A century ago, the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I. While historians debate the treaty’s legacy, what is the true significance of the outcome?
A century ago at the end of the First World War, an unprecedented and historic peace conference was convened in France. Paris became the virtual seat of world government as leaders from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and many other countries assembled to thrash out the mess that was the aftermath of the war. The war’s impact was devastating: More than 50 million soldiers and civilians had died and millions more had been wounded in the horrific bloodletting.
The Conference produced five treaties, but is remembered primarily for the Treaty of Versailles, which dealt with Germany, the war’s chief antagonist. This treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors, to take effect the following year.
The treaty invariably involved many compromises, but it grappled in a thorough manner with the challenging issues on the table, as parties sought to achieve the best results possible under difficult circumstances. Germany was disarmed and lands were returned to their rightful owners as the map of Europe was redrawn. Also, the League of Nations, brainchild of American President Woodrow Wilson, was enshrined in the treaty and came into being on January 10, 1920. This would provide a public forum whereby future complaints, infractions, and arguments could be heard and resolved.
One of the chief aims of the Versailles Treaty was to ensure Germany confronted the enormity of its actions. This proved to be extremely challenging, but it was the critical issue of reparations that caused more controversy than anything else. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau strenuously argued with President Wilson for extensive reparations. Wilson argued for a fixed, affordable sum, payable over a defined period, so that Germany would know exactly what was required of her and could budget accordingly. Lloyd George and Clemenceau strongly disagreed, fearing that demanding too low a sum would fail to “appease British and French public opinion” (“Keynes and the First World War,” Libertarian Papers, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2017, p. 15). Germany, meanwhile, did not see why it should pay reparations at all (“Did the Versailles peace treaty trigger another world war?” HistoryExtra.com, June 26, 2019). Eventually, reparations were imposed, but—inevitably, perhaps—history records that some people believed the demands were too lenient while others thought them too onerous.
What most people familiar with the Treaty remember, however, is that it somehow caused, or at least contributed to, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, leading to World War II. Is this true? Were the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, including the reparations, too harsh?
One who famously thought so was John Maynard Keynes, a brilliant British economist and delegate to the conference who was also closely involved with the drafting of the treaty. He walked away from the conference stridently predicting that the treaty was too harsh, the reparations too heavy, and that another war would result within a generation. Keynes wrote his conclusions in flamboyant style with a barrage of economic data in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
His book became the definitive account of the Paris Peace Conference and the “go-to read” about the Treaty of Versailles. It was hugely influential, read by many in positions of leadership, and “Germans never ceased to quote” it while Adolf Hitler rose to power (Libertarian Papers, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2017, p. 25).
Keynes’ analysis became the received wisdom and the defining narrative of the Peace Conference, but his book was also seen by some as an unreliable polemic—even a diatribe—against the treaty (“The Economic Consequences of John Maynard Keynes,” LawLiberty.com, March 11, 2019). With the passage of years, many of his dire predictions failed to materialize, and it is reported that he privately admitted to historian Elizabeth Wiskemann that he regretted writing the book (Libertarian Papers). Germany was neither pacified, nor conciliated, nor permanently weakened, and many felt it could well afford the reparations demanded by the Treaty. In just a few short years, Germany was recovering and rearming. By 1926, Germany had regained its Great Power status and entered the League of Nations, where it was given a permanent seat on the League’s Council. The issue of reparations simply melted away—only a fraction of what was required actually being paid (LawLiberty.com).
The controversy surrounding the Versailles Treaty lives on as historians continue their debates. Whatever view we might take, the fact remains that—because of or in spite of Versailles—Germany under the Nazis did remilitarize in flagrant breach of the Treaty and launched a new round of German aggression in the Second World War. And this leads us to the question, “Why?” Does something deeper lie behind the course history took after the Treaty of Versailles?
The real significance of the war, as well as the peace which followed, is that the world’s political, economic, and military centre of gravity decisively shifted from the Old World of Europe to the New World of America. This great transition was to have a decisive impact on the fulfilment of Bible prophecy.
The Russian Empire collapsed as a force to reckon with, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918) and Ottoman Empire (1922) simply ceased to be—with the footnote that once Jerusalem was liberated from the latter, the way was clear for the establishment of the nation of Israel. This in itself would hold dramatic prophetic consequences.
France was significantly weakened, and the British Empire was left bleeding from economic and political blows from which it never fully recovered. Germany was thwarted in its global ambitions but, by the mid-1930s, would rise again in yet another effort to dominate Europe.
This left America to continue unopposed in its rise to superpower status as a world hegemon. Indeed, America has stood astride the world for a century—an example of history repeating itself, as the defeat of Napoleon had opened the door to a century of Britain’s own global dominance. Was any of this prophesied?
The book of Genesis contains a remarkable prophecy involving the children of Joseph, the son of Jacob, whose name was changed by God to “Israel.” On the brink of his death, Israel transferred the blessings of Abraham to his two grandsons, saying “let my name be named upon them” (Genesis 48:13–21). According to Israel’s prophetic blessing, the younger grandson, Ephraim, would become a great company of nations, while the elder, Manasseh, would become a great single nation—but Ephraim would be the greater of the two (v. 19).
To which modern nations do these prophecies point? There is no obvious fulfilment in biblical history—but prophetically speaking, in modern history, Britain and America provide a compelling fit. These two brothers have together dominated the world for the better part of 400 years, seeing off challenges from Spain, France, Germany, and Russia along the way. God gave them the victory over those who would destroy them, as had been prophesied to Abraham (Luke 1:71–74; see also Genesis 22:15–17).
Yet, dramatic changes lie ahead for these nations! For prophetic insight into the future of Germany—and the world—be sure to read Rod McNair’s article, beginning on page 5.