In an interview made to all the French regional daily press, French President Emmanuel Macron asserted that “[We] must not humiliate Russia so that the day the fighting stops, we can build a way out through diplomatic channels.” He added that “I am convinced that it is France’s role, to be a mediating power.” Although he did emphasize in the same interview that France would step up its military and financial support for Ukraine, his remarks about humiliation provoked a strong reaction. For his part, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kulebo tweeted that “[c]alls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it. Because it is Russia that humiliates itself.”
In making this argument about humiliation, which he had already articulated in the past, Macron appears to be drawing from a particular reading of the Treaty of Versailles and its potential connection to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. According to this interpretation, the Treaty of Versailles was a humiliating peace for Germany, not least because of the inclusion of the so-called ‘war guilt clause’ (i.e., Article 231) that assigned full culpability for the conflict on Germany so as to justify massive reparations that were imposed upon it. Because the Treaty of Versailles caused deep resentment in German society, whose members had in fact expected a more lenient peace, the revanchist and militarist ideas found a fertile breeding ground. This set the stage for someone like Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists to take power and to plunge Europe into an even more calamitous world war.
Macron’s statement about humiliation is as puzzling as it is infuriating for many of those in Ukraine and those NATO countries that directly border Russia in northeastern Europe. For one, it rests on a highly problematic understanding of the causes of Nazism and the Second World War. For another, it further alienates France from its own allies along NATO’s so-called eastern flank—the countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Indeed, Macron’s statements regarding humiliation and Russia are counterproductive to his own stated foreign policy aims, namely, his drive for European strategic autonomy and for playing a mediating role between Ukraine and Russia.
Macron seems to be in very strong intellectual company in drawing the connection between a humiliating peace treaty and a subsequent major war. In his widely read The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919, John Maynard Keynes famously decried the Treaty of Versailles as an extraordinarily punitive agreement such that it would offer no hope for Germany to rebound economically. The deep-seated enmity in Germany that this hardship would entail meant that Europe was assuring itself of significant discord in the decades to come. More recent academic work has argued that feelings of humiliation can produce violent conflict, with one scholar warning in The Hill against the “folly of humiliating Russia.” Lending further plausibility to these claims in the context of interwar Germany, Hitler, the National Socialists, and right-wing political parties did blast the Treaty of Versailles as gratuitous and vindictive.
Yet not everything that happened after the Treaty of Versailles was necessarily a consequence of it. It is true that the Treaty of Versailles also called for massive reparations that Germany had to pay given the devastation it inflicted. It is also true that losing the industrial regions in the west would have made it harder for Germany to make those payments. Nevertheless, the economic misfortune that Germany did indeed experience in the early 1920s – culminating in the hyperinflation seen between 1921 and 1923 – was not strictly due to reparations.
The fallout of the ill-fated German revolution in 1918, the pension payments for war-wounded and widows, Berlin’s decision to compensate Ruhr industrialists for their property losses, and all the accumulated debts that the German state had incurred while fighting the First World War created a number of fiscal difficulties that reparation payments had simply compounded. The much maligned ‘war guilt’ clause in fact makes no actual statement about Germany’s unique war guilt, but nevertheless became a basis for propaganda played up by German politicians. Nevertheless, after 1923, reparation payments fell to under 5 percent of net national product, with large amounts of American capital streaming into Germany following the 1924 Dawes Plan, thereby enabling the growth and prosperity of the German republic – a society known as much for its progressive policies as it is for the political polarization that eventually did kill it. And so, despite Keynes predictions, the German economic was able to rebound significantly, with Germany only paying a small fraction of those reparations in the end. By the time Hitler had come to power and suspended the obligation to make those payments, their effect on the German economy was minimal. Keynes would eventually regret his book, which in turn became the target of significant scholarly criticism precisely because its economic predictions proved to be wrong.
As much as many factors played their part, what ultimately enabled the rise of Hitler was the Great Depression. Prior to 1929, the Nazi share of the vote was small. In the 1928 federal election, the NSDAP received twelve seats in the Reichstag, having received about 2.6% of the vote. It in fact lost votes from the previous election. Its biggest regional presence was in Bavaria. Two years later, in the 1930 federal elections, the NSDAP became the second biggest party in Germany after winning over 18% of the vote and thus 107 seats in the Reichstag. One economic historical study shows that in areas where austerity measures were at their strongest, the Nazi vote was much higher.
The point here is that history does not move in a straight line – certainly, not in the way implied by Macron’s remarks. Nazism was hardly inevitable once German diplomats signed the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. Indeed, resentment was hardly a German monopoly during the interwar period. Though they were on the side of the victors in 1918, Italy and Japan developed their own grievances against the post-Versailles international order and eventually turned away from it. Moreover, not all humiliated and defeated countries become aggressively revanchist. France, ironically, is a case in point. Its military defeat to Prussia in 1871 entailed a Prussian army victory parade in Paris, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, and major reparations to a new German state. This humiliation unsurprisingly became a sore point for French nationalists, but it did not prevent France – under Jules Ferry’s leadership, in particular – from having rather cordial relations with Germany for a period of time after the 1870s. France only reclaimed Alsace and Lorraine because Germany lost a war in Western Europe that it had launched.
France and its Eastern Allies Today
A key pillar in Macron’s foreign policy is for Europe to develop ’strategic autonomy’. What precisely strategic autonomy means is up for debate, but the general understanding is that ’strategic autonomy’ would give Europe the political and military-technological capacity to act independently so as not to be vulnerable to the caprices of the United States or the depredations of other foreign powers. Although such ideas are not new – Charles de Gaulle had similar visions about European defence cooperation in the 1960s – the surprise presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016 made them a major fixture in current debates about the European security architecture. However, not all European countries bought into Macron’s vision, even with Trump’s erratic style of alliance management. Poland and the Baltic countries – those countries that worry the most about Russian aggression – voiced skepticism towards the concept of European strategic autonomy. They feared it would decouple them from the guarantees provided by the United States (and post-Brexit United Kingdom).
They also feared that France – and Germany, for that matter – would have very different threat perceptions about Russia, especially as Macron had repeatedly called for dialogue with Russia. After all, France and Germany were involved in the Normandy Format. This informal arrangement served to negotiate a peace between Ukraine and Russia over the Donbas region, resulting in the two Minsk Accords concluded in September 2014 and 2015 that were supposed to end their hostilities. However, Russia never admitted openly to its own military involvement in the Donbas region and Ukraine was never able to restore control over its eastern frontier with Russia. For its part, Russia claimed that Ukraine did not provide special political rights to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as per the Second Minsk Accord. Although the Minsk Accords looked moribund for some time, France and Germany were reluctant to call out Russian misbehaviour and to provide military assistance to Ukraine, barring a few minor exceptions made by France. What finally killed the Minsk Accords was Russia’s decision to recognize the independence of the so-named Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on 21 February. Russia’s launching of the ’special operation’ on 24 February further demonstrated the failure of the Normandy Process. In some ways, one can interpret the ignominious end of the Minsk Accords as humiliating for France and Germany given their role as mediators.
Russia’s renewed and bold offensive against Ukraine thus offered a unique opportunity for Macron to realize his vision of European strategic autonomy. Russia’s ’special operation’ demonstrated that it had been a bad faith partner in security negotiations and dialogues. It unshackled Paris and Berlin from the Minsk Accords, which, as problematic as it had been, did have the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council. France had already stepped up its involvement in Central-Eastern Europe, with its leadership of a reinforced Battle Group in Romania, its participation in the British-led enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Estonia, and deployed Rafale fighter jets for an air policing mission in Poland. Macron could have built on those contributions to signal credibly that it took seriously Central-Eastern European concerns about Russia while putting the problematic Minsk Accords behind him. A robust containment strategy vis-a-vis Russia could have underpinned this movement towards European strategic autonomy.
Instead, Paris issued a different response. It is true that France supports the political sovereignty and the full territorial integrity of Ukraine as well as its bid for becoming a member of the European Union. However, unlike the United Kingdom and the United States, which had stepped up their provision of anti-tank weapons and other armaments in the weeks prior to 24 February, France remained hesitant to provide military assistance to Ukraine even when Russia’s massive military build-up became clearer in its implications. This hesitancy persisted after 24 February, with Macron saying at one point that the provision of tanks to Ukraine would be too escalatory to undertake. To its credit, France has claimed to be providing military assistance to Ukraine but has been explicitly withholding information for the purposes of operational security. Yet this claim is, by its nature, difficult to verify and so may be self-serving. It did, of course, eventually provide an unspecified number of CAESAR self-propelled howitzers and Milan anti-tank missiles.
Nevertheless, Macron has been very active in trying to advance a diplomatic solution with dozens of calls made to Moscow and to Kyiv throughout 2022. His pre-‘special operation’ negotiating efforts, which included a personal trip to Moscow in early February, resulted in him receiving pledges from Putin that Russia would withdraw troops from Belarus and de-escalate tensions with Ukraine. When none of this obviously happened and Moscow chose instead to ratchet up the war in Ukraine, Macron acknowledged on 24 February that “there was duplicity.” He has not entirely given up on the idea that Europe would not be secure until Russia is integrated in the European security architecture in some form or another even if other European politicians have argued that the scale and brutal nature of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its civilian population call instead for a robust containment strategy to be put in place for the “long haul.” And while Zelensky has expressed support for Macron to maintain a line of communication with Putin through the war, the Ukrainian president has also said that France was “afraid of Russia.”
It is against this contemporary backdrop that Macron’s remarks about the need to avoid humiliating Russia must be seen. These remarks not only rest on a shaky historical premise: they are also a problem for French diplomacy. As I argue in my new book Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century, the notion that France has different interests, threat assessments and priorities than some of its NATO allies is not at all surprising. States write down their treaty commitments precisely because they know that those differences exist. They try to smooth over those disagreements because they have enough shared interests to warrant making improvements in their defence cooperation.
What is, then, surprising is that the failures of the Normandy Format and the record of Putin breaking his own personal pledges do not seem to register with Macron. The impression one thus gets of Macron is that he is a leader who either lacks any capacity for introspection or is too stubborn to admit failure and to break with those past practices that produced it in the first place. For other European leaders, this talk of avoiding humiliation seems self-defeating: Russia has committed more than enough atrocities and victimized so many civilians that its feelings should be of no consequence.
At a minimum, this inability to revise one’s approach and to avoid repeating such polarizing rhetoric in the face of Russian aggression alienates those front-line countries in East Central Europe that have the most to lose from a European security architecture being torn apart. Macron’s vision of European strategic autonomy will find no buyers if those key states feel that their needs are best attended by the United States and the United Kingdom. More problematically, such vague talk of humiliation risks handing the diplomatic initiative to the Kremlin because it gets to define what counts as humiliating and what does not. Considering France’s rather poor record of being a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, making this concession only strengthens Moscow’s hand at the expense of Kyiv’s. For all the fretting about Russian feelings, a clear Russian victory could just as well result in Ukrainian humiliation, which may yet be toxic for European security for the reasons that Macron intimates.
If France wants to continue playing a mediating role, it will need Ukraine’s support. Thankfully, Macron may yet be learning from his discursive mistakes, having stated unequivocally in a recent phone call with Zelensky France’s support for Ukraine’s full territorial integrity and ambitions to join the European Union while avoiding talk of humiliation. Still, Kyiv might yet entrust its own security interests to Warsaw, London, and Washington more than it would to Paris.