A reflection on the Treaty of Versailles (2009)

On 28th June 1919 the victors of World War I exacted their retribution on the defeated Germans and Ottomans. Britain, led by the Hellenophile Prime Minister Lloyd George, set up a new world order with disastrous consequences: stoking ambitions for a ‘Greater Greece’ leading to death and destruction on the Turkish mainland; humiliating terms imposed on Germany eventually leading to World War II; British and French mandates over seized Ottoman territories of the Middle East – for which the Muslim world still awaits for justice to be done.

Seventy delegates of 26 nations participated, but by cleverly conferring its colonies with seats on the table, Britain exercised the major influence – for example India was represented by staunch establishment figures like Lord Sinha and Aga Sultan Muhammad II.

The terms imposed on Germany were effectively a land grab and a demilitarisation: the resource rich regions of the Ruhr and Sahr were annexed by France. Germany,which once had an army of 5,500,000 men and 140,000 officers was reduced to 100,000 men, 4,000 of them being officers and no heavy and field artillery! The economic consequences were devastating ñ but more so the sense of national humiliation, to be redressed by the militarism of the Third Reich.

At the outset of the Great War in 1914, Lloyd George had pledged to the Muslims of India that the Hejaz and Mesopotamia would be ‘immune from attack or molestation by the British naval and military forces’. Assurances were also given that Ottoman Turkey would not be deprived of Constantinople – Istanbul – and Asia Minor. These pledges were essential to ensure Indian Muslim recruitment into the army. Yet Britain was to send intelligence officers to the Hejaz to instigate the shameful Arab revolt against the Ottomans (including the infamous Lawrence of Arabia), concluded the secret ‘Sykes Picot Agreement‘ with France to carve up the Levant into spheres of influence and supported Greek advances in the Ottoman heartlands.

Much of the behind-the-scenes committee work at Versailles was managed by a handful of British civil servants, notably Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee on Imperial Defence,and staff of the Foreign Office’s Bureau of Intelligence – men like Leeper, Toynbee and Zimmern. The League of Nations grew out of these cabals which, behind a high sounding covenant, gave the victors legitimacy for imposing their hegemony over German and Ottoman territories. Vernon Bartlett, a journalist covering the events noted,

‘there are no annexations made if you are acting on behalf of a League of Nations, give yourself a mandate…So Great Britain obtained her Mesopotamia, France her Syria and Italy her Adalia, all from the benevolent League of Nations’

 He could have added Britain’s successful bid to obtain the mandate for Palestine, and the immediate appointment of a Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, as chief commissioner. Muslims at the time did not understand the significance, with some notable exceptions like Iqbal and Jinnah. For the former, the League of Nations was ‘an organisation of thieves for the distribution of shrouds, sitting in a graveyard’. Jinnah in 1921 felt that Prime Minister Lloyd George’s ‘statesmanship’ had ‘reached the point of bankruptcy’.

For Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a barrister serving as advisor to the Indian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference:

Palestine was held under an ‘A’ mandate, which had been especially framed with the idea that the people in the mandated country were equally civilised, but being in this case a broken-of section of the Turkish Empire, they were in need of governmental experience. But this was only until they could stand on their own legs. The mandatory’s duty was to advise and prepare for self-administration. They were an independent people. Both Iraq and Syria, held under similar mandates, had their independence recognised so why not Palestine? Lord Balfour went out of his way to say that England would use her influence to enable the Jewish people to have a home in Palestine provided that the rights of the non-Jewish people were in no way affected.

When the Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine in 1937 he was outraged that his trust in the fairness of Empire had been misplaced and composed this poem:

“What joys and sorrows – laughter, tears –
Are woven in thy web of life?
What thrills of mingled hopes and fears?
What tragic dreams of love and strife?
What statecraft plots have scarred they brow?
O Holy land of Palestine.

O Land of Peace! Say when and how,
In these strange days, can peace be thine?
One way alone can bring thee peace;
That ancient rights be not suppressed,
That aliens from encroachments cease,
And Quds be given its rightful rest”.

There are dots to be joined between the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of German National Socialism, injustice in Palestine, the resulting Holocaust leading directly to the European sense of guilt and hence the establishment of the State of Israel and the subsequent struggle to undo injustice that grips the Muslim world today. What a legacy of the Treaty of Versailles!