Ambitious in approach and scope, Jörn Leonhard’s book opens up new perspectives on the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and its significance for the history of the twentieth century. It begins in 1916, providing first an account of the road towards the armistice, then a detailed analysis of the peace negotiations, and finally a discussion of the after-effects of the peace treaty. The book is well written, based on a broad range of secondary and (published) primary sources, and includes many striking images that shed light on the experiences and mind-sets of people in the period.
One of Leonhard’s main goals is to warn against an overly teleological reading of both the road to the treaty in its final form and the treaty’s impact on post-war Europe (he speaks out, for instance, against exaggerating the connection between Versailles and the fall of the Weimar Republic). Drawing on German historian Reinhart Koselleck’s theories of temporality, Leonhard reminds us that among historical actors in 1919, who did not have the benefit of hindsight, the representatives of each nation could develop and become very invested in specific assumptions about the future, which differed from and often clashed with those of others. For instance, between the armistice in November 1918 and the presentation of the draft peace treaty to Germany in May 1919, many Germans lived in a „dream land“, characterised by expectations of a relatively mild peace, based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, that had some basis in Allied promises made at the time of the armistice, but that eventually turned out to be unrealistic. This set the Germans up for a moment of deep shock, leading to a search for scapegoats, when the actual terms of the treaty became known. Leonhard also pays close attention to language, analysing the effects of the semantic openness of the Wilsonian term „self-determination“, which allowed different actors to project their own respective wishes onto the treaty that was being worked out. This dynamic led to an „overstraining“ of the negotiations, increasing conflict between the various actors and leading to nearly all parties being disappointed by the final results.
In various ways, the author works to expand traditional interpretations of the war and its end that had focused only on high-ranking decision-makers in the most powerful warring countries. He pays detailed attention to events in the various central and eastern European countries. Moreover, he expands the scope of his study beyond Europe’s borders, taking into account how the war affected the European colonial empires and how activists from the colonies connected their local concerns to a perceived global moment of opportunity as they demanded political rewards for the great contributions they had made to the Entente victory, tried to hold European powers to the promises they had made during the war, and built up hopes—ultimately unfulfilled—that Wilson’s promise of national self-determination would be extended to their home territories.
Throughout his narrative, Leonhard skillfully integrates the history of political decision-making with the broader cultural, social, and economic history of the period. For instance, he stresses the importance of the 1919 global flu epidemic, and he shows how Europeans of different social backgrounds experienced the war and its aftermath. Beyond politicians, he relies especially on the experiences of literary figures such as Franz Kafka and scholars such as Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, while also providing ample quotes from „ordinary“ Europeans and Americans. For example, moving from country to country, he relates average soldiers’ and civilians’ complex emotional reactions to the end of the war, which included surprise, euphoria, hatred, relief, and guilt.
The author bridges the history of foreign and domestic politics by showing how strongly, in an age of emerging mass democracy, the outcome of the negotiations was affected by pressures at home. The space for decision-making among British and French negotiators was reduced considerably by the large debts their countries had amassed during the war and by their election campaign promises to force a defeated Germany to pay for the war damages. Given these constraints, the author argues that the content of the Versailles Treaty, including the high amount of reparations to be paid by Germany, could in fact not have turned out much differently.
Meanwhile, there was much more freedom of action when it came to the symbolic forms in which the treaty was presented to the Germans and in which the German delegation reacted to it—which, as Leonhard argues, was of at least similar importance for the treaty’s legacy. In this context, he pays close attention to the styles and micro-structures of political communication. He demonstrates the impact of the exclusion of the German delegation from participating in the peace negotiations, a setting that did not allow for the building of mutual trust in direct, personal interactions among negotiators of both sides. Moreover, he stresses the impact of loaded notions of honour among the participants that undercut a „rational“ deliberation and chronicles the decline of a traditional diplomatic culture of affect control among many of the negotiators. An increasingly emotionalised antagonism developed between the leaders of the French and German delegations in which the French framed the notion of German war guilt in moralising language and symbolically put the Germans in the position of defendants in a legal trial. The German delegation denied their country’s guilt and accused the Entente powers of breaking their promises from the time of the armistice, using aggressive language that gave the Allies the impression that their former opponents were still steeped in the culture of Wilhelminian authoritarianism. These symbolic conflicts drowned out options for reframing the treaty in more sober terms, for instance by focusing on the common interests of France and Germany that resulted from their post-war economic interdependence.
In contrast to his inclusion of the perspectives of non-elite Westerners and activists from among the colonial elites, Leonhard presents the views of non-elite colonised people on the war and the peace treaty much less systematically. Nevertheless, this is a masterful account. Leonhard presents a wealth of innovative and important insights, and his book will be a indispensable reading for anyone wishing to understand the moment when the global order was re-shaped in the halls of Versailles.