On 11th November 1918, the armistice that ended the fighting on the Western Front came into force, although the conflict continued elsewhere. The human and economic costs of the Great War were colossal. An estimated 9.5 million soldiers and 12 million civilians died, while a further 21 million military were wounded. The total financial cost is difficult to assess meaningfully, but it ran into many billions.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on this day (28th June) in 1919. It is famous – or perhaps infamous – for establishing peace terms between Germany and the Allied powers and has often been held directly responsible for the events leading to World War II 20 years later.
In fact, the treaty was the first of a number of treaties that each of the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and the Ottoman Empire) signed with the Allies. These agreements re-distributed disputed territories and redrew the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered for good.
Paris Peace Conference
The Treaty of Versailles was the result of six months of discussion at the Paris Peace Conference between the main Allied powers: America, Britain, France, and Italy. The Prime Ministers, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando (Italy) and the American President Woodrow Wilson, met a total of 145 times in closed session to hammer out the major decisions.
The minor powers met in plenary sessions that could make recommendations but had no decision-making authority. Against some countries’ expectations, Germany was excluded to prevent it exerting undue diplomatic pressure on individual nations.
The task was as complex as the war it ended. But the different powers came with their own national aims, and the Paris Peace Conference lacked a coherent agenda. The French rejected American President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points as not sufficiently defined to form the basis of an agenda. This was Wilson’s vision of a post-war polity secured by a League of Nations, which he had set out in January 1918, 10 months before the armistice.
The situation in Russia following the revolutions and the toppling of the Romanovs only further complicated the situation. The negotiators never grasped the nettle of a general policy position on Russia.
The treaty’s provisions
Article 231 of the treaty required “Germany [to] accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” during the war. Germany was required to disarm, make ample territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain Allied countries. The latter were unspecified in the treaty until a separate commission assessed them in 1921.
Germany lost over 6.5 million people and 27,000 square miles of land area as a result. In 1921, the total cost of the reparations was assessed at 132 billion marks ($31.4 billion or £6.6 billion, roughly $442 billion or £284 billion in 2020 values).
Germany was presented with the treaty in May 1919, but the German government was unable to reach a common stance on it and the head of the government resigned. His successor, Gustav Bauer, agreed to sign if certain clauses were removed, including Article 231, the “War Guilt” clause. The Allies responded with a threat of invasion if the treaty were not accepted without amendment. Germany capitulated.
The judgement of history
The consequences of the Treaty of Versailles have been subject to much debate both at the time and subsequently among historians. Countless books have been written on the subject, so I can only hope to summarise some of the arguments here.
The economist John Maynard Keynes, who attended the conference as a British Treasury Delegate, described the treaty as a “Carthaginian Peace” in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). He claimed it was a French attempt to destroy Germany, and that reparations would destabilise the European, as well as the German, economy.
However, some historians have argued that the treaty’s terms were consistent with the terms usually imposed upon a defeated country in the diplomacy of the time: the payment of reparations and the loss of territory.
Under the Treaty of Frankfurt, which ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, France lost Alsace-Lorraine, had to pay five billion francs in reparations within five years and submit to German occupation of parts of France until the reparations were paid in full. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and the defeated Russia in March 1918 resulted in Russia losing 34% of its population, 54% of its industrial land and 89% of its coalfields. Russia was also required to pay 300 million gold marks, altered to six billion marks in a separate agreement in August 1918. These provisions were overturned by Versailles.
The reparations demanded from Germany have inspired the greatest debate. The traditional view, greatly influenced by Keynes’ book, is that reparations, combined with the loss of Germany’s industrial capacity in the Ruhr, were directly responsible for the collapse of its economy and hyperinflation in the 1920s.
Others have argued that the reparations were within Germany’s financial capacity to pay, but the political will to pay them was lacking. Also, the restriction of Germany’s military relieved considerably pressure on the German budget.
A middle ground suggests that the seeds of Germany’s financial crisis already existed. Germany had funded the war effort by taking out loans rather than raising taxes and continued to do so during the 1920s, until the 1929 Stock Market Crash, when loans were withdrawn. The German mark was already weak and the country had a trade deficit. Even without reparations, the German economy was in trouble.
In the event, after Germany had defaulted on payments, and France had threatened war, various payment plans were drawn up in the 1920s. The reparations were cancelled completely during the Lausanne Conference of 1932, Germany having paid around 21 billion marks up till 1931.
Despite the loss of territory, the Treaty of Versailles maintained Germany as a political entity, when some have argued that the future peace of Europe would have been better assured by partitioning Germany into smaller, less powerful states. This, in fact, was Clemenceau’s original aim.
It is, perhaps, the perception of the treaty’s unfairness within Germany, the exclusion of Germany from the negotiations and the Allied Powers’ lack of willingness to compromise that contributed to the eventual rise of the Nazi Party. This, allied with the Great Depression and the treatment of Germans in the annexed Sudetenland and Posen-West Prussia, led to a climate in which Hitler’s promises to regain Germany’s lost territories and restore its pride could thrive.
In these respects, the Treaty of Versailles was a cause of World War II. It, and its companion treaties, were an attempt to bring order to a highly complex situation and to ensure that one country’s pursuit of hegemony could never result in such a war again. It was a failure on both counts, securing an uneasy truce but not a lasting peace. But were these aims ever achievable in the contemporary context?
My latest novel, Intermezzo, Book 2 in the Alouette Trilogy, is set during World War I and the immediate aftermath. It will be available in early autumn 2020.
This post is taking part in the Historical Writers Forum summer blog hop, focusing on memorable events in history. Next up on 30th June is Nancy Jardine, writing about the Roman Vindolanda Fort near Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The blog hop will continue through July.
Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2020. All rights reserved.