NEW YORK — Fifty years ago, on Sept. 1, 1939, the German training ship Schleswig-Holstein shelled Polish positions near Gdansk--the beginning of World War II.
Conventional wisdom holds that appeasement--a pervasive failure to stand up to Adolf Hitler--rendered war inevitable. This is both true and superficial. Hitler started the war. But the international order found itself at the mercy of a single maniacal leader because of an abdication of statesmanship spanning two decades following the Versailles settlement of 1919.
To have stability, an international system must have two components: a balance of power and a generally accepted principle of legitimacy. A balance of power makes the overthrow of international order physically difficult, deterring a challenge before it occurs. A broadly based principle of legitimacy produces reluctance to assault the international order. A stable peace testifies to a combination of physical and moral restraints.
Both these principles were ignored by the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain that ended World War I. Before 1914, European policy was conducted by five great powers--Britain, France, Germany plus the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. The continental nations were contiguous and intertwined by complex alliances. But the Treaty of St. Germain dissolved one of the major countries--the Austro-Hungarian Empire--into constituent nationalities, producing a plethora of small states. The Treaty of Versailles humiliated Germany and gave it no stake in the international order. Concurrently, the Russian Empire was first wracked by revolution and then ostracized because of its outcome.
Thus the European balance of power was in effect two countries: France and Britain. But Britain had rarely engaged itself on the Continent--especially not on the side of the strongest nation which, at least on paper, appeared to be France. France, on the other hand, had suffered the heaviest wartime casualties in relation to population. She lacked the means and will to be the arbiter of Europe, unable to face the prospect of maintaining the European balance alone. Hence France's idea of balance was to weaken the feared neighbor. Germany had to give up Alsace-Lorraine to France and territories in the East to Poland; the Rhineland was demilitarized and the German army severely limited in size and equipment. Finally, large and eventually unpayable reparations were imposed on Germany.
So long as Germany remained disarmed, there was a conceivable balance. But there was no precedent of a major country remaining permanently disarmed. Contrary to the victors' intentions, once arms limitations were jettisoned, the Treaty of Versailles left Germany stronger geopolitically than before 1914 when its eastern neighbors had been Russia and Austria-Hungary. After 1919 Germany bordered only much weaker countries in the East: on Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and behind them Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia.
The Treaty of Versailles was too severe to be accepted by Germany but not severe enough to prevent Germany from challenging it. World War I, fought to prevent German hegemony over Europe, ended by leaving Germany in a better strategic position to achieve its eastern ambitions than it had been before.
Germany was not the only irredentist country. The Soviet Union, excluded from European diplomacy, was always prepared to play the capitalists off against each other. In the '20s, it facilitated secret German army training on Soviet soil in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In the '30s, Stalin made overtures to Hitler; when rebuffed, he made an alliance with France, only to return to his first option in the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact.
Finally, when the borders of the Austro-Hungarian successor states were drawn, it became apparent that the principle of self-determination frequently clashed with the requirements of security. In the name of defense, Germans, Poles and Hungarians were incorporated into Czechoslovakia, Hungarians into Romania and still other minorities into Yugoslavia. In the end nearly as many people were living under foreign rule as had in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and most of the successor states had revisionist aims of their own.
In retrospect it is strange that no statesman at the time addressed the question of whether it was possible to maintain a settlement that excluded the two most populous continental countries: Russia and Germany. Britain probably would have preferred to placate Germany but could not get French support. France wanted to keep Germany impotent but could not obtain British support. The result was indecisiveness and evasion--a built-in policy of too little too late.