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COMMENTARY: WAR

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Victor Davis Hanson and World War I

The classics scholar Victor Davis Hanson claims that it would have been better if US forces and their allies had closed World War I by pushing into Germany – a view he expressed on C-Span. He says, in effect, that those who agreed to the armistice of November 11, 1918 made a mistake. The myth arose in Germany that their army had not been defeated, and Hanson guesses that a more devastating defeat would have prevented World War II.

It can be argued that the mistake was not in ending the war as soon as it was but in the peace settlement that followed – at Versailles. It can be argued that the Versaille Treaty should have been the product of haggling and compromise rather than the dictated peace that it was – what Pope Benedict XV described as a "consecration of hatred" and a "perpetuation of war." Hanson is applying to World War I the hawkish get-tough attitude of some contemporary conservatives – or neo-cons as some are describing them. They are not much into including a soft approach toward those they call enemies. Hanson is superimposing on matters involving World War I the assumption that blame for the war was purely with the Germans, that the Germans deserved nothing other than surrender and that nothing would have worked better than surrender.

How much more of a surrender could an allied occupation of Germany have produced than was produced by the Versailles Treaty. The Allies told the Germans in May, 1919, that if they did not accept the treaty by June 23 war would resume. The German army in the person of Field Marshall von Hindenburg was unwilling to return to war and left the onus of surrender on the Social Democrats in power at the time. That was the big misfortune. Most Germans remained patriotic and hated surrender – something conservative Americans might understand. The Versailles treaty forced a German surrender – and an eventual French occupation in the early twenties resulting from Germany's failure to make reparation's payments. So there was the occupation that Hanson seems to prefer. But the occupation did not help matters.

Hansen is opining about a might-have-been, the might-have-been of pursuing the war into Germany rather than the armistice of 11/11/1918. Another might-have-been that Americans can play with is whether it would have been better if their country had not entered the war. Perhaps without the US in the war, France, Britain and Germany would have made a more equitable settlement and a better peace. 

The Germans also have might-have-been's with which to play. In early 1918 a good choice for Germany would have been announcing a willingness to withdraw to its borders and to negotiate a settlement. Some Germans in high places wanted this rather than General Ludendorff's gamble on an offensive. If the now hawkish Victor Davis Hanson had been a German in 1918 would he have favored a negotiated settlement or would he have supported Ludendorff's push for victory? 

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