“It was neither a vindictive, harsh peace nor a lenient one, desdigned to reconcile.” How far does this description of the Treaty of Versailles explain why it contained the seeds of the Second World War?
In 1919, the major world powers met at the Paris peace conference to determine the fate of Europe at the end of World War 1. Europe was in turmoil. Five empires had disappeared, millions of people were dead, both military and civilians, and revolution fuelled by the forces of nationalism and socialism seemed ready to destroy the hopes of a future and lasting peace. The major world leaders were hoping to accomplish a miracle at Versailles, peace. Nevertheless, the conditions that they were faced with made that hope only more difficult not only in the writing of the treaty but also in reaching its objectives. The dream of a Settlement to satisfy both winners and losers was both impossible and contradictory. For Germany the outcome in years to come was the exact objective that the Treaty had tried all along to impede – domination of Europe.
What went wrong? Why? These questions have plagued historians for years. If only the players had acted in a different fashion would the future outcomes have been different. Or was the situation of Europe such at the time that the future was fated no matter what.
What did the leaders want to do? The Council of Five (Britain, the U.S., Italy, Japan and France) wanted to destroy Germany’s power in Europe and to make her pay for the costs of war. They wanted peace but Germany was to pay for that peace, not only by reducing its army, reducing its fishing fleet and relinquishing part of its heavy shipping fleet, but also by ceding land, sending coal, livestock, machinery and money to those countries who had suffered by the war. Germany was pronounced to be the sole aggressor of the war and therefore it was Germany who had to ‘pay the bill’.
Supposedly, Germany was to be treated as an equal in Europe but at the same time, Germany was not invited to participate in the writing up of the Treaty. Rather, they were literally given the ultimatum to sign the treaty with no option whatsoever. Germany was to have an Allied Army in its land and they were to pay for that Army. How can these terms be considered to being treated as an equal? Furthermore the coal of the Saar region had to be sent to France for a period of fifteen years at the end of that time it would be decided under whose area of jurisdiction the Saar was to be under.
Obviously the Treaty was written up in a way so as to diminish the power of Germany, at home and abroad. At the end, there was no abroad, since Germany lost all its colonies.
What was the treaty like? The potential of Germany military and economic superiority in Germany was a strong threat to the writers of the Treaty. This had to be stopped at all costs. The easiest way for the writers of the Treaty to achieve this goal was to require financial retribution for the war. If Germany was stripped of its economy then industrial growth would not be possible. Furthermore if the fruit of that industry had to be sent to the countries who had suffered during the war, then Germany would produce for the victors and not for themselves. In this way, enough would be left for Germany to get by, but not enough for it to become a power again.
Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to France. France was thrilled, if they had had their way; perhaps another area of Germany would have been ceded to them, the Saar, a major coal producing area.
German rivers were internationalized. This is important in the feeling of humiliation of Germany because until that time, Germany was very closed and did not like foreign presence on their land, particularly in this way.
The map of Western Europe was redrawn. Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Estonia, and Latvia were created. Many of these new countries had to accommodate substantial minorities within their borders. Families, who were once citizens of one nation, suddenly found themselves citizens of two different nations because of the new map. More importantly, large groups of German-speaking people suddenly found themselves as citizens of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
It was very difficult for the writers of the Treaty to accomplish what they had set out to do because of many factors. To begin with, 27 nations were invited to write the Treaty with 70 representatives, excluding Germany. However only The Supreme Council or The Big Ten were the actual writers of the Treaty. They were the President of the United States and both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of France, Great Britain, Italy and Japan. Each country went to write the Treaty with their own interests at heart. President Wilson of the United States had just drafted his Fourteen Points that were to become the League of Nations and his main interest was a moderate peace. Great Britain had just had general elections and were committed to bring the war criminals to justice and to make Germany pay for the war. France was vindictive. France had suffered terribly during the war and they were motivated by revenge. France was interested in itself and in its future security. Italy had previous agreements with France and England and had commitments in the Near East. Italy played a secondary role. Japan on the other hand championed Italian claims against Austria and the new Yugoslavia. This led to disagreements among France, the U.S and Britain. Yet, they finally agreed on a settlement.
In order to persuade the French to agree to these terms, the United States and Britain promised to agree to these terms, the United States and Britain promised to protect France. However Britain would not aid France unless the United States did, and the U.S senate refused to ratify the military guarantee and treaty; therefore Britain was not under obligation and France felt tricked.
A few weeks after the writing of the Treaty and before its completion President Wilson had to return to the United States for a time and Prime Minister Lloyd George had to return to London. The original Supreme Council composed of five countries became the Council of Four. Many disagreements went on internally before and after President Wilson’s departure. France and England wanted Germany to pay for the cost of war, but President Wilson felt that these terms were too harsh. France wanted to annex the Saar region but the Americans and the British opposed this move. The Polish claims, the Japanese pretensions in Shantung and the Italian claims in Dalmatia also caused friction to the point that Italy left the conference for a period of two weeks. Finally, the Treaty was presented to the Germans for signature. The German’s felt that the Treaty was not in keeping of the conditions by which they had laid down their arms and that many of the clauses were almost impossible to fulfill. But they were given no option but to sign.
In making the Germans sign the Treaty with the clauses that were in it, a stronger sense of nationalism was formed in Germany. The German people had always been a very proud people of themselves, their country and their achievements. The small military corps that was left felt vindictiveness towards the countries that had reduced their military strength. The factory workers and leaders were also filled with hatred at having to manufacture for the victors and not for themselves. It was a harsh blow to lose colonies and land – an empire was destroyed. Some of the German people were all of a sudden no longer Germans but Czechs or Poles. The settlement also left France feeling that it was not strong enough. The defection of the United States destroyed one of the main props of French security and was in part responsible for the next war. Along with the fact that Germany was left was humiliated yet left with some strength and wishing for revenge.