A century ago – even longer ago than my last post – most of the First World War came to an official end. The bulk of the fighting had ended in November 1918, and leftover shrapnel would keep on damaging the world for another four years (or another hundred, if you’re taking the wider view), but the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 terminated the war between Germany and the various Allies ranged against it. War between the same Allies and their other former enemies – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire – would be formally terminated by a series of separate treaties, the last of them signed in August 1920, but as far as most people in Allied countries were concerned, modern civilisation’s most disastrous breakdown was finally over.
This was hardly a cause for much celebration at the time, because long before it was signed the Treaty of Versailles had become very, very unpopular. Universally hated by the people it sought to punish, it was decried as insufficiently rewarding by those among the victors reliant on emotion or propaganda for their opinions. Among the informed elites of most victorious countries, it was meanwhile condemned as doomed to fail in its basic aim of securing a peaceful, stable future for the ‘civilised’ world, although quite why and how it was expected fail depended on the national identity and political persuasion of the beholder.
I’ve already talked about the nuts, bolts and punitive nature of the Treaty (7 May, 1919: Bad Deal or No Deal?), and right now I’m in no position to deliver a properly researched information piece, so I plan to spend today riffing on the epic propaganda failure behind its unpopularity with contemporaries, on how that has influenced its enduring reputation, and on the flaws in our adjusted, apparently post-propaganda views about the First World War.
So why couldn’t the world’s most advanced propagandists in May and June 1919 – the clever peddlers of British, US and French official worldviews through 51 months of war – sell the Treaty of Versailles to anyone, let alone everyone? The simple answer is that it was an impossibly hard sell, for reasons Brexit is teaching the British to understand.
The banner of peace with Germany covered a multitude of ideas about what peace actually meant, and subsequent attempts to find compromises merely emphasised the differences between them, driving negotiators and observers towards more extreme positions. By the time a treaty emerged from the wrangling to be placed before the German government on 7 May 1919, it was clear that it satisfied nobody – and equally obvious that its signature would leave plenty of questions still unanswered, that the hard yards were still to come. Like Theresa May in 2018, the peacemakers and their propagandists could only hope that cosmetic sops to domestic opponents would smooth enough ground for a compromise to somehow pass muster as a success – and like today’s failed British premier, they blew it.
Handing the treaty to the German government for comment was essentially one such PR exercise, a lick of liberal paint to cover what was hardly a liberal settlement, and it backfired. Given three weeks to respond to a treaty negotiated without their participation, German leaders came back with a long list of complaints, most of them centred on the treaty’s harshness and its betrayal of the liberal principles embodied by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. As such, their comments chimed with the views of some British strategists, who expected a crippled Germany to generate continent-wide economic and political instability, and with those of many Allied liberals, who had shared the presumption, never quite denied by Allied leaders before the negotiations started, that the Fourteen Points would form the basis for peace. A few details aside, German complaints were ignored, and all the publicity stunt actually provided was a seven-week hiatus in the peace process, giving critics time and ammunition to damn the treaty in advance of its signature, at the Palace of Versailles, on 28 June.
As signed, the treaty opened with the League of Nations Covenant, another exercise in public relations, this time designed to disguise the fact that US President Wilson’s quixotic vision of a liberal future had failed to survive the peace negotiations. The League of Nations, a congress of powerful but disarmed states able to moderate global geopolitics, was Wilson’s Big Idea, but the British had little enthusiasm for an institution they (rightly) considered intrinsically impotent, and the French were much more interested in an armed alliance against German resurgence. Forced to fight for its existence, Wilson had made concessions over other issues to ensure the League’s star billing at the top of the Treaty, but his hope that this apparent success would silence his domestic critics proved spectacularly optimistic. The US Congress eventually refused to ratify the Covenant, which had anyway excluded all the defeated nations and the Soviet Union, and the League limped into its 20-year life on a worldwide wave of popular and political scepticism.
It had been in every Allied government’s best interest to get a political and popular pat on the back for a the signature of a peace treaty , but all their best PR efforts could generate was a cacophony of condemnation from all sides that has lasted a century so far and shows no sign of letting up in the near future. Given that the task facing the peacemakers was effectively impossible without input from the kind of clairvoyant visionary modern history has yet to witness, and that completing any kind of working compromise was a testament to their considerable statecraft, our modern view of the Treaty of Versailles is based on a reaction to failed propaganda, or what you might call anti-propaganda. That makes it as essentially accidental heritage myth – and one that has, at first glance, lasted a lot longer than most myths deliberately created by wartime propaganda.
Though often (but not always) accepted at the time, the official versions of the First World War presented by contemporary governments were debunked en masse during the post-War years. They are still treated with righteous disdain by today’s heritage industries, which operate on the tacit assumption that we have seen through wartime propaganda to find a world of objective truth. We haven’t. We think we know all about century-old propaganda, but the most successful propaganda is by definition undetectable, and our uncritical acceptance of Versailles as a train wreck – of anti-propaganda – is the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the surface of British society, and for my money of every society touched by the First World War, lie great swathes of propaganda-induced assumptions and interpretations that still influence the ways in which we think and behave.
Some of those assumptions are close enough to the surface to be quite visible once you look beyond the glare of heritage culture. We are still inclined to celebrate some defeats, or at best insignificant victories, as major triumphs – the tank action at Cambrai springs to mind – while our enduring faith in the myth that British tanks won the war on the Western Front is another reminder of our willingness to accept propaganda as truth when it suits our amour-propre.
By way of an illustration – and nothing to do with the First World War – I offer an incident from around 2002, when I found myself at dinner with my late parents, both of whom had been in London during the early years of the Second World War. Sometime into the evening, with plenty of wine down our necks, we fell to chatting about that war and I mentioned the fact – absolutely verified if never much publicized – that the first Luftwaffe attacks on East London had provoked panic and that the British Army had been called in to halt a civilian exodus towards Essex. Mild-mannered by nature, and generally apt to defer to me on matters historical, the folks hit the roof, refused to believe a word of it and boiled up angry to the point of violence. The propaganda myths around East End stoicism remained deeply embedded and hugely important to them, a mere 60-odd years after the event.
So, a hundred years after its last embers, what are the fake folk memories bequeathed to the British by the First World War? On one level it’s an impossible question, because everything about our collective memory of the First World War was formed by propaganda or our reaction to its exposure. From our carefully curated view of how Tommies in the trenches lived, thought and died, through our carefully edited views on wartime political leadership and home front reactions, down to our simplistic take on international strategy, tactics and diplomacy, it’s all either a product of fabrication or rationalisation.
In the end, you can’t go far wrong by simply assuming that every image or idea in your head about the Great War is a product of propaganda. Some can be cleaned up by researching sources not polluted by mass media (you know, books), but some propaganda-induced prejudices are buried too deep for easy access. With a helping hand from historian David Olusoga and the BBC, one of those is finally starting to reveal itself to the British. We’re talking racial stereotyping.
Racial stereotyping, established as a human habit since the beginning of recorded history, was being applied to outsiders by the British long before the First World War. Imperial expansion since Tudor times had encouraged simplistic categorisation of other races, either as a form of demonization to encourage war against them, or as a convenient means of classifying them for exploitative purposes.
Before the nineteenth century, the first of those imperatives had generated negative images of French and Spanish culture in particular, but also of Irish, Jewish, native American, Polynesian and numerous other cultures considered worth fearing. After the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, subjugation and exploitation of native races became an economic and geopolitical imperative for expanding European empires, which found pragmatic reasons to employ more nuanced (though similarly arbitrary) systems of racial classification.
Based on a combination of anecdotal evidence and homespun eugenics, races were classified as docile or warlike, lazy or hardworking, loyal or fickle, principled or purchasable. These classifications were essentially informal guides for use by imperial administrators, but the same administrators were happy enough to have them fed into public consciousness at a time of mushrooming popular literacy and media consumption. When the world of Victorian empires faced its terminal crisis, let’s say between 1914 and 1919, pragmatism and propaganda combined to promote this institutional and popular racism as never before.
We have since had plenty of opportunity to see through the stories made up about our European wartime enemies, and at least some of us have grown beyond them, but the many non-European races we took on board as ‘friends’ during the First World War – whether as independent allies or exploited colonial peoples – were used, abused and heavily publicised according to a pumped-up version of the old imperial, racist system of classification.
So, while some Indian peoples were, for example, regarded as too peaceful, addicted to warm weather or untrustworthy for the horrors of the Western Front, those deemed loyal and martial were repeatedly fed into the mincer. The same arbitrary nonsense was applied to Africans, Chinese and every other non-white race recruited into the maelstrom by the British, French or Belgians, while German and Austro-Hungarian propagandists reacted to the presence of non-white combatants by depicting them as terrifying savages with no place in ‘civilised’ European warfare.
Whether we recognise it or not, we are still living with those classifications. If, like me, you’re British, white and unattached to any other ethnic group, you can test that statement with some simple (and honest) self-examination. Cast your mind around ethnic groupings familiar to British thinking – there are plenty of them – and ask yourself which you feel are hardworking or lazy, which peaceful, which warlike, which love Britain, which are surly… you can add anything else you like, from dancing ability to gullibility, and there’s no need to pin down details, just go with your feelings. If you don’t come up with any such feelings, you’re either deluding yourself or an exception to prove a rule that, in my experience, works for every class and age group among the white and self-consciously British – and if you do, ask yourself where you got them. They may have come via family life, intellectual life or social life, but look deeper and you’ll find most of them originate in the pragmatic prejudices of Victorian bean counters – as cemented into our collective subconscious by the professional propagandists of the First World War.