HST242 Assignment 2 Stephen Wilson
The Treaty of Versailles created more problems than it solved. Discuss.
The peace treaty of Versailles which the allies forced upon the Germans in 1919 has been one of the most controversial political acts of the twentieth century. Many historians and politicians believed that the dictated peace was far too harsh in it’s measures which created a strong hatred for the treaty in Germany which in turn sowed the seeds for future generations of Germans to overturn the treaty. On almost every aspect the Treaty of Versailles can be seen as a failure, yet it could be said that the treaty did provide Europe with twenty years of peace from 1919 to 1939.
The two main issues which the Treaty of Versailles focused upon were the territorial changes in Europe and the fact that Germany would have to pay for the war. Both of these are vitally important factors in why the Treaty can be seen as a failure. The Treaty put forward to Germany the loss of the following territories in Europe; Danzig and the Polish Corridor (Poland), Alsace-Lorraine (France), Schleswig-Holstein (Denmark), and Eupen and Malmady (Belgium). The Germans also lost the Saarland, which was put under the control of the League of Nations for a period of 15 years. The loss of these territories goes against the notion of national self determination which Versailles brought about, as the populations of these areas lost by Germany were overwhelmingly Germanic, so the handing over of these territories caused resentment of Germans living in these areas against Versailles and the allies. This is also the case with Versailles creation of new nation states in Eastern Europe to fill the vacuum created by Woodrow Wilson’s concept of national self-determination. Out of all the new nations, 19million people were national minorities out of a total population of 98million. This again is an important factor. Hitler was able to use the ‘plight’ of these minorities to press for territorial claims in these areas, hence showing that this aspect (national self-determination) of Versailles was a failure. Also because these new nation states were not homogenous, and had no common history they were doomed to failure, for example the ease in which the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia.
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The other key feature of Versailles was the reparations which the allies believed that the Germans had to pay. These ranged from the modest to the ridiculous. The French believed 200million German Marks would be the minimum that the Germans would have to pay. Both Britain and France wanted reparations, by France desperately needed them, as the war had left the French economy in ruins. Therefore the French aims with Versailles was to hamstring the German economy in such a way that the Germans would have paid for France’s war and left themselves bankrupt. To the French this was the ideal situation, as a bankrupt Germany would pose no threat to the safety of France. However the French could not see that by hamstringing the German economy, the whole of the European economy would be wrecked. The British economist John Maynard Keynes went so far as to say that no reparations should be made by Germany as they were that vital to Europe’s economy; “The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading lives of millions of human beings…should be abhorrent and detestable.” Keynes proved undoubtedly right about reparations, even though the figure demanded by the allies was less than the French wanted – 132,000 million Gold Marks. From the very outset the idea of reparations was complex and problem ridden.
The inability of the German government being able to pay for the reparations is tied in with the loss of territories which Versailles took from them. Versailles took away all of the Germans overseas colonies and any assets which they had there. Also the territories that they lost in Europe were also key to the German economy. Keynes states that the Saarland accounted for 60,800,000 tonnes of German coal production in 1913, this was approximately half of all German coal produced in that year. With half of the German coal industry in the hands of the French, German industry in general would suffer; hence Germany would be unable to pay off the reparations. It seems simple but people, especially the French, wanted the Germans to suffer for starting the war. The leads on to the infamous article 231, the guilt clause. Whilst the guilt clause didn’t create any specific problems, the fact that in the eyes of the world the Germans were perceived as the chief perpetrators of the war rankled the Germans. It also provided for the continuance popularity of anti-French and anti-British feeling, as well as nationalist sentiment in Germany. This is important as it provides a sound springboard for the growth of Hitler and the Nazis throughout the 1920s.
The evidence that the concept of reparations under Versailles was more of a problem than a solution is in the fact that reparations were originally put back with the Dawes plan (1924) and eventually cancelled with Lausanne (1932). The fact that these other negotiations had to occur show that the very idea of reparations was flawed. The fact also that French troops entered the Ruhr in 1923 because Germany had stopped payments also highlights what a failure reparations were.
Another problem that was raised by Versailles was the question of armaments. Under Versailles, the Germany army was limited to 100,000 troops, their navy was drastically cut and they were forbidden from having an air force. Many thought that these were adequate measures, especially as the mood put forward during the making of the treaty that disarmament of the other powers would follow. This did not happen, but the Germans could do nothing about it, even so they broke the limitations on the number of troops by training some in the Soviet Union; therefore this aspect of Versailles can also be seen as problem producing. If the other powers would have also been disarmed in such a way as Germany, then the anti-British and French feeling in Germany would not have been so great, and Hitler may have not gain great popularity for his rearmament schemes.
One of the key problems that Versailles brought about was in Germany itself. Because of the allies wish to ‘negotiate/dictate’ peace to a democratic regime in Germany, the old regime was swept away. Yet because of the new regime’s acceptance of the Versailles Treaty it was seen by the German public as being weak and unfaithful to Germany. Many Germans referred to this acceptance as ‘a stab in the back’. This opinion seriously undermined the credibility of Weimar Germany, in a country so used to authoritarian rule it was used to show the weakness of democracy; this idea was played up by Hitler and the Nazis. However, there was not much the Germans could have done in 1919, if they had not accepted Versailles they would have been invaded.
One not so obvious problem created by the Treaty of Versailles was the creation of an organisation that was meant to solve problems – the League of Nations. In principle the idea of the League of Nations, as set out by Woodrow Wilson, was seen as an untried but potentially viable method of conducting diplomatic relations. In practice it was far from it. From it’s inception it was doomed to failure through the non-acceptance of the United States to be a part of the League. Without the Americans the organisation was little more than a front for British and French actions. The League was nothing but a diplomatic organisation with no real power; members came and went with alarming regularity. The League’s ineffectiveness can be shown over the inactivities over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the Italian attack on Abyssinia. The League offered no assistance to the invaded countries, just issuing strongly worded statements (Manchuria) or imposing ineffective economic sanctions (Italy). The League of Nations was just a dithering organisation, whilst it didn’t create any problems specifically, it couldn’t tackle them whatsoever.
In conclusion it is a fair analysis to state that the Versailles peace treaty did create more problems than it solved. It was undoubtedly a flawed treaty, the task the peace makers did have was incredibly enormous. However that does not excuse the fact that they produced a treaty that was full of the biases, prejudices and vagueries of the nations involved. The Treaty was too harsh upon the Germans, it caused too much resentment amongst them, which Hitler skilfully brought to the surface. Indeed the greatest problem the Treaty of Versailles can said to have created is the Second World War.
P.M.H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, (Longman, Edinburgh, 1986)
J.M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, (Brace & Howe, New York, 1920)
Anthony Adamthwaite, The Lost Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918 – 1939, (Edward Arnold, London, 1980)
William Carr, A History of Germany 1815 – 1990, (Edward Arnold, London, 1990)
P.M.H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, (Longman, Edinburgh, 1986), p. 28.
J.M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, (Brace & Howe, New York, 1920). p. 169.
Anthony Adamthwaite, The Lost Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918 – 1939, (Edward Arnold, London, 1980), p. 17.
Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, p. 88.