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The Effects of World War I: Treaties and the League of Nations

written by: Terry Ligard • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 6/6/2012

Following the mass carnage of WWI—over 25 million deaths—the world resolved never to repeat this atrocity. Such a staggering figure forced the major powers into a cautious state. A combination of harsh and meager measures were taken to maintain peace and prevent another conflict of this scale.

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    The peace initiatives following WWI were made with the hopes of achieving instant resolutions. However, these attempts only had short-term success. Considering a contemporary viewpoint, the efforts made were detrimental to relations between countries around the world, causing hostilities to escalate again. Therefore, the peace initiatives following the First World War were successful only to a limited extent.

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    The Treaty of Versailles

    In restoring peace to the suffering and damaged nations of Europe, the most important treaty written was the Treaty of Versailles. Naturally, the Allies felt it necessary to weaken Germany as to not give Germany the ability to upset the peace and order in Europe again. During the summer of 1919, many clauses were written in the treaty under which Germany was forced to give up land to surrounding nations, all of Germany’s colonies were put under League of Nations control, Germany’s army was cut to 100 000 men and 6 battleships, the land west of the Rhine River was demilitarized, Germany was forced to accept the blame for beginning the war, and Germany was to pay war reparations. The burdensome weight of the reparations along with an inflationary period and the Great Depression led to a massive instability of the German economy. Unemployment shot up and money became worthless. Such turmoil in the economy increased social unrest. Many Germans began to blame the socialists and liberals of the Weimar Republic for yielding to a dishonorable peace. Furthermore, the war guilt clause, the reparation payments, and the limits on Germany’s army provided a stage for radical right-wing parties.

    Ultimately, Germans began to desire an authoritarian leadership which they unfortunately found in Adolf Hitler. Promises of reclaiming territory, remilitarization and regaining a reputation again among the world powers after such a humiliating defeat and peace, initiated nationalism among Germans, and even allowed them to overlook the radical and irrational views of Nazism. Rather than rebuilding Germany in a manner befitting its economic and social state, and thereby garnering the German people’s respect and securing a long-lasting peace, the Allies stirred German resentment into a frenzy. The harsh clauses only drove Germans to a common cause of revenge and reclamation. With Hitler in power, Germany’s resentment towards the Treaty of Versailles took shape. The process of rearmament began with the production of U-boats, tanks, planes, and conscription. In addition, Hitler forced an Anschluss, union, with Austria, and began invading nearby European countries, completely disregarding any pleas for peace. Britain was forced to declare war on Germany when Hitler invaded Poland. Consequently, the Treaty of Versailles was a direct cause of the growing hostility of Germany and the start of WWII.

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    The League of Nations

    Founded on the hopes of peace and collective security, the League of Nations was instituted at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. However, the lack of strength through an army, structure, and America’s presence, all combined to undermine the effectiveness of the League, leading to incompetent peace initiatives. For instance, in 1931, Japan went to war with China. In the following year, Japan took over Manchuria. In response to China’s appeals, the League sent out the Lord Lytton commission to examine the situation in Manchuria. Yet, the situation only worsened when Lytton named Japan the aggressor, causing Japan to withdraw from the League. The League’s ineffectiveness in resolving or even lessening the hostilities between Japan and China, and Japan’s exit from the League, marked the beginning of Japanese enmity towards the Allied nations of Europe. Moreover, in 1935, Mussolini’s desire for Italian prominence in Europe led him to invade Ethiopia. By 1936, Ethiopia was completely under Italian control.

    Once again, the League’s inadequacy in the instigation of peace was evident when they placed economic sanctions on Italy. These sanctions were useless in initiating peace and order in Ethiopia, since they did not ban the sale of oil to Italy. Moreover, Britain, a member of the League of Nations, did not close the Suez Canal to Italian military carriers. In fact, rather than quelling Italy’s imperialistic passions, the sanctions only annoyed Mussolini into allying himself with Hitler. Therefore, in an effort to push Japan and Italy into more peaceful terms with their respective nations of imperialistic interest, the League of Nation’s lack of threat only led Japan and Italy into friendlier terms with Hitler, forming the Axis. Tensions grew and the world suffered again in WWII.

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    Appeasement

    To satisfy Germany’s initial territorial demands to prevent open aggression, appeasement—agreeing to demands in order to prevent war—was used to prolong peace. Shortly following Germany’s union with Austria, Hitler threatened peace in Europe by endangering Czechoslovakia’s independence. In response to this crisis, however, France and Russia were unwilling to defend Czechoslovakia. Britain chose to use the policy of appeasement as a peace initiative. The armed forces of Britain would not be able to defend all parts of Britain’s empire simultaneously, and thus, the British did not want both a fight with Japan in the east and Germany in the west. Unfortunately, the futility of appeasement become more evident as Hitler’s demands grew. At first, Hitler demanded the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany, from Chamberlain, who then persuaded the Czech government into appeasing Hitler.

    However, in a second meeting, Hitler demanded that his troops were to have the right to occupy the Sudetenland. French and British rejection of Hitler’s demands led Hitler to agree to talk once more, As a result, a conference was held at Munich, in which the Sudetenland was handed over to Germany. Although it seemed as if appeasement was a successful approach and would lead to a lasting peace when Hitler stated that the Sudetenland was “the last territorial claim [he had] to make in Europe,” Hitler could not simply be appeased. Such a tactic did nothing to stop Hitler, as Britain did not intervene using force, only diplomacy. Hitler falsified claims about chaos in the Czech government and marched his troops into the capital, Prague. Subsequent to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, he invaded Poland. Therefore, it was evident that Hitler deceived the world in the Munich Agreement, and Britain and France realized that war was necessary. When Hitler invaded Poland, Britain declared war on Germany, beginning the Second World War.

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    Looking Ahead...

    Unfortunately, the peace initiatives subsequent to WWI were ineffective, in that they did not prevent the advent of WWII. Following the victory of the Allied powers, the Treaty of Versailles was written during the Paris Peace Conference, in which Germany was harshly treated. Instead of deterring Germany from future aggression, the Treaty only fuelled the German people’s desire for revenge, leading to the rise of Hitler. Ironically, the claim of WWI being the “war to end all wars” only became a platform for the rise of further aggression and WWII.

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    Sources

    • Tuffs, R. Joanne, and E. Alyn Mitchner. Global Forces of the Twentieth Century. Canada: Nelson Thomson Learning. 2003.
    • Hitler Quote: http://www.johndclare.net/RoadtoWWII5_Chamberlainspeech.htm