News & Current Affairs

November 12, 2008

Was Armistice flawed?

Was Armistice flawed?

The armistice deal signed on 11 November 1918 brought yearned-for relief to Western Europe. But the same pact has been blamed for the return to conflict in Europe only 20 years later. Does the deal deserve the criticism, asks Professor Gerard De Groot of the University of St Andrews.

Armistice celebrations in Britain

The Armistice ended four years of fierce fighting

On 27 September 1918, the British Army, reinforced by French, Belgian and Canadian units, attacked the German line in Flanders, Belgium.

Progress was not immediately impressive, but that operation did achieve the symbolically important result of piercing the Hindenburg Line, which was supposed to be impregnable.

For Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, the jig was up. On 1 October, he told his general staff that “final defeat was probably inescapably at hand”. The task now was to avoid ignominious defeat.

The Germans therefore notified US President Woodrow Wilson on 6 October that they were willing to discuss an armistice.

They approached Mr Wilson because they hoped to get a good deal from a leader who seemed humane.

That immediately aroused the suspicions of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French President Georges Clemenceau, both of whom were determined to make Germany pay for the suffering the war had caused.

‘Harsh peace’

Keen to get a jump on President Wilson, Mr Clemenceau asked the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to draw up armistice terms.

You wish to do justice to the Germans. Do not believe they will ever forgive us; they will merely seek the opportunity for revenge
Georges Clemenceau
French President

Mr Foch concocted a set of demands designed to render it impossible for the Germans to resume hostilities.

All captured territory, including German speaking areas of Alsace and Lorraine, would be immediately surrendered. Within four weeks, the Germans would be required to evacuate the right bank of the Rhine to a depth of 10km (six miles), a demand cleverly calculated to leave German units in a disorganized state.

In addition, a vast collection of military hardware (including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 aircraft) were to be surrendered, plus 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars and 5,000 lorries.

At sea, Germany would be reduced to a second-rate naval power, surrendering all her submarines and the bulk of her surface fleet.

By the end of October, the British and French had managed to drag the Americans toward their version of reality.

The three powers settled upon terms roughly similar to Mr Foch’s.

In a series of notes, Mr Wilson warned the Germans to expect a harsh peace.

They were to consider themselves militarily defeated, and safeguards would be implemented to insure that hostilities could not be resumed. They should also expect to pay reparations for the costs of the war.

President Wilson further insisted that he would deal only with the elected representatives of the German people, not with the Kaiser.

‘No hope’

For Mr Ludendorff, this amounted to unconditional surrender and was therefore unacceptable.

Allied Supreme Commander  Ferdinand Foch (first row, 2nd right) and other signatories of the Armistice treaty in Compiegne Forest on 11 1918

The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage outside Compiegne Forest

In consequence, he demanded that the German government back away from the armistice.

His sidekick, General Paul von Hindenburg, likewise attested: “Wilson’s answer can only amount to a challenge to continue to resist to the utmost of our capabilities”.

But that rallying cry was shouted into a vacuum.

The German state was in terminal meltdown. Once the possibility of an armistice was raised, there was no further hope of rousing the people to continue the fight.

On 8 November, therefore, a German delegation – headed by Matthias Erzberger – met Mr Foch in a railway carriage outside Compiegne.

The terms sent Mr Erzberger into a state of near paralysis. He nevertheless accepted, and it was agreed that the armistice would take effect at 1100 on 11 November.

Not punished enough?

The armistice terms, and the Versailles settlement that confirmed them, have been blamed for causing World War II.

It is difficult to imagine an armistice that would have satisfied the Entente powers and left the Germans feeling fairly treated

Because we know that WWII occurred, it is easy to judge in retrospect that the armistice must have been too harsh.

This harshness had dual effect: it encouraged a desire for revenge within Germany and a feeling of contrition within Britain. Thus, when the time came that Germany felt able to reassert herself, the British were disinclined to protest because, for many, its anger seemed warranted.

Another school holds that Germany was not punished enough. According to this thesis, the war ended too soon – Germany’s offer of an armistice should have been refused and its army should have been pushed back across the Rhine in order to give the German people graphic proof of their own defeat.

Those who adhere to this thesis often also argue that the treaty established the principle of war guilt, which encouraged German resentment, but did not sufficiently destroy the German ability to act upon that resentment.

Bearing in mind the way Adolf Hitler manipulated the propaganda value of the “unjust” peace, the argument seems to have some merit.

US ‘isolationism’

But punishment, be it of nations or children, is a blunt tool.

Could Germany’s aggressive power realistically have been destroyed in 1919? And, if that option was indeed possible, would the allies have been prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to realize it?

Allied troops huddle in a trench around a tiny fire near Ypres, Belgium, in 1914

More than 40 million people – soldiers and civilians – died in World War I

Which country would have been prepared to forfeit the lives of its citizens in order to make victory more emphatic and peace more severe?

A “fairer” peace seems likewise inconceivable.

“You wish to do justice to the Germans,” Mr Clemenceau once remarked to Mr Wilson. “Do not believe they will ever forgive us; they will merely seek the opportunity for revenge.”

Mr Clemenceau was probably right.

It is difficult to imagine an armistice that would have satisfied the Entente powers and left the Germans feeling fairly treated.

A more liberal treaty might have brought into being a more peaceful, secure Europe, but the populist mood across Europe was not liberal. Equanimity is easy in hindsight, but difficult at a time when the graves of millions were still being dug.

The flaws in the armistice did not alone cause WWII. Germany was able to act upon its resentment because the country that emerged most powerful from the Great War decided subsequently to absent herself from European affairs.

Power implies responsibility, yet the US, in the inter-war period, sought an isolationist haven.

It is by no means clear that greater American involvement in European affairs would have prevented WWII. But it is certain that America’s decision to turn her back on Europe created a power vacuum that Hitler was able to exploit.

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September 18, 2008

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

There used to be tens of thousands of diamond cutters in the Belgian port of Antwerp. Now there are only a few hundred.

A Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp

Traditional methods are coming under threat from globalisation

It is within the city’s Jewish community that most of the jobs have been lost – particularly among the Hasidic Jews who adhere strictly to religious laws.

Out of about 2,000 Hasidic families in Antwerp, 1,000 are now headed by a man who has no job.

Unemployment of 50% would cause great hardship among any group of people. But for Hasidic Jews it brings special problems.

Women do not usually work – they raise large families, with nine children on average – and the children are often given private religious education.

Jobs move abroad

In fact, diamonds still make a lot of money in Antwerp – but it is shared among a small elite.

Setting up as an independent dealer has become almost impossible.

But Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, denies there is any prejudice against any particular group.

“It’s a multi-racial environment and we all get along well – it’s an example to the outside world,” he says.

“Like any other industry, we couldn’t afford to pay the heavy labor costs in Europe, so the polishing moved to India and China, but at a certain stage the goods come back. Antwerp gets 80% of all the rough trade and 50% of the polished diamonds.”

Africa, too, has taken some of Antwerp’s jobs. Nations where diamonds are mined, like Botswana, now insist the lucrative cutting process is also done within the country.

The use of lasers to cut the diamonds has also reduced the number of jobs.

Most of the Jews who work in the diamond trade are self-employed, which allows them to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Nowadays, though, the industry is increasingly dominated by huge businesses like de Beers, which made nearly $500m (£280m) profit last year.

Some of the Jewish men who have been left without work are now starting to retrain in other professions.

Sam Friedman believes it is vital for men from his Hasidic community to gain new skills, and so he offers them night classes in accounting, languages and computers.

“Training and education are very important for the Hasidic people to get a job, because in the Jewish schools they only learn about Jewish law and Jewish history but not about general things,” he says.

“So it’s very important after religious school to train some more so that you can find a job.”

Cultural clash

Even among other Orthodox, non-Hasidic Jews, there is a major debate over education.

Tradition-minded parents often do not let their children go to university, partly for fear that its secular environment will taint their religious beliefs.

Marcel Engelstein is a successful businessman in Antwerp who believes the changes in the diamond industry present an opportunity for positive change.

Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse

Alan Majerczyk says Antwerp still has a future in diamonds

“We have here a community connected to Israel – which has developed a lot of hi-tech businesses. We can use our brain power to bring the companies here,” says Mr Engelstein.

“The Hasidic and Orthodox people are using their brains all the time when they are learning the Talmud [religious law and history].

“So it’s very easy to teach them new things. They need a bit of guidance and a bit of will power, of course, but I think we can really get them to do that.”

Some people already have learned new skills – like Daniel Verner, a young man who is making a name for himself locally as an architect.

His father used to work in diamonds and his brothers still do. But he decided to go to university and then set up his own business.

“Twenty years ago people would proclaim you crazy for not going into diamonds, and today it’s just the opposite,” he says.

“When people try to look for jobs outside diamonds they gain respect, because everybody knows the situation is much more difficult today than it was back then.”

Mr Verner believes that loosening the links between the Jewish community and the diamond trade will transform the society.

“Everybody is going to have a different life, different schedules and different interests, so even when we talk together it’s going to be on different subjects. For sure it’s going to change,” he says.

September 7, 2008

Belgian Grand Prix

Belgian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton was handed a 25-second penalty after the race

McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was stripped of a dramatic victory in the Belgian Grand Prix after stewards handed him a 25-second post-race penalty.

The Englishman was demoted to third place behind Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld.

The move came after an investigation into a late-race battle between Hamilton and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

Hamilton’s lead over Massa in the title chase has been cut by two points.

Massa’s team-mate Raikkonen 19 points adrift off the lead

Before the penalty, he had extended his lead over the Brazilian to eight points, with Raikkonen effectively out of the running on 23.

More to follow.

August 5, 2008

Blackburn sign Man Utd’s Simpson

Blackburn Rovers have captured defender Danny Simpson from Manchester United on a season-long loan.

The 21-year-old right-back made eight first-team appearances for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side last season.

Simpson has had loan spells with Sunderland, Ipswich and Belgian outfit Royal Antwerp in the past.

He becomes Paul Ince’s third signing since his appointment at Ewood Park, following Chilean Carlos Villanueva and England keeper Paul Robinson.

Ince, who spent six years as a United player, has now made three signings since taking charge, with Simpson following Paul Robinson and Carlos Villanueva into Ewood Park.

And the former midfielder has revealed he is hoping to sign two more players before the start of the season.

Ince said: “There’s another couple of targets we are looking at and we hope to bring them through the door in the next couple of weeks.”

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