Andrzej Chwalba: Idealism and Interests

President Wilson assumed in Versailles that he would gain the gratitude of the peoples of Europe and political and economic influence in the Old Continent. It turned out, however, that Americans did not accept his idea—says Professor Andrzej Chwalba in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: One hundred years ago, the Treaty of Versailles was concluded in June 1919. Slightly more than six months earlier, on 11 November 1918, the Germans had signed a truce with the Allies, even though no foreign soldier had entered their territory. Germany did not lose the war militarily, and in the first half of 1918 it even seemed to be just a step away from winning it: they signed the Brest Treaty with Russia and they were approaching Paris.

ANDRZEJ CHWALBA: A great Allied offensive was prepared for 14 November, and the Germans realized that they were unable to stop it, that the war was lost. They came to the conclusion that it was better to end it earlier, because with time the price to be paid would increase. Unlike the Nazis, they didn’t think that you have to fight to the very end, there was no fanaticism in them. Moreover, in the first days of November, a Central European branch of the Bolshevik Revolution erupted in Germany, which led to the collapse of the state, the proclama- tion of the Republic and the escape of the Emperor. So there was nothing to wait for. The Kaiser crossed the border with the Netherlands at a time when a ceasefire was being signed in the Forest of Compiègne.

Why did the Kaiser abdicate? Was there no other option?

His resignation was demanded by the chief architect of that truce, Thomas Woodrow Wilson. He blamed him morally for the outbreak of the war. However, it was not so much Wilson, but the German public that forced him to give up his crown. If Wilhelm had not abdicated, he would have been put on trial.

Was there such an idea?

Yes, the soldiers of the revolution with red ribbons were located about 30 kilometers from the place where Wilhelm and his family stayed, waiting for the permission of the Queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, to enter her country. In a few hours, he would fall into the hands of a revolutionary tribunal and possibly be sentenced to death.

So he could have shared the fate of his cousin Nicholas II Romanov, who was refused asylum in Britain by their common relative King George V.

The opinion of the British on the Tsar, an ally of Britain, was worse than on the enemy—the Kaiser. Russia had bad press as an autocratic, brutal and backward regime. This influenced London’s decisions.

The opinion of the British on the Tsar, an ally of Britain, was worse than on the enemy—the Kaiser. Russia had bad press as an autocratic, brutal and backward regime. This influenced London’s decisions.

A ceasefire was signed in the Forest of Compiègne, but the peace treaty had to wait for another few months. At that time, was Berlin afraid that the Allies could resume hostilities?

On the contrary, it was the superpowers who were afraid that the Germans would resume hostilities. The Allies were happy that the war was coming to an end, especially the French, who mourned 1.4 million French victims.

When the Germans received the first proposals for their new borders during the Paris conference, they were not satisfied: among other things, the Allies wanted to transfer Upper Silesia to Poland without a plebiscite. This caused an incredible hatred towards the Allies and Poles. The Social Democratic German government mobilized forces at the Polish-German border region. After the occupation of Vilnius in April 1919, Józef Piłsudski halted all military action in the east and shifted the troops to the west. We were facing the prospect of a German attack on Poland.

Was the threat of war real?

A war was unlikely, a lot of this was play-acting. The French warned the Germans that in the event of an attack on Poland, France would march on Berlin. However, the English, who feared Germany’s excessive weakening, benefited from the situation and obtained arguments for a plebiscite to be held in Upper Silesia.

There was also Austria-Hungary. Wilson wanted to preserve this state as a center for the stabilization of the region, but various processes tore this country apart. But was there a chance to preserve it?

If the decision had been in the hands of the superpowers, then yes. Almost up to the end, Paris, London and Washington believed that the traditional concert of powers was still on. It was therefore believed that Vienna could be severely punished, but this did not mean that the “pygmies of Europe” were to be allowed to rule…

Paris, London and Washington believed that the traditional concert of powers was still on. It was therefore believed that Vienna could be severely punished.

This phrase was used by Churchill.

And even earlier by Bismarck. Announcing his 14 points, Wilson was clearly trying to save Austria-Hungary. He also did not prejudge the shape of the only new state he announced—Poland: he did not specify whether Austrian Galicia, for example, was to be a part of it.

If the United States had not joined the war in 1916 and Wilson’s voice had not been so important at the Paris Conference, would the chances of Poland’s independence have been lower?

If the Americans had not joined the war, it would probably not have ended in 1918, and the victory of the Allies would not have been certain at all. But back to your question: the French postulated the independence of Poland even earlier than the Americans. In 1918 appropriate circumstances occurred, which virtually forced the Poles to create their own state. When Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia crumbled, anyone who could built states on the ruins. The Allies, even if they wished, would not be able to halt the processes that had begun in our region. Poland and Czechoslovakia would have been created anyway. On the other hand, the Allies were to decide about the borders of the newly created states—a condition in the spirit of the Vienna Congress, where the big players decided about the shape of post-war Europe.

Austria-Hungary collapses, Germany is defeated. But what would the triumph of the Whites over the Reds in Russia have changed?

The Allies would not have agreed to the creation of the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and it is difficult to say what fate Finland would have faced. What is certain, however, is that Poland would have been created, but within modest borders up to the Bug River at the most.

Wilson does not mention Czechoslovakia in his 14 points…

Which is a disappointment for Czechs, just like for Serbs and Croats. Czechoslovakia also emerges from a policy of fait accompli, but let us add here: Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš were an extremely competent tandem. From the very beginning, when active in the West, they bet on the victory of the Allies, while Poles were internally divided. Czech emigration was effective and brought their case to light from oblivion.

Had an awareness of the Czechoslovak problem been absent in the West before?

Very much so. No one achieved as much success in Versailles as the Czechs. The circumstances were favorable to them, because London and Paris were the ones who opted for a strong Czechoslovakia. In the case of the Polish-Czechoslovakian territorial dispute, both powers supported Prague. In the context of defining the borders of Czechoslovakia there was also no conflict of interest with the German state, because Czechoslovakia was created from the lands of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire.

At the same time Wilson’s policy in Central and South America was…


And yet we remember him in Poland as a knight in shining armor who gave freedom to the nations of the world. The ways he is perceived in America and in European images are quite incompatible. So how much idealism was there in Wilson’s building order in post-war Europe?

Let us look at it from a broader perspective. Since the times of President James Monroe, that is the 1820s, South America had been Washington’s sphere of influence. After the Great War, Wilson’s ideas were to strengthen America’s influence
on Europe, especially on the countries of the so-called new Europe, such as Poland. Wilson also supported humanitarian aid for Europe through, among others, the Hoover Commission, which produced gratitude to the generous America. Wilson’s ideas, including the right to self-determination of nations, were again useful to America in the period after World War II. They contributed to the launch of decolonization processes in Africa and Asia.

Supporting decolonization after the Second World War was a pragmatic move of Washington—mainly Paris and London were weakened, as they withdrew from the colonies and could be replaced by Americans.

Definitely yes. American idealism—both after World War I and after World War II— was connected with US interests. Wilson assumed that such a position would gain him the gratitude of individual nations and with political and economic influence. However, it turned out that Americans did not accept Wilson’s idea—hence Washington’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, and so on.

Let us also consider why this treaty was so harsh towards the Germans.

The war had lasted so long, because both sides thought that once they had won, they would impose hard conditions on the defeated. The Allies wanted German colo- nies. They wanted reparations. In order to justify them, especially their scale, they had to assume that they were innocent. Only Germany was to blame.

Wilson’s ideas, including the right to self- determination of nations, were again useful to America in the period after World War II.

War as an investment.

Exactly. The French remembered well the very high reparations that the Germans imposed on them after winning the war in 1871. They wanted to take symbolic revenge. In addition, the Germans were named the main culprit of the war, which had to upset them.

Could a less severe punishment have saved Europe from the processes that led to the Second World War?

The disappointment of the German society would have been huge anyway. During the war, the German authorities had fed chauvinistic sentiments with the propaganda of success, promising that a new Germanic Europe would emerge. After all, even in 1918 Berlin formed the German European Union.

In what sense?

From the Flemish state through Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and Belarus up to Romania, Berlin-dependent states were constructed. A common time zone was even introduced in that area. It was more than Mitteleuropa. The leaders were still talking about Great Germany, about taking colonies away from the English and French after the victory, promising that the sun would never set over Germany. And suddenly German citizens, convinced that fate was on their side, lost the war.

In addition, post-war resentment was widespread in Europe. The French and English also thought that they had received too little. Italy was in the victors’ camp and received a lot, and despite that Benito Mussolini came to power, who wanted even more. A less severe treaty would therefore be a weaker fuel for the Nazis, and it is difficult to say whether they would have come to power, but surely certain processes would have taken place anyway.

And who decided in Versailles, who had the most to say?

The Americans tipped the scales, some- times supporting the British and sometimes the French. The Japanese were not particularly interested in the conference. The Italians were active, but they had much less to say than the main trio. In 1919 one could still see a balance between London and Paris. This was also due to the fact that Ferdinand Foch was the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau holding a strong position.

In 1920, the situation changed fundamentally. A group of politicians of lesser stature appeared in France, with pacifists and socialists growing stronger there and the alliance of Paris and London weakening. Americans, who had often supported the French, withdrew. The British became stronger.

And what was the main point in the dispute between Paris and London in Versailles?

In previous years, the English had become involved in European affairs only in emergency situations. It was a power thinking globally. The principle of a balance of power between the main players in Europe was important to them. London wanted peace and quiet on the Continent. Eastern Europe was of little interest to the British, it was not a prospective market or a supplier of raw materials for them. Only after some time it turned out that they had certain interests in Poland. In Versailles it was important for them to participate in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire—all the more so as the oil era had just begun. France, on the other hand, turned its sights on investment in the countries of its new Eastern European allies and still saw Germany as a major threat.

The years 1914-1945 are sometimes referred to as the Thirty Years’ War II. Is it just a journalistic catchphrase or is there anything to it?

This is an exaggeration, because in the interwar period we had more than a dozen years of peace. However, we can agree that 1939 was a consequence of 1918. The Germans wanted to return to the path of war success, which they still pursued in the first half of 1918, but now they had much greater appetites. Hitler had much broader ambitions than the fathers of German imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

is a historian and professor at Jagiellonian University. He is the author of more than 20 books, including Zwrotnice dziejów (together with Wojciech Harpula); Rok 1919: Pierwszy rok wolności; Samobójstwo Europy: Wielka Wojna 1914-1918; Historia Polski 1795-1918.

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

Andrzej Chwalba

Andrzej Chwalba is a historian and professor at Jagiellonian University. He is the author of more than 20 books, including Zwrotnice dziejów (together with Wojciech Harpula); Rok 1919: Pierwszy rok wolności; Samobójstwo Europy: Wielka Wojna 1914-1918; Historia Polski 1795-1918.

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