A century after it was signed, the accepted view of the Treaty of Versailles remains that it was a gigantic mistake, so savage and vindictive that it drove the rise of Hitler and led directly to the Second World War. Germany, so it is argued, was deliberately and cruelly humiliated. The victors – France, Great Britain, and the United States – seized its colonies and parts of its territory in Europe, imposed disarmament, and, above all, sought to keep it economically enfeebled through reparations – exorbitant payments ostensibly extracted to pay for the damage caused by war. All this was justified because Germany and its allies were held solely to blame for the conflict’s outbreak in 1914. This, as many in the English-speaking world and Germany came to believe, and still do, was grossly unfair because Germany had actually not started the war; rather Europe as a whole – nationalistic, imperialistic, militaristic – had, in David Lloyd George’s words, “slithered” over the edge, heedless of the catastrophe to come.
The French, not surprisingly, have never fully accepted this version. France, as people sometimes forget, had not declared war on Germany; rather Germany had invaded it as part of war plans to defeat Russia and its ally in the West. In the four years of war France suffered huge human and material loss; the highest proportion of men of military age killed of any country except Serbia and the devastation of the northern departments that had contained much of French industry and its coal mines.
In recent decades historians have increasingly challenged or at least modified the accepted versions of German innocence in 1914 and the injustice of its peace treaty. In Germany in the 1960s Fritz Fischer set off a series of controversies when he argued, drawing heavily on surviving German archives, that the German military and key parts of the government had wanted war as a means of ensuring dominance of Europe’s heartland. The spate of books around 2014 on the outbreak of the war did not reach any consensus on how it started, but most point to human decisions and human failings, including German ones, rather than the impersonal hand of fate.
The Treaty of Versailles has also been scrutinised by historians (I am among them) who suggest that it was not as harsh as it is usually portrayed and that, more importantly, the road to the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War was not predetermined in 1919. Specific charges made then and since against the treaty – that it stripped Germany of 13 per cent of its territory and 10 per cent of its population for example – have been challenged. Last year in A Perfidious Distortion of History, the German historian Jürgen Tampke argued, persuasively, that the figures are inflated, that much of the lost territory had itself been seized from France (in the case of Alsace and Lorraine) or from Poland at the end of the 18th century and that many of its inhabitants were not ethnic Germans. We historians have made little progress in shifting popular opinion, partly because we are up against one of the most successful polemics of the 20th century.
In 1919 the brilliant and very self-assured young economist John Maynard Keynes left the Paris Peace Conference, where he had been an adviser to the British Treasury, in disgust at what he saw as its failure to grapple with the real problems facing Europe. (An American expert unkindly said that it was more because his views were being ignored.) The leading statesmen were worrying about borders or about punishing and constraining Germany when they should have been concentrating on getting the economic engines going again.
He dashed off a little book with a very dry title which was an instant best-seller and has been in print ever since. Keynes himself later retracted some of it and apologised to David Lloyd George, British prime minister at the time, but the damage was done. The Economic Consequences of the Peace is a devastating attack on the key figures in Paris: Georges Clemenceau of France is portrayed as a vindictive ape focused solely on destroying Germany; Lloyd George is the amoral Welsh wizard who simply wants to get a temporary deal; and Woodrow Wilson is the booby, the American president outwitted by the wily Europeans. They sit in overheated rooms talking nonsense about punishing Germany while outside Europe heads for economic and social ruin.
Keynes knew what should be done: the Allies should fix an amount for reparations well within Germany’s ability to pay, and encourage it, with loans if necessary, to get its economy going again. Germany had been the powerhouse of Europe before the war and could be again. Britain and France were insisting on reparations in part so that they could pay their huge war debts – France’s to Britain and Britain’s to the United States – so, Keynes proposed in his last chapter, all inter-allied debts should be cancelled. France and Britain would then have the resources or could take out loans to finance their reconstruction. If his recommendations were followed, he promised, production and trade would revive and all of Europe and indeed the wider world would benefit. There was a difficulty, he admitted: “A great change is necessary in public opinion before the proposals in this chapter can enter the region of practical politics.”
Keynes would have preferred that the economist ran things, writing in 1922: “He is a better and wiser governor than the general or the diplomatist or the oratorical lawyer.” Perhaps, but what he was suggesting was not politically feasible in 1919, in the aftermath of one of the worst wars Europe had ever experienced. Looking back from the vantage point of a century later we know how badly Europe and the world were going to fare, but we have to remember that the peacemakers did not have free rein.
To begin with they had to deal with public opinion (and the next elections). On the one hand, the catastrophe of the war had awakened hopes that something better might come out of it. Both Lenin and his Bolsheviks in Moscow and Woodrow Wilson talked about a new world order. The Bolsheviks envisioned that, with the triumph of the proletarian revolution, national borders would dissolve and universal peace ensue, while Wilson proposed a new organisation to provide collective security for all its members and with a shared commitment to justice and prosperity for all. While the Leninist view made headway in Western societies, particularly among the working classes, it was the Wilsonian that prevailed in Paris.
Public opinion is not always consistent, however, and along with hopes for a better world went the desire to punish those responsible for the war. As Conservative politician Eric Geddes said, the Germans must be squeezed “until the pips squeak”. The scale of the losses meant that it was improbable if not impossible, that voters in any of the Allied countries (and that included the associated power of the United States, where anti-German feeling was running high) would want to let Germany off paying for the damage it was widely believed to have caused. “Who Ought to Be Ruined?”, said the headline in a French paper, “France or Germany?” The Allies also had to deal with each other’s claims. France and Belgium, on whose soil so much of the war had been fought, had the strongest case for damages. Yet if they got the greatest part of Germany’s reparations, Great Britain would be left with huge war debts. After much haggling in Paris an agreement was reached which allowed the British to add in pensions paid to the widows and orphans of their dead soldiers, which had the effect of inflating the amount owed by Germany.
As so often happens when peace finally comes, the wartime coalition was dissolving in the face of divergent national interests. The British wanted their share of reparations but were also aware that Germany had been their main trading partner before the war and that driving it into economic collapse would cause them problems. The French meanwhile were deeply apprehensive of a renewed Germany, with its greater birth rate, sitting on their eastern border. If they could use reparations to weaken Germany and exercise some control over it, they would. The US, which had come out of the war economically and militarily much stronger, was increasingly inclined to let the Europeans settle their own affairs. As it saw it, its troops had won the war and that was enough. When Keynes and Lloyd George floated the idea of cancelling all inter-allied war debts the Americans were scandalised. The money had been lent and must be repaid. (It was different after 1945, but it took the growing Soviet hold over eastern Europe to scare the Americans into providing the Marshall Plan to revive western Europe.)
We may not approve but we should also remember that until the Paris Peace Conference it was quite normal for a defeated nation to lose territory and such things as art treasures, or to pay indemnities. After the Franco-Prussian War, France lost Alsace-Lorraine and had to pay German occupation costs. Japan acquired Korea and Taiwan as well as Russian concessions in Manchuria after its wars with China and Russia. In their Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which ended Russian involvement in the war in March 1918, Germany and Austria-Hungary gained huge swathes of territory, from the Baltic states to the Caspian Sea, as well as a payment of 6bn marks to cover German costs. If Germany had won the whole war, its plans included annexing Belgium and a part of the north coast of France, establishing a large empire in central Africa and setting up a zone of German economic and political dominance in central Europe.
The victorious European Allies had some plans for gains of their own (France had always been clear that it wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, while Italy intended to round out its northern borders) but they were put on the defensive by Wilson’s public statements during the war and at the time of the Armistice that there would no handing out of territories without considering the wishes of their inhabitants and no punitive indemnities. Wilson nevertheless expected that Germany would pay for war damage and the Germans accepted that in the agreements they made before and in the Armistice of 11 November 1918.
The problems arose, as they frequently do, in interpretation and implementation. Both Lloyd George and Clemenceau knew they would never get the amounts their own publics were expecting. Germany’s capacity to pay was limited and would become more so if it were pushed into economic decline. So they chose, and Lloyd George played a key role here, to fudge it. He successfully resisted putting a figure in the Treaty of Versailles while assuring the British public that he intended to be tough. Instead, Germany was obliged in the infamous Article 231 to accept responsibility for starting the war. A figure would be set once committees had assessed the bill, estimated its capacity to pay, and worked out how payments could be made. When the committees reported in 1921 the Allies set up an elaborate scheme with A, B and C payments to be made through bonds backed by the German government. Germany would only be liable for the last two – which were significantly larger – once it had completed the first set. Allied public opinion was assuaged while Germany had little incentive to pay.
As many of the Allied side were starting to realise, they had few means of enforcing German payments short of invasion. France and Belgium tried that in 1923 when they occupied the Ruhr after repeated German defaults. The German government initially adopted a policy of passive resistance and allowed inflation to rise uncontrollably while the mark lost its value. The occupation ended after the British refused to support it and a new German government took office pledging to restoring stability. As even some French statesman understood, destroying Germany’s economy and society was a dangerous game that might well enable the spread of Bolshevism in the heart of Europe.
The American banker JP Morgan Jr summed up the insuperable Allied dilemma:
The Allies must make up their minds as to whether they wanted a weak Germany who could not pay, or a strong Germany who could pay. If they wanted a weak Germany they must keep her economically weak; but if they wanted her to pay they must allow Germany to exist in a condition of cheerfulness, which would lead to successful business. This meant, however, that you would get a strong Germany, and a Germany that was strong economically would, in a sense, be strong from a military point of view also.
The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, 28 June 1919 by William Orpen
In Germany itself the peace treaty – the Diktat – was deeply unpopular and reparations were blamed for a whole range of problems, from the government’s deficit to rising prices. The distinguished English journalist Elizabeth Wiskemann once met two officers’ widows in Wiesbaden who complained that it was all the fault of the Versailler Diktat that they could only send their linen out to be washed once a fortnight instead of weekly. The German government delayed payments and repeatedly sought to renegotiate the amounts owing. (Keynes here played a curious role which might cause comment today: he not only befriended and advised one of the German delegation to Paris but continued to advise German bankers and the government on how to cope with and minimise the bill.)
German resistance grew out of the circumstances of the end of the war. Although its armies had been defeated decisively on the Western Front and the High Command had begged the civilian government to get an armistice immediately, the German public had not experienced defeat first-hand. The war had not been fought on German soil and, apart from the Rhineland, Germany was not occupied. Once the High Command recovered from its panic it started to put out the story that Germany had never been defeated in battle but rather stabbed in the back at home by the perfidious left, the liberals and the Jews. If it had not been defeated, why should it be penalised? In addition, Wilson appeared to have suggested in the public “Notes” he sent the German government in 1918 that if the Germans got rid of the old regime and became a republic like the United States, they could expect different treatment. And in the 1920s growing doubt, especially in the English-speaking world, that any one country had caused the war undermined the legitimacy of Article 231 and hence reparations. A special department in the German foreign office expended considerable resources to foster such a reinterpretation by selectively releasing documents and cultivating sympathetic British and American experts.
Hitler and his Nazis made great play with the injustice of the treaty – and cancelled reparations payments once they were in power – but it is unlikely that they would have achieved office without the Great Depression’s polarising effects on German society and, it should never be forgotten, the folly of those upper-class Germans who thought they could use Nazi popular support and dismiss Hitler whenever they chose.
We now deplore the Treaty of Versailles and the attempt to get reparations as misguided and dangerous. Yet harsh peace terms have not always created the circumstances for future wars. Germany was divided and occupied after 1945. This time there were no negotiations over the amount and schedule of reparations. The Soviet Union simply stripped its occupation zone of everything it could, including Germans as forced labour; many of them never came back and boxcars full of machinery and loot rotted on Soviet tracks for years after. Germany also lost a quarter of its territory to Poland and some 12 million German speakers were expelled from central Europe. Japan was treated with equal severity. Yet both countries are now well-rooted and thriving democracies.
When the American general Mark Clark was asked whether it was not dangerous to impose a Carthaginian peace on Germany in 1945, he is said to have replied, “We don’t get too much trouble from those Carthaginians nowadays.” A grim thought, and let us hope that his road to peace is not the only one there is. As we look around the world at the moment with its long-running conflicts I have to wonder if we are any further along than they were a century ago in understanding how to build lasting peace.
Margaret MacMillan is a former warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of “Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War” (John Murray)
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow