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Treaty of Versailles

Related subjects British History Post 1900

Left to Right, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America
Left to Right, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America

The Treaty of Versailles was a peace treaty that officially ended World War I. It was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly 5 years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of the events that triggered the start of the war. Although the armistice signed on November 11, 1918 put an end to the actual fighting, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude a peace treaty. Of the many provisions in the treaty, one of the most important and controversial provisions required Germany and its allies to accept full responsibility for causing the war and, under the terms of articles 231-248, disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. The Treaty was undermined by subsequent events starting as early as 1922 and was widely flouted by the mid thirties.

The result of these competing and sometimes incompatible goals among the victors was a compromise that left nobody satisfied. Germany was neither pacified nor conciliated, which, in retrospect, did not bode well for the future of Germany, Europe or the world as a whole.

France's aims

France had some 1.5 million military personnel and 400,000 (estimated) civilians dead (see World War I casualties), and much of the western front had been fought on French soil. Thus, French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, largely represented the people of France in that he wanted revenge upon the German nation. Clemenceau wanted to impose policies deliberately meant to cripple Germany militarily, politically, and economically.

Clemenceau's intentions were simple: Germany's military to be not only weakened for the time being, but permanently weakened so as never to be able to invade France again. Clemenceau also wanted to symbolically destroy the old, militaristic Germany—something that could have been achieved by never allowing the pre-1914 politicians back into politics and by hanging the Kaiser (who had abdicated towards the end of the war and fled to the Netherlands). He also wanted to protect secret treaties and impose naval blockades around Germany; so that France could control trade imported to and exported goods from the defeated country. Clemenceau was the most radical member of the Big Four, and received the nickname "Le Tigre" (Tiger) for this reason.

Most Frenchmen agreed that France should be given control of many of Germany's factories. Coal from the Ruhr industrial region was transported to France by train. French military forces had taken over towns in key locations such as Gau Algesheim, forcing homelessness upon its inhabitants. German railroad workers sabotaged coal shipments to France. Around 200 German railroad workers involved in sabotage were executed by French authorities.

George Clemenceau of France wanted reparations from Germany to rebuild the war-torn country. In all, approximately 750,000 houses and 23,000 factories had been destroyed, and money was demanded to pay for reconstruction. They also wanted to drastically reduce the number of soldiers in the German army to a controllable point. As part of the reparations, France wanted to be given control of many of Germany's factories.

Britain's aims

Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported reparations, but to a lesser extent than the French. Lloyd George was aware that if the demands made by France were carried out, France could become extremely powerful in Central Europe, and a delicate balance could be unsettled. Lloyd George was also worried by Woodrow Wilson's proposal for " self-determination" and, like the French, wanted to preserve his own nation's empire. This position was part of the competition between two of the world's greatest empires, and their battle to preserve them. Like the French, Lloyd George also supported naval blockades and secret treaties.

It is often suggested that Lloyd George represented the middle ground between the idealistic Wilson and the vengeful Clemenceau. However, his position was a great deal more delicate than it first appears. The British public wanted to punish Germany in a similar fashion to the French for its apparent sole responsibility for the outbreak of the war, and had been promised such a treaty in the 1918 election that Lloyd George had won. There was also pressure from the Conservatives (who were part of the coalition government) demanding that Germany be punished severely in order to prevent such a war in the future as well as preserving Britain's empire. However, domestic public pressure was increasingly encouraging the de-scaling of the German empire. Lloyd George did manage to increase the overall reparations payment and Britain's share by demanding compensation for the huge number of widows, orphans, and men left unable to work through injury, due to the war.

However, Lloyd George was aware of the potential trouble that could come from an embittered Germany, and he felt that a less harsh treaty that did not engender vengeance would be better at preserving peace in the long run. Another factor was that Germany was Britain's second largest trade partner, and a reduced German economy due to reparations would lower Britain's trade. Moreover, he (and Clemenceau) recognized that America's status as an economic superpower would lead to the U.S. becoming a military superpower in the future, and subsequently, Wilson's idealistic stance could not be laughed at if Britain and France were to remain on good terms with the United States. This helps to understand why the League of Nations, Wilson's main idea (along with self-determination) based on the liberal peace thesis, was apparently jumped at by Britain and France when Wilson arrived at the peace conference. Furthermore, Britain wanted to maintain the 'Balance of Power' — no country within Europe being allowed to become a great deal more powerful than the others. If France's wishes were carried out, then not only would Germany be crippled, but France would soon become the main superpower, and so disrupt the Balance of Power in two ways.

Lloyd George's aims can be summarized as follows:

  1. To defend British interests by preserving Britain's naval supremacy that had been threatened by Germany in the run up to the war, maintaining Britain's empire.
  2. To reduce Germany's future military power and to obtain reparations.
  3. To avoid an embittered Germany that would seek revenge and threaten peace in the long term future.
  4. To help Germany economically to become a strong trading partner with Britain.

United States' Aims

Since there had been strong non-interventionist sentiment before and after the United States entered the war in April 1917, many Americans felt eager to extricate themselves from European affairs as rapidly as possible. The United States took a more conciliatory view towards the issue of German reparations. Americans also wanted to ensure the success of future trading opportunities and favourably collect on the European debt.

Before the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson, along with other American officials including Edward Mandell House, put forward his Fourteen Points which were less harsh than what the French or British wanted and which the German public thought that the Treaty would be based around, giving them hope, if albeit false.

Wilson also did not want any more secret diplomacy,e.g. secret alliances, treaties etc. He also demanded that Germany should have a reduction in armament, which meant that their army would be reduced to a smaller size to make another war completely out of the question. He also wanted other nations to do the same, limiting the risk of war further, as he makes clear in point IV.

Here are the Fourteen Points from Woodrow Wilson's speech given during the Paris Peace Conference:

  1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
  2. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
  3. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
  4. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
  5. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.
  6. The evacuation of all Prussian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.
  7. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other single act will serve as this will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.
  8. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.
  9. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
  10. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.
  11. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.
  12. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
  13. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
  14. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.


The Palace of Versailles, where the treaty was signed

Negotiations between the Allied powers started on January 18 in the Salle de l'Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry, commonly known by its location, the Quai d'Orsay. Initially, 70 delegates of 26 nations participated in the negotiations. Having been defeated, Germany, Austria, and Hungary were excluded from the negotiations. Russia was also excluded because it had negotiated a separate peace with Germany in 1917, in which Germany gained a large fraction of Russia's land and resources.

Until March 1919, the most important role for negotiating the extremely complex and difficult terms of the peace fell to the regular meetings of the "Council of Ten" (head of government and foreign minister) composed of the five major victors (the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan). As this unusual body proved too unwieldy and formal for effective decision-making, Japan and - for most of the remaining conference - the foreign ministers left the main meetings, so that only the "Big Four" remained. After Italy left the negotiations (only to return to sign in June) having its territorial claims to Fiume rejected, the final conditions were determined by the leaders of the "Big Three" nations: United States, France, and Great Britain. The "Big Three" that negotiated the treaty consisted of Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America. The Prime Minister of Italy, Vittorio Orlando, played a minor part in the discussions. Germany was not invited to discuss the treaty. At Versailles, it was difficult to decide on a common position because their aims conflicted with one another. The result was an "unhappy compromise". Henry Kissinger called the treaty a "brittle compromise agreement between American utopism and European paranoia - too conditional to fulfil the dreams of the former, too tentative to alleviate the fears of the latter."

Initial rejection of the terms by Germany

On April 29, the German delegation under the leadership of the foreign minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau arrived in Versailles. On May 7, the anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, the Germans finally received the peace conditions agreed upon by the victors. Terms imposed by the treaty on Germany included partitioning a certain amount of its own territory to a number of surrounding countries, being stripped of all of its overseas colonies, particularly those in Africa, and limiting its ability to make war again, by restrictions on the size of its military. Because Germany was not allowed to take part in the negotiations, the German government issued a protest to what it considered to be unfair demands, and soon afterwards withdrew from the proceedings.

A new German government accepts the treaty

On June 20, a new government under Chancellor Gustav Bauer was installed in Germany after Philipp Scheidemann resigned. Germany finally agreed to the conditions with 237 vs. 138 votes on June 23.

On June 28, 1919 the new German foreign minister Hermann Müller and the minister of transport Johannes Bell agreed to sign the treaty, and it was ratified by the League of Nations on January 10, 1920.

Summary of the Treaty

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had a humiliating effect on the German people. Germany had once been a powerful nation; the second biggest industrial power in the world, after the USA. After its defeat in World War I, Germany was forced to accept the crippling terms enforced upon them by the Allies. This involved Germany losing their overseas colonies in Africa and Asia, as well as parts of German territory. Germany was also forced to accept guilt for starting the war.

Germany also had further military restrictions – the air force was disbanded, the army was limited to 100,000 men and the navy was limited to 15,000 sailors, six battleships and no submarines. Germany was forbidden to put troops in the Rhineland and France was entrusted to patrol it with troops to enforce these restrictions.

Germany also had to pay reparations for damages ensued by the war. This meant having to pay £6600 million (about $3 billion) in compensation. However, the land that Germany lost included 10% of its industry and 15% of its agricultural land. Therefore, this made the reparations extremely difficult for Germany to pay. In 1923, in order to collect their own compensation, the French occupied the Ruhr region in Germany – the biggest industrial area in the country. This made it even more difficult for Germany to pay other Allies the reparations.

Kaiser Wilhelm fled from Germany and a new form of government was set up in his place – the Weimar Republic.

Treaty terms


The terms of the Treaty, which Germany had no choice but to accept, were announced on May 7, 1919. Germany lost:

  • 13% of its national territory
  • All of its overseas colonies (including Kamerun, German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, Togoland and German New Guinea)
  • 12.5% of its population
  • 16% of its coalfields, and half its iron and steel industry.

Territorial restrictions on Germany

  • Alsace-Lorraine yielded to France.
  • Saar coal fields placed under French control for 15 years.
  • Annexation of Austria prohibited.
  • Annexation of Czechoslovakia prohibited.
  • Annexation of Poland and Danzig prohibited.
  • Loss of all overseas colonies.
  • Part of Upper Silesia ceded to Poland.

Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia became independent states (acquired by Germany from Russia at Brest-Litovsk).

Military Restrictions on Germany

  • The Rhineland to be a demilitarized zone.
  • The German armed forces cannot number more than 100,000 troops and no conscription.
  • Enlisted men to be retained for at least 12 years; officers to be retained for at least 25 years.
  • Manufacturing of weapons is prohibited.
  • Import and export of weapons is prohibited.
  • Manufacture or stockpiling of poison gas is prohibited.
  • Tanks are prohibited.
  • Naval forces limited to 15,000 men, 6 battleships (no more than 10,000 tons displacement each), 6 cruisers (no more than 6,000 tons displacement each), 12 destroyers (no more than 800 tons displacement each) and 12 torpedo boats (no more than 200 tons displacement each).
  • Submarines are prohibited.
  • Military aircraft are prohibited.
  • Artillery is prohibited.
  • Blockades on ports are prohibited.

Legal Restrictions on Germany

  • Article 231: forced to accept sole responsibility of war and had to promise to make good all the damage done to civilian population of the allies. Also known as the "War Guilt Clause".
  • Article 227: former German emperor, Wilhelm II was charged with supreme offence against international morality. He was to be tried as a war criminal.
  • Article 228-230: many were tried as war criminals. Some could not be tried as they were hiding.

Territorial losses

Germany after Versailles       Annexed by neighbouring countries      Administered by the League of Nations      Weimar Germany
Germany after Versailles
     Annexed by neighbouring countries      Administered by the League of Nations      Weimar Germany

On its eastern frontier Germany was forced to cede to the newly independent Poland the province of West Prussia, thereby granting Poland access to the Baltic Sea, while the province of East Prussia returned to its former status as an exclave which it enjoyed in 1657-1772 as part of Brandenburg. Danzig was declared a free city under the permanent governance of the League of Nations. Much of the province of Posen, which, like West Prussia, had been acquired by Prussia in the late 18th-century partitions of Poland, was likewise granted to the restored Polish state. A significant portion of coal-rich and industrially developed Upper Silesia was also transferred from Germany to Poland, as the result of a later plebiscite (The disinterest of the officials conducting those and other plebiscites in postwar Germany is questionable).

Germany was also compelled to yield control of its colonies. Although these colonies had proven to be economic liabilities, they had also been symbols of the world-power status that Germany had gained in the 1880s and '90s. Article 156 of the treaty transferred German concessions in Shandong, China to Japan rather than returning sovereign authority to China. Chinese outrage over this provision led to demonstrations and a cultural movement known as the May Fourth Movement and influenced China not to sign the treaty. China declared the end of its war against Germany in September 1919 and signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921.

Besides the loss of the German colonial empire the territories Germany lost were:

  • Alsace-Lorraine, the territories which were ceded to Germany in accordance with the Preliminaries of Peace signed at Versailles on February 26, 1871, and the Treaty of Frankfurt of May 10, 1871, were restored to French sovereignty without a plebiscite as from the date of the Armistice of November 11, 1918. (area 14,522 km², 1,815,000 inhabitants (1905)).
  • Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark following a plebiscite on 14 February 1920 (area 3,984 km², 163,600 inhabitants (1920)). The territory surrendered to Denmark included the German-dominated town of Tondern ( Tønder), Hadersleben ( Haderslev which was predominantly Danish and two additional towns, Apenrade ( Aabenraa) and Sonderburg ( Sønderborg) that were split more evenly between the two sides but with small German majorities. The rural districts of Northern Schleswig were overwhelmingly Danish, in particular the northern, western and eastern regions. Central Schleswig, including the city of Flensburg, opted to remain German in a separate referendum on 14 March 1920.
  • Most of the Prussian provinces of Posen and of West Prussia, which Prussia had annexed in Partitions of Poland (1772-1795), were ceded to Poland. This territory had already been liberated by local Polish population during the Great Poland Uprising of 1918-1919 (area 53,800 km², 4,224,000 inhabitants (1931), including 510 km² and 26,000 inhabitants from Upper Silesia) (This includes parts of West Prussia that were ceded to Poland to provide free access to the sea, creating the Polish Corridor.
  • The Hlučínsko ( Hultschin) area of Upper Silesia to Czechoslovakia (area 316 or 333 km², 49,000 inhabitants).
  • The eastern part of Upper Silesia to Poland (area 3,214,km², 965,000 inhabitants), after the plebiscite for the whole of Upper Silesia, which was provided for in the Treaty, and the ensuing partition along voting lines in Upper Silesia by the League of Nations following protests by the Polish inhabitants.
  • The area of German cities Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium. The trackbed of the Vennbahn railway also transferred to Belgium.
  • The area of Soldau in East Prussia (railway station on the Warsaw- Danzig route) to Poland (area 492 km²),
  • The northern part of East Prussia known as Memel Territory under control of France, later occupied by Lithuania.
  • From the eastern part of West Prussia and the southern part of East Prussia, after the East Prussian plebiscite a small area to Poland,
  • The province of Saarland to be under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years, after that a plebiscite between France and Germany, to decide to which country it would belong. During this time the coal to be sent to France.
  • The port of Danzig with the delta of the Vistula River at the Baltic Sea was made the Freie Stadt Danzig (Free City of Danzig) under the League of Nations (area 1,893 km², 408,000 inhabitants (1929)).
  • Germany acknowledges and will respect strictly, the independence of Austria.


Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles assigned blame for the war to Germany; much of the rest of the Treaty set out the reparations that Germany would pay to the Allies.

The total sum due was decided by an Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. The war reparations that Entente demanded from Germany was 226 billion Reichsmarks in gold (around £11.3 billion), then reduced to 132 billion Reichsmarks. In 1921, this number was officially put at £4,990,000,000, or 132 billion marks.

The Versailles reparation impositions were partly a reply to the reparations placed upon France by Germany through the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt signed after the Franco-Prussian War. Note however that the amount of the reparations demanded in the treaty of Versailles were comparatively larger (5B Francs vs. 132B Reichsmark). Indemnities of the Treaty of Frankfurt were in turn calculated, on the basis of population, as the precise equivalent of the indemnities imposed by Napoleon I on Prussia in 1807. The Versailles Reparations came in a variety of forms, including coal, steel, intellectual property (eg. the patent for Aspirin) and agricultural products, in no small part because currency reparations of that order of magnitude would lead to hyperinflation, as actually occurred in postwar Germany. While the economic ruination this would inflict on Germany did not significantly distress the French government, the subsequent devaluation of their own reparations did.

The standard view is that the reparations, particularly forcing Germany to accept the entire blame, were the cause of Germany's economic woes and the concomitant rise of Nazism to power.

League of Nations

The treaty provided for the creation of the League of Nations, a major goal of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The League of Nations was intended to arbitrate international disputes and thereby avoid future wars. Only three of Wilson's Fourteen Points were realized, since Wilson was compelled to compromise with Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Orlando on some points in exchange for retaining approval of Wilson's "fourteenth point", the League of Nations.

Reaction to the treaty

Reaction of the Allies

In the eyes of the French people, Clemenceau failed to achieve all of their demands through the Treaty of Versailles. As a result, he was voted out of office in the elections of January 1920.

Britain as a whole was at first content, because it succeeded in securing more favourable German eastern frontiers, e.g. plebiscites on areas previously assigned to Poland ( Masuria, southern Warmia, Upper Silesia) and creation of the Free City of Danzig. Even then Britain felt that the Treaty was too harsh to Germany, causing dissatisfaction that might potentially lead to trouble in the future. In the United States, it was seen as Europe's problem, but it was also widely believed that the Treaty was too harsh.

United States Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who opposed ratification of the Treaty of Versailles
United States Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who opposed ratification of the Treaty of Versailles

The United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, making it invalid in the United States and effectively hamstringing the nascent League of Nations envisioned by Wilson. The largest obstacle faced in the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles was the opposition of Henry Cabot Lodge. It has also been said that Wilson himself was the second-largest obstacle, primarily because he refused to support the treaty with any of the alterations proposed by the United States Senate. As a result, the United States did not join the League of Nations, despite Wilson claiming that he could

"...predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.""

Those who were present at negotiations were also not convinced with the Treaty, as Edward Mandell House wrote in his diary on 29 June 1919

"I am leaving Paris, after eight fateful months, with conflicting emotions. Looking at the conference in retrospect, there is much to approve and yet much to regret. It is easy to say what should have been done, but more difficult to have found a way of doing it. To those who are saying that the treaty is bad and should never have been made and that it will involve Europe in infinite difficulties in its enforcement, I feel like admitting it. But I would also say in reply that empires cannot be shattered, and new states raised upon their ruins without disturbance. To create new boundaries is to create new troubles. The one follows the other. While I should have preferred a different peace, I doubt very much whether it could have been made, for the ingredients required for such a peace as I would have were lacking at Paris."

Reaction in Germany

The treaty evoked an angry and hostile reception in Germany from the moment its contents were made public. The Germans were outraged and horrified at the result - since Wilson's idealistic fourteen points had painted the picture of a different outcome. They did not feel that they were responsible for starting the war nor did they feel as though they had lost. The German people had understood the negotiations at Versailles to be a peace conference and not a surrender. At first, the new government refused to sign the agreement, and the German navy sank its own ships in protest of the treaty. The sinking hardened Allied attitudes and the Allies demanded, by ultimatum, that Germany sign the treaty within twenty-four hours. The alternative was understood to be a resumption of hostilities, with the fighting now on German soil.

Faced with this crisis, the German provisional government in Weimar was thrown into upheaval. “What hand would not wither that binds itself and us in these fetters?” asked Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann who then resigned rather than agree to the Treaty. Army chief Paul von Hindenburg did the same, after declaring the army unable to defend Germany against Western attack. With four hours to go German President Friedrich Ebert agreed to the terms. The German delegation to Paris signed the treaty on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

Conservatives, nationalists and ex-military leaders began to speak critically about the peace and Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, and Jews were viewed with suspicion due to their supposed extra-national loyalties. It was rumoured that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies. These November Criminals, or those who seemed to benefit from the newly formed Weimar Republic, were seen to have "stabbed them in the back" on the home front, by either criticizing German nationalism, instigating unrest and strikes in the critical military industries or profiteering. In essence the accusation was that the accused committed treason against the "benevolent and righteous" common cause.

These theories were given credence by the fact that when Germany surrendered in November 1918, its armies were still in French and Belgian territory. Not only had the German Army been in enemy territory the entire time on the Western Front, but on the Eastern Front, Germany had already won the war against Russia, concluded with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the West, Germany had seemed to come close to winning the war with the Spring Offensive. Contributing to the Dolchstoßlegende, its failure was blamed on strikes in the arms industry at a critical moment of the offensive, leaving soldiers with an inadequate supply of material. The strikes were seen to be instigated by treasonous elements, with the Jews taking most of the blame. This overlooked Germany's strategic position and ignored how the efforts of individuals were somewhat marginalized on the front, since the belligerents were engaged in a new kind of war. The industrialization of war had dehumanized the process, and made possible a new kind of defeat which the Germans suffered as a total war emerged.

Nevertheless, this myth of domestic betrayal resonated among its audience, and its claims would codify the basis for public support for the emerging Nazi Party, under a racialist-based form of nationalism. The anti-Semitism was intensified by the Bavarian Soviet Republic, a Communist government which ruled the city of Munich for two weeks before being crushed by the Freikorps militia. Many of the Bavarian Soviet Republic's leaders were Jewish, a fact that allowed anti-Semitic propagandists to make the connection with " Communist treason".

Technical consequences

Since neither rockets nor glider aircraft were mentioned in the Versailles treaty, Germany spent money on these technologies, including Wernher von Braun's rocket experiments, which in no doubt helped the development of the future space industry. Large glider aircraft designs led to the design of the large Me-321 during World War II which later was motorized and became the Me-323, the largest land-based plane at the time.

Treaty violations

The German economy was so weak that only a small percentage of reparations was paid in money. However, even the payment of this small percentage of the original reparations (219 billion Gold Reichsmarks) still placed a significant burden on the German economy, accounting for as much as one third of post-treaty hyperinflation. Furthermore, the provisions forcing the uncompensated removal of resources and industrial equipment sowed further resentment

Some significant violations (or avoidances) of the provisions of the Treaty were:

  • In 1919 the dissolution of the General Staff appeared to happen. However, the core of the General Staff was hidden within another organization, the Truppenamt, where it rewrote all Heer (Army) and Luftwaffe (Air Force) doctrinal and training materials based on the experience of World War I.
  • The Treaty of Rapallo was an agreement in the Italian town of Rapallo on 16 April 1922 between Germany (the Weimar Republic) and Russia SFSR under which each renounced all territorial and financial claims against the other following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and World War I. A secret annex signed on 29 July allowed Germany to train their military in Soviet territory, thus violating the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The first post-war German tanks and aircraft were tested and exercised under this (see Soviet-German relations before 1941).
  • In March 1935, Adolf Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles by introducing compulsory military conscription in Germany and rebuilding the armed forces. This included a new Navy ( Kriegsmarine), the first full armoured divisions ( Panzerwaffe) and an Air Force (Luftwaffe). For the first time since the war, Germany's armed forces were as strong as those of France.
  • In June 1935 the elements of the Treaty regarding Germany's navy were abandoned by the United Kingdom with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
  • In March 1936, Hitler violated the Treaty by reoccupying the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland.
  • In March 1938, Hitler violated the Treaty by annexing Austria in the Anschluss.
  • In March 1939, Hitler violated the Treaty by occupying the rest of Czechoslovakia.
  • In September 1939, Hitler violated the Treaty by invading Poland, thus initiating World War II in Europe.

Historical assessments

A common view is that France's Clemenceau was the most vigorous in his pursuit of revenge against Germany, the Western Front of the war having been fought chiefly on French soil. This treaty was felt to be unreasonable at the time because it was a peace dictated by the victors that put the full blame for the war on Germany.

Henry Kissinger called the treaty a "brittle compromise agreement between American utopianism and European paranoia — too conditional to fulfil the dreams of the former, too tentative to alleviate the fears of the latter."

In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes referred to the Treaty of Versailles as a " Carthaginian peace". That analysis was disputed by French Resistance economist Étienne Mantoux. During the 1940s, Mantoux wrote a book entitled The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes in an attempt to rebut Keynes' claims; it was published after his death.

More recently it has been argued (for instance by historian Gerhard Weinberg in his book A World At Arms) that the treaty was in fact quite advantageous to Germany. The Bismarckian Reich was maintained as a political unit instead of being broken up, and Germany largely escaped post-war military occupation (in contrast to the situation following World War II.)

The British military historian Correlli Barnett claimed that the Treaty of Versailles was "extremely lenient in comparison with the peace terms Germany herself, when she was expecting to win the war, had had in mind to impose on the Allies". Furthermore, he claimed, it was "hardly a slap on the wrist" when contrasted with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany had imposed on a defeated Russia in March 1918, which had taken away a third of Russia's population, one half of Russia's industrial undertakings and nine-tenths of Russia's coal mines, coupled with an indemnity of six billion marks.

Barnett also claims that, in strategic terms, Germany was in fact in a superior position following the Treaty than she had been in 1914. Then, Germany's eastern frontiers faced Russia and Austria, who had both in the past balanced German power. But the Austrian empire fractured after the war into smaller, weaker states and Russia was wracked by revolution and civil war. The newly restored Poland was no match for even the defeated Germany.

In the West, Germany was balanced only by France and Belgium, both of which were smaller in population and less economically vibrant than Germany. Barnett concludes by saying that instead of weakening Germany, the Treaty "much enhanced" German power. Britain and France should have (according to Barnett) "divided and permanently weakened" Germany by undoing Bismarck's work and partitioning Germany into smaller, weaker states so it could never disrupt the peace of Europe again. By failing to do this and therefore not solving the problem of German power and restoring the equilibrium of Europe, Britain "had failed in her main purpose in taking part in the Great War".

Regardless of modern strategic or economic analysis, resentment caused by the treaty sowed fertile psychological ground for the eventual rise of the Nazi party. Indeed, on Nazi Germany's rise to power, Adolf Hitler resolved to overturn the remaining military and territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Military build-up began almost immediately, in direct defiance of the Treaty, which, by then, had been destroyed by Hitler in front of a cheering crowd. "It was this treaty which caused a chain reaction leading to World War II" claimed historian Dan Rowling (1951).Various references of the treaty is found throughout many of Hitler's speeches and in pre-war German propaganda.(See also: Nazi propaganda)

Alternative viewpoints

The interpretation that Germany was seriously weakened and humiliated by the Versailles Treaty has been disputed by some historians. Some arguments include:

  • The commissions to supervise disarmament were withdrawn and the reparations payments were reduced and eventually cancelled, to mention just some of the changes made in Germany's favour. It is worth mentioning that the financial burden of reconstruction was shifted from Germany to those countries that were actually occupied and devastated by the war.
  • Germany's industry and economic potential were less affected than its European enemies, and although weakened by the war, Germany was relatively stronger vis-à-vis its enemies in 1919 than it had been in 1913.
  • The creation of Poland, so derided by the critics of Versailles, shielded Germany from its potentially most powerful adversary, Russia. Independent Poland thwarted the Bolshevik advance into a war-weakened Europe at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, at a time when Germany faced Communist-inspired unrest and revolution.
  • Germany kept a big chunk of its disputed areas populated by Polish-speaking minorities (especially where the minority was quite passive), while the most active nationalist population seceded. This actually spared Germany many ethnic conflicts that had marked the history of Imperial Germany and helped in the Germanisation of the remaining Poles.
  • The post-war situation in the Balkans left Germany much more powerful than any of its eastern or south-Eastern European neighbours, none of which showed any signs of working together against Germany.
  • In short, Germany was strong enough to dominate Europe once more within two decades of its defeat in World War One.

It should also be realized that, if Germany had won the war, it intended to impose a treaty of similar severity on its foes. Its terms would have included

  • Annexation of portions of France and Belgium, and all of Luxembourg;
  • Belgium would receive Nord-Pas de Calais in compensation, but would accept German occupation of all militarily significant areas;
  • France to pay reparations sufficient to prevent French rearmament for fifteen to twenty years;
  • France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, (and Poland, if it becomes independent of Russia) to join an economic association under effective German control. Italy, Sweden, and Norway to join later.

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