The Irony of the Treaty of Versailles

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U.S. Newspaper, November 11, 1918.

Signed on June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the First World War and became the catalyst for the Second. The Paris Peace Conference, wherein the details of the Treaty were debated and finalized by the victorious allied powers, took place from January 18-June 28, 1919 and primarily convened to discuss the ramifications that were to be faced by Germany and the Central Powers. German leaders were not invited to the conference and the newly formed Bolshevik government of Russia declined to attend. Japan and the western allies; therefore, had only themselves with which to contend when determining the distribution of the spoils of war. Ultimately, the individual victors all gained territorially and monetarily while Germany was mandated to accept complete responsibility for instigating a global war. The loss of territory, military resources, and the “War Guilt Clause” fanned the flames of German nationalism, thereby opening the door for a charismatic leader to revolutionize the populace with the promise of returning Germany to a mythical, utopian past.

The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference, May 27, 1919. (Left to right) David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando,Georges Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson.

The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference, May 27, 1919. (Left to right) David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson.

The western leaders at the Paris Peace Conference all vied for different priorities to be highlighted in the Treaty. United States President Woodrow Wilson attempted to implement his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations. Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, sought the lands along the Adriatic that were promised to his country in 1915’s Treaty of London. Orlando stormed from the meetings on numerous occasions when he discovered these lands were instead designated to the newly formed nation of Yugoslavia. France’s Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau was primarily concerned with disarmament so as to prevent Germany from ever again invading France. Less severe in his approach and seeking a soft peace with Germany was British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

George wanted Britain to again be the world’s dominant naval force; therefore, he advocated that Germany dismantle its navy. Additionally, he demanded the secession of German lands in Africa so as to bolster Britain’s already far-reaching empire. George wanted to facilitate a reconciliation with Germany as regain Britain’s dominance in international shipping and trade. Clemenceau saw George as being “too soft” on Germany simply because England had the Channel as a protective barrier whereas France abutted its hostile neighbor. Clemenceau was certain that unless Germany’s military was completely dismantled, France would again be invaded and occupied by German forces. He, of course, was correct.

Map of Europe, 1914.

Map of Europe, 1914.

Under the Treaty, Germany forfeited its African colonies, primarily to France, Belgium, and Britain. Additionally, Japan received the colonies Germany had held in the Pacific. President Wilson’s goal was the implementation of the League of Nations and member states did, in fact, gain territory as a result of the Treaty. To the dismay of Wilson; however, the U.S. Congress blocked America’s entry into the League of Nations in an attempt to return to an isolationist position. Orlando and the Italian delegates were incensed that they did not receive the land they were promised and felt as though they were dismissed by the leaders of France, Britain, and the United States, which in no small part led to the ascension of Benito Mussolini and the coup that resulted in the Fascist party usurping control of the Italian government.

Map of Europe after the German concessions under the Treaty of Versailles.

Map of Europe,1919, after the German concessions under the Treaty of Versailles.

France, which had suffered 500,000 civilian and 1.5 million military casualties in the war in addition to physical destruction in much of the country, saw the return of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland was demilitarized in an attempt to assuage Clemenceau. Further, all coal from the Saar region, which remained in German hands, was ceded to France.

As a result of these territorial concessions, Germany lost a full ten percent of its population; more than 700,000 citizens. This added to their declining population as during the war more than two million soldiers were killed and an estimated 750,000 civilians died from starvation or related illnesses due to the naval blockade enacted by Britain. German nationalists viewed the loss of land and citizenry as a humiliation perpetrated by the western allies, the leaders of the Weimar Republic who signed the Treaty, and those who benefitted from the stipulations; namely bankers.

Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles is known as the “War Guilt Clause” and states that the Central Powers, primarily Germany, accepted full responsibility for the instigation of war and therefore were required to make reparations for all associated costs. Several proposals and counterproposals were considered before the Allied Powers settled on the London Schedule of Payments on May 5, 1921. This enactment required Germany to pay 132 billion German gold marks; equivalent to US $33 billion. The other Central Powers were afforded much more lenient terms and had their payments reduced or cancelled whereas Germany was forced to make full payments until the Dawes Plan (1924) and the Young Plan (1929) altered the payment specifications. The Young Plan did reduce Germany’s reparations and they were forced to borrow funds in order to make the scheduled payments.

Cartoon summarizing the War Guilt Clause.

Cartoon summarizing the War Guilt Clause.

The United States became a primary lender to Germany until the stock market disaster of 1929, wherein U.S. banks no longer had the resources to make any further loans. By 1932, Germany was no longer able to make payments and one year later, when Adolf Hitler rose in power, he declared an end to reparation and loan payments. Hitler saw the reparations as a tremendous benefit to bankers, who he believed were all Jewish. This view propagated the “Stab in the Back Myth” that Jews deliberately enable the decline of Germany. He averred that American, Jewish bankers were profiting from his nation’s decline and that he was obligated to recreate the German Empire and seize the land stolen from Germany as a result of the Treaty. As the country was in a terrible condition of depression, the mass populace blindly believed and followed their leader in the hope of a brighter future. It can be said; therefore, that because of the territorial and financial stipulations included in the Treaty of Versailles Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime were able to assume power, propagate hatred, seize lands that contained a large ethnically German populace, and convince the German people that war was their only salvation and would restore the nation to greatness.

As the powerful U.S. had no obligations under the League of Nations to defend member states, Germany reassembled its military and began to annex European nations. Under the terms of the Treaty, Germany’s navy was to consist of 24 ships, the army was limited to 100,000 volunteers, military academies and conscription were banned, and the importation or exportation of war materials was forbidden. Hitler’s regime blatantly and overtly violated these terms. In March 1935, mandatory conscription was introduced and the German Army began the rebuilding process. One year hence, Germany reoccupied the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland. Finally, the annexation of Austria occurred in March 1938. All of these violations were committed with little to no response from the League of Nation states. Once Hitler “appeased” Prime Minister Chamberlain and signed the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union, his army perfected their Blitzkrieg tactics and on September 1, 1939 invaded Poland.

A priest among Polish hostages, September 1939.

A priest among Polish hostages, September 1939.

With hindsight, one can see that had the U.S. joined the League of Nations, history may have unfolded differently. It cannot be denied; however, that because of the terms enacted under the Treaty of Versailles, ironically a document composed to end the “War to End All Wars,” sparked the nationalist movement in Germany during the 1920s which ultimately led to the Second World War and the most horrific crimes against humanity the world has ever known.

After Germany was reunified, war loan payments resumed and on October 3, 2010, Germany made the final loan payment due and at last the reparations assumed under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles were paid in full.

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About Author

Carol Costello holds a BA in History with Summa Cum Laude distinction from Arizona State University. Her area of expertise is the American Civil War. She also does extensive research pertaining to World War II, primarily in the European Theater of Operations. Her MA, also from Arizona State, is held in Interdisciplinary Studies where she combined her research in the disciplines of history and philosophy, which culminated in a thesis analyzing ethnicity during the Civil War.

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