The Germans did not do a good job of keeping up with their reparation obligations, and so the French decided to take action.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 230. John and Ryan patreon. While the Weimar government in Germany had been trying to solidify its position within the country, while at the same time trying to balance external obligations, it was also trying to work through the one of the requirementsthrust upon Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, the reparations payments. The largest recipients of these reparations were France and Belgium. To say that they were displeased with the size and timeliness of Germany’s reparations payments would be a massive understatement. For the first several years of reparations the German government would pay the absolute least amount possible, to the consternation of the countries on the receiving end of those payments. Eventually the French and Belgians would become frustrated enough that they would take action, and on January 11, 1923 a combined Franco-Belgian force would march into the Ruhr. The goal was to make up the reparations payments by forcefully confiscating coke and coal, which the Ruhr region had plenty of and which had been explicitly included as part of the reparations payments. Due to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Germans had almost no military, and certainly could not actively resist the French and Belgian troops. Without the option of military resistance, but not wanting to give into French demands, the German leaders instituted a policy of passive resistance. Workers and public officials in French occupied areas did not fight the French, but they also did their best to slow and prevent the French from accomplishing their goals. This resistance would be successful, for awhile, but it would also be economically disastrous for the region, and would be very hard on the people in the Ruhr. Eventually the Germans would be forced to give into French demands, which seemed like a victory for the French at the time, but it would not really work out for them long term.
Due to the fact that the Ruhr Crisis has its roots in the Treaty of Versailles, and in the French views of that treaty, it is worth reviewing why reparations, and specifically some of the non-monetary reparation requirements were so important to the French. Even though they had been on the winning side of the war the French were deeply concerned about the future, and in no realm was the concerns more pressing than in the economy. The French economy, and specifically its manufacturing and coal industry had been devastated by the war. Before the war most of France’s industrial and coal output had been based in areas that would be devastated between 1914 and 1918. Most of it had also spent the war behind German lines who had damaged it during the occupation. The French hope was that reparation payments would allow for the investments necessary to repair the damage and to restart French manufacturing. In the short term they also hoped that by forcing the Germans to give them reparations in the form of coal and coke deliveries they would be able to bridge the gap between the French needs in 1919 and the point where the French mines would be back into full production. It should also be said here that these reparations, and these deliveries of goods, were also designed as punishment for Germany, and were at least partially put in place to slow German economic growth in the post war years. However, the German government was not exactly timely with their reparation payments of any kind, and they were constantly late or not providing the agreed upon amounts. In Berlin they would consistently claim that they could not make the payments, which allowed Germany to negotiate smaller payments in both 1921 and 1922. During each of these negotiations the French were constantly at odds with other nations, but they would give in, but no matter how much the payments were reduced, the Germans were still seemingly always incapable of meeting them.
These actions, for obvious reasons frustrated the French leaders, and therefore in late 1922 discussions began about how to compel the Germans to up their payments. The obvious answer was a military occupation of Germany, but a full occupation was not possible, but an occupation of a specific region would be possible. And if there was a specific area that could be occupied by French troops it was the Ruhr, the heart of German industry and mining. On November 27th President Millerand would give the military permission to begin preparations for just such an occupation. There was one problem with the plan though, to launch an occupation of Germany, a military action against another nation in Europe, France had to get other countries to go along with it, the most important of these countries was Britain. The French and British met in London on December 9th and 10th, to discuss possible options, the French made their case, but the British were concerned. They fully understood why the French wanted to pursue the course, and they hoped that it might help with reparations payments, but they were concerned about the possible outcomes of an occupation. The first item on this list of concerns is that the British did not, under any circumstances want to get involved in any long term military occupation of any pat of Germany outside of the small area give to them by the Treaty of Versailles. Any expansion of this occupation was bound to cost more money than they were willing to spend, and would damage relations with Germany. One of the top priorities in London at this point was to improve relations with Germany, for economic reasons, but the primary driver of the British position during negotiations with the French was the desire to, under no circumstances, be pulled into the occupation. The conference in London would not bring the two governments to an agreement, and therefore they would meet again in Paris in early January. Here the French were able to make it clear that they were supported by the Belgians and the French, but the British still withheld their open support. This would be only the beginning of a very delicate balancing act for the British foreign office during the Ruhr Crisis that followed.
Even though they had not been able to convince the British to assist, the French pushed forward with their plans. On December 26th the Reparations Commission declared that Germany had defaulted on payments and deliveries, the French would use this declaration as a pretense for their invasion. After the declaration by the Commission negotiations began between German representatives and the Allies, but it rapidly became clear that negotiations were only a formality. Even while they were ongoing the French General Degoutte who was stationed in the Rhineland was already preparing for his invasion. While the French military leaders were ready and willing to move forward with the occupation, there was some debate about the details of what the French plan should be. Some wanted to occupy the entire Ruhr region, but Foch and other leaders were concerned that they did not have the resources to take over so much territory. Various other proposed schemes were put forward, some involved focusing solely on the major cities like Essen and Dusseldorf, other suggested that the cities be ignored and instead the focus should be on the less populated areas. Degoutte would eventually choose this final option, with an emphasis on controlling many of the areas outside of the major cities which he felt better utilized his very finite resources.
On January 10th the German Ambassador in Paris would be given official notification of what was about to happen. Part of this notification stated: “The measures in question are being taken on the basis of Paragraph 18 Annex II of Section VIII of the Treaty of Versailles. France has no intention thereby of engaging in a military operation or an occupation of a political nature. May I express the hope that the German government will not lay any obstacles in the way of these measures.” On January 11th, at dawn, French and Belgian forces would begin to move into the region. They would begin from the bridgeheads that had been provided to them across the Rhine river by the Treaty of Versailles, bridgeheads designed specifically to allow an invasion of Germany if it was necessary. In this initially advance into the Ruhr the French and Belgian forces mostly stayed within the demilitarized zone, which meant that they stayed relatively close to the border. The Germans could do nothing to stop or to slow them, and so all German units were told to retreat if they were approached by French or Belgian forces. The invading troops would utilize local resources during the occupation, which meant billeting in local houses and requisitioning local goods, activities that would begin shortly after the invasion, and which did little to endear them to the locals. In the Ruhr there were some Germans who wanted to resist the occupation, but at this early stage there were large groups that absolutely did not want to do anything to risk turning the occupation into a violent one. This generally kept those more rambunctious citizens in line. As soon as the troops had completed their advances on the first day Degoutte announced the Inter-Allied Mission for Control of Factories and Minues, or Micum. The Micum would be the group that would control all economic actions in the Ruhr, they would control how much and the type of items that would be produced and given over to the French, they would determine the quotes expected from the mines, everything. Much like the citizens of the Ruhr, at this initial stage the factory and mine owners and workers were mostly prepared to go along with what the French were demanding.
Throughout the crisis period both sides would try to sway both public and international opinion, painting themselves as the victims of the other side. The French would focus on the lack of reparation payments and the fact that the Germans had occupied so much French territory during the war. The Germans would claim that what the French were about to do was a breach of the Treaty that they were claiming to be upholding. The official German line, as communicated to the international community, was that they just wanted peace and thy would therefore begin a campaign of peaceful resistance. A note would be delivered to the French which read “We cannot defend ourselves against violence, but we are not willing to submit to his violation of the peace and still less to collaborate in the execution of French objectives as is being demanded.” This note was mostly aimed at other countries, trying to appeal to them to put pressure on the French. The most important of these countries was Britain. In the meantime, German leaders told mine owners and operators that no more coal or coke should be given over to the occupiers, this would mark the beginning of passive resistance, and the French would have to resort to threats.
These threats then led to arrests, which began on January 16th when 6 mining directors were summoned to appear before a court martial for refusing to obey orders from Micum. The next day the directors, with the support of the trade unions, released a public statement that they would no longer obey any orders from the occupiers. This caused the French to arrest several mining directors and local political leaders. Local leaders were heavily targeted during these arrests often for the dual purpose of both removing the leaders but then also opening up their position for a more reliable individual to take their place. It started with local political leaders, but then spiraled out into police officers, postal workers, and railwaymen. Some of these individuals were not arrested, and were instead simply expelled from the occupied zone and into unoccupied Germany. By October 130,000 individuals would be expelled from the Ruhr, and that does not include the thousands that would be imprisoned. They also began to move their troops out of the demilitarized zone, so that they could take more direct control of the mining operations. In response to these actions the first set of strikes began. Over the next week the strikes would spread to several mines. On January 20th a joint statement was made by the four largest mining unions stating “If our appeal is not heeded, then any orderly production of coal is out of the question and disruption to economic life will become unavoidable. The peaceful population of the Ruhr District refuses emphatically to work under the bayonets of foreign soldiers.” These actions, a refusal to work with the French, was enthusiastically supported from Berlin, and the Weimar government agreed to pay the wages of the miners, even while they were on strike.
The French had always known that some level of local resistance was possible, but as the strikes would continue in the opening weeks of the occupation discussions began in Paris about how to move forward. During the opening weeks and months of the campaign there was incredibly strong resistance from the people in the Ruhr to doing anything that was seen as working with the French. For example, here is the response given to a French commander who asked if his soldiers could use the pit baths at a local mine: “Working-class families are suffering great poverty and deprivation because of the occupation; problems which were already present in sufficient measure beforehand. We have had our bellyful of incursions into our jurisdiction, the constraints on our freedom of assembly, the practical attacks on peaceful citizens, the treacherous shooting of miners. We demand freedom, work, and bread, but you have brought hunger, deprivation, misery, and decay. We didn’t invite you, nor do we want you here. We have demonstrated through years of overtime that we support our government’s fulfillment policy, You have substituted violence for justice, sanctions for fulfillment; our defensive struggle has flared up in response to this. It is the duty of our workforce to support this defensive struggle. We therefore demand that our management and our works council never consent under any circumstances to foreign troops bathing here.” In response to the intransigence and also the hardships experienced by the local populations the French put in place a carrot and stick approach to try and solve the problem. On one hand they began to put in place a system of taxation on both individuals and local governments, they also limited the ability of people to move around within the Ruhr, and many public services were shut down. At the same time the French introduced food kitchens, a critical step given the lack of food during the occupation. Many local children were also evacuated out of the area and into unoccupied areas of Germany. While these steps were being taken in the Ruhr there were also conversations in Paris about the political paths forward. Some ideas that were suggested included separating the Ruhr from the rest of Germany until a sufficient amount of reparations had been paid. This idea gained some momentum as the occupation continued due to the almost wholesale replacement of the local government with one far more favorable to the French. This broke the political links between the Ruhr and Berlin. However, such a drastic action like a long term occupation was always going to be difficult for the French and Belgians to gain support for from other nations.
These more radical options were thought to be possibly necessary because between January and March 1923 passive resistance in the Ruhr was making it very difficult for the French. The entire goal of the occupation was to extract reparations payments in coal and coke, but during the three months of January, February, and March deliveries of both were lower than they had been before the occupation began. Between the middle of January and the end of March the Ruhr mines should have extracted about 4.2 million tons of coal and coke. However, during the occupation over that span they only delivered 238,000 tons. Not only were the total deliveries down, but before the occupation the Ruhr had exported a large quantity of coal and coke to France. This was a critical source of these materials for French factories, and by March several of those factories had been forced to close due to lack of coke. From the German perspective this made it appear that the passive resistance was working. However, even though it had not been as successful as hoped, the occupation policy still maintained the support of the French government and parliament. It was also disastrous on the German economy. The economic disruption, social dislocation of the people of the Ruhr, and just the costs to the government of paying the striker’s wages were becoming problematic. A growing number within the German government believed that late spring was the time to negotiate, before the strains of passive resistance made it fall apart. However, when negotiations were discussed with the French they refused to meet any preconditions set by the Germans, like moving French and Belgian forces back to the demilitarized zone, and so passive resistance continued.
By the summer months both sides were starting to question their actions. In Germany the overall opinion became more and more critical of the government’s actions and even in France questions began to be asked. Most of these questions came from the political left, and even those closer to the center were becoming concerned about the damage that was being done to the French economy. Prime Minister Poincare, sensing that the was losing support from some voters reinforced his position on the right, which favored his hardline approach. He hoped that by pursuing this path he would eventually bring the Crisis to a victorious conclusion, which would take care of any lingering political problems. Some proposals would be made by the Germans in June, all of them tried to get around the problems that had caused the French to start the occupation, without really giving into their demands. This included the possibilities of financing reparations payments with foreign loans, being more transparent with German economic records, or submitting the problem to a third power for arbitration. All of these would be rejected by Poincare and the French government. Sir Eyre Crow of the British Foreign Office would remark that “It looks as if those were right to believe M. Poincare does not really desire a settlement, preferring to remain in the Ruhr and to see Germany reduced to impotence, as ends valuable in themselves.” The British government felt that they could not come down strongly on either side of the disagreement, they did not agree with the French course of action but would not speak out against it. However, in August, as calls for action in London grew, Lord Curzon would publicly question the legality of French actions in the Ruhr. On the 11th of August the British government would send a note to the French which Elspeth O’Riordan summarizes in Britain and the Ruhr Crisis as “a strongly worded note to France sharply criticizing French policy, declaring the occupation of the Ruhr to be illegal, and vaguely threatening some kind of unilateral ‘separate action’ to hasten a settlement.” When this did not change the French stance, the British did not follow through on their threats, and honestly while there was public support for the government to speak out against French actions, there was never enough support for any drastic action.
Another player in the international political chess was Italy. Mussolini had already taken power in Italy, and he had initially supported French actions. He was concerned that if Italy did not take a strong enough stance one way or another it would be excluded from any agreement that would end the crisis. The greatest threat to Italy was an agreement between France and Germany that reduced the amount of German goods and material that were being exported to Italy. It is not exaggeration to say that the Italian economy was totally dependent on German coal, and if that resource was cut off there would have been serious problems. There was also some hope that Italy could play the role of arbiter in the dispute, a position that Mussolini would try to put himself into several times during the 1920s and 30s. In the end Italian participation in the eventual end of the crisis was minimal.
On August 12th a decisive change would be made in the German government, and a new government was created in Berlin. The expressed goal of this government was to end the passive resistance campaign, and they hoped to accomplish this by inviting the French to a multilateral peace conference. The hope was that by engaging with other nations along French demands would be softened. This did not happen, and instead the new German leaders were forced to negotiate directly with the French. As part of this move to negotiate with the French, passive resistance ended, a move that caused anxiety in Berlin due to concerns that such an action would end up causing more problems for Germany, fears that proved to be warranted. In the areas that had been occupied there was widespread discontent and while the passive resistance was over, French occupation continued. During the continued occupation business leaders in the Ruhr would have to negotiate with the French, as well as with the government in Berlin. The French wanted to make sure that they established their ability to set taxes and to collect them, and they eventually landed on the number 17.9%. 17.9% of total mine output would be handed over to the French. It was a steep price, but on some level the mine owners, and the workers, just needed the mines to start operating again regardless of the cost. The mine owners were just as concerned with their negotiations were Berlin. The national German government had assured the mine owners that they would cover the cost that had been incurred during passive resistance, including the salaries of workers who participated. However, when this bill came due the money simply was not available to pay it. All that the owners in the Ruhr got were promises of future payment. This did nothing to endear the local to the Berlin government. In fact this period would see a rise in the popularity of the Rhenish separatist movement. The goal of this movement was the creation of an independent state made up of the Rhineland and the Ruhr. The official French position was that they would not impose the creation of such a state, but if they wanted to pursue the path, who were the French to discourage them? Even this somewhat bland position would come under fire from other nations in Europe who felt that such an action would just be too destabilizing for Germany and for western Europe as a whole.
While it appeared that the French had emerged victorious, the outcome of their occupation would not meet their expectations. For the entirety of 1923 they would receive just 263 million francs, compared to 1.5 billion in 1922. The Ruhr occupation was not the only reason for this drastic reduction, but it was certainly a large contributor. When this paltry number was combined with other economic issues in France, 1924 would see the value of the franc collapse and the French economic position continue to deteriorate, and still, through all of these problems the French occupation of the Ruhr would continue. It would not be until August 1925 that it would end, and even at that late date the evacuation was only thought possible due to the creation of the Dawes plan. The Dawes plan was the first of what would be several major changes to the reparations clauses in the Treaty of Versailles. It drastically reduced the expected reparations payments, especially in the short term, and provided Germany with large foreign loans. This agreement was only possible due to the pledges made by the German government to resume full reparations payments. The French were not necessarily happy about it, but they would eventually agree to move forward and to evacuate the Ruhr.
Over the last year I have given a lot of thought to where the story of the First World War ends. It is a very difficult thing to draw a line between war and peace, and I hope the last year of episodes had proven that. But I have come to the conclusion that, at least for most of the world, 1923 is the end of that story, and for Western Europe the Ruhr Crisis and the collapse of passive resistance in the Ruhr, and then the eventual end of French occupation signifies that end. By the end of 1923 what I would consider the next story has already begun, Mussolini and the Fascists are already in power in Italy, Russia is firmly under Communist leadership, the Entente are uneasily moving into the postwar years with the British Empire once again trying to distance itself from continental entanglements and the French searching desperately for allies. In Eastern Europe many of the nations that would survive until 1939 were already in place. The United States had already withdrawn from further international commitments, and in the Far East tensions were already rising between Japan and China. Oh, and in Germany a group of radical reactionaries would launch the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923, it would fail, but that would not prevent their leader from eventually rising to the leader of all of Germany, plunging the world into another world war.
Even though I consider the story of the First World War over, that does not mean this podcast is over, at least not quite yet. Next week there will be a Question and Answer episode, there are currently 16 questions on the list. If you send me your question before December 1st I will do my best to answer it. Then over the following five days I am going to release 5 previous Patreon only episodes, for reasons I will describe in an introduction to those episodes, the short version is that I think the topics are too important to have locked behind a paywall. Then after those five episodes, the actual last episode of History of the Great War will be released, with the primary topic being the legacy of the war and how it is has been remembered over the years. As always thank you for listening, and I hope you will join me next episode as we dive into your questions.