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The Treaty of Versailles

One of the greatest conflicts in the history of the world, that of World War II, changed the course of events in Western societies for the rest of the 20th Century. Its effects are felt today even today with the final ascent of the United States as a superpower and the decline of Europe. In fact, World War II was the final judgment concerning European domination of the world. However, many have said that World War II was a continuation of World War I, a war which destroyed much of Europe, crippled its domination of the world with its ruinous economic ramifications, and created the “lost generation” of millions of wounded and dead soldiers. These changes contributed to the downfall of European society. John Maynard Keynes observes, “Perhaps it is historically true that no order of society ever perishes save by its own hand.” (1) In fact, the victorious Allies of World War I condemned themselves to another world war with the Treaty of Versailles, particularly with respect to its effects on the vanquished country of Germany. The conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and their inherent weaknesses set the stage in Germany for yet another world war.
French insistence upon crippling Germany influenced many of the conditions set forth in the treaty. The chief aims of the French towards the disabling of the German state were concerned the disarmament of Germany, the demilitarization and occupation of Allied military forces in the German Rhineland and Saar Basin for fifteen years, the severe reparations, the cession of German territory. (2) The Germans ultimately resented the harsh conditions of the treaty, promoting even more animosity between the two nations when plenty had already existed earlier. Germany was forced to give up all overseas possessions, which the Allies administered as mandates. (3) In addition, France resurrected Poland to dismantle Germany’s eastern borders. (4) This separated East Prussian from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor (5), which contained a large German population. (6) These conditions would later resurface as major issues in Hitler’s Germany twenty years later. Furthermore, Article 102 of the treaty established “…the town of Danzig…as a Free City.” (7) The controversy surrounding this provision developed as a sensitive issue to the Germans since the population of Danzig was largely German. To the Germans, these conditions added insult to injury. Unfortunately, the treaty did not stop with these conditions.
The Treaty of Versailles has become infamous for the harsh reparations it imposed on Germany. Perhaps even more notorious is the “War Guilt Clause” contained in the peace. The “War Guilt Clause,” Article 231 in the treaty, arose out of a controversy during the negotiations in the spring of 1919 concerning the nature of reparations that would be collected. It was argued whether or not to include war costs in the reparations to be levied or “just” civilian damages suffered. Prime Minister David Lloyd-George of Britain and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, unsure of whether or not war costs would be include, “…insisted that the treaty assert at least the moral right of the Allies to recover the cost of the war forced upon them by Germany.” (8) Lloyd-George maintained that “…if we do not exact it [war costs], it is not because it would be unjust to claim it…” (9) This sentiment, though meeting opposition from President Wilson’s delegation, resulted in the inclusion of Article 231 in the treaty. The provision, after Germany’s Weimar Republic delegates signed the treaty on June 28, 1919, bound the German nation to accept full moral responsibility for all damages to the citizens of the Allied countries and for the precipitation of the war itself. (10) The provision blatantly ignored Austria-Hungary’s culpability in the conflict, as that country was completely dismantled by a separate treaty.
The effects of Article 231 were far-reaching. Besides the obvious discontent such a provision would cause in any nation, German governments used it to rally their people against the Allies in combination with the controversial French occupation in the western regions of Germany, most notably Hitler in the 1930’s. (11) In addition, although David Lloyd-George supported the clause, Great Britain throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s showed their ironic guilt over the provision by their continuing policy of appeasement. (12) Hitler proved to be the greatest benefactor of that guilt in the 1930’s as he invaded Austria and then Czechoslovakia.
The Reparation Settlement imposed on Germany by the Allied Powers grew to be hated by the German people. The basis for the reparations (which became a euphemism for indemnities) was that Germany was obligated to compensate for the civilian and property damage inflicted upon the Allies, as stated in Article 232 of the treaty. (13) The Reparation Settlement was the worst condition set upon Germany—the country could not possibly hope to meet its demands and maintain financial security at the same time. Chambers et al state, “Germany was made liable for sums unspecified and without foreseeable end…” (14) John Maynard Keynes describes the most crippling of the reparations. Germany had to relinquish to France complete possession and rights to the Saar Basin coalmines for fifteen years. After that period, if the people of the region voted to reunite with Germany, Germany had to “…repurchase the mines at a price payable in gold.” (15) This condition was a slap in the face: the Saar Basin had been a German region for the better part of 1,000 years. (16) The economic effects of this confiscation of Germany’s vital resource were devastating.
The second most crippling reparation concerned Germany’s merchant marine ships. The Allies forces the German state to give up all ships above 1600 tons, half between 1000 and 1600 tons, and one quarter of its fishing boats and trawlers, including the ones under construction. (17) The dismantling of both Germany’s coal industry and its trade capabilities would create the desired effect of the German economy for which the Allies hoped. As far as the matter of monetary compensation, the treaty set up the Reparations Commission to take care of its collection.
The Allies refused to rely on German good faith for the payment of reparations, so they included in the Treaty of Versailles the Reparations Commission. Its base function was the extraction from Germany “…year after year the maximum sum obtainable.” (18) However, Keynes points out the problem in advance of this system: “…the sum when fixed will prove in excess of what can be paid in cash and in excess of what can be paid at all.” (19) The problem indicated here is that no limit on the amount of reparations to be paid by Germany each year had been set, nor had a time limit for the payments to end been established. The Germans kept finding themselves in one hopeless situation after another with seemingly endless debt. In the end, though, the treaty itself hampered the Reparations Commission by not setting any definable limits of payment, and the entire reparations system eventually fell apart. One of the weaknesses of the treaty was the indecisiveness on the part of the diplomats that created it.
The treaty soon proved to be ineffective in practice, partially a result of the misgivings of Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd-George, respectively Prime Minister of France and Prime Minister of Great Britain. Clemenceau clearly distrusted his British allies, saying, “…there was no serious opposition to the harshest clauses of the Armistice except among our British allies, who were applying themselves heartily to the task of sparing Germany…” (20) Paul Birdsall shows the actual British sentiment at the time of the treaty, although his evaluation is not as harsh as Clemenceau’s: “…the British delegates particularly were beginning to show symptoms of that guilt complex that has so profoundly affected post-Versailles British policy.” (21) Birdsall refers to the well-known British policy of appeasement concerning the demands of Hitler’s Germany preceding World War II, directly a result of the harsh terms of the treaty. Clemenceau apparently held some reservations about the treaty himself. In his thoughts on the French occupation of the Rhineland, as a revenge for the forty-eight year German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine, he says, “From distant times warriors of all countries have had nothing but a system of annexation for their policy of aggressive defence, and this conception of an organization of military disequilibrium has merely maintained the warlike habits it had been intended to abolish.” (22) Here, about ten years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Clemenceau’s warning sounds hypocritical in light of his ardent participation in putting forth the conditions of the Treaty. The disunity of the Allied leaders contributed to the weakness and ineffectiveness of the treaty.
Although originally the Germans had been in support of the Treaty of Versailles, which they believed would be based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, their hopes of lenient peace settlement were crushed. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were designed to create a lasting peace in Europe and embodied many liberal ideals. The Fourteen Points included open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, open trade, disarmament, fair adjustment of colonial claims, a just and lasting peace, self-determination, “…no annexations, no contributions, and no punitive damages,” and most importantly a League of Nations. (23) The German people in the closing months of the war began to push for peace, believing that such a peace would be based on the Fourteen Points. German liberals were romanced by the liberal reforms suggested, merchants and manufacturers thought that they would reduce post war reprisals against them, imperialists gained the hope of retaining some or all of Germany’s colonies, and the freedom of the seas provision attracted all Germans, who despised the despotic control of the British navy of the world’s seas. (24) However, the Germans only defender at the peace negotiations because they were not included was President Wilson and his delegation, which constantly gave in on most of the provisions of the Fourteen Points in order to ensure the inclusion of the League of Nations in the peace settlement. The German delegates signed a vastly different treaty than they expected in June of 1919.
The inclusion of the League of Nations in the Versailles Treaty was promising, but ultimately the League proved to be weak. President Wilson presented the treaty to a hostile Senate and an increasingly disinterested American public. The Senate passed the treaty, but made several alterations that were unacceptable to Wilson, and he refused to sign it into law. Therefore, the U.S., whose power and force of moderation was vital to the League of Nations, did not enter the League it had itself in part designed. This had several effects. First and foremost, it “…impaired the authority and prestige of the League at its birth...” (25) In addition, it ensured a lack of American cooperation with Britain that might have served to stabilize Europe and subdue a vindictive France. (26) As a result, the British and French were reduce to dueling leaders in the League, leaving Europe and particularly Germany to the social and economic upheaval that produced Hitler’s totalitarian rule in the 1930’s. (27) The weaknesses of the treaty and weakness of the League ensured future conflict because of the lack of stability they caused in a socially and economically torn Europe.
Before long, Germany took advantage of the treaty’s weaknesses. Although the treaty and the League of Nations established by the document called for general disarmament, the French argued that “Security Precedes Disarmament.” (28) Unfortunately, the Allies’ failure to disarm gave the Germans a moral case to rearm themselves. (29) This ideology worked particularly well in Hitler’s hands, as he reconstructed the German war machine in the 1930’s. Clemenceau cites concrete facts indicating the lack of Allied control and enforcement of the treaty in Germany even before Hitler rose to power. He cites in a table the requirements for disarmament in the treaty, then shows what Germany actually produced:
Rifles: 84000 Heavy machine guns: 792
Carbines: 18000 Light machine guns: 1134
Total: 102000 Total: 1926

Medium trench mortars: 83 Field artillery:
Light trench mortar: 189 7.7 cm guns: 204
Total: 252 10.5 cm Howitzers: 84
Total: 288

Clemenceau claims that in between 1925-1930 Germany produced:

300000 rifles
20000 machine guns
19000 trench mortars
2000 artillery guns

The above figures indicate a complete lack of Allied supervision over German production. This lack of supervision combined with the depression and the harsh reparations of the treaty opened the door for a revolution ending in dictatorship under Adolf Hitler in Germany.
Public reaction in Germany to the treaty was to say the least unfavorable. In addition to the devastation of World War I, the reparations imposed on Germany precipitated a deep depression before 1924. Only after the Weimar Republic busted into national bankruptcy and the mark ceased to exist as a practical means of payment did the Allied countries base reparations on Germany’s ability to pay them. (31) Because of the reparations, many Germans, in particular the industrialists who lost wealth and power with the Saar and Rhineland occupation by the French, proved to be hostile to the republic, maintaining that it had betrayed the German people by accepting the treaty. (32) As a result of this increasing opposition that won over the sentiments of most Germans, uprisings and protests constantly impaired the government’s institutions in the 1920’s. (33) The most significant of these uprisings was of course the Putsch in Munich led by Hitler in 1923. The National Socialist Party of Germany gained in popularity slowly during the 1920’s, finally becoming a viable political entity in after the Great Depression reached Germany after 1929. After the economic collapse spiraled Germany into poverty in the early 1930’s, many Germans accepted Hitler’s belief that the Allies would not end their seeming persecution of Germany by the appeal of reason, but by force. (34) Although the economic collapse was inevitable in light of the increasingly interconnected world market, it was exaggerated by the hatred of the harsh reparations, the “War Guilt Clause,” and the humiliation the Germans suffered from French occupation in the west.
Adolf Hitler manipulated the German intolerance with the Versailles Treaty to push Germany into several confrontations that eventually resulted in World War II. Hitler maintained that the second world war was caused by the Treaty’s “iniquities,” (35) concerning the harsh conditions of the document. Chambers et al state that “…in German eyes, the Treaty was an intolerable Dictate…,” and that the German parliament had been forced to accept it. (36) Hitler capitalized heavily on this German sentiment. In his speech to Reichstag on September 1, 1939, on the eve of World War II and almost exactly twenty years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler declared the treaty void:
For us Germans the dictated Treaty of Versailles is not law. It will not do to blackmail a person at the point of a pistol with the threat of starvation for millions of people into signing a document and afterwards proclaim that this document with its forced signature was a solemn law. (37)

With the above justification, Hitler maneuvered Germany into World War II. The Treaty of Versailles provided him with the excuse of revenge as a motive for Germany’s aggressions in the years before the second world war. Resentment among the German people towards the suffering and humiliation they had been enduring at the hands of the hated treaty fueled Hitler’s cause.
The Treaty of Versailles accomplished nothing more than to cause yet another world war. This time the destruction would be complete. Germany would lose its sovereignty for almost half a century, split between democracy and communism. European decline was completed, and two new powers dominated the world: the United States and the Soviet Union. The Old World countries of Europe would never again wield the power they once had, victims of their own vengeful “reactionary nationalism.” (38) The Treaty of Versailles brought what many had begun to expect it would: war.
1 Keynes, John Maynard, The Economic Consequences of Peace, (New York: Harcourt, Bruce, and Howe, 1920), 238.

2 Birdsall, Paul, Versailles Treaty Twenty Years After, (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941), 295.

3 Keynes, Economic Consequences, 67.

4 Birdsall, Versailles Treaty, 173.

5 Ibid., 177.

6 Ibid., 180.

7 Brian Tierney and Joan Scott, eds., Western Societies: A Documentary History, Vol. 2, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), “German Surrender: The Versailles Treaty,” 480.

8 Birdsall, Versailles Treaty, 253.

9 Ibid., 253.

10 Ibid., 254.

11 Ibid., 255.

12 Ibid., 255.

13 Tierney and Scott, Western Societies, 431.

14 Chambers, Mortimer, Raymond Grew, David Herlihy, Theodore Robb, Isser Woloch, The Western Experience, Vol. 2, (New York: McGraw-Hill, Sixth Edition, 1995), 896.

15 Keynes, Economic Consequences, 82.

16 Ibid., 83.

17 Ibid., 66.

18 Ibid., 167.

19 Ibid., 209.

20 Clemenceau, Georges, Grandeur and Misery of Victory, Trans. F.M. Atkinson, (New York: Harcourt, Bruce, and Company, 1930), 120.
21 Birdsall, Versailles Treaty, 169.

22 Clemenceau, Grandeur and Misery, 257.

23 Bailey, Thomas A., Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944), 23-24.

24 Ibid. 28.

25 Birdsall, Versailles Treaty, 297.

26 Ibid., 297.

27 Ibid., 297.

28 Ibid., 128.

29 Ibid., 170.

30 Clemenceau, Grandeur and Misery, 337-338.

31 Wheeler-Bennett, John W., The Wreck of Reparations, (New York: Howard Fertig, Inc., 1972), 22.

32 Birdsall, Versailles Treaty, 301.

33 Ibid., 301.

34 Ibid., 301.

35 Ibid., 1.

36 Chambers, The Western Experience, 896.

37 Tierney and Scott, Western Societies, “World War II: Hitler’s Speech to the Reichstag (September 1, 1939),” 498.

38 Birdsall, Versailles Treaty, 10.


Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace. New York: Howard Fertig,
Inc., 1972.

Birdsall, Paul. Versailles Twenty Years After. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941.

Chambers, Mortimer, et al. The Western Experience, Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill,
Sixth Edition, 1995.

Clemenceau, Georges. Grandeur and Misery of Victory. Trans. F.M. Atkinson. New
York: Harcourt, Bruce, and Company, 1930.

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of Peace. New York: Harcourt,
Bruce, and Howe, 1920.

Tierney, Brian, and Joan Scott, eds. Western Societies: A Documentary History, Vol. 2.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Wheeler-Bennett, John W. The Wreck of Reparations. New York: Howard Fertig, Inc.,

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