THE TREATY OF VERSAILLES: A JUSTIFIED PEACE?


Extended Essay in History
 

THE TREATY OF VERSAILLES: A JUSTIFIED PEACE?
To what extent did the creators of the Treaty of Versail
les, 1919, create a harsh and short-sighted peace?

Abstract


In the aftermath of the First World War, against the backdrop of millions of soldiers’ deaths and the traumatising of an entire continent, the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919 (Boemeke, Feldman and Glaser 177). The complexity of debate surrounding it is intimately connected with the everlasting ‘War Guilt’ (Graebner and Bennett 48) question, but the prominent views on the Treaty are that it was both harsh and short-sighted. This essay aims to evaluate these views, answering the question ‘to what extent did the creators of the Treaty of Versailles create a harsh and short- sighted peace?” In order to do so, it considers not the effects that can be seen with hindsight and judgement in the present day, because, as E.P. Thompson argued, we must judge the Treaty ‘on the terms of those who created the document, rather than ours’ (Thompson 12). As such, the essay takes into consideration the circumstances in 1919 and the years preceding it, arguing that most of the Treaty’s terms, such as the reparations to the Allies, were not harsh because they were justified by German aggression before and during the war, which had provoked or dragged the Allied Powers into war, causing the desolation in their nations. It argues also that the Treaty was not short-sighted since many of its terms, such as the donation of land from Germany to France as well as reparations to the Allied Powers and demands for disarmament, were designed to cripple the German war machine in the long run so as to prevent Germany from creating future hostilities. Finally, the essay considers the socio-political situation that many consider a reason the Treaty was harsh, and concludes that Germany’s actions preceding 1919 fully justify the Terms of the Treaty. As such, the essay concludes that the Treaty of Versailles was neither harsh nor short-sighted.
Word count: 297


Contents
Abstract ........................................................................................................................ 2 Contents ....................................................................................................................... 3 Introduction ................................................................................................................ 4 Terms of the Treaty ................................................................................................... 5
The War Guilt Clause .................................................................................... 5 Loss of land: Section IV and Section V ......................................................... 7 Reparation Costs .......................................................................................... 10 Clauses regarding disarmament ................................................................... 12
Isolation: what the past had shown ........................................................................ 13 Germany in 1919 ...................................................................................................... 14 Conclusion ................................................................................................................ 15 Bibliography .............................................................................................................. 17 Appendix A: The Donation of the Saar Coal Basin ................................................... 20 Appendix B: Alsace – Lorraine ................................................................................. 21 Appendix C: The Inter-Allied Reparation Commission ............................................ 22


Introduction
Signed on 28th June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles is one of the world’s most influential and most debated documents. It was created in the aftermath of the Great War of 1914 – 1918, its most prominent and influential creators being the American President Woodrow Wilson, the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and the British Prime Minister Lloyd George (Andelman 204), among delegations from 27 nations (Lentin 84) which excluded the vanquished, with Russia equally absent from negotiations. Naturally, each nation held a different aim - but the Treaty’s main purpose was ending the conflict and preventing future hostilities. Its critics have attributed it blame for creating the unforgiving conditions that favoured the rise of right-wing extremism in Germany in the years following its completion, and it is therefore often described as harsh. The treaty has also been criticized for being short- sighted, as D. Walbanks argues: “...it was a treaty made without thought ... or consideration as to what its effects might be.” (Walbanks) The debate on this is intimately connected with the debate on whether or not Germany was responsible for causing the damages it was made to pay for, since responsibility for damages is typically followed by reparation. With historians like Fritz Fischer arguing Germany was to blame, with the logical consequence of repayments, and others arguing the Treaty was harsh and short-sighted, to what extent did the creators of the Treaty of Versailles create a harsh and short-sighted peace?
It is important to evaluate the treaty ‘on the terms of those who created the document, rather than ours’ (Thompson 12), as E.P. Thompson argued, because its effects can only be observed with hindsight and this frequently dictates if a treaty is considered harsh and short-sighted or not, while the creators of the document were only able to predict the effects of their treaty. Thus, the treaty’s harsh- and short-sightedness will be examined with regards to the context of 1919 and the years preceding it.
In order for the treaty to be defined as harsh, it will include many unnecessary demands that are not justified by or related to the offence. This assessment will be based on personal interpretation and can therefore be discredited as subjective, so to mitigate this, the justifiability of the Treaty’s terms will be examined according to two criteria: (1) whether the terms are related to the offence, or whether they were included arbitrarily or to insult; (2) if the terms are related to the offence, whether the damages or issues they present solutions to were caused by Germany. In order for a treaty to be short-sighted, it will be unsustainable in the long run, and will not consider the long-term impact of the treaty. In the light of this, examination of the terms of the treaty and the responsibility for Germany’s socio-political situation at the time will show that the Treaty’s terms were largely justifiable given German aggression at the start of the war, and its architects did indeed place much importance on the long-term effects of the Treaty, with their political aims in mind. As such, the Treaty was neither harsh nor short-sighted.
The War Guilt Clause
Subjected to countless criticisms, the War Guilt Clause forced Germany to accept all responsibility for the loss and damage to the Allied governments and their nationals. This article is both justified and necessary, even if it caused escalated bitterness in Germany, with Hitler fermenting this resentment and fuelling the stab in the back myth (Gonen 8) in order to win German support. The response to the War Guilt Clause in 1919 was resentment in the German population, as a German MP indicated in a speech to the Reichstag in 1919: “It is inflicting the deepest [emotional] wounds on us Germans as our world lies in wreckage about us” (Clare) – Germans considered the war self-defensive, and therefore found it intolerable to accept war guilt (Von Wegerer xiv). It can be argued that the clause was unnecessary and thus harsh since there had been no real victor in combat – 11 November 1918 saw only the signing of an armistice (Simonds 351). It can also be argued also that there is no possibility of charging Germany with sole war guilt as all European Powers had collectively caused the conflict, making the clause unjustified. Firstly, however, the War Guilt Clause was crucial in the treaty; without it, no defeated party could be established and no responsibility could be appointed to any nation to pay reparations. It was the basis of all other points in that it laid the foundation and justification for the rest of the articles, and was therefore highly necessary. The article is justified in that it states Germany shall assume responsibility for the damage inflicted upon the Allied Powers; German aggression caused the creators’ countries’ involvement in the War– Germany having invaded France on 3 August 1914, Germany having agitated Britain by the execution of the Schlieffen Plan through Belgium, thus inciting Britain to declare war on 4 August, and, by German agitation of the Americans with the sinking of the Lusitana in 1915, involving America. Germany had furthermore caused incredible damage in France, destroying 40% of its coal and 58% of its steel output (Boemeke, Feldman and Glaser 173). It is the result of myth and propaganda that Article 231 has been nicknamed the “War Guilt Clause”: as Margaret MacMillan argues in Peacemakers, the clause does not attribute blame for the entire war to Germany, but rather blames it solely, and justifiably, for the damages Germany inflicted upon the Allied Powers as a result of its aggression in 1914. She argues this due to the phrasing of the Article: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected ... (The Versailles Treaty)” Published in 2001, the reliability of the arguments presented in Peacemakers benefits from hindsight and the author’s background in studying history and international relations, but though it is beneficial given that MacMillan may have had access to his reasoning and views on the Treaty, it must be taken into consideration that MacMillan’s great-grandfather is David Lloyd George. Furthermore, in 1919, Allied delegations “regarded the clause as non-problematic, because its intention was to limit German liability with regard to reparations” (MacMillan 570), and therefore, on the terms of its creators, Article 231 is neither harsh nor short-sighted.
Loss of land: Sections IV and V
Sections IV and V regarding the donation of the Saar coal basin along with the provinces Alsace and Lorraine to France are some of the most important and criticised of the points regarding reparation costs to be paid by Germany. Even if they caused German economic problems after the signature of the treaty, they were necessary and also justified by Germany’s actions at the start of the war which caused the incredible damage to France’s resources in particular and should therefore not be considered harsh. Section IV of the Treaty outlines the donation of the Saar coal mines to France as compensation for the destruction of coal mines in the North of France for 15 years, after which a plebiscite would allow the inhabitants to decide under which government they would like to be placed (see Appendix A). The section itself proves its necessity by stating the coal mines will be donated as compensation for the damage in France: most of the fighting on the Western front was located in France, destroying 40% of the nation's coal and 58% of its steel output (Boemeke, Feldman and Glaser 173). These resources were located in provinces Germany had invaded in 1914, and were destroyed by German forces, justifying the donation of the Saar coal basin to France. Germany’s blame for the outbreak of the war (and therefore its responsibility for the repercussions) was underestimated greatly by revisionist and Marxist historians during the 1920s and 1930s, giving rise to the belief that the Treaty was therefore harsh. Opposing the orthodox view that Germany caused the War, revisionist historians of the 1920s and 1930s, fuelled by the pacifist and anti-conflict sentiments of these years, developed a theory that described a complex set of causations that led to the outbreak of the War, where other nations were equally guilty. The Marxist analysis of the War’s origins explains that it signified the “historical bankruptcy of the capitalist system (World Socialist Web Site)”, and, in these years, this interpretation was vocalised to perpetuate and encourage the support for Marxist ideologies, and discredit capitalism. However, as Fritz Fischer argues in Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961, Germany was mostly to blame for the outbreak of the war (and completely to blame for involving France in hostilities, having implemented the Schlieffen Plan and invaded France), and as such the inclusion of Section IV is wholly justifiable.
The section, furthermore, was sustainable in the long run, and therefore not short- sighted. It describes the need for France to recover some of the 40% of its coal output lost in the war, as well as the decision to let the population of the land decide, after fifteen years, under which government they would like to be placed. Firstly, the article considers the long-term impacts of having or not having the Saar basin, both on France and on Germany alongside the impact this has on the population of the area.
 France, having lost so much of its coal output because of German aggression in 1914, was in need of resources to build up the nation, and the article is therefore long- sighted in that fifteen years allows the nation to recover some of the coal resources it lost. After 15 years the population was to decide under which government they would like to be placed, which considers the long-term impact on the people living in the area and gives them democratic freedom. As for Germany, the long-term impacts are also considered: one of the main aims of the Treaty, particularly of Georges Clemenceau was to limit Germany’s ability to create war industries and the capacity for war (Ambrosius 65): losing the Saar coal basin was crucial in doing so and was therefore not short-sighted. Allowing a referendum after fifteen years also created the possibility of the area’s reunification with Germany, with positive long-term effects on the inhabitants of the region and the Germany itself. It is also, admirably, an example of the execution of the principle of self-determination that was so encouraged by Wilson in his Fourteen Points (Gathorne-Hardy 11).
The return of Alsace-Lorraine outlined in Section V, too, is justified not only by France’s need for resources and land, but also by the history of the provinces. France suffered the most losses of land and resources during the war, most of which were caused by Germany: Germany had not only involved France in the war by invading it on 2 August 1914, but also caused most of the Western front to be in France with the failure of the Schlieffen plan. Furthermore, the section itself mentions the population’s French roots (see Appendix B). The province was originally part of France and had, according to the Treaty, protested heavily against separation from their country to be included in the new German Empire at the Assembly of Bordeaux (The Versailles Treaty) in 1871, rationalizing the clause. With the loss of Alsace- Lorraine, Germany sacrificed three-quarters of its iron resources (Craig 428), justified by the Allies’ aim of preventing future hostilities caused by Germany since iron is essential for war industries, as well as France’s need for iron production to recover from the huge losses of resources [having lost 40% of its coal and 58% of its steel output (Boemeke, Feldman and Glaser 173)] and damages [having lost 1.3 million men in the war (WWI Casualty and Death Tables)] it incurred at the hands of German aggression in 1914.
Reparation costs
Article 233 describes the creation of an Inter-Allied Reparation Commission, which was to agree upon the final amount Germany owed the Allied Powers (see Appendix C). Although the amount finally decided upon in 1921 was hugely excessive and unjustifiable, being 132 billion gold Marks (Craig, 442), the notion in the Treaty of Versailles that Germany was to pay reparations to the Allied Powers is justified as Germany was the reason all Allies had become involved in the conflict, a statement echoed in Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht and proven by Germany’s actions in 1914 and during the war: France was invaded by Germany in 1914, Britain declared war on Germany for violating the Treaty of London of 1839 by invading Belgium, Italy joined the war as a member of the Triple Alliance, instigated by Berlin, and America declared war after the sinking of the Lusitana, an American cruise ship, in 1915, and the Zimmermann telegram of 1917 to Mexico which promised German support if Mexico were to attack America. Therefore, German aggression had, through involving all powers in the war, been responsible for the losses they faced. Moreover, reparations were highly necessary: the Allies had lost around 6 million soldiers (WWI Casualty and Death Tables) and France had lost 40% of its coal and 58% of its steel output. Even though Germany lost around 2 million soldiers (WWI Casualty and Death Tables) and, naturally, incurred costs as a result of the conflict, German aggression before and during the war had caused the Allied Powers’ losses, and the notion of Germany paying reparation costs to them is justified.
One of the most noted contemporary responses to the treaty is The Economic Consequences of the Peace of 1920 by John Maynard Keynes, in which he predicts the financial strains of the reparation costs would “ruin” Germany. The ruination of a country cannot be justified, rendering the Treaty unjustifiable. However, the aim of the conference was largely to severely limit Germany’s ability to start a war, and financial strains would do so, justifying the costs imposed on Germany. These are also justified by the actions of Germany, most notably in 1914, that caused the immense costs to its enemies. Furthermore, the Treaty was not harsher on the population than an alternative; in fact, William Carr argued in 1991 that no less harsh alternative treaty could have been made: “...If Clemenceau had had his way, the Rhineland would have become an independent state, the Saar would have become a part of France, and Danzig would have become part of Poland.” (Carr 228) Wilson’s Fourteen Points would have been the basis of a more conciliatory peace, but they were unrealistic as they did not include reparation costs, and their inclusion in the Treaty is justified in that Germany was the cause of these costs.
Many argue, among them Keynes, that the reparation costs set by the Allies were short-sighted as the amount was sure to plunge Germany’s economy into debt. However, keeping in mind the aims of the main statesmen who created the treaty, the reparation costs were not short-sighted: these aimed for the limitation of Germany’s capacity to wage war. Reparation costs were not only justified, but their impact is considered in this aim: when such problems were faced, Germany would have no economic resources to initiate combat. The creators also proved their knowledge of the effects of the reparation costs in article 232, which states “The Allied and Associated Governments recognise that the resources of Germany are not adequate, after taking into account ... diminutions of such resources which will result from other provisions..., to make complete reparation for all such loss and damage.” (The Versailles Treaty), indicating they recognized the effects of the treaty and considered its long-term impacts, making it far from short-sighted.
The overwhelming response to the Treaty of Versailles by historians is that it failed because it neither conciliated nor destroyed Germany, as A.J.P. Taylor argued in his book The Origins of the Second World War. He reasoned that the flawed Treaty of Versailles was ‘sufficiently onerous to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Germans would always hate it, but insufficiently onerous in that it failed to destroy Germany's potential to be a Great Power once more’ (Taylor 187). In this way, A.J.P. Taylor proves the Treaty’s failure was not due to its being too harsh: the Treaty was not onerous enough to cripple Germany in the long run. This is further supported by the fact that most general articles, such as article 231, the ‘War Guilt Clause’, and Part V regarding disarmament, are justified.
 

Clauses regarding disarmament
Part V of the treaty is also heavily criticized as it outlines the imposed disarmament of Germany, which would result in the reduction of the German army to seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry, which would render possible the reduction all nations’ armaments (The Versailles Treaty). It is considered unjustified because all other powers never disarmed, and it caused escalated resentment in Germany where militaristic prowess was considered essential. However, at the time of its creation, Part V of the treaty was entirely justified as it was designed to limit Germany’s ability to initiate another war: reducing Germany’s military capacity was essential in doing so. The intent in 1919, encouraged heavily by Woodrow Wilson, was for all nations to begin disarmament programmes: even if this did not occur after its signature, the article must be considered justified at the time of its creation as the it outlines the possible reduction of armaments of all powers. The argument that Part V is harsh because it prevented Germany from defending itself in the event of a further war is thoughtless, at least on the terms of the Treaty’s creators, because the intent was to reduce armaments of all powers, and an overriding aim of the Big Three was to prevent future wars in which case no defence would have been needed. It could further be argued this demand was harsh because it was only stipulated that the Germans should reduce armaments, but this argument does not take into account that the Versailles Treaty dealt with solely Germany, and not other states.
Isolation: what the past had shown
Many of the articles were designed, with their effects in mind, to isolate Germany by limiting its resources and prohibiting it from joining with Austria. Recent history had shown, in the case of France (the main aim of German foreign policy before 1914 having been to isolate France in fear of aggression following the Franco-Prussian war, 1870 (Cooper, Laver and Williamson 301)), that isolation does not have productive long-term effects in that it causes bitter resentment towards other nations, thereby

making a cooperation and the fulfilment of the Treaty less likely, and the Treaty was therefore short-sighted on these terms. However, France’s isolation was based on an alliance system that was in turn based on events where nation’s allegiances rapidly changed and was therefore short-sighted, while Germany’s isolation was grounded in international law with the support of the League of Nations, and was meant to endure unless the treaty, and international law, was annulled.
Germany in 1919
Although the terms of the Treaty were neither harsh nor unjustified, considerations could surely have been made by the Big Three regarding the socio-political situation in Germany at the time. Never had the German population seen such political upheaval as occurred between 1918 and 1919. While “German society [had been] clearly undergoing a period of change” (Kitson 55) in the years preceding the war, with the people of Germany slowly acquiring more political power and became more politically active (Kitson 55), nothing could match the changes that occurred politically towards the end of the war. Germany’s control had lain almost exclusively in the hands of its Kaiser, as John Röhl wrote in 1995: "the Kaiser, the royal family, the Kaiser's circle of friends, the [imperial entourage and the court form[ed] the heart of this system on which the very highest officials of the Reich and state bureaucracy were psychologically dependent." (Röhl 83) Now, in 1919, however, the Kaiser had abdicated, the new, democratic Weimar Constitution had been signed, and political power had shifted in favour of the people of Germany (while the old constitution of imperial Germany started with “His majesty the King of Prussia...”, the Weimar constitution began with “The German people” (The Weimar Constitution)). While modern interpretation of it is positive given today’s preference for democracy, it must be considered that these changes caused huge upheaval in German society. Political extremes, for instance, gained huge popularity, culminating in the Communist Spartacist Rising in 1919. German morale was greatly weakened due to the hardships of the war: “So it was all for nothing- the millions of dead, the millions of wounded, the starvation at home... The bread got still worse, the milk got thinner...” (Toller). Given the situation in Germany, it would seem as though any more hardship imposed in the Germans would be both harsh and unjustified. However, while it cannot be refuted that the German people suffered at the end of the war, and had experienced incredible turmoil, it was ultimately Germany who had caused itself to be involved in the conflict, having invaded France in 1914, violated the Treaty of London of 1839 by invading Belgium, and having provoked America into joining the war after the sinking of the Lusitana in 1915 and the Zimmerman telegram of 1917. Not only was Germany evidently to blame for the effects of the war on its population by provoking and declaring war, but in doing so it caused the Allied Powers to become involved, resulting in those nations’ losses, justifying the Treaty’s terms further.
 

Conclusion
A treaty that is to be labelled “harsh” will contain many unjustifiable terms, unnecessary demands not related to the offence. The War Guilt clause is wholly related to the offence and justified in that, as Fritz Fischer controversially argued, Germany was indeed that source of conflict that dragged the Allied Powers into war. Furthermore, without this clause, the rest of the Treaty’s terms would have been hugely unjustified given that without it, the Allies and Germany would not have recognised Germany’s responsibility – and given that it was indeed due to German aggression that the Allied Powers were forced into war, those clauses that Article 231 is the foundation for, such as those regarding repayments, were highly needed. The loss of land alongside reparation costs, too, is not harsh for the same reason.
In order for a treaty to be short-sighted, it will be unsustainable in the long run, and will not consider the long-term impact of the treaty. Alsace-Lorraine was given back to France with the aim of giving her back some of the population she had lost in 1871 to account for the huge loss of life she faced during the war: this was, evidently, with the long-term benefit of France in mind. Similarly, the Saar was to be in French possession for 15 years to account for the large amounts of industry lost, with the long-term benefit of the French economy in mind; a plebiscite after 15 years would make it possible for Germany to regain the land. Reparation costs, too, were long- sighted in that the architects of the Treaty aimed to hinder any German aggression in the future, and in focusing the German economy’s efforts for the following few years on repaying these reparations, this long-term aim would be achieved.
The Treaty’s most important and most controversial points, including the War Guilt Clause, the reparation costs, and the donations of land from Germany to France, have been subjected to many criticisms, yet, considered on the terms of its creators, its demands are justified and therefore not harsh, and its points were designed to cripple Germany in the long run, making it far from short-sighted. The answer to “to what extent did the creators of the Treaty of Versailles create a harsh and short-sighted peace”, thus, is that they did not.

Works Cited
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Appendix A: The Donation of the Saar Coal Basin
Article 45
Section IV:
As compensation for the destruction of the coal-mines in the north of France and as part payment towards the total reparation due from Germany for the damage resulting from the war, Germany cedes to France in full and absolute possession, with exclusive rights of exploitation, unencumbered and free from all debts and charges of any kind, the coal-mines situated in the Saar Basin as defined in Article 48.
...
Article 49.
Germany renounces in favour of the League of Nations, in the capacity of trustee, the government of the territory defined above.
At the end of fifteen years from the coming into force of the present Treaty the inhabitants of the said territory shall be called upon to indicate the sovereignty under which they desire to be placed.
(The Versailles Treaty)


Appendix B: Alsace-Lorraine
Article 51.
The territories which were ceded to Germany in accordance with the Preliminaries of Peace signed at Versailles on February 26, 1871, and the Treaty of Frankfort of May 10, 1871, are restored to French sovereignty as from the date of the Armistice of November 11, 1918.
(The Versailles Treaty)

Appendix C: The Inter-Allied Reparation Commission
Article 233.
The amount of the above damage for which compensation is to be made by Germany shall be determined by an inter-allied commission, to be called the reparation commission and constituted in the form and with the powers set forth hereunder and in annexes ii to vii inclusive hereto.
This commission shall consider the claims and give to the German government a just opportunity to be heard.
The findings of the commission as to the amount of damage defined as above shall be concluded and notified to the German government on or before may 1, 1921, as representing the extent of that government's obligations.
The commission shall concurrently draw up a schedule of payments prescribing the time and manner for securing and discharging the entire obligation within a period of thirty years from may 1, 1921. If, however, within the period mentioned, Germany fails to discharge her obligations, any balance remaining unpaid may, within the discretion of the commission, be postponed for settlement in subsequent years, or may be handled otherwise in such manner as the allied and associated governments, acting in accordance with the procedure laid down in this part of the present treaty, shall determine. (The Versailles Treaty)