Woodrow Wilson on the World Stage

Woodrow Wilson’s catastrophic impact on World War I

(Consequences for Europe and the World)


by Helmut Schwab, Princeton, 2016



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American democracy may have had an influence on the French revolution of 1789.  The defeat of Napoleon was combined with the hope of the middle class and young generation of Germany and Austria for a new political order.  Soon, however, the old feudal order, with a primary role for the nobility and the German emperor, was reestablished.  The democratic uprising in 1848 failed and many educated members of the German middle class emigrated to the United States (for example, to Madison, Wisconsin, which they called the “Athens of America”).    

In spite of these disappointing developments, Germany increasingly prospered throughout the 19th century, while acquiring colonies in Africa and Asia.  International peace seemed assured by the family interconnections between the British royal family, the Tsars of Russia, and Germany. Britain’s  Queen Victoria gave Mount Kilimanjaro, at the border of the British colony Kenya as a birthday gift to her first grandson, the German crown prince and future ruler of Germany, along with it’s colony of Tanzania.  The first Chinese beer was brewed by a German brewer in Tsingtao, the German trading colony on the east coast of China (it remains the leading beer of China today). 

Research and new technologies were the driving forces for a fast-growing German industry with increasing exports based on product superiority and competitive prices.  Wilhelm von Humboldt’s innovation in founding the modern Berlin University to combine teaching with ongoing research may have been especially important (Princeton University in the United States followed the “German model” about 50 years later).  Also important was the German educational system in the trades, providing a high level of apprenticeship training and “trade schools” leading to the “master” level. Beyond that, the formation of numerous technical colleges produced plenty of excellent engineers.  Government funding became available to start new enterprises.  Bismarck introduced “social security” to the working class.  Germany became a world leader in the export of machinery, electrical equipment, chemical products, medical products, and more.  Also, the arts flourished.

With British dominance in the world fading, Great Britain felt increasingly threatened by German progress, although it still had faraway India as its wealthiest colony.  Its navy still controlled the oceans. 

Bismarck was able to maintain a balance of power and peace in Europe after the short war of 1871 (which had left the mistake of returning German speaking Alsace together with French-speaking Lorraine from France to Prussia, both once violently conquered by Louis XIV – areas that should have become a buffer state between France and Germany, as Luxembourg or Switzerland were, thereby possibly reducing France’s reason for entering the subsequent World War I).

Some of the late German emperors ruled wisely. One softened the unhealthy dominance of the nobility by promoting an increasing number of middle-class citizens with some merit to nobility (such as the sculptor von Zumbusch and the electrical engineer inventor and entrepreneur von Siemens, and many others).

Then the last German emperor, Wilhelm II, ascended the throne in 1888 and immediately dismissed von Bismarck.  Wilhelm II had a minor physical handicap with one of his arms, which may explain his unbalanced need to appear “imperial”.  He had a desire to appear more important on the world stage – as we nowadays know it from Russia’s Putin, from China, and from other world leaders with unbalanced ambitions.  As some of those, Wilhelm began a daring course of military adventurism.  Most importantly, he started building a strong German navy to challenge British dominance on the world’s oceans.  Merely “to protect” the tiny colony Tsingtao in China (providing trade for Hamburg with products of Asia and export), he built and stationed there a fleet of several large battle ships, far away in the Pacific.  He stationed the largest and most modern battle cruiser, the Goeben, in the Mediterranean Sea, right between the Suez Canal and Gibraltar, potentially blocking British trade with India.  How could the British accept this? 

The British foreign minister at the time, Edward Grey, responded with a secret plan to encircle Germany from all sides in order to smash it one day militarily – as was customary in earlier centuries.  His plan progressed successfully and, in 1914, World War I started!


The war did not accomplish what the British had expected.  The Russians were beaten by the Germans and, after the communist revolution, hardly fought any longer.  The Germans failed to conquer the French bastion of Verdun.  But the British did not succeed in breaking through the German line at the Somme River.  The military leaders on both sides had not learned to take into consideration the invention of the machine gun.  More than a million soldiers had to die on both sides! What a horror!  Stationary but expensive trench warfare resulted.

In late 1916 and early 1917, after almost two years of war, all sides were hesitatingly ready to negotiate an end to the war.


Woodrow Wilson:

By this time, Britain’s only hope for success was support from the United States, which so far had been pursuing a neutral course.  Large quantities of war materiel were secretly supplied by the U.S to Britain on “neutral” ships, which German U-boats were at first not allowed to attack.  Beginning in early 1915, however, Germany declared a total prohibition of war materiel transport and began sinking such ships, most famously the Lusitania

Woodrow Wilson had won his second election as American president in 1916 with the promise to keep the United States out of the war in Europe.  But immediately after his election, learning of the British willingness to begin negotiations with the Germans about a possible peace settlement, and forcefully urged by British emissaries, Wilson signaled to Britain that he would lead the United States into the war on the side of Britain against Germany!

How could he do that?  American political leadership was still in the hands of a WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) majority (or the Italian mafia).  German representation in American politics was weak.  Did Wilson want to support the country of his ancestors?  Did he want to support the country of the higher culture?  What an irony, when considering the actual home of the Anglo-Saxons, with Anglia being in northern Germany and Saxony in eastern Germany – and Germany’s “culture” having progressed as described above!   


As Woodrow Wilson indicated the American intent to enter the war on the British side, negotiations in Europe about a possible end of the war promptly stopped!  Early in 1917, the U.S. entered World War I.

Consequently, the war lasted one and a half years longer, until late 1918.  Millions of additional soldiers were killed on both sides! 

Germany was thought to have been destroyed by the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, which was negotiated and formulated by the Western powers under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson – with a British officer keeping the official minutes and a French official keeping different minutes in the interest of France.  A beautiful painting shown in Princeton University’s “Prospect House” shows Woodrow Wilson leading the Versailles meeting and the British secretary keeping the minutes, actually shown in the Salle de l’Horologe” of the French Foreign Ministry headquarters at the Palais du Quai d’Orsay).

  Germany was declared as the only culprit in starting the war and, therefore, responsible for all reparation payments!  Woodrow Wilson specifically agreed to that!  The trigger of the war – the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo – was forgotten, as well as the following French call to arms before the beginning of the war and Germany’s demand to desist, then France’s declaration of war against Germany (followed by Germany’s declaration of war against Great Britain and invasion of Belgium, in order to attack France from its weakest flank, the North)! 

The Kaiser had to abdicate and leave Germany (to live peacefully in financial ease on a small estate in Holland until 1941 – while millions of people had lost everything during his reign!  Did Wilson also agree to that?) 

Germany was expected to develop a democratic government and remain peaceful.


Germany was not destroyed, but struggled with a very unstable government headquartered in Weimar, not Berlin, through economically difficult times.  The reparation payments demanded by the Versailles peace treaty led to unlimited inflation in Germany, which destroyed the economic base of the middle class and contributed to high unemployment.

In 1933, the Nazis, with their principal promise of full employment but with only about 35 percent of voter support, were allowed to form a new government (even though Hitler had already written his Mein Kampf with all his anti-Semitic hatred in it, which he had developed in Vienna of those days).  The Nazis quickly introduced a “state of emergency” providing Hitler with unlimited power.  The secret police annihilated all opposition.  The most criminal catastrophe of Europe had begun. 


Woodrow Wilson had not thought of rebuilding Germany after smashing it.  Thus, many historians see Woodrow Wilson as responsible not only for the unfortunate end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, but also, thereby indirectly for the rise of the Nazis.

Thus, Woodrow Wilson is seen by some historians as catastrophic in his effect on world history!


Could a balanced Europe have come out of World War I? 

Could the League of Nations, as originally structured, have avoided the horrors of the Second World War? 


    What might have been an alternative for Woodrow Wilson in late 1916 or early 1917?

Could Woodrow Wilson have proposed to the countries fighting in Europe and insisted on moving American troops between the by now stable trench lines in France, insisting that each side retreat by a few kilometers and stop shooting?  Could negotiations subsequently have led to a settlement, to peace, to a stable Europe?

Reparations would have had to be paid by all, by some formula, to the suffering populations of Belgium, Holland, and parts of France.  Germany would have had to limit its navy to merely the protection of its colonies in Africa.

Could Woodrow Wilson have emerged as the greatest peacemaker in history?


How will Woodrow Wilson be judged by the world in the future – if it cares?  Should the “Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs” at Princeton University retain this name? 

Some observers draw a parallel to George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq, possibly drawn into that war by Israeli interests – then leaving Iraq to disintegrate – possibly with ISIL as a consequence. 

What if a school for “International Affairs” had been started by a university in Texas and be named for George W. Bush?  How would that reflect upon that university?  What should the students learn there?


Woodrow Wilson’s connection to the “public affairs” of his time – specifically, to racial problems - were recently discussed at Princeton University.  His “international affairs” action is discussed in this article. 

Should that Princeton “School of Public and International Affairs” rightly be named after someone who is seen by some as responsible for the prolongation and outcome of World War I, the death of many millions of people and the suffering of many more, the outcome and specific formulation of the Treaty of Versailles, and, possibly, the resulting turmoil in Germany and the world?



(This essay was submitted for comment to the office of Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. No comments have been received).



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