Post-war Europe

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A map of Europe in 1919, showing post-war territorial changes

World War I had a profound effect on the continent, altering countries, removing dynasties and crafting a new post-war Europe. Gone were three of the continent’s most powerful monarchies: the Hohenzollern dynasty in Germany, the Romanovs in Russia and the House of Habsburg-Lorraine in Austria-Hungary. The map of Europe was radically redrawn; borders were redefined and new countries formed, carved from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Some ethnic and nationalist groups, which had long dreamed of nationhood and self-government, were finally given the opportunity. But the reconstruction of Europe did not satisfy everyone or eradicate old prejudices or presumptions about who should rule where. The new Europe was an idealistic construct – but it would not be strong enough to withstand the extremism and fanatic nationalism that appeared a dozen years later.

One nation to emerge from the aftermath of the war was Poland. Prior to 1914, the Polish people had been subjects of the Russian Empire, though they nurtured an ever-present desire for self-rule. Since Poland was sandwiched between Germany and Russia, a good deal of fighting on the Eastern Front took place there. By early 1918, with Russia now out of the war, most of Poland was in German hands. But the defeat of Germany meant that Poland, for the first time in centuries, no longer had an imperial master. The second-to-last of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points called for “an independent Polish state… inhabited by indisputably Polish populations … whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.” The signing of the Polish Minority Treaty (also called the Little Treaty of Versailles because it was signed on the same day, June 28th 1919 ) created the independent sovereign state of Poland.

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A map showing the partitioning of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1919

Ten weeks later the Allies finalised the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire and reallocated much of its territory. The kingdoms of Austria and Hungary were separated and established as independent nations, while three new nation-states were formed: Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. Austria felt itself the biggest loser from this reshuffling, not without justification. Legend has it that after negotiators had divided and allocated the best agricultural land and industrial resources of central Europe, French leader Georges Clemenceau scoffed “Le reste, c’est l’Autriche” (‘the rest is Austria’). Once the beating heart of an empire of 30 million, Austria was now a landlocked remnant. It was reduced in population to around six million, losing three million of its German-speaking citizens in the Sudetenland (now part of Czechoslovakia) and South Tyrol (ceded to Italy). It shrank in size to a mere 84,000 square kilometres, losing important farmland and industrial resources. Austria was forbidden from any future political unification with Germany, and the name it had adopted at the end of the war – Deutsch-Osterreich, or German Austria – was also outlawed. The Austrian army was restricted to a maximum of 30,000 volunteers; its entire air force and most of its naval ships were surrendered to the Allies. Like Germany, Austria was compelled to pay reparations, though this was limited to 30 years.

Subsequent treaties framed in Paris also resolved the fate of Bulgaria, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire:

  • The Treaty of Neuilly (signed November 27th 1919) forced Bulgaria to surrender its Mediterranean Sea coastline to Greece; to recognise the independence of Yugoslavia; to pay reparations of 100 million pounds; and to maintain an army no larger than 20,000 men. The Bulgarians were strongly aggrieved by the terms of this treaty, though it was lenient in comparison to the treatment meted out to Germany and Austria.
  • The Treaty of Trianon (June 4th 1920) finalised the fate of Hungary. Like Austria, Hungary lost more than half of its population, several major cities and large swathes of valuable territory. Most ended up with the newly formed Czechoslovakia, while some eastern territory passed to Romania. The Hungarian army was restricted to 35,000 men and prohibited from acquiring planes, tanks or heavy artillery.
  • The Treaty of Sevres (August 10th 1920) dealt with the Ottoman Empire. It reduced the former sultanate from 614,000 square kilometres down to 175,000. Some Ottoman territory was given to Greece and Armenia, while Allied powers Britain (Palestine and Iraq) and France (Lebanon and Syria) were allocated mandates in the Middle East. These terms were revised in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which was formed after the Turkish War of Independence.

The troubled League

A cartoon depicting the fragile state of the newly formed League of Nations
A cartoon depicting the fragile state of the newly formed League of Nations

The anti-war sentiment of 1919 saw many leaders pledge to find better ways to resolve international disputes and tensions. One prominent suggestion was for the creation of a multilateral organisation, comprised of national delegates to engage in discussion, debate and arbitration of disputes – and, if necessary, to sanction dissident countries. Woodrow Wilson was the most prominent supporter of this idea, touching on it in a speech to the US Congress in January 1918. Wilson’s Fourteen Points also called for a “general association of nations” for “affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity”. South African leader Jan Smuts also wrote extensively about a ‘league of nations’, what it could achieve and how it might function. The Paris Peace Conference gave in principle support to this idea; its delegates utilised the ideas of Wilson and Smuts and, in June 1919, 44 countries ratified the Covenant of the League of Nations. The new body was called into being in January 1920. The first League of Nations consisted of an assembly formed by all member-nations, plus an eight-nation executive council. Britain, France, the US, Italy and Japan were to sit as permanent members of the executive. In total, the League had 42 founding members. None of the Central Powers or their allies received invitations to take up foundation membership of the League, though they did not have long to wait. Austria and Bulgaria both joined in December 1920, Hungary in September 1922 and Germany in September 1926.

“In the end, Versailles proved a colossal failure for Woodrow Wilson, for the United States and for the future of a world that had hoped it might be governed by principles of freedom and self-determination. As Harold Nicolson observed, covenants of peace were not openly arrived at. Freedom of the seas was not secured. Free trade was not established in Europe; tariff walls wound up being erected, higher and more numerous than any yet known. National armaments were not reduced. German colonies and the lands of its allies were distributed among the victors as spoils, the interests of their populations flagrantly disregarded.”
David Andelman,historian

From the outset, the League of Nations would always be reliant on its strongest member: the United States. But when Woodrow Wilson returned to America in mid-1919, he found that attitudes toward the League were mixed. There was a lukewarm consensus that a multinational body was necessary, more for the peace and stability of Europe than any other reason – but there was also strong opposition to some aspects of the covenant. Of particular concern to elements of the Republican Party was Article X, which effectively bound members of the League to “respect and preserve… the territorial integrity and political independence” of other members. This was interpreted as an open-ended treaty that undermined American foreign policy and sovereignty by binding it to protect other nations from aggression. Others viewed the League as a ‘new world order’, or at least a form of supranational government which might override the United States’ national interests.

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Many believed that US support was essential if the League of Nations was to succeed

Despite president Wilson’s vigorous campaigning, he was unable to rally enough support in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority was needed to ratify the League of Nations covenant. The United States was, with the devastation in Europe, the world’s preponderant economic and military power – but it would be absent from the newly formed League, a factor which may have doomed it from the start. As for Wilson, in late 1919 he suffered two debilitating strokes that left him blind and paralysed on one side of his body. He served the final 18 months of his presidency immobile, hidden from public view and relying on his wife and political advisors. Wilson’s term ended in March 1921 and he died in February 1924.

post-war europe

1. World War I brought about the end of centuries-old monarchies and empires, and a redrawing of the European map.
2. The Treaty of Versailles led to the formation of an independent Poland, much of which had been part of Russia.
3. The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye partitioned the Austro-Hungarian empire, leaving Austria small and landlocked.
4. The treaty also gave rise to the League of Nations, a body for resolving international disputes and preventing war.
5. Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s concerted attempts, a propaganda campaign saw the League of Nations rejected by the US Congress, which feared the impacts of the League on American sovereignty and independence.


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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Post-war Europe” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/post-war-europe/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

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