The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles

Germany’s new government had already promised to cede the territories its forces had gained in the war in exchange for an armistice, erasing the sweeping territorial gains Germany had acquired through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. As the provisional government in Berlin would soon learn, this was only the beginning of the heavy indemnities Germany would have to endure in the postwar period. The peace negotiations began in earnest in January 1919 in Paris.

Ominously for the Germans, they were not invited to attend the meetings until April, after the victorious allies had hammered out the settlement. So, in the German delegates’ absence, the British representative, David Lloyd George (1863–1945), the French leader George Clemenceau (1841–1929), Woodrow Wilson of the United States, and a pair of Italian representatives drafted the settlement, disagreeing almost from the start on how to deal with a defeated Germany.

While all of the victorious powers agreed that Germany should be punished for its prewar belligerence, there was disagreement among the delegates over how punitive the postwar settlement should be. The French, on whose soil most of the war had been fought, sought to cripple their longtime German enemy. Thus, they demanded that Germany should forfeit its industrial heartland, the Saar region, as well as all territory west of the Rhine.

While both Britain and the United States thought this too punitive, the Americans likewise disagreed with the British over whether the Germans should repay the victorious allies for the entire cost of the confl ict. In the end, the more retaliatory allies carried the day, and Germany suffered a range of costly sanctions. Germany lost many precious territories along its borders, surrendering Alsace-Lorraine to France, a pair of Prussian provinces to Poland, and a trio of cities to Belgium.

The Germans were also forced to disarm: Their postwar military was limited to 100,000 men, a puny force without alarge surface fl eet, submarines, or warplanes that posed no threat to Germany’s neighbors. Worse yet for the Germans, they were forced to accept total responsibility for starting the war and to pay crushing war reparations, amounting to more than $32 billion. French troops would occupy the Rhineland, at German expense, until these crushing debts were paid in full.

Once they learned of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the German populace was shocked and outraged. Having been fed a constant stream of misleading propaganda that boasted of German battlefi eld victories, Germany was shaken by the sudden collapse of the imperial military. Article 231, the war guilt clause of the treaty, was par-ticularly shocking, since Germany did not acknowledge any particular role in provoking hostilities.

Furthermore, Germany had never been invaded by its enemies, and its frontline troops had retreated in good order in 1918, causing many within Germany to cling to the fantasy that their country had not really been defeated but rather was the victim of a “stab in the back” delivered by defeatist elements at home. Thus, many of the German people felt betrayed by their government, which seemed weak and perhaps even traitorous, in letting the victorious allies impose such draconian terms.

The settlement also had dire economic ramifications that eroded support for the provisional government. The German economy was still in shambles from the war, and the British blockade, which continued after the armistice, infl icted hunger on millions of Germans during the terrible winter of 1918–19. Thus, most Germans viewed the crushing reparations demanded by the Versailles settlement to be rapacious and cruel. Despite these misgivings, Germany’s provisional government had no choice but to agree to the victors’ terms.