it was not surprising that British interests would move with
dispatch into the oilfields of the Persian Gulf, where they would
eventually be challenged by American entrepreneurs as well. And Iran,
especially its ruler Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi,
even before he assumed the throne in December 1925, would find a
foreign power he was little able to control and on whose high-handed
actions there was little restraint. By then, the Ottoman empire – that once stretched cross the middle east and north Africa, up through the Balkans, nearly to the gates of Vienna – was reduced
to the small, rather powerless nation of Turkey. Britain was the force
to reckon with across the middle east. So it should come as little
surprise if today's rulers of Iran have replaced the United States with
Britain as "the most evil" of Iran's enemies, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
proclaimed during his Friday prayer message in Tehran on 19 June 2009.
The legacy of Versailles extends far beyond Iran, or Iraq, even the
Balkans. It is a legacy of greed and hubris, ignorance and selfishness
that should serve as a lesson for all governments, all statesmen who
seek to impose their blinkered vision on other nations and other
David A Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (Wiley, 2007). This article has been reproduced under a Creative Commons licence from openDemocracy.net.