A Century Ago, the Modern Middle East Was Born
At the end of 1919, Woodrow Wilson still wanted the region to decide its future. Britain and France had other ideas.
By Ted Widmer
Mr. Wider is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
Dec. 25, 2019
As 1919 came to a close, people around the world were celebrating the holidays, grateful for the return of peace on earth after the convulsions of the Great War. “Peace on earth” was a relative concept; there was still fighting in Russia. But for the most part, the soldiers were home, and their families were looking forward to a new decade, free of conflict.
In Paris, there were long lines outside of restaurants, as the French celebrated the holiday with gastronomic exuberance. In Berlin, Vienna and Budapest there was less Christmas cheer, thanks to food shortages and inflation, but the people flocked to cafes and did their best to revive the old holiday traditions. In Washington, there was no snow, but Woodrow Wilson issued a flurry of proclamations, including one on Christmas Eve that relinquished federal control of the railroads, a wartime measure that was no longer necessary.
But for all the Christmas cheer, there was a general restlessness as the long year 1919 drew to a close, without the clarity that so many hoped would follow the war’s end. An elaborate treaty was signed at Versailles on June 28, ending hostilities between the principal powers, but creating a host of new problems. Germans were furious when they realized the scale of the reparations imposed on them. New and dangerous political actors were quick to seize upon the public’s hunger to find scapegoats as the political mood turned dark.
Wilson’s thoughts must have been conflicted this Christmas season. As the son of a Southern Presbyterian minister, he had many reasons to rejoice at the arrival of Christmas, including the fact that he was sometimes compared to Jesus, with his “sermonettes” about the new era that was approaching. As a young man, he had written an essay on “Christ’s Army,” and it must have felt at times that he was in charge of this organization, with all of his schemes for human betterment. But as the year progressed, the comparisons to Jesus began to turn sardonic, as Wilson’s perfectionism grated on his allies.
Mistakes were plentiful as the world’s leaders contemplated missed opportunities in the great reshuffling of 1919.
A year earlier, Wilson strode the world like a colossus. On Christmas Eve 1918, he was in Paris, enjoying the last night of his first visit to France, where he received a tumultuous welcome as the embodiment of the people’s hopes. A year later, he was significantly diminished, by the flawed treaty, by the Senate’s refusal to approve the League of Nations, and by the stroke that had crippled him in October, as he brought his case to the American people.
He never lost his religiosity, and for that reason, the arrival of another Christmas may have felt reassuring. But the year had taken a severe toll. He said, “If I were not a Christian I think I should go mad, but my faith in God holds me to the belief that he is in some way working out his own plans through human perversities and mistakes.”
Mistakes were plentiful as the world’s leaders contemplated missed opportunities in the great reshuffling of 1919. Three enormous empires — the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian — had folded within the last two years, sweeping away centuries of dynastic privilege, but leaving a gaping void.