Treaty of Versailles

Feature, Modern Era

The Seed is Sown of the Second World War

At 11.00 a.m. on 2 November, 1918, fighting ceased on the “Western Front for the first time since 1914. Turkey, Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary had collapsed and Germany remained alone in the field.

Yet the German collapse was unexpected. In the early spring of 1918 the German armies, reinforced by many divisions from the Eastern Front (Russia had been virtually out of the war after the October Revolution of 1917), nearly broke the Franco-British front in two and came within forty miles of Paris. But when the French and British armies with new American divisions counterattacked, the German armies had no fight left in them. By August, 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff knew the game was up and told the Kaiser to seek peace.

On 9 November, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland; a German Republic, headed by a socialist, Ebert, was set up by the military, who needed the Socialists to crush Communist revolts, and the Germans accepted the Armistice. They were to surrender all guns, aeroplanes and the German battle fleet and to retire across their frontiers. The war had resulted in the death of 8 million men in battle, a larger number still were seriously disabled and, throughout the world, partly as result of epidemics caused by the war, 25 million people had perished. In November, 1918, and for a long time after a large part of Eastern Europe was in chaos with indescribable suffering for most of the inhabitants of the broken Austrian Empire and Russia. In Serbia half the whole male population had been killed by the war.

At the time of the Armistice Marshal Foch wanted to enter Germany at once: but the politicians said no. Here was the beginning of the conflict between those who wanted a hard peace and those who wanted a reasonably lenient one, a conflict which lasted throughout the Paris Conference. The result was a peace which was neither hard nor reasonable. When the German armies came back to their homeland they were told by President Ebert that they had never been defeated. So, again at the beginning, their arose a myth that Germany had been betrayed by its civilians and that its army was invincible. This was to do incalculable damage.

The Paris Peace Conference started and ended in confusion. It resulted in a series of Treaties made with the vanquished powers; that with Germany, the Treaty of Versailles, was the most important; and a landmark in men’s minds throughout the twenties and thirties. It may be said that the new States which were created at the Paris Conference, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were positive results, and results which showed that the new spirit of national self-determination had triumphed over the old concept of Imperial rights.

Certainly, at the Paris Conference, the map of Europe was redrawn in a way which corresponded to the spirit of the time. But the fact is that the Poles re-created their ancient State, which had been partitioned by Prussia, Austria and Russia in the seventeenth century, by their own efforts; so did the Czechs and the Slovaks; and as Austria-Hungary crumpled in 1918, the southern Slav subjects of the old Hapsburg Empire united with Serbia.

The peace-makers merely endorsed these things. Nor could they stop the Poles from unwisely extending Poland’s new frontiers into eastern Galicia and from seizing Vilna from the new Baltic country of Lithuania. The peace-makers were powerless to prevent the Rumanians, who had entered Hungary to put down a Communist revolt, from seizing Transylvania which was Hungarian in population. In 1918 the Allied armies were nearly as exhausted as the defeated armies of the Central Powers. Their soldiers were clamouring for demobilization. Strikes took place in France and Britain to prevent intervention in Russia.

To look at what all the Peace Treaties decided would be impossible in the space available. Let us note just a few things before examining the German Treaty. Japan seized the German concession in China of Shantung and began her career of conquest in the Far East. No one could stop her. The new Turkey under Mustapha Kemal rejected the Treaty of Sevres, which had given Greece and Italy parts of Asia Minor in compensation for their war effort. A Greek-Turkish war ended in a complete Turkish victory, the massacres of Greeks at Tymir and a new Treaty in Lausanne in 1922; it led also to increasing estrangement between France and Britain, who quarrelled also over the settlement of Turkey’s former possessions in the Middle East, and to the fall of Lloyd George who had given the Greeks the backing of Britain. Austria was left as a small, German-speaking, backward agricultural country but with a capital, Vienna, of 6 million people. It was unavoidable perhaps that this economic absurdity should have been created. Austria was not allowed to unite with Germany.

Thanks to the principle of respecting national communities, Germany only lost some 13 per cent of her former territory; the losses consisted of a small slice on the Belgian frontier, the northern part of Schleswig-Holstein which went after a plebiscite to Denmark, and most of Silesia, together with Danzig which became a free city and had a long corridor connecting it with Poland. The Saar with its coal-fields was handed over to the League of Nations, the coal-fields being given to France for fifteen years. The Allies were to occupy the west bank of the Rhine for various periods to ensure that Germany did not default on reparations and the Germans were forbidden to have troops or fortifications on the left bank of the Rhine.

Germany had to disarm and was not allowed an army larger than 100,000 men. The disarmament clauses, the German leaders knew, could be circumvented: and they were. What most rankled with the Germans was the loss of Silesia, the Polish Corridor and reparations. The Poles they considered an inferior race. Over reparations the Allies could not agree, at the time the Peace Treaty was signed, on what sum to demand; but the principle was that the Germans being responsible for the war must pay for all war damages, including pensions for the Allied injured.

Looking at the Peace Treaty to-day, one realizes that reparations on the scale demanded were a folly. By the end of the twenties, the whole idea of making Germany pay was more or less abandoned, and the solution was arrived at by which the Americans lent money to the Germans who paid fixed sums; to the Allies who, in their turn, repaid the money which they had borrowed from the United States. But reparations helped to poison the atmosphere during the post-war years and resulted in the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr when the Germans defaulted, against the advice of the British who refused to take part. So reparations even helped to destroy Allied co-operation which, from the end of the Peace Conference, was shaky.

The harsh clauses of the German Peace Treaty made it impossible for Germany to accept the Versailles settlement. Yet the Treaty left Germany potentially the most powerful nation in Europe, with the greatest industrial resources on the Continent, and with a population of 60 million compared with France’s declining population of some 43 million. Further, this powerful nation was no longer faced, on her eastern frontier, by Russia but by two inevitably weak States, Poland and Czechoslovakia, against whom Germany had grievances and each of which contained German minorities.

The errors of Versailles could be laid at the doors of the victorious nations but particularly of Britain, France and the United States. Lloyd George, Clemenceau and President Wilson dominated the conference. But the errors of the Peace Treaties were due also to a deep division in world opinion about the nature of the peace, a division which affected the actions of the politicians.

When the ordinary intelligent man, whether he lived in Man-chester or Lyons or Milan or Chicago or Tokyo, reflected on the war and its horrors, he wanted a peace which would not only rule out war but which would give world politics a better moral basis. This desire for something “noble and kind and good”, in Kipling’s phrase, accounted for the world-wide popularity of President Wilson, whose Fourteen Points seemed the way to real peace and whose advocacy of a League of Nations seemed right.

But, unfortunately, when these same people had to pronounce on the claims of their particular countries, the sort of peace they were inclined to demand was the opposite of the ideal, it was a peace of revenge, or at any rate a selfish peace. This latter attitude applied, in a sense, less to the French than to the British, the Italians, the Japanese or the new nations who were filled with bitterness not only against the Germans but sometimes against each other. The French were comparatively disinterested in what happened outside Europe; they were not trying to grab new territory, what they wanted was security. Clemenceau, the aged politician who had become a virtual dictator from 1917, and whose energy had pulled France together, had no belief in human idealism or in the regeneration of the Germans. He and his fellow-citizens wanted French troops on the Rhine, a hard just peace. He was the permanent chairman of the Peace Conference. Known as “The Tiger”, his manner was frequently savage but always impressive. The British economist Maynard Keynes described him at the conference:

“a very good thick black broadcloth and on his hands, which were never uncovered, grey suede gloves; his boots were thick black leather, very good but of a country style. His walk, his hands and his voice were not lacking in vigour but he bore, nevertheless, the aspect of a very old man conserving his strength for important occasions. He spoke seldom, leaving the initial statement of the French case to his officials. He closed his eyes and sat back in his chair with an impassive face of parchment, his grey-gloved hands clasped in front of him. A short sentence, decisive and cynical, was generally sufficient. An abandonment of his ministers, whose face would not be saved, or a display of obstinacy reinforced by a few words in a piquantly delivered English. But speech and passion were not lacking when they were wanted and the sudden outburst of words, often followed by a fit of coughing, produced their impression by force or surprise, rather than by persuasion.”

One principle to which Clemenceau clung with all his might was that France must not separate her policy from the Anglo-Saxon powers. He thought little of Wilson; he esteemed Lloyd George whom he considered clever at, in his phrase, “reversing the beatitudes”, which meant applying moral standards to other countries which Lloyd George himself violated. Owing to Clemenceau’s belief in the Alliance, he reluctantly agreed to renounce the Rhineland and accept instead an Anglo-American guarantee to come to France’s aid if she were attacked. Without Clemenceau, no Treaty would have been signed. He lost his position in France, failed to be elected President of the Republic in 1920, and retired for good. The French felt that Clemenceau might have won the war but that he had lost them the peace.

Lloyd George was the cleverest and the most adaptable of the Big Three. On the night of the Armistice, he and Churchill dined together and agreed that Germany must be punished, but must also be put on her feet or there would be permanent chaos in Europe. But at the General Election the British people clearly wanted something different. They wanted to hang the Kaiser and to “squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked”.

For all his prestige, Lloyd George had to trim his sails. At the Peace Conference the British were as insistent as the French on heavy reparations and it was Lloyd George who insisted on the demilitarization of Germany. He was much impressed by the need to ensure unity among the European Allies. He very often referred to a letter he received towards the end of the Conference from Sonnino, the Italian Prime Minister, who warned him that the peace was shaky and that it was unwise to have 40 million Italians, as well as all the other countries who felt themselves grieved, against him.

But over the Rhineland, Lloyd George backed Wilson; he did not want to see France with German territory in her hands since this could lead to a war of revenge. He wanted to see Germany able to recover economically. At the last phase of the Conference he tried to obtain certain fundamental alterations with regard to loss of German territory to Poland. Curiously enough, President Wilson who, having lost his enthusiasm for investigating injustices in order not to damage acceptance of his great remedy, the League of Nations, argued against him.

President Wilson, in the eyes of millions of people throughout the world, was expected to be the master-mind of the Conference. America, in Wilson’s words, had been “too proud to fight” at the beginning, and had only entered the war in 1917, and then only because American ships were being sunk on sight by German submarines. To the hard-pressed Allies, the United States brought an endless supply of soldiers, guns and ships, and a promise of inevitable victory.

The Germans noted that the United States had come into the war as an “associate”, not an Allied power, and that the American President in his Fourteen Points Peace Plan had promised a peace without annexation or revenge. To them and to the Allied peoples as well, President Wilson embodied a new world of peace and justice.

Unfortunately for the world the American President liked his role of Messiah, and, as Churchill said, was too often “lost in the upper regions of spiritual idealism”. With his long narrow face and pince-nez, dressed in his formal black clothes, this former professor of constitutional law turned politician, was not a great enough man to stand the flattery which was lavished on him. To the crowds who greeted him in Paris, Rome and London he embodied the idea of a popular preacher who, because of the great power of the United States, might indeed save the world. To clever European statesmen he seemed inexperienced and woolly-minded and they sometimes shuddered at his confident smile, which bared his huge teeth.

His decision to lead the American delegation himself (he was the only Head of State to do this) was much criticized by some of his advisers. A far greater blunder was that the President did not associate the Republican Party with his peace plans. President Wilson had been elected Democratic President in 1912 with a record majority owing to a split among the Republicans. Somehow or other he overlooked the fact that the Republicans were gaining in the United States and that indeed when he came over to Europe there was a Republican majority in the Senate. But Wilson remained confident that the peoples of the world, including the Americans, would see that he could put his ideas for world peace into operation.

Before he landed in Brest in January, 1919, the month the Paris Conference opened, he told his entourage, with its accompanying journalists, that most of the Allied leaders were imperialists who did not have the trust of their peoples. President Wilson’s great idea was the creation of a League of Nations which should make war for ever impossible. As he found that it was increasingly difficult to make peace in accordance with his lofty ideals, he concentrated more and more on the League to which Germany would, after a period of penance, be admitted and, once in, would forget ideas of revenge. Most unwisely, the President rejected a French proposal to give the League of Nations an armed force with which to maintain peace. No, Wilson thought, the League must have its strength in human idealism. Thereafter Clemenceau accepted anything about the League which Wilson wanted, considering it on the whole a thing of no consequence.

Unfortunately for the world, the Americans, like so many other peoples, also made an unidealistic final choice and refused to ratify the Peace Treaty or to enter the League of Nations. They returned to isolation. The effect on French opinion was disastrous. Since the Americans had rejected the Treaty, the Anglo-American guarantee to come to France’s aid also lapsed.

When the German government learnt the peace terms, it dared not sign. Hindenburg was consulted, and returned an evasive answer. Fifteen minutes before the Armistice expired on 24 June the German government decided that it would have to sign in order to avoid a march of the Allied armies to Berlin. The German delegation, who had been kept more or less as prisoners in Versailles, came into the Great Hall of Mirrors, where in 1871 the King of Prussia had been crowned Emperor of Germany, and, in total silence, signed the 440 articles of the Treaty. This was on 28 June, five years to the day since the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo.

To have made the Versailles Treaty workable it was not sufficient for Germany to join the League of Nations; it was necessary that the German people and its elite should have wanted to make peace in Europe by accepting the Treaty sincerely and striving peacefully to modify its injustices. This never happened. The Gentians never accepted Versailles. There came a ray of hope in 1924 when Britain, France and Italy freely negotiated the Treaty of Locarno with Germany which was to make war impossible in Western Europe. The liberal French Foreign Minister, Briand, said that on that day the statesmen of the West had talked European, a language which all the world would have to learn. But the German Foreign Minister Stresemann refused to consider making similar pacts with his eastern neighbours.

Peace and prosperity might have created democracy in Germany. But this was not to be. After some improvement in Germany’s economic position in the late twenties, there came the Great Depression which started in Wall Street in 1929. Germany suffered from it more severely than most European countries and in 1933 had 6 million unemployed. In that year Hitler came to power at the head of a mass nationalist movement. The world moved inexorably towards a second world war. This, of course, constitutes the final verdict on the Paris Settlements and the Treaty of Versailles.