A hundred years ago the victors marked the first anniversary of Armistice Day. Our own memorialisation of the war, then and now, has been mostly in the spirit of ‘Take a bow, Australia’. But we need to lift our eyes from our own narrow horizons and question our ingrained instinct for self-congratulatory narratives.
By the time the grieving stood reverently to remember the dead on the first anniversary of Armistice Day in November 1919, the total of Australia’s war dead was still climbing toward the figure now regarded as the most credible: 72,500. If laid end-to-end, in our imagination, the line of corpses would stretch from Sydney’s GPO to Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains – that is for more than 120 kilometres.
The global events of 1919 provided little comfort: the catastrophe of the war was unredeemed by the victory of 1918; the peacemakers at Paris had not brought any real peace to exhausted Europe, or to the colonial world; and the profound disappointments of the peacemaking period pointed the way to future calamities.
To understand the disillusionments of 1919 we have to understand the politics unleashed by the long war – that is, the fantastical expectations whipped up on the Right for a treaty of profit that would redeem the cost, and the vaulting hopes among Liberals and Social Democrats for a new internationalist world order. To the far Left, revolutionary forces competed with both visions.
A desperate determination to contain these threats – and to sabotage Wilsonianism – had shaped the Treaty of Versailles. It was not simply about ‘revenge’ and punishment by a blood-maddened people: those vindictive sentiments were very much orchestrated on the Right in an attempt to deflect all the forces of change, so that the ruling order could ride out the inevitable post-war let down.
The greatest disaster at the heart of the treaty was the failure of the victors to do anything to consolidate Germany’s historic shift from authoritarianism to democracy, which had brought German Social Democracy to power. This hostility to Weimar’s new democracy sprang very largely from reactionary political prejudice in Britain, France, and the United States.
In assembling the treaty, frightened conservatives promoted the narrowest indictment of the war, presenting it as all the fault of a singular German evil – to counter the broad indictment, voiced by progressives everywhere, of imperialism, militarism, rival alliances, secret diplomacy, and the ‘balance of power’.
Defeating Wilsonianism was central to the conservative project at Paris. And defeated it was. Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Hughes, ably supported by ultra-patriotic press barons, pressured the stroke-ridden Wilson into giving way on crucial points. The gulf between promise and performance was starkly revealed.
It was Wilson who had said in January 1918: ‘We wish [Germany] only to accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world – the new world in which we now live – instead of a place of mastery.’ A month later he promised: ‘There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages… Self-determination is not a mere phrase… Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game.’ Wilson fell so far short of his own ideals that American Liberals abandoned their President. In the end, Wilson could not persuade the USA to join his hobbled League of Nations.
British idealism was similarly crushed. The poem ‘O Valiant Hearts’ that was recited at war memorials, soon to be sung as a hymn, captured the ideal:
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind – yourselves you scorned to save.
How hollow all this sounded when Britain emerged from the peacemaking, clutching vastly enlarged imperial territories, vowing to pursue a gigantic sum in ‘reparations’ from Germany, and repressing all colonial movements seeking any steps toward independence.
During 1919, calamities also multiplied in Russia. The intervention of Japan, Britain, France and the USA drove the Bolsheviks further down the path of extremism. Civil war and starvation blighted the land. Lenin imposed a one-party state model and swept aside civil liberties. The foundations were laid for the monstrous parody of ‘socialism’ over which Stalin would rule. Russian democracy was gone. It had been the fragile child of the Revolution of March 1917. The West’s leaders had shown no genuine interest in it then. They cared only for keeping millions of Russian troops at the front – expendable peasants, whose ‘mental development is distinctly inferior to that of an average sheepdog,’ as one callous British military attaché had put it.
The nationalist interpretation of Australia’s role in 1919, stressing Hughes’s bold defiance of Wilson, and our ‘entry on the world stage’, is heartwarming – but it is guff. Our role at Paris is not another see-how-great-we-are story. Through Hughes, Australia was aligned with the most backward-looking forces that did their worst. Hughes insulted both Japan and the USA. For all Hughes’s huff and puff about extracting a huge ‘indemnity’ from defeated Germany, Australia had received a total of only £5.5 million by 1931.
Nor did we gain a credible new independent status. Hughes’s Nationalists always boosted the spirit of Empire loyalism in Australia, not the spirit of a truly self-confident nation. Thus, after the war, Empire loyalism defeated a determined effort in 1925 to appoint Australians even as State Governors. Empire loyalists were apoplectic when for the first time an Australian, Sir Isaac Isaacs, was named as Governor-General in 1930.
The political impact of 1919 in the colonial world was fateful. Democratic liberalism stood exposed as a sham in the eyes of the ‘pushed-about people’. There was mounting unrest in a score of places, especially Egypt, China, Korea, India and Vietnam, when the ‘Wilsonian moment’ passed and ‘self-determination’ evaporated. Chinese nationalists, for example, were appalled that Japan was granted German colonial territories in China. The experience of Ho Chi Minh being spurned in Paris was emblematic. Through such incidents, half the world learned that Western Liberalism was not to be trusted.
We still live in that world.
Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including, most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London: Verso, 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014).