Although we typically think of November 11, 1918, as the end date of World War I, that day only marked the start of an armistice ending the actual fighting, not the official termination of the war. To bring about a formal conclusion to the Great War, the victorious Allied Powers (led by Britain, France, the United States and Italy) had to complete peace treaties with each of their opponents in the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire).
The most important of these treaties was the Treaty of Versailles, ending the war with Germany that was produced by the Paris Peace Conference and signed June 28, 1919. Yet even before the treaty was signed, it sparked criticism and controversy. And when World War II erupted 20 years later, the treaty was maligned and blamed for causing the political, economic and military conditions that led to the 1939-45 global conflict.
In the decades since, generations of historians have written countless books and other works creating what “everyone knows” about the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: The overly punitive treaty, imposed as “victors’ justice” on helpless Germany by the triumphant Allies, was chiefly responsible for making World War II inevitable. Its “war guilt” article humiliated Germany by forcing it to accept all blame for the war, and it imposed disastrously costly war reparations that destroyed both the post-World War I German economy and the democratic Weimar Republic. The treaty, therefore, ensured the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Moreover, the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the treaty caused the collective security organization, the League of Nations, to fail because the United States was not a member. Furthermore, no less an authority than French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the World War I supreme Allied commander, apparently agreed with this assessment, famously complaining in 1919, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years!”
Yet while the Treaty of Versailles did result in a failed peace and another world war only two decades later, its real failures are not what we have been led to believe for over 90 years. When we examine the facts, it becomes clear that what “everyone knows” about the infamous treaty is simply wrong.
THE 1919 PARIS PEACE CONFERENCE: THE TIGER AND THE LOOT
From January 18 to June 28, 1919, 32 delegations representing 27 countries met in Paris to produce the Versailles Treaty officially ending the Allies’ war with Germany. Despite the large number of countries involved, the conference was dominated by the “Big Four” major Allied Powers: the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of international diplomacy would not be shocked to learn that during the conference each of the Big Four representatives pursued his own agenda, which included goals that frequently conflicted with those of his counterparts.
President Woodrow Wilson decided to personally represent the United States at the conference, yet it is hard to imagine anyone more naively idealistic about the true nature of international relations. (See Special Feature, “War and Diplomacy,” July 2010 ACG.) Wilson was a bona fide intellectual and social “progressive,” but he often seemed insufferably self-righteous and his view of how nations conducted international relations was, at best, a triumph of hope over experience — he was convinced that “good will” among world leaders would overcome supposedly petty national interests and cynical balance of power politics. Wilson’s idealistic worldview is best captured in his “14 Points” statement, announced in January 1918, calling for free trade, freedom of the seas, open agreements between nations, the promotion of democracy and self-determination among peoples worldwide, and the establishment of the League of Nations to ensure territorial integrity and to maintain world peace.
Although the Big Four European members used Wilson’s 14 Points as enticing propaganda to help convince Germany to surrender in 1918, they represented colonial powers that hardly considered global “democracy and self-determination” in their national interests. Self-determination was applied in the Versailles Treaty when it suited the European members’ interests, but was ignored when it did not. Wilson found that to persuade his more pragmatic European allies to agree to his cherished League of Nations, he had to compromise on most of his other points.
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France was represented by its “Tiger,” Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Since Germany had invaded France twice in the previous four decades in wars fought on French soil (in 1870 and 1914), Clemenceau’s principal goals were ensuring his country’s security against future German aggression, to include permanent demilitarization of the Rhineland (Germany west of the Rhine River) and restrictions on German military forces, and requiring Germany to pay reparations for the civilian damages wrought by its brutal, exploitative, four-year occupation of northern France and Belgium. During the occupation of northern France – an area containing nearly 60 percent of the country’s steel manufacture and 40 percent of its coal production – the Germans had confiscated and shipped back home what they wanted, and when they evacuated the region near the end of the war, they sabotaged much of what they had left behind. Clemenceau’s insistence that the German invaders be required to pay for the civilian damages they had caused in France and Belgium became the principal justification for the Versailles treaty’s war reparations articles.
Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had held the post since 1916, represented Great Britain. Although he was considered the epitome of 20th-century liberalism and a social reformer, he proved ruthless enough to maintain Britain’s naval blockade that strangled Germany of vital food supplies for eight months after the November 1918 armistice. Tens of thousands of German civilians died of starvation or malnutrition-related illnesses before Britain finally lifted the blockade once Germany signed the Versailles treaty. Lloyd George largely accomplished his main goals, which were eliminating Germany’s High Seas Fleet as a threat to the Royal Navy and maintaining the British Empire. He even added to Britain’s colonial empire when it (along with France, Belgium and Japan) assumed “mandates” (colonies in all but name) over colonies the treaty stripped from Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Britain acquired Iraq, Palestine and Jordan in the Middle East and four former German colonies in Africa.
The major goal of Italy’s representative, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, was “loot” in the form of increased territory for his country. Bribed by the Allies with promises of territorial gains, Italy entered the war in 1915 against Austria-Hungary and in 1916 against Germany. Thus Orlando was in Paris to collect, but Italy’s dismal battlefield record had hardly put him in a position to make demands. Orlando stormed out of the conference in April when it became clear that Italy would not receive all the territory it wanted.
The treaty signed June 28, 1919, in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors comprised 440 articles in 426 pages (English text and French text on facing pages), plus annexes and maps. Its several parts notably included part I establishing the League of Nations; part II creating Germany’s postwar boundaries (Germany lost 13 percent of its territory and all of its colonies); part V imposing military restrictions on Germany’s armed forces; and part VIII specifying war reparations to be paid principally to France, Belgium, Britain and Italy for civilian damages caused by the German invasion and occupation.
After decades of propaganda and mythmaking, however, it is time to set the record straight by revealing what the Treaty of Versailles did not do.
WAR REPARATIONS: REVENGE OR REVISIONISM?
First and foremost, a stake should be driven once and for all through the heart of the most egregiously false claim about the Treaty of Versailles — that Germany was unfairly saddled with heavily punitive, disastrously costly war reparations that destroyed its postwar economy, caused crippling hyperinflation and doomed the democratic Weimar Republic. In fact, requiring defeated nations to pay reparations to the victors was a long-standing feature of treaties ending European wars. This penalty was not suddenly invented at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to punish Germany; rather, it was simply “business as usual.” Germany had typically imposed similar penalties on countries it had defeated, including demanding billions of marks from Russia in the heavily punitive March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. (See “Treaty of Brest-Litovsk,” p. 45.) Significantly, Germany had forced France to pay billions in “indemnities” after its victory in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War – and German forces continued occupying part of France until payment was made. The French promptly paid in full, even though the cost was equal to 25 percent of their national income.
The next important point is two-fold: First, the reparations Germany was required to pay were for civilian damages caused by its invasion and occupation of Belgium and northern France. Second, the Allies calculated the amount based on Germany’s ability to pay, not on the actual cost of repairing those damages – which was much greater. The claim that the Versailles treaty required Germany to pay “the entire cost of the war” is completely false, as verified in Article 232, which stated that Germany was to pay “compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property during the period of belligerency.”
Another revealing fact is that the figure Germany supposedly was required to pay for reparations — a hefty 132 billion marks – was intentionally misleading. The Allies never intended Germany to pay such a huge sum. It was only included in the treaty as “spin” — an effort to fool the (principally French) general public into thinking that Germany was going to be severely punished economically for its war depredations. As historian and economist Sally Marks, among others, has pointed out, the actual figure the Allies intended Germany to pay, and which they had calculated Germany could pay, was a more modest 50 billion marks. In fact, during treaty negotiations, the Germans had offered to pay 51 billion!
Yet Germany never paid even that much lower figure. Between 1920 and 1931 (when Germany suspended reparations payments indefinitely) it paid only 20 billion. But even this figure is misleading, since only 12.5 billion of it was paid in cash. The remainder was paid “in kind” through deliveries of coal, chemicals, lumber and railway assets. Moreover, the 12.5 billion in cash was from money Germany acquired through loans from bankers in New York. Germany not only received far more money in U.S. loans (27 billion) than it paid out in cash for reparations, in 1932 it also defaulted on these loans after paying back only a small percentage.
In effect, except for a few billion “in kind” payments, Germany paid no war reparations out of its own pocket. What “everyone knows” about Germany being crippled by war reparations therefore is a myth. French economist Etienne Mantoux surely was right when he wrote, “Germany was not unable to pay reparations, it was unwilling to pay them.”
HYPERINFLATION: 4 BILLION MARKS FOR A BEER
Closely related to the “crippling and punitive” war reparations myth is the claim that the reparations were the cause of the disastrous hyperinflation that ruined Germany’s economy between 1921 and 1924. Yet as noted, from 1920 to 1931, Germany, with the help of U.S. loans, paid only a small fraction of the reparations it was supposed to pay — hardly enough to ruin its economy.
The roots of Germany’s post-World War I disastrous hyperinflation stem from the beginning of the war when the Kaiser and his ministers decided how they would finance the costly conflict. Instead of imposing taxes to pay for the war, they decided to fund it by borrowing. The effect of this decision was to begin a steady devaluation of the German mark against foreign currencies. Germany’s solution to the problem — unwisely continued by the postwar Weimar government to solve its own economic woes — was to print more money. Predictably, this caused inflation, and as more money entered circulation, inflation rates increased.
The trigger that moved postwar Germany’s increasing inflation rates to the level of disastrous “hyperinflation” was the way the Weimar government chose to respond to the 1923 French occupation of Germany’s Ruhr industrial region after Germany continually defaulted on its reparations payments. The Weimar government encouraged and abetted “passive resistance” — such as work stoppages and strikes — to the French occupation and paid German workers for their cooperation by printing vast amounts of money. The result of this deliberate policy decision by Weimar politicians was to send inflation rates skyrocketing into “hyperdrive.” By November 1923, a loaf of bread cost Germans 3 billion marks, a pound of meat cost 36 billion, and a glass of beer was 4 billion.
Although the Weimar government conveniently blamed “war reparations” for causing the hyperinflation crisis, Germany was in fact paying no reparations at the time. Germany’s hyperinflation and economic catastrophe during the Weimar Republic years was due to its politically motivated economic policies, not “crippling” reparations payments to the Allies.
Moreover, the claim that hyperinflation led directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis flies in the face of reality. Revaluation of the German mark in 1924 stabilized the German economy, and by 1927 — years before Hitler’s rise to power — it was one of the world’s strongest (although Germany did later suffer economically in the global Great Depression, which between 1930 and 1933 created conditions Hitler exploited).
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‘WAR GUILT’: TRUTH OR LIE?
Perhaps the most contentious part of the Treaty of Versailles is Article 231, the so-called “war guilt” clause that has been egregiously mis-nicknamed and habitually misrepresented. Neither “guilt” nor “war guilt” is mentioned in the article, yet German politicians – first those in the Weimar Republic and later Hitler and the Nazis — used these terms to demonize the treaty in their efforts to sidestep Germany’s obligations. Although German propagandists in the 1920s and 1930s created the story that the treaty forced Germany to accept the humiliating “war guilt” clause assigning it blame for the entire war, historians have continued to echo this propaganda ever since. In fact, the German “war guilt” propaganda was so effective that during the 1920s many in the populations of Allied countries — particularly Britain — began accepting the idea, which helped sap the Allies’ will to rigorously enforce the treaty’s provisions.
When read by itself, Article 231 does appear to make the Germans’ “war guilt” claim seem plausible: “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.” However, it is vitally important to place the article within the proper context of the treaty. It is the preamble to part VIII, regarding reparations, and not a “standalone” section solely intended to blame Germany for the war — which, if that had been the Allies’ intention, surely would have merited its own section. Clearly, the authors of the article, American diplomats Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles, merely intended it to establish Germany’s acceptance of its responsibility to pay the reparations for the civilian damages its military had wrought, as laid out in the subsequent articles (232-247) of part VIII.
Both Davis and Dulles were shocked when German politicians chose to interpret Article 231 as Germany taking full blame for World War I. Indeed, the exact same text was used in the Allied treaties with both Austria and Hungary, and neither of those nations ever considered that the language implied any “war guilt” on their part. Only German politicians — both for their own domestic political reasons and as a means to gain international sympathy — chose to interpret Article 231 as unfairly placing blame for the entire war on Germany.
Article 231, when correctly read in conjunction with Article 232 immediately following it, actually limits Germany’s responsibility for the war by requiring Germany to pay only for civilian damages caused by its invasion and occupation of Belgium and northern France. And, as noted, even that was further limited to what the Allies calculated Germany could pay.
Yet German propagandists in the Weimar and Nazi eras eagerly promoted what they termed the “war guilt lie” — which right-wing politicians often linked with the equally false claim that “the German army was stabbed in the back” — to gain domestic and international support for their efforts to avoid compliance with the Versailles treaty provisions. But the term “war guilt lie” more accurately should be applied to what the propagandists succeeded in making us believe all these years — the myth that the Treaty of Versailles unnecessarily humiliated Germany by forcing it to accept total blame for World War I.
THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS: ALWAYS DOOMED TO FAIL
The last enduring myth regarding what “everyone knows” about the Treaty of Versailles is that the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the treaty doomed the League of Nations to failure since the United States was not a member of the global security organization. Yet that claim assumes that the League would have been successful at preventing another world war if the United States had been a member. In fact, due to serious flaws in its concept, organization and procedure for settling international disputes or stopping aggression, the League of Nations could hardly have prevented predatory nations from doing whatever they wanted, whether or not the United States was a part of it.
Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations, as set out in the last of his 14 Points and codified as Part I of the Versailles Treaty, was a “general association of nations established to afford mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity of all nations great and small.” The pillars of the League were collective security, disarmament and settlement of international disputes through arbitration. Yet this was based on voluntary participation by league members – essentially relying on “good will.” The League of Nations had no standing military force to back up any decision it made, and if a nation disagreed with the League’s decision, it could simply “opt out” – as Nazi Germany (1933), Imperial Japan (1933) and Fascist Italy (1937) eventually did when they withdrew from the league after it tried to oppose their aggression.
The League’s only recourse was to try to impose international sanctions on an offending nation. But since these could be economically detrimental to the nations imposing them, this procedure ran counter to the national interests of many League members, whose response was typically to ignore the sanctions. Most often, League members preferred to deal individually with other nations, essentially reverting to traditional “balance of power” bilateral international relations. Increasingly, as the 1930s wore on the League became irrelevant in international affairs. Those who embrace the long-standing myth that the United States doomed the League to failure never seem to explain how U.S. membership in the League could have overcome the inherent fatal flaws in its organization and procedure.
Moreover, as Henry Kissinger noted, the general mood in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s (non-entanglement in European affairs), the abysmal shape of America’s military forces from 1919 until after 1939, and the inability of any American representative to the League to commit the United States to action without prior legislative approval would “not have made a significant difference” to what actually transpired.
Finally, one need only point out that the League of Nations’ successor organization, the United Nations — of which the United States is a founding member — has not been particularly successful at preventing wars and global conflict over the course of its existence.
After exposing the egregious but long-standing myths about the Treaty of Versailles, it is important to examine the real failures of the much-maligned treaty.
WHY THE TREATY REALLY FAILED
First, the Treaty of Versailles was not tough enough on Germany. In fact, as historian Correlli Barnett claimed, the treaty was “extremely lenient in comparison with the peace terms that Germany … had in mind to impose on the Allies” had Germany won the war. Barnett characterizes the Versailles treaty as “hardly a slap on the wrist” compared to the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany imposed on defeated Russia. Germany’s claim, which countless historians have parroted, that the Versailles treaty was overly harsh and too punitive against Germany is, as Kissinger noted, “self-pitying nonsense.”
Even Marshal Foch’s oft-cited quote about the treaty being only “a 20 year armistice” is flagrantly misleading when presented out of context, as it often is. Foch was not criticizing the treaty as being too hard on Germany but was actually making the opposite point — that it was not punitive enough. He was lamenting that the treaty did not ensure that Germany’s armed forces and strategic position were permanently weakened, principally through perpetual French occupation of the Rhineland.
Second, despite the fact that Germany lost 13 percent of its territory and all of its colonies, it actually emerged from World War I in an overall more favorable strategic position than when it started the war. Germany’s colonies, essentially “prestige possessions” to bolster Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego, were an unnecessary drain on its economy. The Allies did Germany a favor by taking them away. The European territory Germany lost — principally a slice in the east to help form independent Poland, and Alsace and Lorraine in the west, which Germany had taken from France in 1871 — was not vital to German industry, which, unlike the industry in northern France and Belgium, had avoided wartime destruction. The eastern territory that was lost helped establish a buffer zone between Germany and the rising power in the East, the Soviet Union, while Germany’s other borders, save that with France, abutted a collection of weak new nations replacing the stronger ones that had bordered prewar Germany. Given Germany’s larger population and, after 1927, more robust economy than its European rivals, within a decade after World War I ended, Germany’s strategic position was greatly enhanced over what existed in 1914.
Perhaps the Allies’ gravest failure in the Versailles treaty was allowing Germany to voluntarily comply with the provisions, since Germany had no incentive to fulfill the obligations to which it had agreed. A closely related failure is that of Allied will to enforce the treaty. With isolationist America essentially “opting out” of the task, and the demoralized, increasingly pacifist British population suddenly getting a collective guilty conscience when it fell for German propaganda, it was left to France to try to enforce the treaty. Except for some half-hearted attempts — notably the 1923 occupation of the Ruhr industrial region in a vain attempt to get Germany to stop defaulting on reparations — France proved incapable of going it alone. In Germany’s clash of wills with its former World War I opponents, Germany won.
In effect, Germany simply ignored its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. Although much has been made by historians about the military restrictions imposed on Germany — the dissolution of the German General Staff, limiting the size of the German army to only 100,000 men, armaments prohibitions, etc. — none of these restrictions were ever rigorously enforced, and Germany began violating them immediately. It was the democratic Weimar Republic in the early 1920s, not Hitler in the mid-1930s, that hid the treaty-banned German General Staff behind the façade of the innocuous-sounding “Truppenamt” (Troop Office) bureaucracy; Weimar politicians and military leaders who negotiated in the 1920s secret training facilities in Russia where German tank tactics and equipment, later to become “blitzkrieg,” were developed; Weimar officials who colluded with German military leaders to avoid the Versailles treaty restrictions, clandestinely training combat pilots; and the Weimar government that in 1932, a year before Hitler took power as chancellor, announced that Germany would no longer abide by the military restrictions imposed by the Versailles treaty.
Finally, and most tragically, one thing the Treaty of Versailles did not fail to do was to give German politicians — from Weimar democrats to Hitler’s Nazi thugs — a useful propaganda tool when they twisted the facts and lied about what was actually in the treaty to support their political agendas. Unfortunately, those lies and myths have become what “everyone knows” about the Treaty of Versailles.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.