The Treaty of Versailles: Prelude to WWII
The Treaty of Versailles was not a justified treaty which created German feelings of revenge and dislike towards the victorious countries. This feeling of revenge felt by Germany, in addition with the social atmosphere of Europe, led to a second World War in the September of 1939, just 11 years after the first World War. People at the time published reports on the unfairness of the treaty. America never ratified the treaty but Britain and France still enforced it. Germany had no choice but to sign the unfair 'diktat'1 and there was only a matter of time before things turned for the worse. We must examine the background, clauses, and effects of the Treaty of Versailles
on Germany and Europe to understand how it helped cause WWII
. Then, when you look at the situation the treaty created for Europe, we can see how WWII came about.
The war had left Europe in shambles. WWI ended on November 11, 1918, leaving millions of European soldiers dead and injured. Large areas of Belgium and France had been devastated and two of Europe's most powerful countries, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were defeated and exhausted. All the European countries were now bankrupt from the cost of waging a war for four years. Germany had not been defeated, but knew that if it continued to fight war against the strong American army, defeat in Berlin would result. Because Germany had surrendered, her only option was to either sign the treaty, or else go back
to war again, which would inevitably result in defeat. The Treaty was unexpectedly harsh, though, despite the fact Germany hadn't been defeated, she had merely surrendered.
The leaders of the victorious countries met in Paris in 1919 to try to settle the war issues, with intentions of preventing another war. Everyone agreed that a new system was needed, as the old system of alliances had failed. There were different views from the leaders on what to include in the treaty. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, did not want to punish Germany too harshly for fear of future troubles and also wanted to restore trade with her2, but election time was coming up so he had to make his people happy, and the British people wanted punishment for war damages. The Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, wanted to cripple Germany for the damage done to France during the war. He was worried that if Germany wasn't punished enough they would recover and attack France again, and because of Clemenceau's fierce views he was known as 'The Tiger'3. President Woodrow Wilson of the US was for world-peace and had little resentment towards Germany because the US had suffered no damage in the war. He published a list of peace propositions in his Fourteen Points paper. The main ideas from his points4 were self-determination, free seas, disarmament of all countries, and a League of Nations to be set up to manage disputes between countries. The US would not permit Woodrow Wilson to ratify the treaty (he didn't consult the Senate before going to Versailles5), so only Britain and France were left to force Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The historian Harold Nicolson (a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference) said shorty after the conference that future historians would view the delegates of the conference as "...stupid men who had arrived in Paris determined that a wise and just peace should be negotiated, and that who left the conference conscious that the treaties imposed were neither wise nor workable."6
Germany was forced to agree that it was guilty of starting the war.7 This clause was the most insulting and damaging clause for it blatantly and wrongly accused Germany of being the sole cause of war, and this enabled the other clauses to be severe as she was now to pay for the whole of WWI. The second clause was that Germany had to disarm.
The effects of this clause were: the army was to be limited to 100,000 men; conscription and much prided submarines and aircraft (the allies thought that without an air force Germany couldn't ever go to war8) were to be banned; the navy was limited to six battleships (no Dreadnought's); and the Rhineland was to become a demilitarized- zone. This was emotional for the Germans since they had had such a strong army and were forced to sink their prided Dreadnoughts. This emotional loss created resentment towards the allies and was the first clause for Hitler to undo. The reparations clause was an unjust clause, for the amount was way to much, as said by many people at the time.
Germany had to pay severe reparations, imposed to help the damaged countries rebuild after the war, at the amount of $5 billion due May 1, 1921.9 The leading British economist, John Maynard Keynes, published a book, before the increase in reparations to $32.5 billion by 1963, warning that the treaties would prevent the European economy recovering from the war damage. Germany had hardly enough money to pay the original amount, and, inevitably, great inflation occurred, destroying the economy and causing unemployment and starvation. Furthermore, another clause of the treaty was that the territory of Germany had to be greatly reduced. Britain and France had been malicious and were shortsighted by demanding Germany's money while taking away the territory that could provide the money.
In this clause Germany lost 13% of its territory, containing 7.3 million people, and all of her overseas colonies, ending her empire10 . Germany had lost her main coal producing territories of Upper Silesia and the Saarland. In 1913, 139 million tons of coal were used in Germany for railroads, utilities, fuel, and agriculture; the Saarland and Upper Silesia had accounted for 60.8 million tons11 of this. With more than half of Germany's coal taken away, they didn't have enough coal to power the populated industrial country. With industry destroyed there was no way they could pay the reparations. Germany had made proposals dealing with the territorial decisions and reparations; they were willing to give up Alsace-Lorraine (these provinces were reclaimed by France), the province of Posen and North Schleswig and to pay the full reparations if they could only retain their economically good merchant fleet and their colonies. The Allies ignored these proposals so they wouldn't appear sympathetic to Germany. Germany's only option was to print more notes which resulted in disastrous inflation, creating unemployment and causing starvation. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, Germany hadn't been invited to join the League of Nations.
Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations was created, but Germany was not invited to join. Before Germany had signed the Treaty of Versailles, she had read Wilson's published Fourteen Points, which had misled her into thinking she would be promised self-determination. She later found out that many Germans were now under foreign rule, as seen in the example of the Sudetenland which was given to Czechoslovakia despite its vast German population. Later on, this German displacement would give Hitler reason to invade countries 'in search of self-determination'. Germany's future was not looking bright. The Allies had created impossible reparations to pay, (which had resulted in the invasion of the Rhur Valley by the French in 1923, adding to hate towards the French) they had left no industry to rebuild the economy with, Germany's territory and population were greatly reduced, and there was tremendous resentment. All of these unjust clauses would make Germany prone to leadership from a strong fascist leader like Hitler.
Germany's democratic Weimar government, which had been set up by the allies, was thought of badly by its people as it had signed the treaty and was failing to rebuild Germany. The people were looking for a change as inflation had caused nation-wide starvation and there was great unemployment. The people saw the failure of the Weimar government as a failure of democracy, and were in favor of Hitler's fascist ways. Germans had given up hope in paying off the reparations and were in favor of Hitler's promise to undo the whole of the Treaty of Versailles. Despite Hitler's previous failure in attempting to get into power, now that Germany was in need of change he gained tremendous support by promising food, jobs, and more importantly, the undoing of the Treaty of Versailles. The entire population of Germany hated the treaty and any promise of food and employment was great, there was no choice for many. Hitler found it easy to gain support from the people 12 and campaigned nation-wide. Hitler was never voted in to government; he seized power by force to become Chancellor of Germany. With Germany in full step behind him he could do anything, beginning with rearming. Hitler began secretly militarizing Germany in 1933 and there was nothing any other nation could do to stop him, as many of the nations like England and America were busy dealing with their own problems like the effects of the Great Depression of 1929, following the Stock Market Crash. In 1935 the Saarland voted in a plebiscite to return to German control, returning valuable resources of coal, iron and steel to Germany, enabling easy rearmament.13 In March 1936, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland with nothing but protests from Britain and France. This allowed Germany to build forts along her French border, forcing Britain and France to rearm. He then proceeded to reclaim the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in the name of self-determination, but then on March 15, 1939 German troops occupied a non-German area of Czechoslovakia. That's when British and French belief grew to the belief that Hitler had to be stopped, and the old Alliance system came into effect again. Chamberlain tried to get Poland to join in the British-French-Russian alliance but Poland feared Russia and wouldn't agree to let Russia in its borders. Chamberlain became convinced that Hitler would invade Poland unless Britain defended them. Chamberlain immediately agreed to stand by Poland if she was invaded, but Hitler planned to invade Poland anyway at the end of August 1939. Only 11 years after the First World War had ended came the start of the Second World War, which was a result of an unfair Treaty of Versailles.
The Treaty of Versailles had created feelings of revenge from Germany towards the victorious powers, as they had inflicted pain, suffering and insult on them. "The conference ultimately proved little more than a punitive device to extract a pound of cash from the defeated, and produced not a lasting peace, but the seeds for a future war."14 The state Germany was left in after the treaty made it easy for Hitler to come into power as all its people hated the treaty, and were in search of change from that of the failing, democratic Weimar Government. In conclusion, had the guilt not have been blamed solely on Germany, the harshness of the clauses would not have been so great. This would have lessened the reparations, perhaps to a fair amount, elliminating the feeling of revenge on Germany's behalf. The unfairness of the treaty created a situation in Germany with ideal conditions for rising fascist leadership. The Treaty of Versailles set the scene for the chain of events which led to WWII.
BBC [Internet] Treaty of Versailles Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/modern/versaill/versafla.htm [October 16, 1999]
Jeremy Fazli [Internet] The Faults of the World War I Peace Settlement May 2, 1998, Available: http://126.96.36.199/~aer23655/versailles.htm [October 16,1999]
Ronald Heiferman World War II (Derbibooks)
L.C.F. Turner The First World War (Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.)
Keith Shephard International Relations 1919-1939 (Stanley Thornes (Publishers)Ltd.), 1988