The Roman statesman Cicero is sometimes quoted as saying, “An unjust peace is preferable to a just war.” Although the actual quote is a bit more of a mouthful, the essential idea of any peace being preferable to war seems to make a lot of sense. However, some of history’s most infamous peace deals really test that lofty ideal.
History’s victors have seldom been gracious to the vanquished, especially some of Cicero’s ancestors. This collection looks at a sampling of the harshest treaties ever signed. In some cases, the peace deals only served to fuel future territorial grievances that would be reversed in the next conflict. Other treaties inflicted such humiliation on the vanquished that they paved the way for the overthrow of signatories at home.
- 1292 VOTES
Paraguay Lost Huge Swaths Of Territory To The Triple Alliance And Endured A Lengthy Occupation
Loizaga–Cotegipe Treaty (1872), Machain – Irigoyen Treaty (1876)
Conflict: Paraguayan War (1864-70)
Result: Paraguay’s civilian population suffered immensely in a brutal conflict against the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. By some estimates, a majority of the nation’s entire population perished as a result of the conflict. With the odds so firmly stacked against the tiny nation, the entire male population was drafted into the military. The Paraguayans resisted fiercely and won some notable victories, but the result was never truly in doubt. The death of the controversial president Francisco Solano Lopez in 1870 brought a formal end to the fighting.
Two separate treaties were signed with Argentina and Brazil. The Brazilians cashed out first in January 1872 while the Argentine claims were finalized in 1876. In the end, Paraguay was greatly reduced in territory and under military occupation until 1876. The present borders of Paraguay were formed in the 1930s, after a conflict with neighboring Bolivia over the disputed Gran Chaco region.
- 2815 VOTES
Germany Was Forced To Take The Blame For WWI
The Treaty of Versailles (1919)
Conflict: World War I (1914-18)
Result: Versailles, France, had once been a scene of triumph for Germany, but in 1919 it was one of abject humiliation. The Central Powers were neutered by the articles of the treaty, with significant territorial losses. Austria-Hungary was broken up, and Germany lost substantial amounts of territory. The financial cost for Germany was onerous: 132 billion gold marks in war reparations to the Allies, equivalent to around $269 billion in today's money. The final installment wasn't paid until 2010.
But the most reviled part of the treaty was Article 231 - the War Guilt Clause. Germany alone was forced to accept responsibility for causing the conflict:
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
The humiliation of the treaty proved to be a rallying call for extremist politicians in Germany, who insisted the army had been stabbed in the back by politicians. For their part, the French were unsatisfied with the leniency of the treaty, fearing a German revival in the near future.
One French officer was eerily accurate in his assessment that the peace deal didn't do enough to punish Germany: "This is not a peace. This is an armistice for twenty years."
- 3360 VOTES
Carthage Was Neutered After The Second Punic War
Conflict: The Second Punic War (218-201 BCE)
Result: The second conflict was by far the longest and most brutal of the trilogy of wars between Rome and Carthage. The Romans endured a succession of catastrophic losses that would have been the end of just about any other city-state at the time. But Rome's success was built upon its capacity to endure horrific losses and keep pushing on. After the hardest of hard-fought victories, Rome was in no mood for clemency.
The peace deal stripped Carthage of all its foreign territory, with the loss of lucrative mines in southern Iberia (pictured) particularly painful. The once-mighty Carthaginian navy was stripped down to just a handful of vessels and an enormous indemnity of 10,000 talents to Rome.
Despite the harsh peace forced upon it, the city-state bounced back, and this potential rival deeply worried the Romans. A third and final war later broke out and wiped Carthage off the face of the Earth.
- 4438 VOTES
China Was Subjected To Multiple Harsh Treaties By Foreign Powers
Treaty of Nanking (1842), Treaty of Tientsin (1858), Convention of Peking (1860)
Conflict: Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60)
Result: The peace deals imposed on the Qing dynasty following losses in the Opium Wars involved turning over ports, hefty financial penalties, and preferential treatment for citizens of Britain, France, Russia, and the US. Although Russia wasn't actually a belligerent, and the US role in the Second Opium War was very limited, both gained their own deals from the British and French treaties.
The first peace treaty granted the British 20 million in silver dollars of compensation, access to ports, and the unspecified lease of the Kowloon peninsula (Hong Kong). The second treaty made the lease a permanent cessation, opened up more ports for foreign trade, and made citizens of the four nations exempt from local laws. These deals and other unfavorable (from the Chinese perspective) deals imposed by Western Imperialist powers are often referred to as the Unequal Treaties.
- 5579 VOTES
Japan Was Forcibly Opened By The US
Convention of Kanagawa (1854)
Conflict: N/A. The treaty prevented war.
Result: In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry went on an expedition to Japan to secure trade rights with the isolationist nation. For more than 200 years the Japanese had limited foreign trade to a single port leased to the Dutch in Nagasaki. American westward expansion led to an interest in expanding American influence in the Pacific.
Perry arrived in Edo Bay with three gunboats that were considerably larger than anything in Japan at the time. In an elaborate show of force, Perry presented the Japanese officials with his demands and a white flag. Should the Japanese refuse, the white flag would be for their inevitable surrender in a confrontation with the US Navy.
Perry was actually greatly overstepping his bounds, but the theatrical flourish had the desired effect. Japanese artistic depictions of Perry leave little doubt over how they felt about his expedition.
When he returned a few months later, officials from the Tokugawa Shogunate agreed to open three ports to the Americans. After the deal was brokered, Perry presented the Japanese with modern gifts, including a miniature train. Although war had been averted by diplomacy, the sight of the American warships prompted a nationalist movement to defend Japan against foreign influence that culminated in the overthrow of the Shogun and a rapid modernization program.
- 6321 VOTES
The Other Treaty Of Versailles Formed The German Empire
Treaty of Versailles/Treaty of Frankfurt (1871)
Conflict: Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)
Result: The Prussian-led German confederation's victory over France resulted in the formation of the German Empire, with the Kaiser crowned in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors (pictured) and a hefty bill of 5 billion francs for the defeated French.
Worse was the forced cessation of Alsace-Lorraine on the shared border. This was a controversial move. General Helmuth von Moltke wanted a buffer state between France and Germany, while Otto von Bismarck correctly believed that acquisition of the provinces would give France a permanent casus belli against Germany.