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Treaty of Versailles


Did the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 Provide the Framework for a Durable Peace?

The Great War left the international relations of the world in a dysfunctional state.

The much-maligned Treaty of Versailles (1919) and its counterparts were, however, less responsible for that condition than their reputation would have it. The Versailles settlement was worked out quickly. Armies needed to be demobilized. Food had to be shipped to countries previously blockaded. Revolutionary movements demanded containment. The negotiating processes were highly bureaucratized by earlier standards. They were also highly publicized. The discussions made corresponding demands on the diplomatic and political skills of all the participants. It is scarcely surprising that the results of the conference did not meet long-range needs, either in Europe or elsewhere in a world increasingly resentful of Euro/Western hegemony.

At the same time, however, the Versailles settlement was flexible, incorporating the possibility of future modification. None of the participants regarded it as anything but a work in progress. By the mid 1920s the Rhineland occupation had come to an end. Germany was a member of the League of Nations. Even the issue of reparations was in the process of being negotiated.

The Versailles settlement was undermined not by its intrinsic weaknesses but by the general lack of restraint that emerged in Europe after 1914 and persisted as an independent consequence of the war. Low- and mid-level armed conflict persisted into the mid 1920s: Russia and Poland, Turkey and Greece, and France and Spain in Morocco—that last conflict, in passing, far more costly than any nineteenth-century imperialist war. The Little Entente, the French network of eastern European alliances, and the Balkan ambitions of Italy encouraged unstable successor states to threaten each other with armies they could not afford. Postwar European economic relationships developed in zero-sum contexts well before the Great Depression. Great-power policy became the conduct of war by other means. The new Soviet Union regarded itself in a state of war with its capitalist counterparts. Germany and Russia were entirely excluded from the peace negotiations. The allies blockaded Germany for a year after the armistice. Even the League of Nations developed into a forum for expressing antagonisms. President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of “open covenants openly arrived at” too often became “overt hostilities publicly expressed.” International agreements are only as good as the will to implement them. After 1918 that will increasingly eroded in Europe and the world.

Viewpoint: Yes. The Versailles settlement was purposely designed to establish lasting international stability. It was no harsher than comparable treaties and was entirely appropriate for the political environment of 1919

Few people today would argue that the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, was a good or lasting peace. Saying that the treaty failed to establish lasting peace in Europe, however, is different from saying that the treaty was designed to be so harsh that it would inevitably fail. Whatever faults were contained within the final treaty (and there were many), the framers of Versailles entered into the peace negotiations intent on creating what British diplomat Harold Nicolson called “eternal peace.” “We were,” he said, “bent on doing great, permanent, and noble things.”

That they failed is beyond question, but they did not fail because the treaty they wrote was unduly harsh. Although it was significantly larger in scope than most European peace treaties, one must bear in mind that the war it followed was also significantly larger in scope than any conflict in history. Moreover, none of the provisions of the treaty were particularly novel. Virtually all of them, including indemnities and intentional humiliations, had been common features of European peace agreements for decades. The Germans used many of them against France following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Europeans were quite familiar with the Latin phrase Vae Victis (Woe to the conquered). While one can argue that the conferees could or should have been magnanimous in victory, one cannot argue that they were breaking significant new ground by not doing so.

The men who gathered in Paris had before them a truly historic opportunity. They had obtained from Germany an armistice that left the Germans with virtually no means of defending themselves against whatever treaty the Allies might wish to write. Not since 1815 had the powers of Europe held such power to redesign the Continent. At that conference the British delegation had involved fourteen diplomats. The British delegation of 1919, by contrast, occupied five entire Parisian hotels. At the height of the conference, more than one thousand diplomats from more than thirty nations were in attendance. The conferees had before them the power to redraw the map of Europe and settle the many disputes that representatives of virtually every nation and aspiring nation in the world brought before them.

In the end they failed because they simply tried to do too much. No group of men could have accomplished the goals that these men set before themselves. The three most important nations were represented by men who largely avoided their own staffs and tried to make all decisions themselves. French premier Georges Clemenceau, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson met behind closed doors more than two hundred times (sometimes with Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando, sometimes without him) and fought among themselves to push their own ideas. The stress caused Wilson to fall seriously ill and Clemenceau risked his life by working on, even after surviving an assassination attempt that left a bullet lodged near his lungs.

National rivalries and the egos of forceful personalities produced a treaty that was unfavorable to Germany, but it was largely in line with comparable recent agreements.

The precedent on the minds of most Frenchmen was the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871) that had ended the Franco-Prussian War. Under the terms of that treaty, Prussia forced France to cede the disputed and resource-rich territories of Alsace and Lorraine and to pay a punitive indemnity of 5 billion francs (about $1 billion). This indemnity amounted to more than twice the total German costs for the war. A German army of occupation remained in France until the French government paid the debt in 1873 by increasing taxes and promoting “liberation loans.” To underscore French humiliation, the Prussians forced the French to accept a victors’ march through Paris. Intending to rub even more salt in French wounds, the Prussians declared the founding of the Second Reich at Versailles, the palace built by Louis XIV as a symbol of French power.

Europeans fully understood that winners write the terms and losers sign them. The peace agreements of World War I that preceded Versailles were no exceptions. In December 1916 the Germans defeated Romania and as a consequence seized the majority of Romanian grain and oil fields. German forces occupied the Romanian capital, Bucharest, and German diplomats approved the transfer of the southern Romanian region of Dobruja to Bulgaria, one of the Central Powers, and therefore an ally of Germany.

The treaty Germany signed with Bolshevik Russia was arguably the harshest in modern European history. On 3 March 1918 Russia formally withdrew from the war after signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In that treaty, Germany forced Russia to give up all claims to Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States (where the Germans confidently expected to place German princes

WAR GUILT AND REPARATION

The following articles are part of the Treaty of Versailles (1919):

ARTICLE 231.

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.

ARTICLE 232.

The Allied and Associated Governments recognize that the resources of Germany are not adequate, after taking into account permanent diminutions of such resources which will result from other provisions of the present Treaty, to make complete reparation for all such loss and damage.

The Allied and Associated Governments, however, require, and Germany undertakes, that she will make compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property during the period of the belligerency of each as an Allied or Associated Power against Germany by such aggression by land, by sea and from the air, and in general all damage as defined i n Annex I hereto.

In accordance with Germany’s pledges, already given, as to complete restoration for Belgium, Germany undertakes, in addition to the compensation for damage elsewhere in this Part provided for, as a consequence of the violation of the Treaty of 1839, to make reimbursement of all sums which Belgium has borrowed from the Allied and Associated Governments up to November 11,1918, together with interest at the rate of five per cent (5%) per annum on such sums. This amount shall be determined by the Reparation Commission, and the German Government undertakes thereupon forthwith to make a special issue of bearer bonds to an equivalent amount payable in marks gold, on May 1,1926, or, at the option of the German Government, on the 1st of May in any year up to 1926. Subject to the foregoing, the form of such bonds shall be determined by the Reparation Commission. Such bonds shall be handed over to the Reparation Commission, which has authority to take and acknowledge receipt thereof on behalf of Belgium.

ARTICLE 233.

The amount of the above damage for which compensation is to be made by Germany shall be determined by an Inter-Allied Commission, to be called the Reparation Commission and constituted i n the form and with the powers set forth hereunder and in Annexes II to VII inclusive hereto.

This Commission shall consider the claims and give to the German Government a just opportunity to be heard.

The findings of the Commission as to the amount of damage defined as above shall be concluded and notified to the German Government on or before May 1,1921, as representing the extent of that Governments obligations.

The Commission shall concurrently draw up a schedule of payments prescribing the time and manner for securing and discharging the entire obligation within a period of thirty years from May 1,1921….

ARTICLE 235.

In order to enable the Allied and Associated Powers to proceed at once to the restoration of their industrial and economic life, pending the full determination of their claims, Germany shall pay in such instalments and in such manner (whether in gold, commodities, ships, securities or otherwise) as the Reparation Commission may fix, during 1919,1920 and the first four months of 1921, the equivalent of 20,000,000,000 gold marks. Out of this sum the expenses of the armies of occupation subsequent to the Armistice of November 11,1918, shall first be met, and such supplies of food and raw materials as may be judged by the Governments of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers to be essential to enable Germany to meet her obligations for reparation may also, with the approval of the said Governments, be paid for out of the above sum. The balance shall be reckoned towards liquidation of the amounts due for reparation. Germany shall further deposit bonds as prescribed in paragraph 12 (c) Of Annex II hereto.

Source: “The Versailles Treaty,” Internet website, http;//history.acusd.edu/gen/text/versaillestreaty/ver231.html

on thrones), Finland, Bessarabia, Ukraine, and the Caucases. In all, Russia lost territory three times larger than Germany itself (a grand total of 750,000 square kilometers), including one-third of its prewar population, one-third of its arable land, and 90 percent of its coal fields. Germany seized all Russian naval bases in the Baltic except one and disarmed the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

German plans for the West were scarcely less harsh. Before the war, Germany had developed the so-called September Program to guide the victors’ peace that they planned to dictate to France and Britain. If victorious, Germany envisioned a peace with four primary features: first, a heavy war indemnity on France would prevent that country from rearming. This time, the Germans planned to take French overseas colonies as well. Second, the Germans would create and dominate an economic union including wartime enemies such as France, Belgium, and Italy but also including neutrals such as Holland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. A German-dominated Poland and ally Austria-Hungary were also to be included. Third, Germany would enlarge its Central African empire at the expense of Belgium, Britain, and France. Fourth, Germany would annex neutral Holland into the German Reich. As the war progressed, the costs of the war led German leaders to expect to receive even more spoils should they emerge victorious. Total war would now call for total peace.

Brest-Litovsk and the September Program set the tone for future peace treaties. As German armies began to retreat in 1918, they destroyed fields, wells, mines, bridges, canals, and anything else that the Allied armies might use to speed up their drive east. Now someone would have to pay to rebuild those devastated areas and, in true European fashion, the winners presented a bill to the losers. Calls such as “Le Boche Payera” in France and “squeeze the Germans like a lemon until the pips squeak” in Britain, however, were more rhetoric than reality. The conferees agreed not to set a total amount, establishing instead a commission to determine the totals. In theory, this commission might have set increasingly unrealistic debts. In reality, Allied postwar programs such as the Dawes Program were dedicated to reducing and refinancing overall German debt, not enlarging it.

Much recent scholarship has emphasized the role of Germany in exacerbating the debt crisis. Germany did not raise taxes or support loans to pay the reparations, as France did from 1871 to 1873. Niall Ferguson, in an essay in Manfred F. Boemke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser’s The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years (1998) argues that German leaders were more interested in using the debt to play domestic politics than they were in paying it off. In short, the postwar financial crisis in Germany owes as much to the actions of Weimar Germany as it does to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Neither was the War Guilt Clause exceptional. Although most Europeans understood that blaming Germany exclusively for the outbreak of the war was patently ridiculous, the guilt clause was typical of the kinds of humiliations normally visited upon the vanquished. Indeed, the clause substituted an official stigma for an Allied victory parade through Berlin, something the Germans opposed even more strongly than they opposed the guilt clause. Some scholars have argued that the absence of a victory march was one of the greatest mistakes of the Allies. The war in the West had been fought in France and Belgium; Germany was still intact. Without a victors’ march, the German army (which itself paraded through Berlin as President Friedrich Ebert hailed it as “unvanquished from the field”) could reject the guilt clause and make the fallacious claim that it had not been defeated on the battlefield. A triumphal march such as the German one down the Champs Elysées in 1871 would have laid bare that fiction and made it much more difficult for future German leaders to claim that they had been stabbed in the back.

The idealism of President Wilson and his Fourteen Points made the eventual treaty look exceedingly severe. It is important to keep in mind, however, that for all its harshness, the treaty was not nearly as harsh as some in Europe had wanted. As noted, there was no march through Germany and no Allied occupation of Germany similar to their occupation of northeastern France from 1871 to 1873. The Allies did not, as the French military had publicly and loudly demanded, create bridgeheads across the Rhine River. Nor did the Allies attempt to separate the Rhineland from Germany as many French industrialists had demanded. Even the vast majority of Germans understood that the Rhineland would be demilitarized and that France would take back Alsace and Lorraine (though some Germans unrealistically believed they could demand a plebiscite), but the Allies made no further territorial demands in the West. They also did not encourage a nascent separatist movement in Bavaria, nor did the conferees take seriously the arguments of those on the French Right who thought that Germany should be returned to its 1870 borders.

Prime Minister Lloyd George was especially concerned to limit the reach of the treaty for fear of creating future areas of dispute such as Alsace-Lorraine. Largely thanks to his efforts, the final treaty did not give Danzig to Poland outright nor did it demilitarize East Prussia. Both of these features had been contained in the initial report of the Commission on Polish Affairs. It is thus misleading to view the treaty as a product of the unchecked demands of the Great Powers.

In fact, by the end of the conference there were many thoughtful people in Europe who believed that the treaty had been too soft. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch made his famous statement, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years,” in frustration at what he perceived as the softness of the treaty, particularly the failure to create Allied military bridgeheads across the Rhine. Versailles was no peace with honor, but neither was it the Carthaginian peace that many Germans later claimed it was. In its principal features, Versailles was perfectly in line with recent European tradition. It is more accurate to say that Germany perceived the treaty as unduly harsh, even though it was no worse than what the Germans had planned for their enemies. That perception, much more than realities, brought war to Europe again almost twenty years to the day after Foch’s chilling prophecy.

—MICHAEL S. NEIBERG, U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY

Viewpoint: No. The Treaty of Versailles was disastrous because it embittered Germany and fostered political radicalism in that country

A recent revisionist argument has suggested that the provisions of the Paris Peace Settlement— specifically the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) signed with Germany—created a rational framework for postwar Europe and promised long-term international stability. The traditional historical analysis, however, is much more correct in its assessment of the post-World War I peace settlement as a disaster for European stability. The Treaty of Versailles violated the spirit of a promised democratic peace; placed the entire burden of responsibility for the war on the shoulders of Germany; required it to pay symbolically offensive, yet ultimately insignificant, reparations to the Allies; and deprived it of its great power status in an unrealistic and unsustainable fashion. The cumulative effect of these factors created widespread sentiments of anger and betrayal among the German people, undermined the stability of the postwar moderate republican government of Germany, legitimized extreme political movements in the eyes of the centrist and traditional right-wing mainstream, and catalyzed a foreign policy centered on recovering losses and pursuing the hegemony that had eluded Imperial Germany. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the genesis of World War II were in many ways a direct result of the harsh peace forced upon Germany in 1919.

The first and perhaps most important flaw in the Versailles settlement—and the one most overlooked by historians—is that the request by Germany for an armistice stemmed from its leaders’ impression that the peace would be fair, equitable, and democratic.

Concretely, they expected a peace settlement that would follow the guidelines of President Woodrow Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points.” Presented to Congress on 8 January 1918, Wilson’s terms called for a postwar world dominated by open diplomatic relations, multilateral disarmament, free trade, freedom of the seas, and the settlement of disputes by international representative organizations. They also involved several provisions for the revision of European borders along ethnic lines, including but not limited to the evacuation of the wartime conquests of Germany, the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, national self-determination for the peoples of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, and the resurrection of a Polish state with access to the sea.

In subsequent public addresses Wilson restated his points and added that their provisions could be modified on a case-by-case basis. When Germany, finally convinced of its inability to win the war, approached the Allies for an armistice in October 1918, Wilson replied with a series of diplomatic notes declaring that he would only negotiate with a democratic German government free from its “military masters and the monarchical autocrats.”

No responsible German officials believed that a peace treaty drafted on this basis would turn into the Carthaginian peace that the Allies presented to their country the following year. In the last weeks of the war, Germany accepted all of Wilson’s terms in principle. None of them were judged too severe, at least from the perspective of Berlin.

The return of Alsace-Lorraine, a largely French region that had a long history of being passed back and forth between Germany and France, and had not been well integrated into the German Empire anyway, was not a serious loss. Re-creating a Polish state with sea access was also a minimal threat, since the Empire contained far fewer Poles than either Russia or Austria and had already proclaimed a new Polish state in November 1916. Wilson’s call for Polish “access to the sea” did not strictly involve massive territorial transfers from Germany, as access could easily be granted either by giving up only the Baltic port of Danzig or allowing Polish commerce to cross German territory free of customs duties. Both measures had historical precedents. Abandoning the strong military presence of the Empire in the East was acceptable because a broad segment of German political opinion opposed direct territorial annexation, while the Imperial government itself had established friendly national states that could potentially continue to exist without a German military presence. Wilson’s last demand, for political reform, actually coincided with the long-standing goals of many German politicians. In late October 1918 even Kaiser William II became a convert to liberalization and consented to the creation of constitutional monarchy. When the popular mood nevertheless forced his abdication, the unexpected advent of a democratic republic represented an even greater fulfillment of Wilson’s conditions.

As negotiations for an armistice entered their last phase in the first week of November 1918, the Germans had no reason to believe that the price of peace would amount to anything more than the terms outlined by Wilson. The only inkling that this arrangement would not in fact be the case came from the extremely limited German understanding of Allied reservations to Wilson’s peace program. The joint Allied terms for the armistice presented on 5 November contained language that left the concept of “freedom of the seas” open for interpretation and alluded to indemnity payments for damage to civilian property. Neither codicil appeared to contradict the spirit—or most of the letter—of Wilson’s program, but in truth Allied objections applied voluminously to each of the Fourteen Points, and the American president could only preserve a unified approach by secretly conceding on each of them and not telling the Germans. Through no fault of their own, German leaders were duped into accepting a punitive peace that departed radically from both their own expectations and Wilson’s original intentions. Their position was made worse by the extreme last-minute military provisions of the armistice, crafted by Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France. Sensing the unwillingness of Germany to continue the war and not wanting to leave it any military leverage in the peace negotiations, Foch insisted on the complete withdrawal of German forces not only from their existing positions on the western front but from German territory west of the Rhine. Germany was also supposed to surrender its fleet, much of its heavy artillery, and a large number of railway cars vital for mobilization and rapid troop movements. In other words, Germany had to surrender its material means of continuing the war even before the peace negotiations began. Although they were not without suspicion, the new leaders of Germany knew they had little choice and, trusting that the negotiations would be fair nevertheless, agreed to Foch’s terms.

From literally the first moment of the peace conference, it was clear that the peace settlement would be the Diktat- or dictation—that its critics later described. Revenge was a prominent theme even in the scheduling of the talks. They were deliberately postponed until the symbolic date of 18 January 1919, the anniversary of the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871. Germany and its allies were not allowed to attend. Rumors that the meetings were only a preliminary series of inter-Allied discussions for a large and inclusive peace conference were circulated to fool the Germans into thinking that they would ultimately be heard and permitted to negotiate. These rumors, however, never materialized into fact and were later disavowed.

 

The details of the peace treaty were decided in secret, first by a working group of the American, British, French, Italian, and Japanese heads of government and foreign ministers—the “Council of Ten”and later by a de facto triumvirate of Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau ( no presence on any Polish diplomat! Admin).

 

Wilson was hard put to maintain his original sense of justice in the peace treaty. Lloyd George and Clemenceau correctly took him for a foreign-policy neophyte whom they could outmanoeuvre, and they secretly agreed to support each other’s goals in talks with him. They frequently invoked diplomatic technicalities, employed rhetorical tricks, and made dramatic appeals in order to impose many of their views on the American president. Wilson, of course, had already conceded on many issues in order to persuade them to accept the armistice. Nevertheless, through compromise and some clever negotiating of his own he managed to preserve some of his original ideas and soften some of the more extreme British and French demands. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, for example, accepted the League of Nations as an institution to arbitrate international disputes. Clemenceau was also persuaded to give up the territorial dismemberment of Germany for strategic and economic reasons, and to accept a reduced figure for war reparations.

Yet, overall, Wilson’s provisions for a moderate peace were distorted and no room was left for bargaining. When the Treaty of Versailles—a book-length document of 440 separate articles-was presented to a German diplomatic delegation on 7 May 1919 (the fourth anniversary of the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania), the visibly disturbed German delegation understood that none of it was negotiable and that, in plain language, their country had been had. To list the most important of the unexpected terms, Germany had to accept full responsibility for the war (under the “War Guilt Clause,” Article 231), even though that degree of responsibility was at the time, and has ever since, remained highly questionable. All of the colonies of Germany were taken away, a substantial part of its eastern provinces were ‘ceded’ to Poland (Poland was carved up several time! Admin.) (despite the earlier ambiguity about the meaning of “access to the sea” and the inclusion of territory that had nothing to do with sea communications), and other border areas were to be ceded to Belgium, Denmark, and Lithuania on the basis of national self-determination. For ethnic Germans, however, national self-determination was expressly denied first by a French-inspired clause that forbade any political or customs union between Germany and Austria, and later by Allied recognition of the new Polish, Italian, and Czechoslovakian frontiers, all of which contained large German minority populations.

Germany was also restricted by astonishingly severe limitations on its military power. Its army could field no more than one hundred thousand troops—or about 20 percent of its prewar total. Its offensive capacity was for all practical purposes abolished by prohibitions on tanks, planes, and an army general staff. The navy was forbidden to maintain capital ships (of more than ten thousand tons displacement) or submarines. The west bank of the Rhine and a fifty-kilometer zone to the east of the river were placed under Allied occupation for a maximum period of fifteen years and were to remain permanently demilitarized thereafter. The industrial Saar region was to be placed under French sovereignty for fifteen years and was then subject to a referendum to determine its future. From a strategic perspective, Germany was barely left with a self-defense capability and was effectively removed from the ranks of the great powers.

The most onerous provision of all, however, was the requirement of Germany to pay heavy reparations to the Allies. Following from its acceptance of war guilt, the reparations were to include compensation for war damage, as well as military pensions and pensions for the families of dead Allied soldiers. In 1921 their full amount was fixed at $33 billion—an impossibly high sum for the era, yet actually less than Clemenceau had initially wanted. The transfer of German territory, military equipment, and colonial possessions was not to be credited against the sum. One of Lloyd George’s assistants had characterized the British approach to reparations as squeezing a lemon “until the pips squeak.” Despite the outrageousness of these provisions—recognized even by members of the Allied delegations, including several American members who resigned in protest—the German delegation could only submit. In another stinging jab of irony, the signing ceremony was held in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, a location chosen because it had been the site of the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871.

As soon as word of the full dimensions of the Versailles Treaty became known to the German public, it provoked a sense of bitterness and outrage that lasted for many years. The treaty represented complete betrayal of what was expected to have been a just and honorable peace. German conservatives viewed the left-wing politicians who had ultimately signed the armistice and accepted the treaty as the “November criminals” who had “stabbed Germany in the back.” Many Germans remembered that their armies were still standing on foreign soil in November 1918 and felt that the honor of their nation and its institutions had been stained not only by foreigners but by their own leaders. Right-wing extremists, including Hitler, made the ugly insinuation that Germany had been the victim of an international Jewish conspiracy and found many sympathetic listeners. Naturally these people were forgetting that the German High Command and Imperial government had recognized their inability to win the war and set the armistice in motion, but it was the new democratic government—the Weimar Republic—that bore political responsibility for the harsh peace. Over time the legitimacy of the German democracy was corroded by association. Had the new democratic state been given the just peace that it had believed in, was promised, and expected, that would not have been so.

The most significant long-term consequence of the peace, however, was that none of the provisions that created so much outrage in Germany had any lasting practical significance. Even the War Guilt Clause, the fundamental article of the treaty that formed the basis for its other harsh terms, became unsustainable. It goes without saying that German public opinion rejected it in principle. For decades before the war, the Germans had believed that their country had long been denied its place in the sun by the machinations of foreign governments and that its justified place among the great powers had been constricted and destroyed by its jealous neighbors. The dominant German opinion was that the growth of the Empire had been unjustly blunted by the Entente powers and that it was thus provoked into lashing out. This thesis was not seriously challenged in German historiography until Fritz Fischer in the 1960s published his comprehensive study of Imperial German war aims.

As war memories faded and the propagandistic view of German aggression receded, many in the West came to share the German public’s view of the war. “Revisionist” historians such as American Charles Beard argued in the 1920s and 1930s that Germany had been the victim of insecure hegemonic neighbors that essentially forced it to fight World War I, an argument that still circulates today. Others made the popular, though invalid, argument that the war was really no one’s fault and had been the inevitable consequence of opposing alliance systems and imperial ambitions. A congressional committee chaired by Senator Gerald Nye (R-North Dakota), commissioned in 1934 to investigate U.S. entry into World War I, reported that the United States had been pushed into the conflict by ruthless bankers and arms merchants for their own profit. The British leadership developed the widespread view that their erstwhile German opponents were honorable men of a proud tradition who should not have to feel perpetual guilt. In the 1930s a wide body of elite opinion in Britain believed that the Treaty of Versailles could be replaced by a framework of revisionist agreements favorable to Hitler’s Germany.

The territorial provisions of the Versailles settlement also proved ultimately unsustainable. German colonies were gone forever, but the situation in Europe remained highly unstable. The drastic changes of borders and limitations on self-determination rights remained contentious debates in which even many Allied leaders came to sympathize with the German side. As early as 1921 the changes to the Polish and Danish frontiers of Germany were minimized with Allied acquiescence. Over the next two decades neither Britain nor the United States were willing to commit themselves to defend the borders established by the Versailles settlement, and even many French leaders considered them to be transient. In 1925, when the centrist German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann successfully negotiated the Locarno Pact, a West European nonaggression pact that also guaranteed the security of the frontiers, the British government conceded that the eastern borders of Germany might be open to revision at a later date.

When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936, many British and French leaders wondered aloud whether they should worry about the dictator invading “his own back yard.” Two years later, the coerced union of Nazi Germany with Austria—illegal under the Treaty of Versailles—was unopposed. In September 1938 the British and French governments agreed to Hitler’s annexation of German-populated border districts in Czechoslovakia as a peace-preserving measure, even though none of the territory in question had ever belonged to Germany. Nor did they take action when Hitler occupied much of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, or when he reincorporated the port of Memel from Lithuania into the Reich the same year.

Only Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 prompted declarations of war from the arbiters of the Treaty of Versailles.

The military provisions of Versailles, which were intended to eliminate Germany as a threat to European security, proved to have no teeth. Although the limits on the size and offensive capacity of the German army were initially respected, the Allies failed to establish any long-term mechanism to ensure the permanent compliance of the Germans. In addition to their failure to form a lasting postwar alliance, there were no international inspection teams (apart from a powerless disarmament commission) or unilateral national efforts to make sure that Germany was keeping its armed forces in line with the restrictions. Even the democratic and nonmilitaristic Weimar Republic systematically violated them. While it would have been hard to hide an army that exceeded the one-hundred-thousand-man limit, the new government employed a large number of combat veterans in so-called Freikorps (free corps), armed militias ostensibly needed to maintain public order. The traditional General Staff structure was only superficially abandoned; many of its personnel were retained in a so-called Truppenamt (troop office) that duplicated most of the functions of the banned General Staff.

A secret agreement with the Soviet Union allowed the Germans to train combat pilots and tank crews on Soviet soil in exchange for training the Red Army by German officers. Major naval construction was difficult to hide, but the Weimar government illegally contracted out submarine construction to shipyards in the Netherlands and Finland.

If the guarantors of Versailles knew the full implications of these developments in the 1920s, they never said anything.

After Hitler came to power, German violations of the military provisions of Versailles not only continued but also grew bolder and became more public. In March 1935 Hitler unilaterally renounced the military provisions of Versailles and reintroduced a peacetime draft. At almost the same time his government publicly acknowledged the development of an air force with more than three hundred planes.

Again nothing was done.

On the contrary, in June 1935 the British government accepted Hitler’s offer to renegotiate the Versailles prohibition on the development of capital ships by Germany and signed an agreement that allowed Hitler to build a fleet up to 35 percent the size of the Royal Navy. The limitations of the Treaty of Versailles on German armed forces were meaningless in the long run.

The reparations issue, finally, proved to be the biggest farce of all.

The enormous $33 billion bill presented to Germany in 1921 was simply unpayable. Honest remittance would have crippled even a healthy, prosperous economy. Germany had just emerged from the costliest war in history up to that time and had also lost a significant portion of its industrial base to territorial changes and foreign occupation. The dislocation caused by altered frontiers and the demobilization of almost its entire army damaged its economy further. Clearly the German government was in no position to pay, and it defaulted within fifteen months. When France and Belgium occupied the industrial Ruhr region in retaliation in January 1923, the German government resorted to hyperinflation to subsidize passive resistance among workers in the region so that the French could not collect compensation directly. The frustrated French were unable to secure British and American support for their action and had to withdraw in September 1924.

A subsequent renegotiation of reparations payments, conducted by the American financier Charles Dawes, indexed them to the economic prosperity of Germany. Another renegotiation in 1929, devised by the American financier Owen Young, reduced the principal amount to just $9 billion and extended German payments out until the improbable year of 1988. The entire concept was soon made irrelevant by the world economic crisis, however, and in 1931 President Herbert Hoover declared a moratorium on the repayment of the World War I debts by the Allies if they would agree to a moratorium on German reparations payments. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he unilaterally repudiated reparations payments forever. The Allied reparations commission calculated that it received less than 15 percent of the amount decreed in 1921. At the same time, however, the German people suffered related economic privation, the indignity of Franco-Belgian occupation in the Ruhr, and the continuing burden of war guilt. While they paid relatively little when all was said and done, they were even more embittered by the Treaty of Versailles.

The peace settlement that ended World War I was a disaster. It fundamentally ignored the continued standing of Germany as a viable world power and violated the honest trust that democratic-minded German politicians had placed in Wilson’s professed desire for an honest peace. At the same time, it created far-ranging provisions that could not have been sustained without a long-term Allied commitment to police German foreign, military, and economic policies. No Allied power was willing to take up that commitment, and eventually the victors of World War I conceded on virtually every limitation and debility they had forced on Germany in 1919. While the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had little lasting effect, they nevertheless embittered a generation of Germans who became hostile to the West, supported dangerous political radicalism, and realized that their country still had the strength to refashion the international order.

 

PAUL DU QUENOY

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

==============================

 

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One comment on “Treaty of Versailles

  1. Song Hongbing w WOJNA O PIENIĄDZ opisał sztukę wywoływania kryzysów aby na nich zarabiać.W tym celu historię bankowości od czasów napoleońskich przedstawił na przykładzie sagi rodu Mayer-Rothschild.
    W kolejnej UTOPII z wiarą w WOLNY RYNEK liberalizm eksportuje WOJNY SPRAWIEDLIWE w imię obrony DEMOKRACJI.
    Autor oryginalnego podziału na CYWILIZACJE Feliks Koneczny wyeksponował ŻYDOWSKĄ,nazywając ja CYWILIZACJĄ PODWÓJNEJ MORALNOŚCI.Ma swoją ukształtowaną strategię,która jest realizowana w procesie od ŻYDOBOLSZEWIZMU,który przejął rosyjski rasizm,do ŻYDOBANDERYZMU dla kontynuowania handlu wojna i pokojem poprzez intensyfikację militaryzmu.

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