A century after World War I (WWI) ended, the development of human society today has once again reached a critical crossroad. At this crucial moment, lessons learned from WWI should not be forgotten so easily.
On November 11, 2018, the French government held a ceremony in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Leaders of many countries were invited to attend it.
The reason why France came forward to organize this event is that WWI ended in France. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) during the First World War, and Matthias Erzberger, an authorized representative of the German government, signed an armistice agreement in one of the rail carriages of Foch's private train in Rethondes in the Forest of Compiègne, northeastern France, at 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918. WWI ended in the failure of the Germany-led Central Powers.
Unlike the anti-fascist nature of the Second World War (WWII), participants in WWI mainly fought over colonies and spheres of influence, without much moral merit. During the conflict, the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy fought against the Allied Powers consisting of Britain, France, and Russia. It lasted for 4 years and 3 months, and swept three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, involving 34 countries and regions as well as about 65 million people.
For the first time in history, humans used weapons of mass destruction. They used machine guns, artilleries, tanks, aircraft, submarines, as well as chemical and biological weapons, which ultimately killed 10 million people, injured 20 million others, and affected more than 1.5 billion people approximately accounting for 75.5% of the world’s total population at that time, with total economic losses reaching about $170 billion.
In the end, the countries that had sharpened their swords ahead of the war did not benefit much from this enormously consumptive and ferocious conflict. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Turks empires all collapsed. Although Britain and France eventually won, they were seriously crippled. It’s no doubt that this was a war with extremely low cost effectiveness and not worthy of the efforts. It was a tragedy, pure and simple.
The end of WWI signaled the start of WWII
However, no one had foreseen this ending before WWI. In 1914, the war was considered not only inevitable, but also positive and beneficial. More importantly, all countries believed that the war would end soon and that they would win as a result.
The declaration of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Chief of the German General Staff, was very representative of the spirit at the time, saying: “We are ready. We are expecting the war, the sooner the better.” This can be seen from these clues that the war was named the “Great War” with positive meaning at that time, instead of a more neutral “World War,” as it was later renamed.
In retrospect, people are always expecting to sum up lessons to warn future generations to avoid tragedies. French President Emmanuel Macron called on in his speech at the commemorative ceremony on November 11 that all countries should remember the painful lessons of the war and always put peace at the forefront to avoid the recurrence of historical tragedies.
However, just as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher, said: the only lesson that human beings have ever learned from history is that they never learn from history. The cruelty of WWI could not stop people from launching another war again. The end of WWI soon marked the beginning of WWII.
In the Paris Peace Conference, a meeting to set post-WWI order, French Prime Minister Georges Benjamin Clemenceau thought only to take revenge on Germany for France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Therefore, as to when and where to hold the meeting and how to deal with defeated Germany, the major consideration was to vent anger and humiliate Germany.
In 1870, France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Tens of thousands of people, including the French Emperor, marshals, and generals, became captives of Prussia. The Second French Empire collapsed, while Prussia achieved reunification of Germany through this war.
On January 18, 1871, William I (full name William Frederick Louis of Hohenzollern), the King of Prussia, was proclaimed Emperor of the Second Deutsches Reich in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, France. Thus, Clemenceau insisted on holding the opening ceremony in the Palace of Versailles on January 18, 1919, where he slammed Germany in his opening speech as being “born in injustice and dead of shame,” strongly advocated weakening and shattering German industry, and vowed to “rout Germany back to 1870”.
On the contrary, Britain and the United States opposed the French plan for maintaining the balance of power in the European continent.
In the end, after five months of bargaining, the well-known Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, with provisions proving humiliating for Germany. Germany lost 13.5% of its territory and 10% of its population in the European continent; its overseas colonies were carved up; its military strength was cut back to a minimum level. Besides, war reparations of 132 billion gold Mark were imposed on Germany.
Meanwhile, Germany’s sound industrial system before the war was basically preserved under the insistence of Britain and the United States. In addition, due to the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Czarist Russian Empire, as well as the emphasis on the right to national self-determination in the peace conference, a large number of new and small countries emerged in Central and Eastern Europe overnight, objectively forming a power vacuum that was conducive to Germany reestablishing its influence.
WWII finally enlightened mankind
Therefore, although the Paris Peace Conference deeply humiliated Germany in spirit, it objectively reserved and provided favorable conditions for the future rise of Germany. Germany lost face, but saved its critical resurrection power.
Two people had foreseen these dangerous consequences. One was Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a member of the French delegation, who believed that the peace treaty did not completely destroy Germany’s capability to launch wars, but only humiliated Germany, which would push shamed Germans to find opportunities for revenge in the future on the basis of their strong industrial system.
The other was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who attended the Paris Peace Conference as the chief representative of the UK Treasury and advisor to the UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He opposed the amount of reparations that were set in the meeting because Germany could not afford it economically. However, no one listened to his opinion. Keynes chose to resign and wrote the book The Economic Consequences of the Peace after his return to the United Kingdom, which clearly stated that the huge amount of reparations imposed on Germany could not be achieved, and in turn would trigger strong thirst for revenge among the German people.
Unfortunately, history proved they were right. On June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, and France fulfilled its purpose of revenge. But only 20 years later, Germany attacked Poland in a Blitzkrieg and WWII broke out on September 1, 1939. It’s obvious that the end of WWI brought no peace, but only a truce of just 20 years between the two world wars.
France fell in June 1940. The chance of revenge for the Germans came! Adolf Hitler, the leader of Germany’s Nazi Party, ordered that Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s railway carriage parked in the museum be pulled out and be parked in the Forest of Compiègne. The French-German Armistice Agreement was once again signed in the same carriage, but this time the winner and the loser changed places, marking a replay of history.
After that, the German military transported the Foch carriage to Germany for a public exhibition in the downtown area of Berlin. During the late part of WWII, the carriage was blown up by the Allies in their air raids. Some also say that Hitler was worried that Germany would once again be forced to surrender in this very same carriage under the situation of Germany dooming to fail, and so ordered the bombing of the carriage to avoid such humiliation.
Mankind was forced to go through the more costly WWII to review what they did not learn in WWI. This time, mankind finally got enlightened: war is fierce and should never be launched so easily. Hence, although there was a cold war after WWII, there have never been hot wars in which many powers attack each other brutally. When voice of nationalism intensifies calling for fight and attack, there must be corresponding counterbalances and introspection.
As a result, anti-war has become the mainstream value of Western society. The victorious countries must restrain their intent of revenge, and achieve peace through international mechanisms and cooperation rather than humiliation. The United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) thus emerged.
It is worth mentioning that the French event on November 11 was not to celebrate the victory of WWI, but to commemorate the end of it, behind which are the unremitting efforts of reconciliation and jointly building the EU between France and Germany.
One hundred years later, the rise of populism and grass-root class’s deep sense of desperation brought about by the continued widening gap between the rich and the poor indicate that the development of human society has once again reached a critical crossroad. At this crucial moment, the lessons of WWI should not be forgotten so easily.
Disclaimer: The author is Zhao Lingmin. The article is published on infzm.com. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.