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Source: Massey University

The First World War of 1914-18 has never had that powerful sense of accomplishment that followed the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945. 

Instead, the origins of the 1914-18 conflict became one of the most debated and controversial topics in history while the course of the war was seen by many as nothing but a sequence of bloody, attritional and senseless pitched battles. These seem to have achieved little apart from the slaughter of thousands of willing and innocent soldiers/victims. The peace settlement which ended the war with Germany, signed a hundred years ago in 1919 and coming into effect 100 years ago this January, reinforced this sense of disillusionment, despair, and futility. 

The widespread and long-held view of the Treaty of Versailles is that it was harsh, vindictive and was a direct cause of the second great conflict of the twentieth century which broke out in 1939. Nearly 102 years after the Great War officially ended it is time these persistent views were challenged. 

It is true that some elements of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh. Germany had no say in negotiating the Treaty, so it was very much a diktat or dictated peace. With the allied blockade in place, until the Treaty was signed and with a starving population at home, the German delegates had little choice but to sign. 

In signing, Germany had to accept that it caused the war and had to pay reparations for damages caused. The Treaty was also signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles – the same place where the Imperial German nation had been proclaimed in 1871. These elements of the Treaty were a serious affront to German pride and prestige as a great nation. 

There are three serious criticisms levelled against the Treaty of Versailles. First, that the reparations imposed by the Treaty aimed to cripple Germany by severely damaging its economy. Second, that the territory taken from Germany by the Treaty was excessive and third, that the Treaty ignored the principles of a just and sustainable peace outlined by President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in January 1918. These criticisms are largely without foundation. 

First, the claim about reparations. They were never intended to cripple financially. Rather, they were to be used to repair the devastated countryside of northern France and Belgium and to pay for the ongoing cost of the war in the form of widows’ pensions and financial support to men incapacitated by their war service. 

After suffering so much loss and devastation, seeking some form of redress from the people who inflicted it was not an unreasonable expectation. Reparations were not new either. Germany levied them on a defeated France in 1871 as an indemnity and did so again, in 1940, under the term ‘occupation costs’. France promptly paid on both occasions without serious damage to their economy. But the furore about reparations is hollow. A defeated Germany never intended to pay and actually paid very little. The obliging Allies did not force the issue and agreed during the 1920s both to reduce the level of payments and to delay the start date for them. In 1931 reparations were abandoned having had no impact at all on the German economy. 

Illustration of the gathering of heads of state for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, France, in 1919, by Joseph Finnemore (Wikimedia Commons).

Unfair blame for starting WW II

The claim that Germany lost excessive territory through the Treaty of Versailles is also erroneous. Leaving aside the loss of her overseas colonies, which were not large or economically valuable, Germany lost around 13 per cent of its territory and 10 per cent of its population. These were minuscule amounts when compared with what Germany had stripped from Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The key point though is that in the lands taken from Germany, very few Germans lived there. It consisted primarily of territory taken by force from nations Germany (or Prussia) had recently defeated. Among these lands stripped from Germany, was territory annexed from Denmark in 1864, France in 1871 and areas of Russia and Rumania taken in the First World War. It also included the loss of parts of Poland, which had been carved up by its neighbours in 1793. The restoration of this territory to their former owners might be deeply resented by the defeated Germany, but it was certainly not vengeful or vindictive. 

The notion that the Treaty of Versailles also violated President Wilson’s Fourteen Points is also fallacious. The return of the territory above certainly reflected Wilson’s principles of self-determination for ethnic groups. The Treaty also left Germany largely intact, with a newly created but somewhat weak democracy, and it did not touch Germany’s vast industrial capacity. It did seriously weaken the German armed forces but this was hardly a violation of Wilson’s principles. For an example of a truly draconian peace settlement that divided a nation in two, that incarcerated the defeated soldiers for up to two years, that had armies of occupation for many years, that executed or imprisoned the civilian and military leaders of the defeated nation and that stripped vast amounts of machinery and agricultural production from Germany, look at the settlement of 1945, not 1919.

As a cause of the Second World War, the Treaty of Versailles has received unfair blame. It was the failure to accept the Treaty on one side and the inability to enforce it on the other that contributed to the Second World War. There are many other causes of the Second World War; primarily among them was the rise of Adolf Hitler. He was just one of many Germans who refused to accept that Germany had been defeated in 1918. As a consequence he loathed the Treaty of Versailles and was determined to reverse it. Its terms were irrelevant as Hitler and other Germans rejected it out of hand. The rather moderate terms of the Treaty of Versailles did not cause the Second World War. 

After one hundred years, it is time that the Treaty of Versailles and the peacemakers of 1919 received a significant reassessment. The Treaty and those who framed it should not be viewed as negatively as they have been for so long, nor should be the Treaty of Versailles be blamed for the European war that erupted in September 1939. 

Professor Glyn Harper is Professor of War Studies at Massey University.