By Stanley Taube
and Michael Taube
for Troy Media
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, millions of people worldwide will commemorate the signing of the Armistice. Wreaths will be laid, church bells will ring far and wide, and memorial speeches will be delivered.
Most people feel they’re paying tribute to a great triumph in human history. Alas, we believe the Armistice was a well-meaning but enormous historical blunder. It set in motion the forces that caused the greatest tragedy experienced in modern times.
The First World War began in August 1914. On one side were the Central Powers, principally Germany, Austro-Hungary and their allies. On the other side were the Allies: France, Britain, Russia, Commonwealth countries and, in 1917, the U.S.
It was a true world war. Fighting raged on land and sea.
The decisive engagements took place in Europe and the 1917 communist revolution took Russia out of the war.
In early 1918, the Germans transferred 550,000 soldiers from the eastern front and launched one last western offensive. It failed and the Allies counterattacked and drove Germany back.
By the fall, Germany requested an armistice.
Now came the fateful dilemma. The Allies could hold their positions over the winter, build up overwhelming strength and march toward Berlin. The prospect of a complete victory by mid-1919 seemed almost certain.
But the war had resulted in huge casualties. Fifteen million soldiers had been killed or wounded and an advance on Berlin could have cost another million casualties.
The Allied leaders decided they could achieve as much at the bargaining table as on the field of battle and signed the Armistice.
The 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and resulting Treaty of Versailles, stripped Germany of territories and made them pay huge war reparations. It forced them to admit full guilt for the war, too. The League of Nations was established to resolve future conflicts, and the exultant Allied leaders went home satisfied they had achieved a great diplomatic triumph.
But had they?
When the fighting stopped, not one Allied soldier on the western front stood on one square foot of German territory. Meanwhile, Germany had surrendered while her troops still occupied foreign territory.
This situation seemed ludicrous to most Germans. In fact, a nondescript German corporal, recovering from poison gas wounds, was enraged. He firmly believed civilians back home had betrayed his country.
That corporal’s name was Adolf Hitler.
Moreover, German soldiers returned home as heroes. The legend started about a “stab in the back,” since Germany hadn’t been defeated on the battlefield; the surrender had been engineered by subversive elements (profiteers, anti-war supporters) – and, of course, the perennial scapegoat, the Jews.
The fledgling German democracy, the Weimar Republic, faced opponents attacking the shame of Versailles. Reparations crippled the economy, leading to inflation in the 1920s and depression in the 1930s.
On Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power. He promised to redress the evils of Versailles and restore German pride. By bluff and intimidation, he built up his nation’s armed might and territorial acquisitions. He invaded Poland in September 1939 and started the Second World War. (Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch exclaimed at the time, “This is not peace. It is a truce for 20 years.” He was only off by a few weeks.)
By the time the war ended in 1945, Germany was totally defeated. More than 50 million soldiers and civilians had died.
It’s proper to commemorate those who died in the First World War, as we both will.
But what if the Armistice hadn’t been signed and the fighting had continued for one more year? The Second World War might not have taken place, and further destruction and tragedy could have been avoided.
The vital lesson is that once you start a war, it must be carried to a victorious conclusion – and a successful exit strategy must be incorporated.
Alas, the West still falls into the same trap. We left Iraq and Afghanistan far too early, opening the door to the rise of a bloodthirsty terrorist organization, the Islamic State.
As was the case a century ago, this is a serious blunder. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself once more.
Stanley Taube, a lawyer and author, was a special lecturer in political science at the University of Toronto. Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.