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On the 100th Anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, It's Time to Reexamine Its Legacy.

Just months before his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler took aim at a familiar target: the Treaty of Versailles. He announced categorically, “so long as this treaty stands there can be no resurrection of the German people.” A decade later, Hitler declared “all the problems which are causing such unrest today lie in the deficiencies of the Treaty of Peace [Versailles].” 

Interestingly, many in the Anglo-American world concurred with these right-wing German nationalist talking points. The influential economist John Maynard Keynes criticized Versailles as a “Carthaginian peace.” Britain’s wartime prime minister David Lloyd George, who had helped draft the treaty, ultimately condemned it as vindictive and short-sighted. In the 1930s, similar attitudes among British and American statesmen allowed Nazi Germany to remilitarize and trample on Versailles with disastrous consequences.

As the one-hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles approaches, this narrative that the harshness of Versailles directly led to the Third Reich and World War II regrettably persists. However, that narrative collapses when the treaty and its historical context are examined. Versailles did not destroy the German economy, make Germany into a permanent pariah, or inspire the German lust for revenge. Instead, the Nazis capitalized on a unique economic calamity (the Great Depression), German political instability, and deep seated radical nationalist currents.

Unpaid Reparations 

Hitler claimed that crushing reparations had wrecked the German economy and reduced Germany to “serfdom,” and starvation. However, these apocalyptic pronouncements had little basis in reality. 

Given that defeated Germany had caused massive damage during her invasion of Belgium and France, just war theory and millennia of historical precedent expected that Germany would pay compensation for the destruction

When assessing the “fairness” of Versailles’ reparations, it is useful to compare them to the reparations imposed on France following the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War. After that conflict, Germany demanded indemnities far exceeding the German costs of war. In making these demands, Germany’s leaders aimed to cripple France for 15 years. As an added insult, German troops continued to occupy France until the reparations were paid in full.

The German-Russian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 is also instructive. Under the terms of that treaty, Germany forced Russia to give up Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. These lands contained 55 million Russian subjects, over half of Russia’s industry, and nearly all of her coal minesA later supplementary treaty compelled Russia to pay billions in gold marks and supply huge amounts of raw materials for German “protection.”

By contrast the Allies hoped to weaken Germany, without destroying her economy—a situation which would harm them as well. Commercially-minded Britain was particularly concerned with a robust German recovery

Although the initial bill for reparations was large, 132 billion gold marks (approximately $33 billion), the Allied leaders never expected Germany to repay this full amount. The 132 billion figure was merely a sop to Allied public opinion. The 1921 London Payment schedule allocated reparations payments into specific classes. The largest class of reparations was interest-free and the Allies acknowledged that they were unlikely to be repaid. Thus, scholars have estimated that Germany’s actual burden likely ranged between 64 billion and 50 billion gold marks. (Incidentally, Germany had made a counter-proposal of 51 billion gold marks.) Furthermore, Allied demands were largely confined to damages to civilian land and property.

The Allies’ real mistake was failing to appreciate Germany’s unwillingness to pay reparations. The two most disastrous economic events in early 1920s Germany, the Ruhr occupation and the related hyperinflation, were self-inflicted wounds perpetrated by an obstinate German government. By 1923, Germany was already regularly defaulting on its reparation payments, which led France and Belgium to occupy the Ruhr region. With government encouragement, workers in the industrial Ruhr began a general strike, wreaking economic havoc. Simultaneously, the government accelerated the printing of money, leading to hyperinflation. However, the economic damage caused by these events had been resolved long before the Nazis took power. 

Rather than being crushed by reparations, the German economy had markedly recovered by the mid-1920s. By 1928, wages were rising at nearly ten percent annually in some sectors, and industrial production exceeded 1913 levels. By the mid-to-late 1920s, Hitler’s exaggerated claims of Germany’s economic weakness found few receptive ears. In the 1928 elections, the Nazis garnered less than three percent of the vote.

During the 1920s, the Allies twice agreed to American-led reparation restructuring proposals. In 1924, the Dawes Plan reduced Germany’s annual payment in exchange for a German pledge to restart payments (Germany had stopped payments during the Ruhr occupation). America pressured France and Belgium to accept the Dawes Plan and leave the Ruhr, which they did in 1925.In 1928, the Young Plan was approved, providing German with even more generous terms. The total reparations were cut twenty percent and annual payments were reduced further. If desired, Germany could also defer up to two-thirds of annual payments

In 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, Germany and the Allies agreed to continue a 1931 moratorium on reparations. Thus, by the time the Nazis took power in 1933, Germany had not made a significant reparation payment in years. Even the payments Germany had made were less than met the eye since nearly all reparation payments were funded by Allied loans. (Germany would ultimately default on these loans.) Of the payments made directly by Germany, most were payments in-kind, raw materials such as coal and timber. All told,Germany paid less than two percent of the amount specified in the treaty. 

A Self-Imposed Isolation

Nazi leaders believed that the Treaty of Versailles had made Germany an international outcast. However, they had the causation backwards. Germany’s diplomatic isolation was not decided at Versailles, but by the Nazis’ aggressive violations of the treaty. Weimar Germany had been a full participant in the international community, a status Germany would have retained had the Third Reich not pursued policies of illegal rearmament and ruthless territorial aggrandizement.

Moreover, after World War One, Germany was quickly reintegrated into the global economy. Germany was a world leader in industrial, chemical, and technological products, and the Allies simply could not afford to have its productive capacities remain idle. Massive loans and investments of international capital (primarily from America) poured into post-war Germany, helping to reinvigorate German heavy industry. Estimates put these inflows at over $25 billion. From 1925 to 1929, German exports rose over forty percentBy 1929, Germany’s share of world trade was higher than it had been before World War I.

The Treaty of Versailles also did not foreclose Germany’s return to a prominent place within the European order. Under the guidance of visionary Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, Weimar Germany rejected the alienation of the immediate post-war years. In 1925, Germany and several other European nations signed the Locarno Treaties, setting the borders of Western Europe and significantly improving European diplomatic relations. The following year, Germany joined the League of Nations. In 1928, Germany signed the Kellogg-Briand pact,renouncing war as a means of resolving international disputes. Aristide Briand, the French Foreign Minister (and co-author of Kellogg-Briand), would share the Nobel Prize with Stresemann for the work they had done to promote Franco-German reconciliation

Versailles did require German territorial concessions, most notably the return of Alsace-Lorraine and the creation of a Baltic Sea corridor for reconstituted Poland. These losses and the elimination of Germany’s few overseas possessions surely rankled some Germans. However, the Versailles conditions were far more justifiable and lenient than those imposed on the other defeated nations. 

Although Alsace-Lorraine had changed hands through history, it had been part of France for generations. As Germany had seized Alsace-Lorraine by conquest in 1871, its return to France was not particularly controversial. Regarding the Polish corridor, this thin strip of land was ethnically Polish. Predominantly German Danzig (today Gdansk), became an open international city instead of joining Poland.

At Versailles, Germany lost approximately 10% of its pre-war territory. Austria-Hungary’s successor states fared far worse. In the Treaty of St. Germain, Austria gave up half its territory, and was left so weak that it immediately sought to join Germany. Hungary lost over two-thirds of its pre-war territory at the Treaty of Trianon. The Treaty of Sevres intended to dissolve the Ottoman Empire and leave ethnic Turks with a greatly diminished homeland. Even after Versailles, Germany remained the largest European nation west of the Soviet Union. Geo-strategically, Germany was perhaps in an even better position than before World War I, when she had been sandwiched between hostile France and Russia. Now, a sizable Polish buffer state separated Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Myth of War Guilt

Perhaps the most misunderstood passage in the Versailles treaty is Article 231. Wrongly termed the “war guilt clause,” apologists claim that this article shamed the entire German nation and inspired a burning desire for revenge. Yet, when read in context as the introduction to a section on reparations, it becomes obvious that the Article 231 has little do with “war guilt.” The article merely provided the basis for collecting reparations by establishing German legal liability. The Treaties of St. Germain and Trianon used the exact same wording regarding legal “responsibility.” However, the governments and people of Austria and Hungary never made it an issue. In contrast, German nationalists willfully misconstrued the Article 231’s meaning, to the shock and dismay of its American writers. 

Ironically, rather than saddling Germany with boundless moral guilt, the reparations section of the treaty actually limited Germany’s financial liabilities. Article 232 recognized Germany’s depleted resources and reduced Germany’s liability primarily to civilian damage

Unquestionably, Germany was responsible for the destruction its armies brought upon Belgium and France. In addition to the thousands of civilians killed by the Germans during their invasion, four years of fighting had utterly devastated the region. After the war, France deemed hundreds of square miles too dangerous for human resettlement because of unexploded ordinance. (many of these “red zones” remain uninhabitable to this day.)The Germans also pursued a scorched earth policy during their 1917 retreat flooding mines, leveling villages, and burning fields.

German behavior in Belgium and France demanded recompense and Versailles provided it. However, the Nazis had little interest in modifying the treaty to make it “fairer.” Instead as the U.S. Consul General in Berlin noted in 1933 the Nazi program instead “strived in every way to impose its will on the rest of the world.” 

During the Paris Peace Conference, French Premier Clemenceau had chided President Woodrow Wilson. “Don't believe they [Germany] will ever forgive us; they seek only the opportunity for revenge. Nothing will extinguish the rage of those who wanted to establish their domination over the world and who believed themselves so close to succeeding.” Even given Clemenceau’s Germanophobia, he was absolutely correct about Germany’s militarist right. Nationalists felt ashamed not because Germany had been blamed for the war, but because Germany had lost it. 

Revisionist History

Unique circumstances during the final years of World War One and during the Armistice allowed a dangerous revisionist myth to emerge. Beginning in 1916, Germany was under a virtual military dictatorship. Tightening the controls of an already authoritarian state, the military leaders enforced strict censorship and expanded patriotic propaganda. As a result, although German civilians suffered greatly under the British blockade, they remained largely unaware of German reverses in mid-1918. The military leadership recognized the war was unwinnable in early autumn and pushed for an armistice. However, they concealed the totality of Germany’s defeat from the population, claiming that since Germany had not been overrun, the army remained unbeaten. Disturbingly, moderate politicians such as President Frederick Ebert perpetuated these delusions, declaring to returning troops “no enemy has vanquished you.” 

Given the confusion around the armistice, many Germans lived in a sort of “dreamland,” for several months uncertain whether their nation had truly been defeated. For those ordinary people, the Versailles treaty was a shock. It removed any doubts about the war’s outcome, Instead of accepting reality, Hitler and radical German nationalists sought to rewrite history. 

Their first objective was deflecting blame from the German army, an easy task given the limited flow of uncensored information and German society’s veneration of the military. Next, they cast blame on labor organizations, civilian leaders who accepted Versailles, and of course, the Jews. They claimed that had these civilian groups not stabbed the German army in the back, Germany would have been victorious.

Hitler’s scapegoating of Jews and “November criminals” (the right-wing term for politicians who supported the Armistice) directly related to his condemnation ofthe Treaty of Versailles. If Germany had been victorious, then Versailles was an unjust swindle. By attacking Versailles, he was attacking the basic fact of Germany’s defeat. Versailles’ terms were largely irrelevant as the treaty itself represented German weakness. Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism and anti-Liberalism called for the elimination of those he held responsible for Versailles. Correspondingly, his plans for rearmament and European conquest aimed to obliterate the world created by the treaty. Only then could Germany rise again.

An Imperfect Peace

The Paris Peace Conference certainly had its faults. While trumpeting the lofty ideals of self-determination and international cooperation, the conference was marred by self-interest and petty bigotry. 

Dismissive treatment of Arab demands for self-government demonstrated that Britain and France intended to continue their imperialist ways. The consequences of their division of the Middle East endure today. The U.S. and Britain rejected Japan’s proposal for an amendment on racial equality. Although most nations supported the resolution, President Wilson overrode them. The racist rejection angered Japan and strengthened its hardliners who argued that military power was the only road to equality. The U.S.’s failure to join theLeague of Nations. America’s absence and the League’s watered-down powers rendered it wholly inadequate to preserve world peace.

However, despite valid criticisms of the Paris Peace Conference, the Versailles treaty was far less flawed than many have believed. While the Allies erred in not giving Germany a seat at the negotiating table, the terms of the treaty did not destroy the German economy isolate Germany diplomatically or assign “war guilt” to Germany. Most importantly, Versailles did not make Hitler inevitable. 

Virtually any peace agreement short of full Allied capitulation would have served Nazi propaganda ends. Germany never accepted its defeat in World War One and as a result, no treaty would have been acceptable. 

The Treaty of Versailles has long been an easy target for Anglo-American critics since it allegedly “explains” Hitler’s rise. If the Allies had been more conciliatory, the narrative goes, then Germany would not have gone Nazi. That false narrative had terrible consequences as Britain and the U.S. tolerated Germany’s systematic dismantling of the terms of the treaty. By the time the Allies realized that Hitler sought not the revision of a treaty, but the revision of history, it was too late.