Is the Treaty of Versailles Responsible for World War 2?
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th, 1919 (Tardieu 104), seven and a half months after Germany surrendered to the Allies on November 11th, 1918, ending World War I (Lee 20); indicating that this was more than a typical Treaty designed to end a war.
In fact, the Treaty was designed to be the crowning achievement of the Paris Peace Conference; a coalition of all the major world powers agreeing to eternal peace and outlining how it would be carried out. However, only twenty years later, World War II began, and with it came even greater devastation than the First. The Treaty failed to achieve its main goal.
WW2 started when Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939 (Bell 5) and the question that arises is why was the Treaty unable to prevent this. At the time of the Treaty’s institution, Germany was completely under Allied control (Eubank 4); it was a ripe opportunity to reorganize the nation and subdue it. But, for a number of reasons, this opportunity was not effectively seized; sooner than it should have, Allied control over Germany dissolved which was followed by the re-emergence of German militarism.
However, the Treaty itself was created to ensure that nations could coexist freely and peacefully anyway, and, it would be unfair and simplistic to state that Germany as a nation just naturally tended to war; therefore, there must be some catalyst for the aggressive actions Germany pursued even after losing WW1. The Treaty failed by being that catalyst.
The Treaty had a number of problems: it assigned guilt for a messy and ambiguous war, it asked for erroneously high reparations, and, most of all, it wasn’t planned well enough for the lofty goal it was meant for; the authors of this Treaty were consumed by individualistic desires and handicapped by their lack of foresight.
It is for these reasons that the Treaty was unsuccessful, and partially for these reasons that Germany began WW2. This investigation will examine the stipulations of the Treaty and the resulting consequences in Germany after its signing to conclude that the inherent flaws of the Treaty of Versailles were responsible for the reemergence of aggressive German policy after WW1.
The Treaty of Versailles was a massive undertaking, especially because of the chaos after WW1; national boundaries were muddled and in dispute, governments were reconnecting with their weary and dissatisfied citizens, and everyone was demanding reparations for the damages they had suffered (Sharp). What was wanted was someone to blame, to simplify the chaos; what was needed was cooperation and communication, to eliminate the chaos and begin repairs.
The Paris Peace Conference, and thereby the Treaty, was begun in the spirit of the global need, but all too soon it fell into the pursuit of its want. It is this failure to comprehend the true status of the world and the single-minded demands for a scapegoat that damaged Allied relations with Germany and motivated aggressive German actions in the future.
This flaw is clearly embodied in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles as it states that “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” (137–138).
This Article became commonly known as the War Guilt Clause, though there is debate surrounding that title; some believe that “the Allies did not intend Article 231 to connote war guilt” (Marks 19) but rather that it was a manner of introducing “a legal basis for reparations” (Marks 19). André Tardieu writes in his first-hand account on the Paris Peace Conference that Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, broaches the topic of reparations by asking for “the addition of three words” (70) into the Treaty in order to appease the French people: “Reparations for damages” (70), demonstrating that he was more concerned with payment than guilt.
So it seems that Article 231 was simply a preamble to the reparations section of the Treaty, allowing the Allies to have in writing the reason for the imposed reparations. Also, since Germany gained support in their appeals of this Article in the following years (Marks 19), it is unlikely that Article 231 was actually meant to place blame for the War. However, regardless of true intent, Germany chose to interpret the Article as a declaration of war guilt which increased their hostility towards the Treaty and its creators (Marks 19).
Despite the “War Guilt Clause” claiming otherwise, World War I was not solely Germany’s fault; so the accusation held little weight within the countries that made it as they regarded it as more of a means to an end, that of annexing resources, than an official accusation, but it held a very large amount of weight within Germany itself.
The people of Germany were especially offended by the Clause for two reasons: First, because they “had been told by their Imperial government that Germany had fought a defensive war” (Eubank 6). And secondly, because the German government had accepted, “as a basis for the peace negotiations, the program laid down by the President of the United States in his message to Congress of January 8, 1918” (Prince Max 535), these being Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points.
As usual, the first reason was also not completely true, but the lie took root nonetheless and it bolstered animosity towards the Western Powers, contributing to the justification of the Germans completely offensive actions in World War II. As for the second point, Germany was so invested in Wilson’s post-war vision that government advisors went so far as to ask “the Kaiser to hand over power to Prince Max of Baden in an attempt to secure a constitutional government which would be acceptable to the Allies in general and to President Wilson in particular” (Lee 7).
Germany redesigned their national government in an attempt to please the Allies after the War, so it is not surprising they felt betrayed and angered when, not only were they blamed for the War and forced to concede reparations, but weren’t even allowed to attend the Conference or have any say in the content of the Treaty that they were to sign (Quenoy).
Not only did the world leaders such as Clemenceau have the power to enact practically any terms they wanted, but they also had a clear and widely accepted template for possible terms. It is unfortunate that Wilson’s “Peace without Victory” (Wilson 352) model, and, furthermore, his Fourteen Points, were dismissed during the Paris Peace Conference; they had the potential to rebuild trust throughout the world and assure a lasting peace.
Instead, because of the individualistic desire to punish Germany with reparations and the lack of foresight that could have predicted the discontentment Germany would hold with this verdict, the Treaty of Versailles became responsible for the rise in German aggression. Peace was sacrificed for victory.
Terms and Reparations
Next, examining the specific provisions of the Treaty reveals that, due to the mistakes in the Treaty, the type of surrender demanded from Germany was both severe where it shouldn’t have been and indulgent where it was dangerous to be so.
The Treaty states that “65,000 square kilometres of territory and nearly 7 million inhabitants” (Bell 19) will be dislocated from Germany, that “The army was limited to 100,000 men, with no tanks or heavy artillery” (Bell 19), and that there will be “payment of reparations by the German government, the total amount eventually being fixed in 1921 at 136,000 million gold marks” (Lee 20), about 33 billion US dollars (Quenoy).
To the German people, these were harsh terms but made even worse by the fact that they weren’t important terms. The lost territories were largely worthless to Germany anyway, being either land taken in previous wars, now justifiably freed from German occupation, or holding no valuable resources or old, ethnically German ties (Eubank 12).
Also, as there were no competent inspections of Germany by the Allies after the Treaty was signed, Germany was able to make it’s military stronger than ever without notice (Quenoy).
And lastly, the fine eventually was reduced so much that Germany ended up paying only a few percent of it (Quenoy). Because they weren’t thought through, significant, or enforced, the Allied demands became little more than an annoyance to Germany; a constant reminder of their loss without the authority to make that memory one to be feared.
Moreover, the new German government, the Weimar Republic, was founded on October 26th, 1918, only 16 days before surrendering the war, for the purpose of contracting an armistice with the Allies (Lee 1). They pursued peace because Wilson’s propaganda of his Fourteen Points and promotion of “peace without victory” and mutual post-war support had appealed to a nation who knew they couldn’t hold out forever and saw an opportunity to settle calmly and build up strength anew (Eubank 1).
So, when these terms, as harsh as they appeared, were announced, and it was revealed that they, the Germans, would not even be allowed to attend the Paris Peace Conference or negotiate with the Allies (Eubank 4), despite the advertising of the Fourteen Points as the post-war standard, the German population, mostly untouched by the war, unofficially disavowed their new government who had ceded to their enemies’ unfair terms while still possessing the capability to fight on (Eubank 3).
Though the Treaty was strict at first glance, it was not without precedent, and Germany should have expected as much as they themselves had imposed accords on Russia and France that were equally, if not more, harsh.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, for example, stated that “The territories lying to the west of the line determined by the contracting powers and which formerly belonged to Russia will no longer be under her sovereignty” (Peace Treaty of Brest Litovsk). It required Russia to give up “54 percent of Russian industry and 34 percent of the Russian population” (Eubank 12).
And the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, required France to pay “the sum of 5,000,000,000 Francs” (Preliminary Treaty), approximately 5 billion dollars, and allowed German occupation of France until the payment had been made (Preliminary Treaty). Germany had lost only 13 percent of its territory after Versailles and there certainly was no military enforcement of the fine (Eubank 2).
Especially because of this, it seems that the German plan may have been to reignite the war effort after a recuperation period all along. But, true or false, that fact does not excuse the Treaty; Historian Keith Robbins believes that if the Treaty hadn’t asked for these seemingly severe terms and reparations, and if the Weimar government had been more justly and equally treated, “a democratic government would still have been in existence in Germany” (105). Robbins also states that “The tragedy had been that the German people, humiliated by the Treaty, had not been given even a gleam of hope by the Allied Powers” (105).
On the other side, Historian Keith Eubank holds that perhaps had the Treaty been much stricter, or at least enforced, Germany’s spirit might have been broken and they wouldn’t have risen back up nearly as quickly as they did, if at all.
He argues that “The armistice that saved German unity and the German army, prevented Allied occupation, and thus left the German people unresigned to the collapse of their dreams” (2) and that “Military occupation would have brought home to every German town the reality of defeat. But, saved by the armistice, the German army retired intact within the frontiers” (2).
So it seems that the Treaty was a failure on two more levels, both too harsh, leaving the people feeling provoked, and too soft, leaving their fighting spirit intact.
Because of the Treaty, Germany was in a state of unrest and was removed from an active force in the world. Trapped within their borders with a government no one respected, expected to pay unreasonable amounts of money for a war they were unduly blamed for, and insulted by ridiculous terms, the German people rejected the Treaty and displayed more and more aggressive tendencies.
Once again, the authors of the Treaty demonstrated an ineptitude to accomplish or even pursue their own stated goal, to create a free and fair world.
And, though now there is clearly the benefit of hindsight, this assessment of the Treaty wasn’t unnoticed during its writing either; Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of Allied forces in France, said of the Treaty on it’s signing day “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” (Bell 15). The Treaty of Versailles is then quite responsible for the rise in German aggression after WW1.
The German Opinion
A situation representing the German’s provocative and aggressive post-Treaty stance came about in 1923 when Germany defaulted on its coal quotas (Eubank 9). On January 11th, France deployed troops to the coal mines in the Ruhr, the only time they attempted to enforce the Treaty through force (Eubank 9). What they found were workers who would not only refuse to work but, egged on by their government, would actively sabotage the mining efforts (Eubank 9).
Furthermore, as a true illustration of the extremes the German government was willing to go to, “In an attempt to support the resistance, the German government increased the printing of money, with the result that the German economy suffered a disastrous inflation” (Eubank 9); “Where before the war the mark was valued at four to the dollar, by November 1923, it had been devalued to 4,000 million to the dollar” (Eubank 9).
They destroyed their own economy in order to strengthen the injustice felt by their citizens, to pay off their multi-billion dollar debt, and, since the major Allied nations were changing their perception of German guilt to one of German maltreatment anyway (Bell 20–21), to force the Allies to lower the Treaty’s demands; which they did.
While it is clear that Germany was using whatever methods they could to propagate the belief in German oppression, it was first the Treaty’s mistakes, both setting a war debt erroneously high and not outlining methods of enforcing payment, that pushed Germany towards taking these actions.
Though the Ruhr incident and intentional economic destruction are important pieces of evidence of aggressive German policy, the most major and obvious example is the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. The political, social, and economic unrest that resulted from the “oppression” of the Treaty set the stage for small, new, extremist political parties to gain support with their idealistic claims (Quenoy).
After all, the West had forced their vision of a post-war world upon Germany and never considered the opinions of the German people; so, they were going to voice them in their own country. And no party had a more charismatic, convincing, and idealistic demagogue then Hitler for the National Socialist or Nazi Party (Quenoy).
During a speech in 1941, Hitler said “No human being can have stated and written down as often as I what he wanted, and I wrote it again and again: “Away with Versailles!”” (Quenoy), which confirms that his motives were to break the chains that the Treaty had supposedly clamped Germany in, an idea greatly assisted by Allied backtracking of the Treaty’s demands. And, as another major justification for this perspective, “when in Austria a series of unofficial plebiscites showed overwhelming majorities in favour of union with Germany, the treaty laid it down firmly that such a union was forbidden” (Bell 19).
Despite preaching free, democratic ideals, the Treaty banned the freedom of a democratic vote; it was too harsh where it should have been tolerant. Because of this, Hitler had a well-paved path to power.
“In 1927, at German insistence, the Allied Control Commission was withdrawn, and its final report on German violations of the disarmament provisions of the Treaty of Versailles was ignored and suppressed” (Eubank 8). Germany and Hitler were able to, through propaganda (Lee 33) and secret self-destructive acts, convince its people that the Treaty was the root of all their problems; that they needed to throw off the Allied chains (Eubank 7).
But even more importantly, they were able to convince the rest of the world, even the original writers of the Treaty, of the same thing. They came up with the perfect screen to cover the rebuilding of their military (Eubank 10) and restarting aggressive actions, the Treaty.
Hitler also used a similar move when in the same 1941 speech he commented on how he had asked the League of Nations to ease the restrictions on Germany: “I made proposals to them. However, every proposal, coming as it did from me, was sufficient to cause excitement among a certain Jewish-international-capitalist clique” (Quenoy).
As he marked his many appeals in this speech, and also labeled the rationale for his rejection as part of intolerance by a rival social, political, and racial group, Hitler gave himself the justification for taking violent actions towards rejecting the Treaty, rebuilding German power, and eventually waging war against “a certain Jewish-international-capitalist clique”.
And, fearful to begin that war, the creators of the treaty, instead of tightening their grip to snuff out this rising insurrection, as it was already too late to try the Fourteen Points approach, tried to pacify Germany with carefully arranged ignorance on the parts of the Treaty being broken (Eubank 38).
Therefore, the inherent flaws in the Treaty of Versailles both advanced the already present German animosity towards the Allies and provided Germany with the ability and justification to prepare for another war.
Failures of the Big Three
Clearly, the Treaty had flaws; flaws that caused undesirable effects against the Treaty’s mission to ensure a lasting world peace; flaws that could and should have been foreseen and repaired. But, even after the Treaty went into effect and the undesirable consequences made themselves evident, there was still mismanagement of those consequences that furthered the descent towards WW2.
First off though, the Paris Peace Conference began with a Council of Ten which proved too indecisive and was scaled back into a Council of Four. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain; Vittorio Orlando, the premier of Italy; and Wilson and Clemenceau, as mentioned earlier (Sharp). Orlando, however, contributed little to the Treaty and eventually left the Conference altogether (Sharp).
The remaining world leaders became known as The Big Three (Sharp); they were the arbitrators of the conference and authors of the Treaty and they were faced with the potential to write the future; their actions would determine the events of the next century and they knew it. With this responsibility, however, each man thought only of his own agenda, leading to the mess of a treaty that Versailles was.
Clemenceau was by far the harshest critic of Germany and an advocate for severe terms such as military occupation, as he had a right to be; his country had endured great devastation from WW1, had been invaded twice in his lifetime by Germany (Eubank 4), and was the closest to Germany of the Allies, making it the easiest target for a third invasion.
However, Clemenceau conceded to the “lighter” terms encouraged by his associates, such as no military occupation, because of the terms they offered him for his backing; France was promised British and American military support in the case of another German invasion (Sharp).
In contrast, Lloyd George and Wilson “saw the economic recovery of Germany as vital to future prosperity” (Sharp) and therefore sought more lenient rules. Wilson was also famous “for his stubborn inability to recognize the need for the concessions that would deliver his main objectives for minimal sacrifice” (Sharp), but, because of this quality, he was also quite malleable on matters not of his highest priority; a condition Clemenceau and Lloyd George took advantage of (Sharp). These conflicts of interest led to a messy and unwieldy plan for the future.
Now, on the topic of the post-signing era, France and Britain owed the US money for the loans they took during WW1 which, on top of rebuilding the country, caused France to be in a very weak position economically as well as militarily. They needed the reparations from Germany for these two tasks, hence the attempted military occupation of the Ruhr.
However, apart from their failure in collecting reparations there, Britain also disapproved of the French incursion, citing the lack of such a provision in the Treaty, causing them to abandon the Ruhr in 1924 (Eubank 73); because France was so desperate for Allied support they withdrew possibly the only chance at daunting Germany back into passivity.
Moreover, in large parts due to the self-inflicted depression of the German economy and the supposedly unjust nature of the French handlings of Germans, Anti-Treaty sentiment spread across Europe, causing one of the most devastating actions of all; the Dawes Plan (Eubank 73–74).
It was designed from an investigation into the German economy, which naturally found it in shambles, and proposed that the War reparations be lowered to account for Germany’s ability to pay and that international loans should be offered to help Germany recover (Eubank 10).
These loans were undeserved and dangerous; underserved because for one, Germany had brought their economic issues upon themselves, and two, their nation had barely been touched by the War, requiring no repairs or construction; dangerous because “German industry was able to expand its war-making potential far beyond that of France and Britain. Germany had managed to pull victory from defeat” (Eubank 10).
What makes this concession even more appalling, however, is that France and Britain, the victors of the War, were offered no such help. Their debt to the US remained steady and, France, in particular, received no help in rebuilding their war-torn nation (Eubank 10). These Allied actions, beginning from the writing of the Treaty of Versailles, became known amongst historians as appeasement policy (Eubank 10).
Because of the lack of coordination before writing the Treaty, the unwavering stances held by the authors, and the mishandling of the effects of the Treaty’s obvious mistakes, the Treaty of Versailles became less about securing the future and more about reinforcing the present. A present that ended up securing a future dominated by aggressive German militaristic policy.
The conflict of personality, individualistic goals, and failure to see the big picture were all reasons The Big Three wrote such a flawed Treaty. Flawed in the ways it handled Germany; too harsh where Germany was able to derive insult and injustice and too lenient where Germany could easily maneuver out of restrictions and requirements. Either a continuous and controlled military occupation of Germany or a complete acceptance of its status as a free nation could have prevented the rise of Hitler and German military power.
Furthermore, Germany agreed to enter into peace negotiations on the basis that the Allies would follow Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and pursue “peace without victory”. When they received the Treaty, however, they found a confusing mess of settlements not at all aligned with these ideas and the injustice felt by the Germans and the contempt for their new democratic government that accepted the Treaty, the Weimar Republic, paved the way for the Nazi party to win power and gain control of the country.
Finally, as a wholesome summary of the Treaty, British diplomat Harold Nicolson had this to say: “‘We came to Paris confident that the new order was about to be established; we left it convinced that the new order had merely fouled the old.’ As a result, ‘We arrived determined that a peace of justice and wisdom should be negotiated: we left it, conscious that the Treaties imposed upon our enemies were neither just nor wise’” (Lee 21).
While Germany and Nazism are most assuredly to blame for the start of the Second World War, Hitler’s rise to power being the most defining event, the victors of the First, the authors of the Treaty, are responsible for not preventing his ascension despite possessing the capacity to do so and the capability to avoid future conflicts of a global scale.
The designers of the Treaty failed at their mission to bring on lasting world peace for a multitude of reasons and these flaws in thinking carried into the Treaty itself; therefore, transitively, from creators to creation, the inherent flaws of the Treaty of Versailles were responsible for the reemergence of Germany’s aggressive policy after WW1.
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