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When World War I came to a close in mid-November of 1918, many ideas were circulating in Europe as to what the peace settlement should entail. In Britain, leaders were thinking about how to increase British colonial power. In France, many wanted to permanently punish the Germans, partly in revenge for Germany’s aggression in World War I, but also, perhaps subliminally, for the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. In Germany, citizens were worried about how radical changes after the war could affect their daily lives. Finally, in the United States, President Wilson was already concocting a system of permanently preserving European peace. All these biases, worries, plans, and ideas came together in Paris in 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles, establishing the post-war peace in Europe. Yet just twenty years later, war would once again break out in Europe. So why were the peace settlements of World War I unable to prevent the outbreak of war twenty years later in World War II?
The Treaty of Versailles had two main issues on which it focused: Germany’s post war territory and also the amount of reparations Germany must pay. In the East, Germany was literally split into two parts. The Allies decided that the nation of Poland should be given access to the sea, so they formed the “Polish Corridor.” Poland gained a lot of territory from Germany, including a port on the Baltic, Danzig (Gdansk in Polish.) This isolated the region of Germany known as Eastern Prussia, which includes the city of K nigsberg.
In the Western part of Germany, more changes were made. France gained the much sought after region of Alsace-Lorraine. The northern part of Schleswig was given to Denmark, an area that had been contested since the time of Bismarck. Belgium also gained the provinces of Eupen and Malmedy. The Rhineland was to be occupied heavily by allied forces, giving them control of such major cities as Cologne, Bonn and, Frankfurt, and putting troops at the gates of Dortmund and Stuttgart. Most importantly, the Saarland was placed under international rule, and control of its valuable Ruhr coal fields were given to France. In Article 50, Point 34 of the treaty it was determined that after 15 years, the Saarland would be allowed to hold a plebiscite to select, “a) Maintenance of the regime established by the present Treaty… b) Union with France, or c) Union with Germany. Germany’s borders had been diminished and the country was now split in half by the Treaty of Versailles.
The Treaty of Versailles also charged Germany with the task of paying heavy reparations. The treaty set up a reparations committee that would meet sometime in 1921 to determine reparations for Germany to pay. Until then, Germany would pay $5,000,000,000 due May 1, 1921. The Germans would have to wait to see what reparations they would really pay. Until then, though, they started on the $5,000,000,000, already a very daunting task for the nation.
The economic strain put on Germany was probably the single most important factor in increasing hostility of the Germans towards Britain and France. The Germans by 1921 had paid off almost half of the $5,000,000,000 charged by Versailles. Then the reparations committee finally met and determined that Germany should pay another $25,000,000,000, plus other costs, bringing the total up to $32,500,000,000 to be paid by 1963! This demand, however, was ridiculous. Germany had hardly enough money to pay the entire original fee. In 1918, the German Reichsbank had only $577,089,500 dollars. This demand would crush the German economy, and many experts predicted it could even cause the starvation of the German people. Leading economist of the time John Maynard Keynes said of this, “The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable . . . . Nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or rulers.” Very ironically, Keynes made this observation in a book in 1920, a year before the reparations committee officially added on the new $25,000,000,000 fine!
Not only were Britain and France overly vindictive in assessing these reparations, but they were also short-sighted in thinking they would derive anything beneficial out of it. Basically, Britain and France demanded all of Germany’s money, yet they also took away all territory from Germany that could produce this money. By taking away Germany’s colonies, they, in effect, eliminated all of Germany’s investments and assets in their Colonial power. Future income and industry generated from these colonies would not be there for Germany. More devastating was taking away Germany’s coal-producing territories. Germany, according to 1913 figures, used 139,000,000 tons of coal to enable its railroads, utilities, house-fuel, agriculture, etc. The provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, the Saarland, and Upper Silesia accounted for 60,800,000 of those tons, all of which was taken away from Germany. More than half of Germany’s coal was to be taken away, with not enough left to power the heavily populated industrial country. With German industry completely destroyed, there was no practical way for them to pay Britain and France.
Although not allowed to participate in the oral negotiations, Germany had made several counter proposals dealing with the territorial adjustments and the reparations. Germany was willing to give up Alsace-Lorraine, the province of Posen, and Northern Schleswig. They also agreed to pay in full the reparations, but wanted to have their economy preserved by retaining their merchant fleet, and keeping their colonies. The Allies immediately censored these proposals, probably so they could not rouse sympathy for the German side. The proposals were not released until June 17th of 1919, only eleven days before the treaty was signed. In retrospect, many from Britain and France regretted not having agreed with or at least considered this counter proposal. In 1928, a Paris newspaper showed a picture of the German head delegate Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, saying, “The man who offered us 100 milliard gold marks at Versailles, which we unluckily refused.” Germany realized that there was no way they could pay the reparations if their industrial territories, such as the Saar Basin, and their colonies were taken away. Unfortunately, the Allies did not see this. With the counter-proposals denied, Germany’s only other option was to resort to printing more money. This would cause massive inflation, further devastating the German economy. In 1918, there were seven German Marks to the United States Dollar. In 1923, 4,210,500,000,000 Marks equaled the dollar! Germany’s last economic resort had been disastrous.
German aggression was greatly aroused by the ridiculous and often mistaken territorial adjustments made by Britain and France. One such incident was in the transfer of German territory to Poland. The allies had determined that the territory of Allenstein, in the eastern part of Germany should be given to Poland. The German delegation sent a counter-proposal stating that Allenstein had a large German population, and the Polish population was miniscule. Clemenceau answered this proposal by saying, “It is difficult to understand the objections raised by the German delegations . . . According to the best of our information there exists in the Government of Allenstein a considerable Polish majority.” When a plebiscite was actually held there, 97.9% of the population voted to be part of Germany, with the remaining 2.1% wanting to join with Poland.
Although Allenstein was eventually granted to Germany, the main problem is obvious. The Allies postponed other plebiscites in Upper Silesia, most likely to prevent a similar setback from occurring. Germany had a significantly greater population than Poland in almost every territory taken away from them, and the allies probably knew this. What greater way of creating animosity is there than taking masses of people from their country? The Allies were very ignorant in this case, ignoring the fact that they were brewing hatred all throughout Germany by taking territories that were almost 100% German away from Germany. This incident clearly showed that Clemenceau was out for revenge, not seeking true peace. For France, the settlement was in reaction to not only 1914, but also more importantly 1871.
Not all of the Allies were against Germany in this manner. Woodrow Wilson had a different idea of what the settlement should be, which he called the 14 points. These were more lenient than what Britain and France wanted, and Wilson believed they were more oriented to preserving the peace and status quo in Europe. Wilson thought that Germany should retain most of its pre-war territory, with the exception of Alsace-Lorraine going to France. Wilson also believed that Germany should pay little or no reparations, and thought Europe should form a “League of Nations,” to preserve the peace. He even thought that Germany should eventually be allowed into the League. Yet these ideas were immediately mocked and Wilson was personally insulted by members of both the French and British governments. During one round of negotiations where Wilson was presenting his 14 points, Clemenceau is said to have turned and whispered to Lloyd George saying, “You know that God Himself had only 10!” Another British delegate General Henry Wilson referred to President Wilson as a, “vain, ignorant, weak ass.” The League of Nations was created, but perhaps because most of Wilson’s other points were ignored, the United States did not join. Whether or not Woodrow Wilson’s peace would have fared better than the Treaty of Versailles is really immaterial; no one will ever know. But the fact that Wilson was simply ignored, mocked, and insulted, reinforces the idea that Britain and France only cared about punishing Germany, not seeking peace.
Britain and France had now completed one of the most devastating peace treaties in history. Mistakes had been made that would increase German aggression, and would drive Germany to desperate options. The economic impacts and the territorial changes worked in tandem to do this. Germany had no capacity to pay the reparations, without having their territories and colonies. If Germany refused to pay the reparations, even more territory would be occupied. This gave Germany reason to rearm and aggressively retake their territories such as the Saar Basin and the Rhineland. In addition, the political situation in Germany easily allowed the rise of radical ideas. With the inflation, the Weimar Republic, which was governing Germany in the early 20s, collapsed and socialist revolts and strikes in cities like Kiel caused total political upheaval. In addition, the hatred of Britain and France for taking Germans away from their nation in places like Danzig and Alsace-Lorraine created even more instability.
All these factors, ignored by those who created the treaty, easily allowed Adolf Hitler to come to power. Hitler was a very charismatic leader, and an excellent speaker, and was offering solutions to the economic and social hardships of Germany, combined with national pride. The German people immediately were willing to join his cause, no matter how radical it was. Soon, Hitler began to remilitarize Germany, planning to regain the territories lost with the Versailles Treaty, with great nationalist support from the German people. As for the League of Nations, it was unable to do anything. Britain and France were often to busy worrying about their own economic and social problems of the time to worry about foreign affairs, yet alone wage another war. Hitler had carefully analyzed the League’s reactions toward other aggression at the time. When Japan invaded Manchuria, the League let it pass. Similarly, when Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in 1935, the Allies only imposed economic sanctions on Italy, which were actually ignored by most League members. If the League of Nations would have been stronger, perhaps with the assistance of the United States, aggression by Germany, Italy and Japan could have been prevented. But the U.S was still angry about being ignored at Versailles, and maintained a very isolationist policy. (Germany actually declared war on the United States before the U.S chose to enter the European front of World War II.) Finally, the League of Nations had to resort to the weak policy of Appeasement, championed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Hitler and Germany were able to take over the Rhineland, the Saarland, the Sudetenland, (which had been given to the nation of Czechoslovakia by the peace settlements) and unify with Austria with the League left only to watch. Finally, on the 1st of September 1939, just 20 years after the end of World War I, Hitler invaded Poland. The Treaty of Versailles had failed; Europe was once again at war.
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