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Russo-Polish War


Poland and Russia. 1920-21

Poland had been created out of land taken off Germany, Austria and Russia. Poland was thus resurrected after having disappeared as an independent country for over a century. Some Poles were dissatisfied with their new borders. The disliked their eastern border, the Curzon line. The border was so-called because Lord Curzon, a British statesman, had demarcated it. Lord Curzon did not allow the United Kingdom to guarantee these frontiers, she would not intervene to helped Poland or anyone else in that region. He acidly remarked that Poland’s frontiers were, ”not worth the bones of a British grenadier.” He was paraphrasing the words of an earlier German statesman.
Many Poles wanted more land from Russia. Russia was exhausted after the First World War, two revolutions and a civil war. The new Bolshevik government of Russia had no friendly governments to look to for support. In 1920 Poland invaded Russia. There were ethnic Poles in the western regions of Russia – Belarus and the Ukraine. Poland was trying to re-create her halcyon days of the 17th century when she was the dominant state in Eastern Europe – ruling a territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Russian Bolsheviks counter-attacked and drove the Poles back to Warsaw. The Polish Army then turned on the Russian Bolsheviks and defeated them at a battle known as ‘the Miracle of the Vistula’. Russia was compelled to sign the treaty of Riga. Russia gave 80 000 square km to Poland. This is about two-thirds the size of England. Poland, by breaking the Paris peace treaties, had gained. The L of N had done nothing to stop Poland. Russia with her Bolshevik government was not allowed into the L of N. Many people saw the Bolshevik government of Russia as very dangerous and were grateful to the Poles for keeping her in check.

Far from upholding the Paris Peace Treaties France had encouraged Poland’s depredations on Russia and even sent military advisers to assist the Polish army in attacking Russia. One such French officer who was a member of the French military mission to Poland was a certain Charles de Gaulle. France had a close relationship with Poland and there was no way France wanted to jeopardise this by criticising Poland’s territorial expansion. Anything that acted as a cordon sanitaire against Bolshevism whilst also creating a strong anti-German ally was enthusiastically welcomed by the French establishment.

L of N


All treaties had League of Nations clauses.
The League of Nations (L of N) was meant to keep the peace through collective security. If one country attacked another then all countries in the League would come to the aid of the victim country and attack the aggressor country. In the 1930s schoolbooks were published assuring children that there would never be another war because now there was collective security. The trouble was of course collective security required countries to fight against an aggressor when it was not in their interests to be do so. If A land attacked B land then C land had to fight A land. However, many in C land would prefer to stay neutral. They may wish to enlist the active support of A land against D land over some other dispute. It was all too easy to be preoccupied with short-term self-interest. Fighting for peace seemed oxymoronic. Countries had made weapons like crazy from 1914 to 1918 and in the 1920s they disarmed as fast as they could. They trimmed their armed forces to the bone to try to cut down their ballooning deficits.

  1. What was the purpose of the L of N?
  2. How was collective security supposed to work?
  3.  How could collective security fail?
  4.  What happened to armies in the 1920s?

Collective security did not work because the League of Nations did not have an army or navy. There was talk of setting up a world army and world navy for the use of the League of Nations but it came to nothing. The L of N relied upon its member countries using their armed forces to enforce the will of the L of N. Member countries were unwilling to fight other friendly member countries. War, even a just war, was unpopular. In many countries League of Nations Unions were formed – these were societies that supported the work of the L of N. In the United Kingdom in the 1930s the League of Nations Union held a plebiscite. They sent out letters with a ballot paper asking people to vote for or against the proposition that the United Kingdom never ever, in any situation fight a war. Millions of people wrote back with their ballot papers. A high majority of people voted to never fight. This was of course and unofficial referendum but one cannot dispute its authenticity. Politicians were forced to take note. There was appetite to fight. In fact there was an overwhelming yearning for peace at almost any price.

  1. Did the L of N get its own army?|
  2.  What did the League of Nations Union in the UK achieve in the 1930s?

In the 1930s aggressive governments saw that the L of N would not stop them and so aggressors grew ever more daring. Such aggressive governments included the Nazi regime in Germany and the Japanese Government and the Government of Italy.

  1. Why did aggressive governments become audacious in the 1930s?

Italian disappointment


Italian disappointment
Italy did not gain much at the Paris peace treaties. In fact Prime Minister Orlando was ousted just as Versailles was being signed – the Italians saw that he had done a poor job of arguing their corner. Italy did gain Istria and the South Tyrol from her main enemy Austria. The South Tyrol was 80% ethnically Austrian. Most of these ethnic Austrians in the South Tyrol strongly disliked being made part of Italy. The South Tyrol was meant to make Italy easier to defend in case they ever went to war with Austria again. Many Italians felt that Italy had not been rewarded enough for her pains in the First World War the called it ‘a mutilated victory.’ Many Italians felt badly let down by the UK and France who had promised to make sure that Italy gained a lot of territory. In fact Italian territorial gains had been modest. The UK and France were seen to have been dishonest to Italy. Whenever the UK and France wished to chide Italy in future for her actions Italy would retort that these countries were in no position to lecture Italy on good faith in international relations. Italy had had enough of their cant and empty promises. The UK and France would shame-facedly slink off.

  1. What happened to Orlando in 1919?
  2. What land did Italy gain from the Paris Peace Treaties?
  3.  How did Italians describe their meagre gains in 1919?
  4. What did Italy say to the UK and France whenever these countries chided Italy for her actions?

Italy moved in many ethnic Italians into South Tyrol to dilute the ethnic Austrian majority there. So strong is pan-German feeling there in the Tyrol that ethnic Italians have been refused rooms in hotels there as recently as the 1990s. In 2004 a beer was on sale there called ”Sieg Heil” and bore a picture of Adolf Hitler on its label. ”Sieg Heil” means in German ”Hail Victory” and was one of the commonest Nazi slogans.
Many Italians wanted the port of Fiume. A bare majority of people in Fiume were ethnically Italian but the city belonged a newly created country called Yugoslavia. A flamboyant ultra-nationalist Italian poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio took over Fiume with a band of armed followers. He had taken a break from composing his frankly bizarre poesy on themes such as how delightful it is to drink tea from the lips of his beloved. The cypto-fascist D’Annunzio ruled the city for a while. The Italian Government was embarrassed and eventually deposed D’Annunzio – they felt it was wrong for D’Annunzio, a private citizen, to set up his own private army and take over part of another country. The government was unpopular to doing this. D’Annunzio was a hero to many.

  1. Why did the Italian Government move people into the South Tyrol?
  2. What did D’Annunzio do to Fiume and why?
  3.  How did most Italians feel about D’Annunzio?

In 1922 Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy. Mussolini led the Fascist party. He dismantled democracy piecemeal and set up a dictatorship. Mussolini vowed to make Italy respected and even feared among nations. He tried to associate himself with D’Annunzio. The Paris peace treaties are partially responsible for the rise of Mussolini.

  1. Who ruled Italy after 1922?
  2. What was his ideology?

New states


New states in eastern Europe
The Paris peace treaties re-drew the borders of Europe. Land was confiscated from the Central Powers. A number of new, small, feeble states were established in eastern Europe. Poland had existed before. But prior to 100 Poland had not been on the map for over 100 years.  Land was taken from Germany and Austria to create Poland. These areas of Germany and Austria had a clear Polish majority. The Poles wanted to be part of Poland. They did not wish to be German citizens of subjects of Austria. Czechoslovakia was a totally new country founded in 1918.

Poland and Czechoslovakia were set up. Poland and Czechoslovakia both contained a German ethnic minority. This was against national self-determination. Europe was destabilised. Hitler had a built-in excuse to attacking these countries to ‘liberate’ the ethnic Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1938 he took over Austria and made it part of Germany. He took over Czechoslovakia in two stages 1938 and 1939 and made most of it part of Germany. He invaded and took over Poland in 1939 sparking the Second World War. There were many other territorial disputes in eastern Europe. For example, Romania had gained a big chunk of Hungary called Transylvania. Admittedly the majority of people in Transylvania were ethnic Romanians but this did not stop Hungary claiming Transylvania back.


  1. Did the borders of Europe change after the Paris peace treaties?

2. Which side lost land?

3. Name two new countries created in 1918?

Germany’s response to Versailles


The German response
Many Germans felt bitter about Versailles. Those politicians who signed the treaty made themselves many enemies by doing so. Particularly right wing Germans (for whom pride in the country was exceedingly important) were disgusted with Versailles. The men who signed the armistice in November 1918 were denounced as ‘November criminals’. It was claimed that these men had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ as General Ludendorff put it. The Weimar Republic had got off to a bad start with this unpopular inheritance of defeat, poverty, misery, shame and reparations.
Over time more and more Germans would come to vote for politicians who were sworn to break the treaty of Versailles. The most infamous of these politicians was named Adolf Hitler and he led the Nazi party. He vowed to make Germany a mighty nation once more. Versailles is therefore indirectly responsible for the rise of the Nazis, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the outbreak of the Second World War.


  1. What section of German opinion was most against Versailles?
  2.  What did right wingers called those who had signed the armistice?
  3. What did Ludendorff say had happened to Germany?
  4.  What did Hitler promise to do about Versailles?

Was Versailles bad?


The negative consequences of Versailles.
1) The Germans loathed this treaty. It was humiliating and it made them suffer.

What does humiliating mean?

2) The war guilt clause leading to reparations would cause Germany great hardship. They were having a difficult enough time trying to rebuild their country after the war and now they had to pay out a vast amount of money to the Allies. The loss of much rich territory was hard to bear.

What was the logic in insisting that Germany must pay compensation?

3) Many Germans felt the treaty was an outrageous injustice. They believed that Germany was not the only guilty one for starting the war. In fact some believed that it was the Allies and not Germany who had started the war. Many felt that Germany had not been properly beaten. After all German troops were still occupying some French land when the armistice as signed. In a country like Germany where the army was held in extremely high esteem it was very hard to take that the army had been defeated. The German Government set historians to work immediately after the war ferreting through archives to construct and intellectual fight back against Article 231. They soon published their counterblast – arguing that in fact Germany was the injured party and her enemies were culpable to causing the war.

What did most Germans believe that Versailles was unfair? Three marks

4) Just as the war was ending the Kaiser (Emperor) had given up his throne and fled. A new democratic government called the Weimar Republic had come in and decided to give ordinary Germans a proper say in running their country. Many felt it was unfair to punish ordinary Germans for the decisions of the Kaiser and his cronies. Ordinary Germans had not been given a proper voice in the decisions that had been taken before and during the war. Germany signed the Armistice in November 1918 on the understanding that it would be “peace with justice” as President Wilson had promised. Berlin believed that peace would be along the lines of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

Why did ordinary Germans say that they were not responsible for the war?


5) Wilson’s ‘just peace’ had not been delivered. This was victor’s justice. General Jan Christian Smuts, who was Prime Minister of South Africa, said that it was a Carthaginian peace. It was such as Rome had imposed on Carthage in the antique age. That is to say that Versailles was overly harsh. Germany had signed the armistice on the understanding that they would be signing a treaty along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Treaty of Versailles bore little resemblance to this. Germany had been run more or less as a military dictatorship during the war and before. It was unfair to punish the ordinary Germans for the misdeeds of their masters. The task of moderate German politicians, to hold back the militantly nationalist politicians, was made immensely more difficult due to the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was forbidden to join the League of Nations (in 1926 the Allies relented on this). Germany had to disarm to a much greater extent than the Allies, leaving Germany vulnerable to attack. The principle of national self-determination did not apply to Germans. There were districts where most people were German by blood and language – who wanted their district to be part of Germany. Yet these districts were made part of France or Poland or Czechoslovakia. How unfair! On the other hand the French and British governments could and did argue that they had never signed off on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. They had never led Germany to believe that the peace settlement would be as outlined by Wilson.


Why did many Germans believe that their country was mistreated after the First World War?

6) Germany had not been allowed to negotiate. She simply listened as the Allies thrashed out among themselves the terms they would impose on their vanquished foe. The treaty was a diktat. It was “take it or leave it.” The German delegation had been warned by the Allies that they must sign the Treaty within 24 hours or the Allies would immediately renew the war. Germany was in a far weaker position in June 1919 than she was in November 1919.


Why did Germany sign Versailles even though the Germans hated the treaty?