199: Versailles Pt. 16 - Legacies


We come now to the end as we chronicle the last days before Germany signed their treaty.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 199, Legacies. This is our 16th, and last episode on the Paris Peace Conference and today we are going talk about two topics. The first will be the final days before the Germans signed their treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, and then we will touch just briefly on the legacy of the treaty around the world. For the Germans, and for the Allied leaders as well, the presence of Germany at the conference, and the final decisions on the German issues was the climax of the conference. It saw so many of the various pieces of conflict that had been experience at the conference all come together. Wilson and his 14 Points and how they did and did not apply to certain topics, like Germany. French and British antagonism around how much to punish the countries that they had defeated. The German quests to minimize the punishments they received, citing their change in government. Those are just a few examples. In some ways everything that we have discussed up to this point relates to the quest to find an agreement between the Allied leaders on the topic of Germany. As for the legacy of the treaty, this will certainly not be my final word on the treaty’s effects on the post-war world, or a final judgment on its failures and successes. In some ways our episodes over the course of the rest of this year will act as part of that judgment. What can absolutely be stated is that the Conference, and the Treaties that it created, would cast a long shadow throughout the next several decades, and historians and political commentators would spend the next 100 years, and counting, blaming it for many of the world’s problems. Some of this blame is probably justified, but some of it is not.

Before we talk about the years after 1919, we do need to find out how the treaty of Versailles was actually signed. The German delegation that arrived in Paris was led by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Ranzau, who was the Weimar government’s Foreign Minister. When he arrived in Paris he, like many in the German delegation, hoped that they would be able to have a long and protracted negotiation with the Allies. This would not be allowed and instaed the Germans were told that they would only be allowed to make some written notes on the treaty that was presented to them. There would be only one chance for the Germans to speak publically, and this chance would occur on May 7th when they received the text of the proposed treaty in front of the Conference. For this event Brockdorff-Rantzau had prepared two different speeches, one that was short and one that was longer and quite a bit more defiant. When he arrived he chose the longer of the two. When he presented this speech there would be two problems for Brockdorff-Rantzau that were totally outside of his control. The first was that the room was arranged so that the German delegation was placed in what looked very much like the prisoner’s dock in a court room. This caused Brockdorff-Rantzu to decide not to stand when delivering his speech, to avoid looking like a prisoner. The second problem was that the interpreter was not very good, which meant that his message did not really come across to those in the room that did not speak German, which was most of the people in the room. During his speech he would discuss many different topics, with special focus on the war guilt clause. The Germans had not read the treaty at this point, but the rumors of its contents were strong enough to allow the Germans to speak to its specifics. When addressing the war guilt clause Brockdorff-Rantzau would say “Such a confession in my mouth would be a lie. We are far from declining any responsibility that this great war of the world has come to pass. But we deny that Germany and its people were alone guilty.” He also pointed to the fact that the Allied blockade of Germans had lasted for months after the end of the war, causing huge hardship upon the German people. Unfortunately, most of these points did not really make it through translation intact.

Due to the communication challenges the views of the Allied leaders towards Germany were not at all improved by the speech. Wilson would say “This is the most tactless speech I have ever heard. The Germans are really a stupid people. They always do the wrong thing.” Lloyd George would say “It was deplorable that we let him talk.” Obviously these were very negative, but of course the leaders were not predisposed to accept and enjoy any German speech, so it is unlikely that anything that Brockdorff-Rantzau could have said in this moment would have greatly changed the German situation. The views of the Allied leaders did not really matter though, what mattered was the contents of the treaty. When the treaty was given to the Germans they made sure it reached their team of translators as quickly as possible. They would spend all night creating a German translation from the French copy that they were given. The next morning this was provided to the rest of the German delegation. Brockdorff-Rantzau would say that “This fat volume was quite unnecessary. They could have expressed the whole thing more simply in one clause—“Germany surrenders all claims to its existence.” Regardless of his views, the delegation went to work to craft a counter proposal. The general thrust of these German proposals is that the document as written was not a fair treaty, which the Germans believed they had been promised by the terms of the Armistice. This reaction was almost expected by the Allied leaders, with one American diplomat writing “The Germans have little left but Hope. But having only that I think they have clung to it—the Hope that the Americans would do something, the Hope that the final terms would not be so severe as the Armistice indicated and so on. Subconsciously, I think the Germans have been more optimistic than they realized. When they see the terms in cold print, there will be intense bitterness, hate and desperation.”

Even though the German responses were somewhat expected, they still had some effects on the Allied leaders. These effects were strongest on the British side. When the Germans sent their official response to the treaty on May 29th Henry Wilson would write privately that “The Boches have done exactly what I forecast—they have driven a coach and four through our Terms, and then have submitted a complete set of their own, based on the 14 points, which are much more coherent than ours.” Lloyd George was sufficiently concerned to put together a meeting of the leaders of the British delegation. During this meeting Smuts would say that the peace terms “would produce political and economic chaos in Europe for a generation and in the long run it would be the British Empire which would have to pay the penalty.” These concerns were coming up very late in the game, but Lloyd George would still go to the other leaders and state that he might not be able to sign the treaty, this would have been a disaster. The entire treaty, and how it interacted with all of the other agreements made with all of the other countries in Europe was like a house of cards. It would be incredibly difficult to try and change any major piece of the German treaty without having to re-litigate a cascading set of other concerns. Eventually Lloyd George would be talked off the ledge with a few small changes, and then a guarantee that the people of Upper Silesia would get a plebiscite, instead of just being pulled outright into Poland. from the point that the Germans responded to the treaty until the Allies agreed on these small changes lasted almost a month. But then on June 16th, the German delegation were told that they had just 3 days to either sign the treaty or reject it. There was the general understanding that if they did not sign it, the war would resume. Even with a drastically reduced military footprint there were still 40 Allied divisions that were ready to march into Germany when the order arrived. The German delegation would eventually get a small extension until June 23rd, instead of the 19th, but that is all that they would get. With such a tight deadline there was chaos in Berlin.

As soon as the original draft had been translated it had been communicated back to Berlin. It was much worse than any of the Germans believed that it would be. The president of the National Assembly would say “The unbelievable has happened. The enemy presents us a treaty surpassing the most pessimistic forecasts. It means the annihilation of the German people. It is incomprehensible that a man who had promised the world a peace of justice, upon which a society of nations would be founded, has been able to assist in the framing of this project dictated by hate.” When news reached the German people there was, overall, a feeling that Germany should not sign the treaty. There was also a general sense of betrayal, especially directed towards Wilson who had come into the war speaking very highly of his Fourteen Points, of peace without victory and all of that, little of which was present in the treaty. With the reaction to the treaty so negative, and then the almost total rejection of any possible German alterations, or negotiations in general, the German government found itself at a bit of a crossroads. The cabinet was divided, with 8 against signing the treaty, and just 6 supporting it. When the question was put to the parties they were also divided. From his position in Paris Brockdorff-Rantzau was strongly against accepting the treaty as it was written. He would send along his recommendation, supported by the rest of the delegation, that it should not be signed, with the message “The conditions of peace are still unbearable, for Germany cannot accept them and continue to live with honour as a nation.” He would join many other German leaders in believing that the Allies were bluffing, and that they would not be able to muster the men, material, or public support to fully occupy Germany, or even to invade it in the first place. There was also the hope that if Germany refused to sign then the Allied leaders would be forced into either reneogitating or restarting hostilities, a decision that was destined to be very unpopular at home. If it was unpopular enough then those allied leaders would be replaced by somebody else, and maybe they would be more accepting of actual negotiations. While this viewpoint was shared with some in the German cabinet, it was never enough to sway them all. With the Cabinet in a deadlock, they eventually resigned, and Brockdorff-Rantzau resigned with them. This would be done on June 20th, just 3 days before the treaty had to be either signed or rejected. President Ebert did not resign, although there were discussions about him doing so. Instead of resigning he began the task of trying to cobble together a government as quickly as possible. A key player in these last 72 hours before the treaty had to be accepted would be the German military. At this point they, or at least what was left of the military, were led by General Wilhelm Groener and he made one thing very clear to the politicians in Berlin. Successful resistance against an Allied invasion was out of the question. There were not enough troops available to put up any resistance against the French, let alone the Poles and Czechs who would almost certainly move in from the east. If Germany did not sign then they would be invaded from all sides by groups that saw Germany not just as an enemy but also THE enemy. Any resistance by the German military would be token resistance at best, and quickly swept aside.

There were some within Germany that would never agree that signing the treaty was the correct move. Of these there were primarily two groups, one the far right you had conservatives and militarists and on the far left you had socialists and communists. On the left the Communist Party of Germany would say that acceptance of the treaty would lead the country down the path of bourgeois misery. Instead of choosing this path they advised rejecting the treaty, causing the Western capitalists to waste resources trying to occupy and pacify Germany. Then, when the current government had been overthrown the revolution could begin. On May 18th the Communist Party would publish a document called “Basic Principles of Peace” which said, among many other things, that “The only possible and unavoidable solution is the overthrow of this government and of bourgeois rule altogether, the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship . . . and so the participation in the world revolution.” On the complete other end of the political spectrum you had people like Hindenburg. He understood Groener’s concerns, and agreed with his assessment on the likely outcome of an Allied invasion. However, instead of rejecting this outcome he believed that the country should embrace it. Trusting in the unity of the German people he believed that they should let the French invade, and then make their occupation as difficult as possible. In the long run Germany could not be destroyed, according to Hindenburg, but by letting the French waste time and resources trying to control the country it would weaken Germany’s enemies while uniting the German people towards a command enemy. He would say that “The final consequence of a French occupation of the south - after what of course would be difficult years — would be a renewal of the belief in the German Reich and would hardly be more dangerous to German unity than signing a destructive peace agreement leading to a misery for which the leadership would bear the blame.” The German government in Berlin rejected both of these options, and the inevitable suffering and death that would be experienced by the German people because of them, although they would later revisit some of these concepts when the French threatened to invade in 1923.

With resistance not considered a viable option, Ebert and the cabinet that he threw together moved towards acceptance. They put the treaty before the National Assembly, which debatd it for many hours. Eventually they would agree to signing the treaty, with one condition, that Germany did not recognize that Germany was responsible for the war, and they did not agree with the war guilt clause contained within the treaty. The official language read “The government of the German republic is ready to sign the peace treaty without thereby acknowledging that the German people are the responsible authors of the war and without accepting Articles 227-31.” This acceptance would pass with a reasonable margin, 237 to 138. A key part of getting this vote passed was that those who voted against the treaty promised not to question the patriotism of those that had voted to accept the treaty in public. This agreement was considered critical, because everyone knew how unpopular the treaty was among the people. When the proposal was put before the allies, that the Germans would accept the treaty but not the war guilt clauses, the Allies rejected it. And they made it clear that the only option that the Germans were being presented with was to accept or reject the treaty as it was written. This news would arrive back in Berlin at 9PM on June 22nd, mere hours before the answer was required. At 3AM the leaders halted discussions for the night, but they were back in session at 8AM. The parties were once again deeply divided, and no majority could be found to support the treaty as it was written. The Cabinet then stepped in and announced that it would accept the treaty, under the reasoning that the assembly had just the day before voted to accept the treaty, even if at that point they wanted alterations. The Cabinet believed that with just hours remaining this was the only way to get the treaty signed, and they believed that signing it was the only viable option.

While the deadline for the Germans was on the 23rd news from Berlin would not arrive until 5:40PM, it was only at that point that the delegation would know what it was supposed to do. Once this news arrived the Conference was released for the rest of the day, and I am sure there were no shortage of parties in Paris. It would not be until 5 days later that the treaty would actually be signed. After the resignation of Brockdorff-Ranzau it became necessary to find a new group of representatives to sign the treaty. this actually proved quite difficult, since many German politicians did not want to attend, or maybe disagreed with signing the treaty in the first place. Eventually enough representatives were found, led by Hermann Mueller who was the new Minister of Foreign Affairs and who only went because he felt like it was his duty. On the 28th the ceremony began with a speech from Clemenceau and then the German delegates were brought out into the room at Versailles. Mueller would say that “I wanted our ex-enemies to see nothing of the deep pain of the German people, whose representative I was at this tragic moment.” They had brought their own pens so that they would not have to use the French ones, and then they signed it, making sure to show as little emotion as possible. As soon as it was done a signal went out all over Paris and then the world, in France artillery guns let off a quick cannonade to celebrate. The war, at least between Germany and the Allies, was officially over. Mueller would say, after arriving back at his hotel, “A cold sweat such as I had never known in my life before broke out all over my body—a physical reaction which necessarily followed the unutterable psychic strain. And now, for the first time, I knew that the worst hour of my life lay behind me.” the German delegation left Paris that very night.

In the hours after the treaty was signed Paris and Berlin represented mirror images in germs of their reactions. Paris was a scene of rejoicing and excitement, the war was officially over. In Berlin there was mourning, the was was officially over. There was also the beginning of what would eventually turn into active resistance by some groups in Germany. In Berlin, as flags that had been confiscated during the Franco-Prussian war were brought out of storage to be sent back to France a group of German military veterans sized them and burned them. Elsewhere in Germany many citizens and former soldiers felt betrayed by their government and their leaders. While this did not lead to very much open violence, it would lead to may in Germany believing that the only path forward was through, at the very least passive noncompliance with the treaty. This noncompliance movement among the German people was just the next manifestation of their belief that Germany did not really lose the war, or at least was not militarily defeated.

It would not be until 1920 that the Paris Peace Conference would officially end, long after the treaty with Germany had been signed, but there had been many other items to take care of. When the time came the only country still at war with Germany would be the United States. While Wilson had played such an important role in crafting the treaty, when he returned home he found little support in Congress to actually ratify it. The greatest reason for this was that Wilson refused to allow the Senate to amend or change the treaty, but unlike in Europe he did not have his congressional enemy in such a desperate state that they felt the need to comply. Many of the suggested changes were crafted by the more isolationist members of the Senate, although they were claimed that they were designed to ensure that the United States always had full freedom in foreign relations. Wilson, as obstinate as ever, refused to allow any modifications and so it would never be signed. It would not be until 1921 that the United States would finally sign a peace treaty with Germany, far after Wilson had left the presidency. For many Americans, the First World War would become mostly forgotten. Its most enduring legacy being the laws that wer put in place during America’s brief time in the conflict, like the Espionage Act of 1917 which is still in force today.

For the British and French their long wars were over, and on initial glance it looked like they emerged from the war as strong as ever. However the war would produce cracks in both Empires that could not be easily healed. For the French there was some concern that maybe they had not got as good of a deal as they could have in the treaty. Clemenceau was very sure that he had done as much as he could and gotten the best possible terms. This might have been true if the Americans had stuck to the agreement that they had made with the French and joined in a defensive agreement. The Americans would not actually honor this and the British would use that as an excuse to pull back into their usual continental detachment, leaving France mostly alone. France’s biggest problem would be trying to actually enforce all of the various clauses that had been added to the treaty. This was particularly problematic when it came to items like reparations, which would end up requiring some persuasion, but with France’s two allies moving away from assisting the French this persuasion was difficult to put into action. I quite like this quote from Edouard Herriot, who was the leader of the radical left party in France, he would say in 1922 that “The position of France is lamentable. As a result of the war, we find ourselves cheated on all sides. What a paradox-our country is portrayed as implacable and predatory at a time when it has demonstrated in reality the maximum moderation. England on two accounts twisted Germany’s neck: it seized its [Germany’s] colonies and seized and sank [sic] its fleet and is now content. Then it straightened its jacket and smiled … And France, France was returned Alsace-Lorraine, it exploits the Saar coal mines, and only wants to be paid for the ruins created by the war … [France] was too magnanimous to its enemy. The price of this magnanimity is that we are hated by everyone and Germany does not pay us. The reparations question will be resolved very simply. It will have two stages. First stage: Germany is too weak and cannot pay; second phase: Germany is too strong and will not pay. I am absolutely persuaded that in fifteen years Germany will fall upon us again.” On the British side of things, after the war they would be very concerned about the debt that they had accrued during the conflict. They would quickly move to reduce expenditures, even if it meant weakening their hold on pieces of their empire. In both cases the leaders of both countries would soon find themselves replaced, with Clemenceau and Lloyd George both taken out of office in their country’s next elections.

After the treaty had been signed, in some ways the effects were almost immediate, at least politically in Germany. Enough politicians in Germany realized that signing the treaty had been the only vialbe path forward for the country, and this had allowed the treaty to be signed. However, that agreement about not questioning the patriotism of those that agreed to signing the treaty fell apart very rapidly. Many nationalist politicians would almost instantly begin to question those that had supported the treaty, and the questions were all about their loyalty to Germany. Most of the politicians that they were attacking were those on the moderate left, the Social Democrats being heavily represented. The Weimar government as a whole would slowly tack towards a position of openly criticizing the treaty, or at the very least they could not defend it given the overall toxicity towards it among the German people. This official policy of criticizing the treaty, and the nationalists criticizing those who had agreed to sign it, was then coupled with the slow decay of public memory about how bad the situation really had been in 1919. As the years wore on people forgot how truly dire the German situation had been in 1919, and they felt that the politicians had surrendered their position to quickly and easily.

There were many results from these feelings, far too many and far too far reaching to dig into here, but one area that was changed was the German repayment of reparations. Throughout the 1920s there were many economic problems in Germany and really all over Europe. However, even those challenges in no way explained how little of the reparations bill the Germans would actually pay. Until reparation payments were stopped in 1932 the Germans had paid only 22 billion gold marks, or less than 2 billion a year. This was far less than the minimum that the Allies believed that they could pay, which had been the 50 billion contained within the A and B class reparation groupings. The German government would do this by paying the absolute minimum that they could get away with, while also exacerbating the inflation that was rampant in their country and doing other actions to try and prevent the full recovery of the German economy. While performing these actions, which they knew would be harmful, they also blamed the reparations for holding down the country. In this way, from a German perspective the exact amount of reparations that were paid did not matter, all that mattered was the belief that the number that was paid was enough to cripple the German economy. I sometimes like to say that the truth does not matter, what people believe is the trust is what matters, and in this case that is exactly what happened. Germany was not suffocated by the reparations payments, but because the people were told by the government and the far right political parties that the country was being suffocated by them the outcome was the same.

We come now to the end of our series of episodes about the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles. That means we have to finish out this episode by talking something about the legacy of the treaty, and all of the treaties that were created at the conference, and also all of the work done by the leaders at the conference. To start off here I think I have to say that that while the leaders at the conference had a lot of weight on their shoulders, and a lot of pressure because of it, there were many instances where they opted into that pressure. they wanted to remake so much of the world, some of it because they felt that they had to, but some of it because they wanted to. They wanted that power, that responsibility, it was not all thrust upon them. To try and tackle an evaluation of their actions I am going to break their decisions up into four categories. The first will be all of the decisions made about the world outside of Europe, the second is Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, the third is everything outside of strictly geographical questions, and then the fourth is Germany. I think the area that the conference should receive the most criticism is around how it treated the world outside of Europe, especially in Africa and the Middle East. In Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World Margaret Macmillan and Richard Holbrooke would say “The peacemakers of 1919 made mistakes, of course. By their offhand treatment of the non-European world, they stirred up resentments for which the West is still paying today. They took pains over the borders in Europe, even if they did not draw them to everyone’s satisfaction, but in Africa they carried on the old practice of handing out territory to suit the imperialist powers. In the Middle East, they threw together peoples, in Iraq most notably, who still have not managed to cohere into a civil society.” Both in Africa and the Middle East old school imperialism was the rule, with politicians in Paris drawing lines on maps with, even if they had good information, very little concern for the people who lived in the areas. It was this lack of caring, and the racism that ran throughout it, that causes me to lay so much blame on the leaders at the Conference for all of the problems that they caused in the Middle East in Africa. I want to be clear that it isn’t that there were unintended consequences, or problems that they did not expect, with big decisions those always happen that there is a limit to how much you can blame decision makes for those problems. My criticism is because it is clear that they did not even care about the possible problems that they were creating, they were looking at maps and calculating square miles of territory to be gained, and that was pretty much the end of it.

The second category of decisions is in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. IN these areas I generally have less criticism made in Paris. Part of it is because they ended up making less truly impactful decisions, in part because the decisions that they did make did not end up actually mattering because they were undone by the leaders in the area. In some areas they also did really good things, trying to make some kind of self determination possible and trying to group ethnicities together, which was what they wanted. But, inevitably, they favored certain groups over others, and so you would get different feelings based on who you spoke to about the decisions made at the conference. The Czechs and Serbians were big fans, but the Montenegrans and the Ruthenes had very different views after being placed within countries dominated by other groups.

The third category is everything outside of strictly geographical concerns, the biggest thing on this list is the League of Nations. I think the League was definitely a good idea, and as a concept was a really good idea. There were some huge flaws in the plan, and there were large problems with how it was constructed, but the idea itself was good. If anything, the countries that were required to really lead the effort were not ready for such an international organization. The League with all of its flaws, and there would be many, would be an important step in the creation of the United Nations, even if it was mostly a step that would involve informing future statesmen about what not to do when creating an international body.

The final category of decision is Germany. When I first started this podcast, if you would have asked me what I thought of the Treaty of Versailles I probably would have told you that it was constructed in a way that lit the sparks of the Second World War. As I have learned more about the treaty and the reaction to it within Germany I think that this is probably still accurate, but not in the way you may expect. I do not think that the treaty was overly harsh, or absurd in its construction. There were reparations, but those were expected. The reparations were large, but the war had also been larger than anything that had been experienced before. Some bits of territory had been peeled off of Germany for various reasons, but this was typical of previous European wars and the vast majority of Germany remained intact. None of these items either alone or combined together necessarily had to lead to a conflict in the future. However, the German Weimar government would believe that they would always have to take a strong anti-treaty stance to protect itself form radicals on both the right and the left. Then the French and the other allies would make some choices that did not help things along at all, but in these decisions they were almost uniformly not strong enough with Germany in guaranteeing that the treaty terms were actually followed through on. During the events like the Ruhr Crisis they would not show the kind of unity and strength that was necessary when dealing with a nation rebelling against a previous treaty, and this just made future resistance more likely. In the years after, and especially during the 1930s the Western governments would abandon their enforcement of demilitarization entirely. All of these decisions in the 1920s and 1930s had nothing to do with the treaty that was created in 1919. It did not matter what the reparations number was in the treaty, any number that the citizens of the Allied countries would accept would always result in the Germans saying that it was too much and they would refuse to pay all of it. The overall structure of the treaty with Germany was built around trying to reconcile the reality of the situation with public opinion. It is certainly still possible to blame the leaders at Versailles for that public opinion, since it had mostly been created and stoked by propaganda, but if those mistakes were made then they were made far before the leaders arrived in Paris in 1919. So, was the Treaty of Versailles a contributing factor that led to the Second World War? Absolutely. But it is just another item on a very lengthy list of contributing factors, and it does not stand out for its contribution to that list. I will end with another quote from Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World “Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles, although he found its existence a godsend for his propaganda. Even if Germany had been left with its old borders, even if it had been allowed whatever military forces it wanted, even if it had been permitted to join with Austria, he still would have wanted more: the destruction of Poland, control of Czechoslovakia, above all the conquest of the Soviet Union.”