Recalling another villain

As the United States decides whether to attack Iraq, Germany's defiance of international law after World War I is history's lesson.

February 23, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

AFTER AN UNPROVOKED invasion of neighboring lands, allied forces joined to launch a response. The aggressor was soundly defeated and subjected to sanctions to ensure that it could no longer rise as a military power. Inspectors were sent in by the victors to insure compliance.

But their jobs were difficult. "Every form of deception and every obstacle baffled the Allied Commission," wrote one observer. "The work of evasion became thoroughly organized. ... .

"Under a civilian camouflage an organization was set up to safeguard weapons and equipment. ... Even more ingenuity was used to create machinery for future production of war material," he continued.

That was not a member of the Bush administration complaining about Iraq in the years after the Persian Gulf War. It was Winston Churchill writing about Germany in the years after World War I.

The failure to react to Hitler's aggression in the mid-1930s was the iconic foreign policy mistake of that generation. Instead of standing up to the bully, his war-weary European neighbors did nothing, emboldening the Nazi leader for the invasions that led to the catastrophe of World War II.

It is a mistake that informs many of the arguments in favor of going to war against Iraq - that now is the time to confront Saddam Hussein, before he grows into a menace that could threaten the entire region, perhaps the world. Whether or not that analysis is correct, the parallels to the events that led to World War II are striking.

"Most people are familiar with the restraints on German rearmament imposed after World War I," said Jeffrey Johnson, a historian at Villanova University. "What many people are not familiar with is that it also entailed an international inspection regime which was written into the Treaty of Versailles," the 1919 agreement that brought a formal end to the Great War and, among other things, set up the ill-fated League of Nations, predecessor to the United Nations.

The restrictions on the German military were comprehensive, covering the size of armed forces and the number of armaments as well as factories and other industrial facilities. "What went on after World War I was the first attempt at this kind of systematic disarmament and inspection of a defeated enemy," Johnson said. "It does have some interesting parallels to what is going on today. The Germans made many attempts to minimize the damage."

Johnson said the allies were concerned about the manufacture of explosives as well as the elements of the poison gas that had been used to devastating effect in World War I.

Poison gases

It is the modern equivalent of these poison gases - the chemical and biological weapons - that many fear Iraq now possesses. And there was a post-World War I equivalent of the U.N. inspection team scouring Iraq looking for the prohibited weapons.

"The treaty set up what was called the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission, which was subdivided into a number of different commissions and sub-commissions with specific specialities," Johnson said.

Germany was limited to a 100,000-man army.

Churchill - who in an earlier incarnation as head of the Colonial office drew the lines that created Iraq - was an early voice against the appeasement of Hitler. He became an inspirational leader as Britain's prime minister during World War II.

Writing in The Gathering Storm, the first of six volumes in his account of World War II, Churchill said that the foundations of the German military machine that overran much of Europe in 1939 and 1940 were built by evading the treaty limitations in the 1920s. He credited German Gen. Hans von Seekt with laying out the blueprints for getting around the restrictions and bamboozling the inspectors who were supposed to enforce them.

"As early as 1921 Seekt was busy planning, in secret and on paper, a full-size German army, and arguing deferentially about his various activities with the Inter-Allied Military Commission of Control," Churchill wrote.

Von Seekt envisioned the limited army as forming a well-trained officer corps to lead what would eventually become a full-size force. But he faced treaty-imposed restrictions on training.

"New principles of training and instructional courses of all kinds were introduced," Churchill wrote. "All the existing training manuals were rewritten not for the hundred-thousand army, but for the armed might of the German Reich."

Churchill said manuals that met the restrictions were printed for public consumption. "Those for internal consumption were secret," he wrote.

Other subterfuges included using civilian aviation programs and glider training for pilots for an air force that the treaty banned. Similar tactics were used to evade restrictions on a navy.

Jay Lockenour, a historian at Temple University, said the Germans also used an alliance with the hated communists of the Soviet Union in the 1920s to get around the treaty provisions.

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