Was the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty Too Severe on Germany?

As international tensions increased in 1937, the legacy of the 1919 Versailles Treaty was once again questioned.

Primary image: The heads of the "Big Four" nations at the Paris Peace Conference, May 17, 1919. From left to right: David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson. Photograph by Edward N. Jackson (US Army Signal Corps).

On November 11, 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice was signed, ending over four years of unprecedented carnage in Europe. The tide of the war had turned decisively when the United States entered the war in 1917. Following the failure of the German spring offensive and the Allied victories in spring and summer of 1918, Germans generals (the Oberste Heeresleitung) informed Kaiser Wilhelm that the German front was about to collapse and asked, on September 29, for immediate negotiation of an armistice. As the German revolution unfolded, the Kaiser abdicated on November 9 and representatives of the new democratic parliamentary republic signed the armistice three days later.

German generals, foremost among them General Erich Ludendorff, immediately promoted the stab-in-the-back myth, the idea that the German Army did not lose World War I on the battlefield but was instead betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially the republicans who overthrew the monarchy in the German Revolution. The terms of the peace treaty would only fuel their anger and resentment.

Germans had entered negotiations hoping they would follow the Fourteen Points US President Woodrow Wilson had announced in January 1918. These included the removal of the German Army from territories it had conquered during the war, an end to secret agreements between countries, disarmament, national self-determination for groups that were once a part of the old empires, and the establishment of a League of Nations to prevent future wars. Britain and France, however, never agreed to Wilson’s Fourteen Points and pursued other goals during the negotiations. Having suffered the brunt of the war, France was especially intent on disarming and making Germany pay.

The Treaty was drafted at the Paris Peace Conference in spring 1919 and shaped by the Big Four powers—Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, represented respectively by  David Lloyd George, George Clemenceau, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and Woodrow Wilson. Germans were not part of the negotiations and they complained bitterly when shown the draft of the terms in May 1919, to no avail. On June 28, 1919, they had to sign a Peace Treaty that consisted of fifteen parts and 440 separate articles.

The Terms
In addition to the creation of a League of Nations, the Treaty imposed the limitation of Germany’s Army to 100,000 men, the ban of conscription and submarines, the limitation of the Navy to only six battleships and the ban on heavy artillery, gas, tanks, and aircraft. The defeated county lost about 13.5% of its 1914 territory (some seven million people). Alsace-Lorraine went to France; West Prussia and Posen went to Poland; Danzig became a free city controlled by the League of Nations (giving Poland a seaport); an area of East Prussia was handed over to Lithuania and the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia. The Rhineland, Germany's border with France, was demilitarized. The rich Saar region and all of Germany’s overseas possessions were now under control of the League of Nations.

Most damaging and controversial, was Article 231, often known as the War Guilt Clause. It specified:
"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 as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."

While historians now agree that the clause was merely a requisite to allow a legal basis to be laid out for the reparation payments, Germans viewed it as a national humiliation, forcing them to accept full responsibility for causing the war and to pay reparations. The latter were assessed in 1921 at 132 billion marks (then $31.4 billion, roughly equivalent to US $442 billion in 2018).

Reactions to the Treaty
Reactions in Britain were mixed. Lloyd George’s return was celebrated and many thought the terms were fair and could have been more severe. Some, including British economist John Keynes who had traveled to Paris for the negotiations, found the reparations figure excessive and counter-productive. Some argued the treaty was too harsh and called it a "Carthaginian peace.”

The French were equally divided. They celebrated the end of the war and approved of the reparations, the demilitarization of the Rhineland and the benefit the country would gain from the coalmines of the Saar. There was still, however, a sense that Germany had not been punished severely enough and was still a threat to France. France advocated for the break-up of Germany in smaller states but Wilson rejected the idea.

Reactions in the USA were generally negative. Congress, led by the Republican Party, opposed President Wilson and his Democratic party and rejected the Treaty and the League of Nations. Most Americans were opposed to the latter out of fear that it would drag the country into international disputes. Many Americans felt the Treaty had been unfair to Germany and France and Britain were benefiting from it.

Germans were angered at the Treaty and thousands of people demonstrated in the street against it. The country had lost 13.5% of its territories, 12.5% of its population, 16% of its coal and 48% of its iron industry. Most Germans were also shocked at the defeat as they had not been informed of the progress of the war. Hitler himself was outraged at the Treaty and put annulling it as second on his list of 25 points of the 1920 Nazi Party program.

While the Treaty has often been criticized for being too harsh and leading to the rise of the Nazi Party, historians have pointed out that Hitler would still have wanted more room for the German people and still pursued the destruction of his enemies, whether Jews or Bolsheviks. It must also be said that Germany could have been treated more harshly, especially considering how the country had treated Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the end, Germany was not broken-up in smaller states as was advocated by the French; reparations payments cost Germany only 2% of its annual production; Germany's main economic problem was not reparations but war debt, which it had planned to pay by winning the war and making other countries pay reparations. In addition, efforts were made the following years to improve Germany’s situation, from the 1925 Locarno Treaties to the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan which re-negotiated the reparation system and the Lausanne Conference in 1932 which indefinitely postponed the payment.

In the end, Germany was neither pacified, nor conciliated, nor was it permanently weakened. After gaining power, Hitler would systematically walk back the Treaty’s articles, re-instating conscription and building up the Army and re-possessing the Sudetenland. When the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 did not provoke any international reactions, Hitler boldly showed off the strength of his German Condor Legion when bombing Spain in the spring of 1937. American public opinion started to turn, and 40% of responded now felt that the Versailles treaty had been too easy.

You can read Rob Citino's post about how World War One's ending laid the groundwork for World War Two to begin.

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Public opinion polls give us unique insight into America in the WWII era. Each week, historians from the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy work with the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University to explore what Americans believed and how they felt about events and people related to the WWII years.

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Christelle Le Faucheur

Christelle Le Faucher, PhD, is a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. She came to the Institute in 201...
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