On 20 June, 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed – a dictated treaty which left most parties dissatisfied but brought the Great War to an end as far as actual fighting is concerned. Statesmen, diplomats and politicians with the best of intentions continued into 1920 with the Paris Peace Conference in which each of the defeated Central Powers was dealt with. Versailles had occupied itself with Germany, but then Austria came under the victor’s scrutiny at St. Germain, then Bulgaria at Neuilly, Hungary at Trianon (June 1920) and Turkey at Sevres (August 1920).
A good deal of what was discussed at the Conference had already been thrashed out at Versailles, or earlier – the Treaty of London signed by Italy had taken place in the second year of the War, 1915. In that case the promise of added territory if any belligerent joined the Allies might have been the cause of Italy’s decision. Countries breaking away from the Hapsburg Empire had formed themselves into entirely new states, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; both were doomed to failure and division.
In western Europe there were only a few frontier changes, but in the East most if not all frontiers changed and many new countries were resurrected from the past, or created anew: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania rose out of the ruins of the Russian Empire; Poland was independent again for the first time since 1795, but was in for a terrible shock after only two decades of political freedom; Austria/Hungary was split up into much smaller states; Yugoslavia, which like Czechoslovakia had risen from the Hapsburg Empire, already had an unsteady core in Serbia. Some existing countries became rather larger, such as France, Belgium, Italy, Romania and Greece, while other became smaller, such as Germany and Bulgaria. Naturally, all this decided who was going to be happy with the new arrangements or not.
The Conference seemed not to notice that it was impossible to avoid having national minorities in each of the states, as the population was invariably mixed. There were a million and half (Hungarian) Magyars in Transylvania for example, which had been given to Romania, but the majority of them were settled in the eastern part of the territory, furthest away from Hungary itself. 19 million people were minorities in nine states with a total population of 98 million. Less than half the population of Czechoslovakia were Czechs.
It can be seen with hindsight that the problem of national minorities would prove to be a source of great instability which might be used (as indeed it was by Hitler) to undermine and finally destroy newly independent states like Czechoslovakia. Further imbalance was caused by some states feeling they had been badly treated. Slovaks maintained that the best posts went to Czechs, while in Yugoslavia the same complaint was made by Croats against the Serbs. The Ukrainians did not even have a state of their own but lived in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The great South African General Smuts said in March 1919 that whatever peace followed the Paris Conference would be an unstable one. His sensible argument was that Poland and Czechoslovakia would be unable to survive without German goodwill. He was right, and these two states were among the first to suffer from German ill will. It was clear in 1920, at least to most newspaper editors, professors of History and professional historians, that both Russia and Germany, which had dominated Eastern Europe before the Great War, would regain their power. If this happened resistance would only be possible if the countries there stood together. This was a forlorn hope, because of the minorities problem, and the disastrous nationalist economic policies followed by many eastern European states. The stage was cleared and ready for another ‘war to end all wars’ – in 1939.