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26 December 2011

Lessons of History: Do it at your own peril

It is conventional wisdom that one can learn from history and avoid committing the same mistakes which were committed by our predecessors in the past. It is not wholly true. Of course one can gain an understanding of human nature by reading past history and can find the solution to problems of the present in its light. However, some people, particularly politicians of all ilks, try to find solutions to current problems by exclusively situating them in the present context believing that there is no need to learn from history. This approach sometimes leads to disastrous consequences. One cannot fully ignore the past.
One such example where past precedent was ignored is the Treaty of Versailles which was concluded after the First World War. In the conference was a young British historian Charles Webster (1886-1961), the author of the The Congress of Vienna. Prior to this treaty at Versailles, a number of treaties were concluded after the defeat of Napoleon who had changed the whole map of Europe and redesigned it according to his ambitions. First, he was defeated in 1814 and exiled to St Elba. He could not stay as a prisoner there and escaped. He was welcomed by the French army and again fought a battle at Waterloo in 1815 in which he was again defeated. This time he was imprisoned at St Helena where chances of his escape were nil.
Metternich, the chancellor of Austria, who supervised and made all arrangement for the resettlement of Europe, was a conservative and wanted to check any revolutionary movement. The main approach of the leaders at Vienna was not to punish the French nation. They accused Napoleon for all their troubles and imprisoned him. It was decided that the French monarch would be restored and the French were allowed to participate in the proceedings of the congress .The result of this policy was that the conservative powers of Europe ensured peace in Europe and prevented revolutionary movements. This leniency ensured that not only justice but done but the French nation was also put back on the road to recovery.
The young historian Webster, by quoting the example of the Congress of Vienna advised the leaders who gathered at Versailles to decide the fate of Germany and implored them to treat it generously. His advice was ignored and the leaders decided on harsh terms of treatment which were imposed on Germany. The country had to pay a huge amount in reparation which destroyed her economy. It was forced to hand over some of its territory as punishment as well. When the terms of the treaty were ready, the German delegation was summoned in the presence of the leaders. They were not allowed to sit and kept standing like criminals. They were not given any chance to plead their case and were asked to sign the treaty or be ready for war. Humiliated and insulted, the German delegates had no choice but to sign the treaty which soon became unpopular in the country. The Germans called it a dikat.
When Hitler came to power, he mobilised nationalistic emotion of the German people against this very treaty. Germany wanted to regain its dignity and honour. When Hitler promised that, the Germans supported him. He soon not only made the country financially strong but got back the territory which it had lost as a result of treaty. After the occupation of France during the Second World War, Hitler forced France to sign a treaty which was in favour of Germany and restored the German honour.
It is argued by historians that the Treaty of Versailles laid down the foundation of the Second World War by punishing the whole German nation as war criminals. It Germany had been treated as France had been in the Congress of Vienna, there could have been peace in Europe. A J P Taylor, the British historian in his book on The Origin of Second World War rightly points out that Treaty of Versailles structured Germany in such a manner that war became inevitable. Even without Hitler, Germany under any other leader would have had to go to war in efforts to undo the Treaty of Versailles which had humiliated it to a great extent. Therefore, Hitler may have been responsible for the war but it cannot be discounted that was operating in an environment which was conducive to his extremist rhetoric.
However, after the Second World War, Germany was not treated as it was when the Treaty of Versailles was finalised. On the contrary, the US gathered a huge amount of aid for Germany to restructure its economy. It was done to check the Russian influence in the country. Germany soon rebuilt itself and became a member of the western capitalist bloc. The same treatment of relative leniency was meted out to Japan which facilitated its rehabilitation and late led to Japan becoming a key international partner of the US. The motive of helping out both these countries was the same: to make them into allies of capitalism and use that against Russia. The diplomats who ignored history when the Treaty of Versailles was signed committed a grave mistake which led to much destruction in the form of the Second World War. They had learnt their lesson after that and took a wiser course of action in dealing with Germany and Japan.

The writer is one of the pioneers of alternate history in the country.