Treaty of Versailles saddled Germany with ‘guilt clause’ for starting the Great War

A section of William Orpen's oil painting 'The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919'
A section of William Orpen's oil painting 'The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919'
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Historian GORDON LUCY looks at how the treaty stoked resentments that helped lead to the Second World War

The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on June 28 1919 – the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Symbolically, the ceremony took place where the German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.

As the Germans had sought peace in October 1918 on the basis of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, they expected them to form the basis of the treaty.

While they assumed that they would have to pay some sort of indemnity, they did not expect to have to bear the cost of the war. They confidently expected that they would retain their colonies and become a member of the League of Nations. They took it for granted that self-determination would often operate in their favour. So German Austria would have the option of joining Germany, German-speaking areas of West Prussia and Silesia would remain German and predominantly German parts of Alsace and Lorraine would be allowed to determine their own future.

As the Allies, especially the French, viewed matters very differently, the Germans ended up bitterly disappointed and denounced the terms of the Versailles peace treaty as ‘a victors’ Diktat’. Actually if the Germans had won and had imposed their terms on the rest of Europe (as set out in Bethmann-Hollweg and Kurt Riezler’s programme of September 1914), the Allies’ terms seem lenient in comparison.

A large and significant segment of German opinion never accepted the treaty and the aim of every German government, not just Hitler’s regime, was to revise the treaty, to delay its execution or to circumvent its provisions.

Although vast and complex, the salient features of the peace treaty may be easily summarised. First, the Germans were expected to accept responsibility for starting the war. Secondly, they were expected to pay huge reparations to the Allies. Thirdly, they were obliged to give up all their overseas possessions. Fourthly, Germany was to lose 13% of its pre-war territory and 10% of its population. Finally, Germany was to have its armed forces limited to a size that wouldn’t threaten European peace in the future.

Historians still cannot agree as to the extent of German responsibility. The Allies a century ago believed the Germans were guilty. In 1961 Fritz Fisher published ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht’ (translated into English as ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’) which, unusually for a German historian, pinned the blame on Germany. In 2013 in ‘The Sleepwalkers’, Christopher Clark, professor of Modern European History at Cambridge, contended that the Germans were not solely responsible and spread the blame more widely, placing much of the blame on Serbia (which he regarded as ‘a rogue state)’.

The Germans bitterly resented Article 321 (subsequently known as ‘the war guilt clause’) which saddled them with responsibility for starting the war.

As James Hawes has observed in his ‘Shortest History of Germany’ (2017), the Allies wanted a new Germany but unfairly wanted the new Germany to pay for the aggression of the old one through huge reparations which were fixed at 132 billion marks (£6.6 billion or $33 billion) in 1921. Although the French sought to ‘cripple the German economy’, the Germans could have paid over time without wrecking their economy. For the Germans reparations were a political rather than an economic issue. They ended up paying comparatively little (£1.1 billion or $4.5 billion) and in 1932 at Lausanne the reparations clauses were quietly abandoned.

Since Germany’s colonies could scarcely be regarded as prime real estate, this point need scarcely detain us, but the loss of territory in Europe was a very different matter. Alsace and Lorraine were handed back to France after nearly half-a-century under German rule. Eupen and Malmédy were ceded to Belgium. The rich coalfields of the Saar were detached from Germany under a mandate with the promise that its people would be able to determine whether they should become part of France or not. Northern Schleswig reverted to Denmark and Memel to Lithuania. The recreation of Poland resulted in the loss of Posen and much of West Prussia and Upper Silesia. Danzig became a ‘Free City’ under the nominal control of the League of Nations. Furthermore to give Poland access to the sea, a ‘corridor’ of land separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany was created.

Although the territorial settlement was not perfect, much of it was reasonably fair – largely through the efforts of British prime minister Lloyd George.

The Germans thought otherwise. As they despised Poles, they bitterly resented the loss of territory to the newly created Polish state.

They also claimed, with justice, that the principle of self-determination was deliberately disregarded by refusing to permit the German-speaking provinces of Austria-Hungary to become part of Germany. In Bohemia three million German-speakers became – against their will – citizens of Czechoslovakia. Six million German-speakers in the rump Austrian republic – which was widely believed to be neither politically nor economically viable – were prevented from joining Germany. The French were implacably opposed to the enlargement of Germany’s population and territory under any circumstances and the union of Austria and Germany was explicitly banned in the peace treaties.

J M Keynes wrote his immensely influential ‘Economic Consequences of the Peace’ immediately after the signing of the Versailles treaty. He contended that Woodrow Wilson had betrayed his own principles, his country and the hopes of all those who wanted a better world.

He also lambasted the architects of the Versailles treaty for completing the economic destruction of Europe caused by the war. Instead of drawing new lines on the map, the Allies should have been creating a free trade area. Instead of haggling about the debts they owed each other, they should have been cancelling them. He was especially critical of the reparations imposed on Germany.

Keynes’ analysis proved predictably very popular in Germany but also undermined the legitimacy of the treaty in the English-speaking world, so much so that many people, especially in the UK, thought that Hitler’s demands before 1939 were reasonable, thereby disastrously underpinning appeasement.