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The Treaty of Versailles: Peace without Justice


The Montreal Review, December 2010


This essay aims to give an answer to the question "To what extent was the Treaty of Versailles a cause for the Second World War?" The attentive reader would immediately notice that the question in the way as I put it consists in itself half of the answer. Intentionally, I do not ask, "Is the Versailles Treaty a cause for the Second World War?" Over this question, the debate was huge. But I ask, "To what extent it is a cause?" This implies that the Versailles Treaty, in my opinion, is not the only reason for the Second World War, although it is a critical element in the long chain of causations, without which the war perhaps would not happen.

For reader's convenience, I will divide the narrative of my answer in a few main parts. First, I will try to answer why did the Allied Powers create in 1918-19 such peace settlement. Do we have the right to blame the politicians who participated in the conference in Paris for their decisions that, obviously, were not the best possible. Later, I will say a few words about the territorial and economic arrangements of the Treaty and their effect over Germany and the European politics in general. After this, I will show both the German views and aspirations in the interwar period and the French positions to the Treaty. And finally, I will write about the Treaty in general, its consequences and its true place among the causes for the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history.

"Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" by Margaret Macmillan (Random House, 2007) 


It is very easy for our generation to blame the politicians who gathered in Paris in 1919 to elaborate the new world order after the Great War (1914-1917) for their weakness and shortsightedness. It is also easy to excuse them.

Blaming the British premier Lloyd George, the French premier Clemenceau and the American president Wilson for their inability to make an agreement that will assure a peaceful future for Europe and the world means that the critic does not put himself in the post-war leaders' position. On the other hand, excusing their decisions one seems to make a compromise with the moral sense and reason, tolerating a world that repeats its mistakes.

My readings of commentaries on the peace treaty have led me to the conclusion that most of the people who excused the weakness and short-sightedness of the engineers of the post-Versailles order were politicians and analysts from the interwar period, the same people who later would bog down in the bloody swamp of the WWII. Therefore, I asked myself what position I have to take when I observe the motives behind the treaty and the way it was made. And I choose the most convenient stand: the Aristotelian middle ground. The British, the French, and the American politicians, along with their less powerful allies, worked out a very bad, very irresponsible treaty that did not improve the world, but laid down the foundations of a future destruction. Yet, as people of their own time, they hardly could do something different.

How confusing was the post-war time for its contemporaries is visible through the different accounts left by participants at the Peace conference in Paris.

Lord Riddle's memories for example, which I will quote below, reflected the feelings of the majority among the winners who attended the conference, while the solitary voice of Lord Keynes, which I cite later, presented the mood of the marginal group of skeptics in the winning camp and also the general feelings among the defeated who watched the Paris talks from afar, not invited at the conference.

"The opening meeting took place at the French Foreign Office, a palatial building on the Quai d'Orsay," remembers Lord Riddle. "It was an impressive scene - the greatest and most important international conference ever held. Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey, and Bulgaria were absent, but the colour and drama were imparted to the proceedings by picturesque representatives from India, China, Japan, and the Arab States. It looked as if all the great ones of the earth had been gathered together." 1

John Maynard Keynes recalls in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, "Paris was a nightmare, and everyone there was morbid. A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene: the futility and smallness of man before the great events confronting him... Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and of Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterization, were really faces at all and not the tragic-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show. The proceedings of Paris all had this air of extraordinary importance and unimportance at the same time. The decisions seemed charged with consequences to the future of human society; yet the air whispered that the word is not flesh, that it was futile, insignificant, of no effect, dissociated from the events..." 2

Why did the Allied powers take the decision to suspend the defeated nations from participation in the peace talks? Why did they decide to ask from Germany reparations that do not correspond to her abilities to pay, why did they detach from her territorial body key regions in East and West and left more than 3 million Germans under foreign governance, why did they throw over the shoulders of Germany the entire guilt for the war (Article 231)? Why did they miss the chance to remake the world for good?

The armistice in 1918, based on the Wilsonian "Fourteen Points," promised self-determination, justice, and peace for all - winners and losers; but its promises did not soften the post-war treatement of the defeated nations.

There are two possible, basic explanations for this injustice: the first is the level of political maturity of the early twentieth century world, and the second, is the immediacy and the weight of the practical task that the winners faced.

In an essay entitled "The Problem before the Peacemakers", Professor C.K. Webster argues that the political leaders in 1918 had neither unlimited time and authority, nor blank sheet on which to draft their treaty. 3 Before the end of the war people enthusiastically accepted the "Fourteen Points," but after it, they passionately wanted a culprit for their sufferings, they wanted security, the Rhineland, Adriatic, more colonies and territories. C.K. Webster says that the statesmen were not able make treaty of peace in a "detached and scientific spirit, with their eyes in the future." 4 They were pressured not only by the immediate problems of the war-torn world, but also by the illusion that a hastily elaborated peace is enough to bring the pre-war prosperity. The rapid industrialization and state propaganda in the last fifty years before the war had taught people to have higher expectations and wrong feelings to their neighbours. What was the hope for a successful peace settlement in a world which economy was still functioning on the pillars of the nineteen-century wisdom, composed by states breathing nationalism that did not correspond at all to the progressive spirit of the League of Nations? The world did not have the political maturity that cultivates the will for compromise and peace.

On the more practical level, political leaders, especially Lloyd George, were pressured by the public opinion, Wilson was lacking the support of the Congress to engage the American power in creation of a more secure Europe, Clemenceau was afraid of the "mad" German doctrine of universal supremacy, 5 France was left alone without guarantees that the German colossus, lying next to her, will be constrained by common efforts. And a third reason for the inadequacy of Versailles peace settlement, that I discovered in the observations of Professor Arnold Toynbee 6 and would like to mention, is that the peace was made by statesmen who waged and won a war. The war leaders, Toynbee notes, have special mentality and temperament that corresponds to their duties to save the nation from aggression. When the peace comes, they naturally continue the fight. This, perhaps, explains the rapacious claims against the defeated nations in 1918. Peacemaking is for peacemakers.

Groups of experts accompanied the statesmen in Paris in 1918-19, they had the task to study the Congress of Vienna and to offer suggestions for the new peace settlement. But the Treaty of Vienna was useless, because the defeated nations did not participate in the talks in Versailles and because the twentieth century Europe was much more economically interdependent than nineteen century pre-industrial Europe. The Old Continent needed a completely new system of international relationships, based on collaboration and growing economic integration. Perhaps, if Germany was accepted as an equal representative at the peace talks the economic and territorial arrangements would be different and the interwar years would not be spent in constant revisions of the decisions taken in 1918-19.

In the last September (2010), the European newspapers announced that the First World War officially ended, Germany paid the last £ 59.5 million debt. 7 In 1919, the political leaders in Paris, under the pressure of France, accepted the idea that Germany, as a sole perpetrator, must pay the all price for the war; German economic power had to rebuild the devastated continent. Keynes predicted early what would be the consequences of such a decision. Germany, the biggest and economically most advanced nation on the continent, would be impoverished and the result would be this: "Men will not always die quietly. For starvation, which brings to some lethargy and a helpless despair, drives other temperaments to the nervous instability of hysteria and to a mad despair. And these in their distress may overturn the remnants of organization, and submerge civilization itself in their attempts to satisfy desperately the overwhelming needs of the individual. This is the danger against which all our resources and courage and idealism must now cooperate." 8 These words were written in 1918-19, well before the Great Depression and the radicalization of the German politics that led to the rise of Hitler. Before the war, Germany had transformed from agricultural society into industrial one, and Keynes was afraid that the economic arrangements of the Treaty would hit the industrial base of the state. Actually, despite the inflation, French occupation of Ruhr and the unemployment hikes, Germans not only survived the 1920s, but performed pretty well. 9 The Great Depression did what Versailles economic sanctions did not do.

Thus, the economic arrangements of the Treaty cannot be taken as a leading factor for the outbreak of the Second World War. The territorial arrangements had more consequences. Some of the crucial Allies' decisions were: Alsace and much of Lorraine were returned to France, Prussian provinces of Posnan and West Prussia were ceded to Poland, Upper Silesia transferred to Czechoslovakia, East Prussia was given under the control of France and later annexed by Lithuania, the industrial Saarland was put under control of the League of Nations for 15 years, Austria had no right to seek merger with Germany. These arrangements showed winners' disrespect to the principle of self-determination that was promised during the armistice as a guiding light for the creation of the post-war order.

The territorial arrangements are among the main causes for the next war, because they gave Germany moral right to revise the Treaty and to act unchecked by the Allies for too long. This moral right was felt not only among Germans, but also in France, Britain and the U.S. All important interwar diplomacy and international politics was based on the joint efforts the obligations of the treaty to be modified in order German needs to be met without making France threatened. Interwar politics was a strong cocktail of real politics, diplomacy, and political manoeuvring, reinforced by economic shakes and mesmerizing scarlet lights from East. In 1933, Germany was already drunk, and the Allies were already dizzy, unable to understand the character of the German Kaiser and the massive will behind his lunatic ideas.

In 1935, Baron Werner von Rheinbaben, who represented Germany at the League of Nations and at the Disarmament Conference, exposed in London the German feelings and post-war ambitions. In a broadcasted talk, 10 published later by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., he summarized the German feelings and goals as follows: the Treaty of Versailles "robbed" Germany from her "freedom and honour" and thus the European system had to be revised without "war" or "other methods of force." The revision that Rheinbaben was describing was according to the contemporary "official" line of Hitler's policy. In 1934, Germany wanted to take back the Saar Territory from France, gradually to revise the Polish arrangements, to establish "close relations" with Austria, recognizing her "independence" while admitting her German character, 11 and defending the culture and identity of the German minorities, her " Volkstum ." All this, according to Rheinbaben, had to be made peacefully, but this conciliatory spirit somehow submerged under the adamant words at the end of his speech that Germany "can never give up her claims," that "she can never forget" that the Austrian state "has always been German and wants to remain German." Although the economic arrangements of the Treaty had not hurt German economy too much, after the war every economic problem of the country was explained with the reparations, and in his speech, Rehinbaben did not miss the chance to express resentment again. "If Germany to-day is, to her great regret, in a position where the repayment of her private debts strains her to the very uttermost and weakens her purchasing power abroad, that too is ultimately the result of Versailles. In this way the German people have been daily reminded for the last fifteen years of the harshness of the victors in 1919." 12 The disarmament of Germany was another reason for grievances. Germany, according to Rheinbaben, wanted from the Allies reciprocal demilitarization that corresponds to the spirit of the League of Nations, and nobody could say anything against this claim. His last words were that Germany would seek "evolution" and "revision" of the clauses of the Treaty.

At the same broadcasted talks, the French representative, Professor Denis Saurat, did not oppose principally to the German aspirations. He admitted that the Treaty needs revision, but with guarantees for France and in the framework of the international institutions. France excused the imperfections of Versailles not with the absence of the defeated nations in Paris in 1918-19, but with the reluctance of Britain and the U.S. to enter in defensive pact with her and thus to assure the future of the peace. France justified her efforts to impede easy modification of the agreements blaming her allies: "England and America began to wonder and to ask aloud why the French stuck to the Treaty; the answer is: because England and America would give France nothing else to stick to." 13 The immediate threat that Germany posed over France made her aware about the dangers of German revisionism, but her vigilance was left without support.

The important thing here is that the Allies had internal disagreements, and, while blaming each other for the flaws of the Treaty, they were enforcing the German sense for committed crime and emboldened the German feeling of moral superiority. In this way, the Allies were not in position to follow strong, concerted and impartial diplomacy against Germany, nor were they able to consider pre-emptive military actions when Hitler's foreign expansion began. The Versailles Treaty created ideological and political weakness among the winners that the Nazi used successfully. Hitler's foreign policy, his so-called "diplomatic revolution," had only one crucial source, which was the Allies' confusion over the question of what are the right and the wrong policies in a world system created by them alone. They had no clear answer of how just are the German claims and which is the most effective policy to deal with them.

The historian Sheldon Anderson argues that if Hitler died before 1939, war might have been averted regardless of the Versailles Treaty. World War II was Hitler's war, he says. 14 I agree with him. But the important thing is what brought Hitler to power and why his lunatic policy was possible in Germany. Is the Versailles Treaty responsible in some way for Hitler's ascend? The answer is not simple: not only the Versailles Treaty, but the Great Depression, the German conservative powers that fought mercilessly against the progressive forces and the cultural and political modernization, the myths about the German exceptionalism, the lack of well-developed strategies for collective security, the facile and bloodless German expansion after 1934, etc. The combination of all of these factors facilitated the rise and political success of Nazism.

I see Hitler as A.J. P. Taylor saw him 15 - not very intelligent man, who had vague imperialistic plans, but who was enough brutal and shameless to use every political opportunity for his advancement, at home and abroad. Hitler was surfing on the tides that others created; in this sense, the Versailles Treaty was a key event, but not the only one, that put in motion a European system with weak moral foundations, unable to deal with the dangers of populism and revisionism. After all, when in international system politics does not meet justice, and peace does not meet politics, war becomes a natural means for resolving the issues.

-- T.S.Tsonchev


1 Lord Riddle, "The Scene and the Personalities" in "The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), p. 11. Lord Riddle was appointed in November 1918 to represent the London and provincial newspapers at the Peace Conference in Paris.

2 John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Prometheus Books, 2004), pp. 55-56

3 C.K. Webster, "The Problem before the Peacemakers" in "The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), pp 24-41

4 Ibid. p. 28

5 Georges Clemenceau "French Demands for Security and Revenge" (in "Sources of Twentieth Century Europe," Houghton Mifflin, 2000) p. 80.

6 Arnold J. Toynbee "The Main Features of the Landscape" in " The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), p. 46.

7 Allan Hall, "First World War officially ends" (The Telegraph, 28 September, 2010)

8 P. 241

9 According to Eichengreen and Hatton (a research quoted by Peter Temin in "Lessons from the Great Depression,"), between 1921-1929 industrial unemployment rates in Germany were 9.2%, for comparison in U.K the rates were 12%, in U.S. 7.9%, in France 8.8., but the Great Depression hit Germany hard - the unemployment raised to 21.8% (average for 1930-1938) while the levels in UK and France were as follow 15.4% and 10.2%. Wholesale prices and industrial production data shows that after 1925 Germany was did not perform much differently than other industrial countries. (See Peter Temin " Lessons from the Great Depression, " MIT Press, 1991)

10 Baron Baron Werner von Rheinbaben , "How the Treaty looks to Germany to-day " in "The Treaty of Versailles and After," George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935, pp. 113-131

11 He said "as Hitler pointed out some time ago, there is no question and no attempt whatever by the Reich to absorb Austria." (p.119) It is strange why the Anschluss in March 1938 did not alarm the Allies that Hitler's ambitions go well beyond his talk, and why they did not used this experience in Munich in September 1938.

12 Baron Baron Werner von Rheinbaben , "How the Treaty looks to Germany to-day" in " The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), p. 123

13 Denis Saurat, "How the Treaty looks to France to-day" in " The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), pp.103-104

14 Sheldon Anderson, "The myth of Versailles Treaty and the Origins of World War II" in " Condemned to Repeat " (Lexington Books, 2008), p. 48

15 A.J. P. Taylor, "The Origins of the Second World War" (Penguin Books, 1991).



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