TIME editor Whittaker Chambers famously wrote about “The Ghosts of Yalta” after the fateful summit conference in that Crimean city in 1945. His column was illustrated by spectral images of the murdered Romanovs atop the Livadia Palace as the Big Three deliberated the cold peace to come. There are Ghosts of Versailles, too. The Treaty signed in the Hall of Mirrors in 1919 casts its long shadow even on our times.
Europe was destabilized for a century by decisions made there. A Japanese delegation took part but departed, humiliated. They asked only to be given a Mandate for the Shantung Peninsula; the Germans had grabbed a piece of China in the previous century and so, as an ally of the Western Powers, Japan saw no reason they should not share in the fruits of victory. Britain and France would gain vast territories in Africa and the Middle East while all Japan wanted was to replace the vanquished Germans in East Asia. They were denied.
The Japanese also sought a Racial Equality clause in the Treaty. They expected President Woodrow Wilson would readily agree to a statement that was little more than the American Declaration of Independence had offered to the world of 1776. Worse, the Japanese were denied this mild request too.
Woodrow Wilson knew all too well that the U.S. Senate had at least twenty-six members, all Democrats representing Jim Crow states, and that any racial equality statements in his brainchild, the Treaty of Versailles, would doom it before the signers’ ink had dried. These Ghosts of Versailles would embitter and enrage our Japanese allies who had marched proudly at our side in the Great War.
Then, the defeated Germans were commanded to sign. They expected Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be the basis for all negotiations in Paris. Wilson pledged “Open Treaties openly arrived at.” “No territorial demands.” “Freedom of the Seas.” None of that governed the secret dealings of the victors in Paris. Germany had been pressured to overthrow the Kaiser. They were stripped not only of the recently conquered provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, but historically German lands in the East, too.
The British naval blockade would remain in force until the Armistice by sleight of hand became an Unconditional Surrender. Tens of thousands of German children would die of starvation as this grim iron curtain remained impassible and the British impassive. Americans and Britons would later repent of the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. Millions would come to believe the Treaty was vengeful and unjust. This attitude informed the broad appeal of pacifism and appeasement among democracies.
The University of Virginia’s beloved professor Sir John Wheeler-Bennett would remind us, however, of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918. If we thought we had been vindictive toward our enemies, we ought to recall how the Germans treated the defeated Russians. They demanded a Carthaginian peace from the prostrate Bolsheviks. Sir John would remind us “we appeased the wrong Germans.”
Two of the most dangerous Ghosts of Versailles are with us today. First, by treating Germany as a battlefield loser, we failed to convince the suffering Germans that their armies had truly been defeated in war. After all, they appealed for an Armistice when not a single Allied soldier’s boot had stood on German territory. General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, had pleaded with President Wilson to let him invade the German homeland. He believed the Germans did not realize how weakened they were. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with Gen. Pershing. But Wilson overruled them both.
This grave error led to the “Stab in the Back” myth. Every German general and right-wing politician cried betrayal. Germans were taught to believe in the Dolchstosslegende, that Big Lie that incited Hitler’s nozzies* and many others, too. Generals who lost the war found it easier to blame Socialists and Jews.
That grave error led to another catastrophic move by the Allies. We imposed on the German signers of the Versailles Treaty the “War Guilt” clause of the text. Not just the Kaiser. Not just his criminal military chieftains, those junkers. But the Germans as a people bore this guilt.
“I know not how to indict a people,” said Parliamentarian Edmund Burke. But that is exactly what the Allies so unwisely did to the Germans as a nation, as a volk.
It was this Blutschuld—or Blood Guilt—that Hitler would demonically exploit. Not the Germans, he railed, but the Jews and the Socialists. They bore this Blood Guilt. They are the betrayers of the Reich. It was this Blutschuld that led to the Allies’ infamous policy of Reparations. Billions of payments in German Marks were imposed on the Weimar Republic—which was wholly innocent of the Kaiserine Empire’s war crimes.
These Ghosts of Versailles haunt us today. American author Ta-Nehisi Coates learned about Reparations in Israel. There, elderly victims of the Holocaust drove Mercedes, thanks to payments from the Federal Republic of Germany to the State of Israel as atonement for the Holocaust. That was the kernel of Coates’ claim for Reparations for White Americans to Black Americans for four hundred years of injustice at home.
Another Ghost of Versailles, the Dolchstosslegende, can be seen in the claim that the Election of 2020 was stolen. Millions of Americans believe this Big Lie to this day. And its wound in the body politic is as dangerous as it was in Weimar Germany. Racial Reparations here lack one element that Germans understood all too well. Americans have never surrendered twice after defeat in war.
Racial Reparations are advancing in San Francisco, Boston, the State of California, and the National Democratic Party. The more this concept moves forward, the more divisive it becomes for Americans who are told they must pay “Honkie taxes,” as even left-wing comic Bill Maher puts it. We must dispel the Blood Guilt of Japanese and Germans by respecting them as full partners in NATO. And we must end Blood Guilt as the foundation of Racial Reparations at home before they tear Americans apart. It is time to exorcise these Ghosts of Versailles.
*This writer uses Churchill’s dismissive pronunciation of Nazi.