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Good Peace: What Could be a Historical Template?

There are historical examples which indicate that for lasting peace and an enduring international security order, diplomats need to put the willingness to compromise over vindictiveness. But such “peace without victors” is a dangerous line of thinking in case of Ukraine.

A New Global Order? History and Power Politics

By Roberth Gerwarth, University College Dublin

On 9 May 2022, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, marked the 77th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat with a speech to the European Parliament. Set against the current war in Ukraine – the first major war in Europe since 1945 (with the exception of the armed conflicts in ex-Yugoslaviain the 1990s) – Macron engaged in an exercise in applied history: “What is our aim in the face of Russia’s unilateral decision to invade Ukraine and to attack its people? End this war as swiftly as possible. Do everything in our power so that Ukraine can hold out to the end and that Russia can never triumph.” In order to achieve a durable peace in Europe, he continued, “we will need, together, to never give in to the temptation of humiliation, nor the spirit of revenge, because these have already in the past wreaked enough havoc on the roads to peace.”

Rare references to the First World War

Macron’s speech presumably referenced the historical experiences of Germany and France, two countries long locked into a state of Erbfeindschaft (hereditary enmity) embodied by the two Treaties of Versailles of 1871 and 1919 that prompted repeated waves of irredentism and revanchism. The French and the Germans, so Macron’s implicit message, had learnt their lessons from the past – to avoid unnecessarily humiliating and vengeful peace treaties and to seek co-operation instead of confrontation. Macron’s speech is interesting for another reason. The public debate about Ukraine is rife with references to World War II and the 1990s, to promises made in the aftermath of the Cold War and the roads not taken then. Far less frequent are discussions about the First World War which ended in the fall of the Romanows and the loss of most of their empire’s western borderlands. More than any other Western politician, Macron was heavily involved in the centenary of that conflict, chairing the expert commission on how to commemorate the “great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century” and hosting the heads of government of all former combatant states in Paris on 11 November 2018.

Russia’s imperial legacies

Amidst the chaos of the period commemorated then, Ukraine – like many other aspiring nations in East-Central Europe – declared its independence, which was nominally confirmed through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and the new Bolshevik government. Even if Ukraine was re-absorbed into the emerging Soviet Union in 1922, the “betrayal” of Ukraine and the loss of other territories that Russia had long laid claim to – from Finland to the Baltic States and Poland – remained a major Russian trauma comparable to Turkey’s obsession with the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) in which the imploding Ottoman Empire was stripped of its territories in the Middle East while Anatolia was to be partitioned. Not unlike President Erdogan, Putin’s nostalgia for Russia’s imperial past – combined with a fear of ‘Western liberal imperialism’ that also dates back to the days of US President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George – remains an under-appreciated prism through which his actions can be better understood.

Limitations of WWI analogies

The look back to the end of World War I might offer clues to the deeper historical origins of the current war in Ukraine, and to the mindsets in the Kremlin driving it, but not how to solve it. The Paris Peace Treaties (in)famously tried to reduce the potential for armed conflict in the post-imperial successor states of East-Central Europe through a combination of measures: the new states had to sign Minorities Treaties guaranteeing the rights of ethnic or religious minority communities within their borders. Where inter-ethnic conflicts were deemed to be unresolvable through such treaties, the victorious Allies implemented a policy of permanent segregation through partitions (as in Upper Silesia or Northern Ireland), or expulsions (as in Western Anatolia). The latter were to become the dominant form of radical population politics in East-Central Europe until the later 1940s.

Peace agreements without victors

The search for a historical template for a ‘good peace’ can therefore not end in 1919. It would either takes us further into the past – to the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) which generated the longest period of (almost) uninterrupted peace in Europe – or to the more recent Good Friday Agreement of 1998. What both have in common is that they resulted in a peace without victors. In 1815, defeated France was accepted as an equal partner in the deliberations about the future security architecture for Europe, while the Good Friday Agreement rested on a power-sharing agreement with international guarantors. Whether such a peace without victors is feasible in light of the immense human suffering and physical destruction brought about by Russia’s recent invasion is difficult to say. After all, the Minsk agreement of 2015 that was based on similar principles, did not prevent the current war. In an ideal future scenario, a successful military repulsion of the Russian invasion would be followed by a negotiated peace based on those principles, a treaty that also recognizes that peace is not a moment in time, but a process that requithe demobilization of minds as much as the demobilization of armed forces. In any event, President Macron has drawn the correct lesson from Europe’s turbulent twentieth century: there will be no lasting peace in East-Central Europe, no enduring international security order, if such a peace repeats the errors of the past and prioritizes vindictiveness over the willingness to compromise.

Robert Gerwarth
Robert Gerwarth Photo: private

About Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth is Professor of Modern History at University College Dublin and the Director of the UCD Centre for War Studies. His research is focused on the history of German and Central European political culture in the period between 1871 and 1945. Gerwarth is the author of “The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End” (2017) and “November 1918: The German Revolution” (2019), among others. He has also published several edited collections, including “War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War” (with John Horne, 2012) and “Empires at War, 1911–23” (with Erez Manela, 2014).


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