Caustic Congresses II: the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles / AKJ Images/Imperial War Museum

The Treaty of Versailles / AKJ Images/Imperial War Museum

This treaty has been blamed by many historians as a more than indirect cause of the Second World War. It was supposed to be a treaty made between the Allies and Germany to be signed on 28 June, 1919, but negotiations continued until 1923. Germany however did not take part in the debates aired before the actual signing. Most intelligent Germans therefore thought it was a dictated agreement for peace, which could not be morally binding.

Germany lost more than twenty thousand square miles of territory at Versailles, as well as six and half million individuals from her overall population. She also lost most of her raw materials. Alsace-Lorraine was given back to France, which had lost it. There were some interesting frontier changes in favour of Belgium. Parts of Schleswig went to Denmark after a plebiscite, but most German losses were in the east. Poland got Posen and West Prussia and parts of Pomerania, thus cementing Germany’s hatred, released by the Nazis only twenty years later. The wealthy industrial region of Upper Silesia was also supposed to go to Poland, but another plebiscite (appeal to the people) showed that more than 60% of the people wanted to stay with Germany, and would cause infinite trouble if this wish were to be denied. The result was a division of the territory, always a formula for disaster.

Danzig had an almost entirely German population, but was declared a ‘Free City’ under a High Commissioner designated by the League of Nations (itself a useless concept as it turned out).  This idea came about in the minds of the diplomats concerned so that Poland could have free use of a port that was not in Germany.

The Polish Corridor, giving that country access to the sea, also cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, another cause for unrest: one and a half million Germans would have to live under Polish rule, not the most sensible plan because everyone (except possibly the Americans) knew that Germans and Poles mix in the same manner as oil and water.

Another German town, Memel, was the sole available port for Lithuania. It was placed under the ‘control’ of a French High Commissioner, with the result that the Lithuanians seized it by force in 1923, only four years after the commencement of Versailles.

Germany’s former colonies were taken from her and were supposed to become Mandates of the aforementioned League of Nations, but the truth is that they were taken over by the victorious Allies.

Further acrimoniously debated restrictions affected Austria, the Rhineland and the Saar, and any plan for Anschluss with Germany Austria was forbidden. As most Austrians thought joining Germany was a good idea, the Allies’ refusal to allow it rankled, especially in the mind of Austrians such as Adolf Hitler, who had fought in the trenches during the War.

The left bank of the Rhine and a portion of the right bank were to be permanently demilitarized – except that there was to be an Allied army of occupation there. If in the meantime Germany fulfilled her treaty obligations, this army would leave in 1935. Germany had deliberately destroyed French coal mines during the War, France was given mines in the Saar, though after the passing of fifteen years, this would ‘come under consideration’.

The German General Staff would be disbanded, and the Army would not be allowed to exceed 100,000 men in total. No tanks would be allowed, nor an airforce nor submarines, and conscription forbidden. No warship weighing more than 10,000 tons would be allowed, and the Navy must be limited to 10,000 men including officers. All of this came under the patently hypocritical statement that ‘the disarmament clauses were to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations’. Naturally the victorious Allies continued upscaling their ‘defences’, while the Germans complained strongly about the restrictions placed upon them. In fact both America and France had decided that the ‘War-Guilt Clause’ (No. 231) required Germany to admit responsibility for all loss and damage sustained by the Allies ‘as a consequence of the war imposed on them by Germany and her allies’. We are examining in this series various ‘Peace Treaties’ and how they subsequently caused more war thanks to the ‘Victor and Loser’ syndrome. The Allies decided that Germany should also be given the bill for the War, and that she must pay ‘Reparations’ fixed in 1921 at 132 billion gold marks. This requires no comment from any of us, except that it festered in German minds and was successfully used in Hitler’s most fervent speeches leading to the Second World War.

The fact is that deserved or not the Treaty of Versailles was seen by Germans as unnecessarily harsh and unfair, though in a way they were ‘lucky’ because Clemenceau  (France) had wanted even more severity, with the Rhineland an independent state, the Saar annexed by France (of course) and Danzig annexed by Poland!

 

Most Germans rejected the ‘War-Guilt’ clause 231 as they claimed it was Russia that started the War. Prominent people said the reparations would never be paid as Germany was crippled financially and trying to pay them would destroy the economy. They claimed that self-determination had been ignored where it might have favoured Germany. Austrians claimed that they wanted Anschluss with Germany. Weimar politicians weakened and reluctantly accepted the terms of the Treaty, though by doing so they weakened the Weimar Republic.

When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 the Treaty’s stipulations were ignored and any limitation of the armed forces, demilitarization of the Rhineland or forbidding of Anschluss between Austria and Germany was turned upside down.

President Woodrow Wilson of the United States and M. Clemenceau have been attacked by many historians as the ‘villains’ of the Treaty of Versailles, but it is hard to see what else they could have done, except show more clemency. America only took part in the Great War when it had nearly finished, and did in fact refuse to ratify the Treaty when negotiations had finished. This was strange, and makes one wonder why America bothered to attend the Treaty’s negotiations at all, if they were going to insist on key points and then refuse to ratify them. France’s contribution to European peace over the centuries has been well documented.

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