World War I was a wake up call for a lot of the European powers. They realized the dangers that came with imperial competition and massive military spending, and so a lot of these countries turned inward. They decided to focus their time and attention on strengthening their country and empire from within and not worry so much about what’s going on in other countries. This is fine, except that in the 1930s when fascist dictatorships rise across Europe, a lot of countries are going to be a little too willing to ignore them.
The Mandate System in the Middle East
For world history, there are two huge outcomes of World War I. The first is almost never taught in schools, which is insane to me. So when the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the war, the Allied Powers, especially Britain, took control of a lot of their former territory.
Turkey became an independent country led by a pro-western nationalist named Ataturk. But the rest of their land becomes mandates of the British or the French. The idea was that a lot of these governments were not quite ready to govern themselves so they would be closely watched over by the British until they were deemed ready to be independent. How nice of them.
In the Middle East, Britain and France determined who would get what land at a secret meeting in 1916. What came out of this meeting, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, basically divided up the Middle East “Scramble for Africa” style. Syria and Lebanon were given to the French while Iraq and Jordan were given to the British. They determined that Palestine, because of its religious significance, would be governed by an “international regime,” whatever that meant.
Britain promises Palestine to both sides
The problem with this was that the British had also been wheeling and dealing on the side. As they were stoking Arab nationalism and rebellion in Saudi Arabia, they did so by promising the Arabs that they would get control of the land after they defeated the Ottomans. Although they weren’t specific about what land they would make sure the Arabs got, it was widely assumed that this included protection of Arab control of the most important land in all of Islam – Palestine.
But, at the same time, other British diplomats were promising Palestine to another group of people – the Zionist movement pushing for Jewish state. Uh oh. Also, when the British and the French determined the new states they would administer they did not take into account local rulers, ethnicity, or religious sects. Just like in Africa, they just drew lines on a map and said, “You’re Syria now!” Needless to say, this has caused a lot of problems since.
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919
The other major event that came out of World War I was the Treaty of Versailles. This was the peace treaty with Germany that formally ended the war and it was a hot mess. In 1919 27 nations who had in some way supported the Allies gathered in Paris for the peace conference. The conference was dominated by the imperial powers of Britain, France and the U.S., but it’s worth mentioning that some colonies sent delegations.
India sent people in the hopes that their support of Britain would help them earn more rights and possibly independence. Nope. The Hejaz, a group of Arabs, were there to make sure they would get the land that had been promised by the British. This land would later become Saudi Arabia. And a young man from French Indochina named Ho Chi Minh was in attendance and he left feeling very frustrated that the imperial powers had ignored the plight of his people. But I’m sure it’s fine…
The League of Nations
The Treaty of Versailles did two important (and bad) things. First, it established the League of Nations. This, in itself, is not bad. It was a noble idea proposed by U.S. President Wilson as a way to avoid future conflict. Unfortunately, after convincing everyone across Europe to join, Wilson brought the treaty back to his own Congress who refused to sign it. Ah Congress… accomplishing nothing since 1919.
The League of Nations was a fine idea but, as we’ll see, it had no real power. It didn’t have an army or peacekeeping force of its own and without the U.S. involved it lacked legitimacy. Plus, it refused to let the former Central Powers, like Germany, join. So… it’s pretty hard to prevent a future conflict with Germany when Germany is not allowed in the negotiating room.
But why would there ever be future conflict with Germany? Surely they learned their lesson and nothing the Allied Powers could ever do in the wake of World War I could cause them to rise up again, more powerful and terrifying than ever. Oh wait…
The other important (and bad) thing that the Treaty of Versailles did was punish Germany. And I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have punished Germany at all, but come on. Think about it: who started World War I? Gavrilo Princip of Serbia? Or maybe Austria, because they were trying to conquer the Balkans? Sure, Germany played its part and made the first act of aggression, but still.
Let me be clear: in the next World War I will very emphatically accept that Germany was the bad guy. But in the First World War there really was no bad guy. There wasn’t a “good side” and a “bad side.” There were just two sides who ended up allied with different people. So, with that in mind, let’s look at what they did to Germany:
- Germany lost territory in Europe and all of its colonial possessions to Britain and France.
- Germany was forbidden to have submarines or an air force. Their navy was limited to six battleships and their army to just 100,000 men. For reference, Germany had 27 battleships before the war and they mobilized 11 million men during World War 1. And now they can only have 100,000 soldiers as a defense force.
- Germany had to pay the equivalent of $33 billion in reparations for damages done during the war. They literally paid off the last installment in 2010. Seriously.
- Finally, Germany was forced to accept all blame for the war. Now, this is mostly a symbolic move but it’s the worst one for all of the nationalists back home who had been built up before and during the war to believe that Germany was the best and most powerful nation on earth. At this point, it just adds insult to injury.
And this insult will be remembered by many of the men who fought for Germany in the trenches. One of them will use this national shame as a rallying cry to unite conservative nationalist elements together in a new, stronger regime. But we’ll get to him next episode.