ON SUNDAY, May 4, 1919, the Council of Four, after dictating some last-minute changes, gave orders that the German treaty should go to the printers. Lloyd George went off to a picnic at Fontainebleau, the others to rest. Two days later, a rare plenary session was called to vote on the terms. Since there was no final version ready, the delegates had to listen to André Tardieu reading a lengthy summary in French; many of the English-speakers nodded off. “So,” wrote Henry Wilson in his diary, “we are going to hand out terms to the Boches without reading them ourselves first. I don’t think in all history this can be matched.” The Portuguese complained that their country was not getting any reparations; the Chinese objected to the clauses giving German concessions in China to Japan; and the Italian delegate pointed out that his colleagues might have something to say about the clauses which had been decided in their absence. Then, to general amazement, Marshal Foch asked to be heard. He made one last plea for the Rhine as a barrier between Germany and France. Clemenceau crossly demanded why he had made such a scene. “C’était pour faire aise,” Foch answered, “à ma conscience.” (“It was to ease my conscience.”) To The New York Times he said: “The next time, remember, the Germans will make no mistake. They will break through into Northern France and seize the Channel ports as a base of operations against England.” Fortunately, perhaps, he was dead by the time Hitler did precisely that twenty years later. 1
Foch’s warnings did not trouble the peacemakers. “Everyone seems delighted with the peace terms,” reported Frances Stevenson, “& there is no fault to find with them on the ground that they are not severe enough.” Wilson looked at the printed treaty with pride: “I hope that during the rest of my life I will have enough time to read this whole volume. We have completed in the least time possible the greatest work that four men have ever done.” Even Clemenceau was pleased. “In the end, it is what it is; above all else it is the work of human beings and, as a result, it is not perfect. We all did what we could to work fast and well.” When Wilson asked him whether they should wear top hats to their meeting with the Germans, the old man replied: “Yes, hats with feathers.”2
At Versailles, in the cold and gloomy Hôtel des Réservoirs, the German delegates, some 180 experts, diplomats, secretaries and journalists, were waiting with increasing impatience. They had set off on April 28 from Berlin, as an American observer warned, in an “excited and almost abnormal frame of mind,” convinced that they were going to be treated as pariahs; their treatment in France had confirmed their worst fears. The French had slowed down their special trains as they entered the areas devastated by the war: it was, said one German, a “spiritual scourging,” but also an omen. “Ours, therefore, the sole responsibility for all the shattered life and property of these terrible four and a half years.” When they arrived the following day they had been brusquely loaded onto buses and sent under heavy escort to Versailles; their luggage had been unceremoniously dumped in the hotel courtyard and they were told rudely to carry it in themselves. The hotel itself was where French leaders had stayed in 1871 while they negotiated with Bismarck. It was now surrounded by a stockade—for the Germans’ safety, the French claimed. The Germans grumbled that they were being treated “like the inhabitants of a Negro village in an exposition.”3
The delegation’s leader was Germany’s foreign minister, Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau. He was the obvious choice. He had served with distinction in the old imperial diplomatic service, but unlike many of his colleagues, he had accepted the new order and established good relations with the socialists who now held office. During the war he had been highly critical of German policies and had urged a compromise peace. He was also a bad choice. Haughty, monocled, slim, immaculately turned out, he looked as though he had just stepped out of the kaiser’s court. (Indeed, his twin brother managed the kaiser’s estates.) The family was an old and distinguished one: Rantzaus had served Denmark; Germany; even, in the seventeenth century, France. A Marshal Rantzau was rumored to have been the real father of Louis XIV. When a French officer asked Brockdorff-Rantzau about it, the count replied: “Oh yes, in my family the Bourbons have been considered bastard Rantzaus for the past three hundred years.” He was witty, cruel and capricious, and most people were afraid of him. He loved champagne and brandy, some said to excess. The head of the British military mission in Berlin believed that he took drugs.4
Like many of his compatriots in 1919, Brockdorff-Rantzau put his faith in the Americans. He thought that, in the long run, the United States would see that its interests, economic or political, lay with a revived Germany. The two might work together with Britain, perhaps even with France, to block Bolshevism in the east. And if the British and the Americans fell out, as they almost certainly would, the United States would see the value of having a strong Germany on its side. Like so many Germans, Brockdorff-Rantzau thought President Wilson would ensure that the peace terms were mild. After all, Germany had done as Wilson himself had suggested and become a republic. That alone showed its good faith.
Their country, most Germans believed, had surrendered on the understanding that the Fourteen Points would be the basis for the peace treaty. “The people,” reported Ellis Dresel, an American diplomat sent to Berlin, “had been led to believe that Germany had been unluckily beaten after a fine and clean fight, owing to the ruinous effect of the blockade on the home morale, and perhaps some too far reaching plans of her leaders, but that happily President Wilson could be appealed to, and would arrange a compromise peace satisfactory to Germany.” The country would undoubtedly have to pay some sort of indemnity, but nothing toward the costs of the war. It would become a member of the League of Nations. It would keep its colonies. And the principle of self-determination would work in its favor. German Austria should be allowed to decide whether to join its German cousins. German-speaking areas in West Prussia and Silesia would, of course, remain German. In Alsace-Lorraine, the predominantly German parts would also be able to vote on their future. 5
In the first months of the peace the Germans clutched the Fourteen Points like a life raft, with very little sense that their victors might not see things the same way. So many of the familiar landmarks—kaiser, army, bureaucracy—had been obliterated. That brought unsettling hopes and fears. The country was less than fifty years old; why should it continue to exist? Bavarians, as well as Rhinelanders, contemplated regaining the independence they had lost in 1870, when Germany was created. On the far left, revolutionaries dreamed of another Russian revolution and for a time, as insurrections flared up unpredictably in first one city and then another, it looked as though they might get their wish. Thomas Mann talked of the end of civilization with something close to exhilaration. Political parties across the spectrum floundered as they tried to redefine themselves. There was a widespread fear that German society was done for; the old moral standards had dissolved. There was also, perhaps understandably, a reluctance to think seriously about the future, especially the one that was being shaped in Paris. “The people at large,” according to Dresel, “are strangely apathetic on questions connected with peace. A feverish desire to forget the trouble of the moment in amusements and dissipation is everywhere noticeable. Theatres, dance halls, gambling dens, and race tracks are crowded as never before.” A distinguished German scholar remembered “the dreamland of the armistice period.”6
A few Germans made it their business to find out what was going on in Paris during the months of waiting. The Foreign Office studied the Allied press, looking for divisions among the victors. There were some direct contacts with Allies, in the negotiations over the lifting of the blockade or over the terms of the armistice. From time to time, Allied representatives talked about the larger issues. An American intelligence officer, a Colonel Arthur Conger, hinted that he was acting for a higher authority in Paris. A Harvard graduate who had specialized in classics, Eastern religions and music, Conger told his German counterparts about the tensions between the Americans and the French over the armistice and assured them that Wilson would oppose excessive French demands. He also gave the Germans much advice. They should follow the American model when they drew up their new constitution and give their president considerable power. The German Foreign Office duly passed this on to the framers of what became the Weimar constitution. In March 1919, Professor Emile Haguenin, ostensibly a low-ranking diplomat but in fact head of the French secret service in Switzerland, held secret conversations in Berlin with leading Germans. He left the misleading impression that the French were prepared to be moderate on reparations and Silesia if Germany would acquiesce in French control of the Saar mines and the occupation of the Rhineland.
The German government tried to use such men as messengers. When the American Dresel told Brockdorff-Rantzau in April 1919 that Germany must accept French control of the Saar and a free city in Danzig, the German exploded. “Under no circumstances would I sign the peace treaty.” He added what was by now a familiar warning: “If the Entente insisted on these conditions, in my opinion Bolshevism would be unavoidable in Germany.” Like others in Europe in 1919, the Germans found the bogey of revolution useful as a way of putting pressure on the peacemakers. The evidence suggests that the German government did not itself take the threat particularly seriously. 7
What it did take very seriously were its preparations for the expected peace conference with the Allies. In November 1918, the government set up a special peace agency which labored away through the winter, producing volume after volume of detailed studies, maps, memoranda, arguments and counterarguments for use by the German delegates. When the special trains rolled off toward Versailles, they carried packing crates full of material for negotiations the Germans were never to have.
As the days went by in Versailles, the Germans worked away doggedly. Because they were convinced, with reason, that the French were listening in, all their meetings took place to music, as one delegate after another took turns playing one of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies or “The Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser or winding up the gramophones which had been specially brought from Berlin. In the spirit of the new, democratic Germany, members of the delegation took their meals together at long tables, aristocrats beside working-class socialists, generals next to professors. They all celebrated May Day. The French press carried wild reports: the Germans were eating huge numbers of oranges; they were demanding quantities of sugar.8
Outside the hotel, curious crowds of French waited to see the enemy. Occasionally they jeered and whistled, but mostly they were quiet, even friendly. The Germans went out for excursions in cars provided by the French, to the shops in Versailles or out into the country. They walked in the Trianon park. “Old magnolias and crab-apple trees are in full bloom,” wrote a member of the Foreign Office to his wife, “and the rhododendrons and lilacs will soon be in bloom.” The birds, finches, thrushes, even an oriole, were wonderful. “But in the background of all this loveliness the shadow of fate, as if reaching out for us, grows constantly darker and comes steadily closer.”9
Finally, after the Germans had been in Versailles for a week, the summons to a meeting at the Trianon Palace Hotel came. On May 7 (the anniversary, perhaps by coincidence, of the German sinking of the Lusitania), the Allies would hand over the peace terms. The Germans would have two weeks to submit their comments in writing. Late that night, until two A.M., and again the next morning the Hôtel des Réservoirs rang with debates over how the German representatives should behave. Brockdorff-Rantzau, who would be the chief spokesman, was determined not to stand up; he had seen diagrams in the French newspapers of the meeting room which referred to the seats set aside for the Germans as the prisoners’ dock. Deciding what he should say was much more difficult. This might be his only chance to speak directly to the peacemakers. The delegation had already prepared several alternate drafts for speeches. When he drove through the park on May 7, Brockdorff-Rantzau had two texts with him, one very short and noncommittal, the other much longer and more defiant. He had not decided which to use.10
The room was packed: delegates from all nations, secretaries, generals, admirals, journalists. “Only Indians and Australian aborigines were absent among the races of the earth,” said a German journalist. “Every shade of skin apart from these: the palest ivory yellow, coffee-coloured brown, deep black.” In the middle of the room, facing the Great Powers, was a table for the Germans. All eyes turned to the door as they entered, “stiff, awkward-looking figures.” Brockdorff-Rantzau, said a witness, “looked ill, drawn and nervous” and was sweating. There was a brief hesitation and the crowd, observing a courtesy from the vanished world of 1914, rose to its feet. Brockdorff-Rantzau and Clemenceau bowed to each other.11
Clemenceau opened the proceedings. Without the slightest sign of nerves he spoke coldly, outlining the main headings of the treaty. “The hour has struck for the weighty settlement of our account,” he told the Germans. “You asked us for peace. We are disposed to grant it to you.” He threw out his words, said one of the German delegates, “as if in concentrated anger and disdain, and . . . from the very outset, for the Germans, made any reply quite futile.” When the interpreters had finished the English and French versions, Clemenceau asked if anyone else wanted to speak. Brockdorff-Rantzau held up his hand.12
He chose the longer speech. Although he said much that was conciliatory, the ineptitude of his interpreters, his decision to remain seated and his harsh, rasping voice left an appalling impression. Clemenceau went red with anger. Lloyd George snapped an ivory paper knife in two. He understood for the first time, he told people afterward, the hatred the French felt for Germans. “This is the most tactless speech I have ever heard,” said Wilson. “The Germans are really a stupid people. They always do the wrong thing.” Lloyd George agreed: “It was deplorable that we let him talk.” Only Balfour, detached as always, failed to share the general indignation. He had not noticed Brockdorff-Rantzau’s behavior, he told Nicolson. “I make it a rule never to stare at people when they are in obvious distress.” As he left the Trianon Palace Hotel, Brockdorff-Rantzau stood for a moment on the steps and nonchalantly lit a cigarette. Only those close to him noticed that his lips were trembling.13
Back at their hotel, the Germans fell on their copies of the treaty. The separate sections were torn out and handed over to teams of translators. By morning, a German version had been printed and sent off. A delegate phoned Berlin with the main points: “The Saar basin . . . Poland, Silesia, Oppeln . . . 123 milliards to pay and for all that we are supposed to say ‘Thank you very much.’ ” He was shouting so loudly that the French secret service could scarcely make out the words. When the Germans met at midnight for a hasty meal, the dining room buzzed with comments: “all our colonies”; “Germany to be left out of the League”; “almost the whole merchant fleet”; “if that’s what Wilson calls open diplomacy.” One delegate, a former trade unionist, staggered into the room: “Gentlemen, I am drunk. That may be proletarian, but with me there was nothing else for it. This shameful treaty has broken me, for I had believed in Wilson until today.” (In the rumors that spread through Paris this incident was magnified: “the delegates, secretaries, and translators lying drunk, in all stages of dress and undress, in the rooms and even on the stairs of the Hotel.”) “The worst act of world piracy ever perpetrated under the flag of hypocrisy,” said the banker Max Warburg. Brockdorff-Rantzau himself merely said with disdain: “This fat volume was quite unnecessary. They could have expressed the whole thing more simply in one clause—‘L’Allemagne renonce à son existence.’ ” (“Germany surrenders all claims to its existence.”)14
The shock was echoed in Germany. Why should Germany lose 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population? After all, had Germany lost the war? Since the armistice, the military and its sympathizers had been busily laying the foundations of the stab-in-the-back theory: that Germany had been defeated not on the battlefield but by treachery at home. Why should Germany alone be made to disarm? Why, and this was the question that became the focus of German hatred of the treaty, should Germany be the only country to take responsibility for the Great War? Most Germans still viewed the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 as a necessary defense against the threat from the barbaric Slavs to the east. The treaty was completely unacceptable, said Philipp Scheidemann, the chancellor. “What hand would not wither which placed this chain upon itself and upon us?” What had happened to Wilson’s promises? “Well, I’ll give you some open diplomacy,” said Gustav Noske, the tough, crude minister of defense, to an American journalist. “You Americans go back home and bury yourself [sic] with your Wilson.” Where Wilson had been seen to this point as Germany’s savior, he overnight became the wicked hypocrite. When he died in 1924, the German embassy, alone among the foreign embassies in Washington, refused to lower its flag. 15
What is striking at this distance is the outrage—and the surprise. In its preparations for the peace negotiations, the Foreign Office had anticipated many of the terms: on disarmament; the demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland; the loss at the very least of the Saar mines; considerable losses, probably including Danzig, on Germany’s eastern frontier; and reparations of at least 60 billion marks. The best explanation for what was an inexplicable reaction comes from an American observer who said in April 1919: “The Germans have little left but Hope. But having only that I think they have clung to it—the Hope that the Americans would do something, the Hope that the final terms would not be so severe as the Armistice indicated and so on. Subconsciously, I think the Germans have been more optimistic than they realized.” And, he added prophetically, “when they see the terms in cold print, there will be intense bitterness, hate and desperation.” 16
It was in that mood that the German delegation prepared its observations on the peace terms. By the end of May it had produced pages of closely reasoned objections and counterproposals. The overall thrust was that the treaty was not the just and fair one the Allies had promised. In the territory being taken from Germany, Germans were being denied the right of self-determination. The reparations were condemning the German people to “perpetual slave labor.” Germany alone was being asked to disarm. Brockdorff-Rantzau had decided to pursue a particular strategy that was to have dangerous consequences. Germany, he insisted, was not going to accept all the guilt for the war. “Such a confession in my mouth,” he had told his audience at the Trianon Palace, “would be a lie.” But neither he nor Germany was being asked to make such a confession. The notorious Article 231 of the treaty, which the Germans inaccurately called the “war guilt” clause, had been put in to establish German liability for reparations. There were similar clauses in the treaties with Austria and Hungary; they never became an issue, largely because the governments concerned did not make them so. 17
The Germans’ reaction was different partly because they had been nervously anticipating the accusation for months. Liberals, who had criticized their own government during the war, had been arguing that Germany should not have to carry the burden of guilt. The great sociologist Max Weber and a group of leading professors issued a public manifesto: “We do not deny the responsibility of those in power before and during the war, but we believe that all the great powers of Europe who were at war are guilty.” 18 By the time the peace terms appeared, Germans of all political persuasions saw their worst fears being realized.
Although his own government doubted its wisdom, Brockdorff-Rantzau pushed stubbornly ahead with his attack on Article 231, partly to undermine the Allied case for reparations but mostly out of a sense of honor. On May 13 he wrote to the Allies, “The German people did not will the war and would never have undertaken a war of aggression.” He returned to the question again and again in other, lengthy, memoranda. The Allies merely dug in their heels. “I could not accept the German point of view,” wrote Lloyd George in his memoirs, “without giving away our whole case for entering into the war.” Wilson said sharply, “It is enough to reply that we don’t believe a word of what the German government says.” Germany accepted its aggression and its responsibility when it sued for the armistice, said Clemenceau on behalf of the Council of Four. “It is too late to seek to deny them today.” And so Article 231, a clause that the young John Foster Dulles helped to draft as a compromise over reparations, became the great symbol of the unfairness and injustice of the Treaty of Versailles in Weimar Germany, in much subsequent history— and in the English-speaking world.19
At four o’clock in the morning of May 7, the day the Germans got the terms, Herbert Hoover, the American relief administrator, had been woken by a messenger carrying a copy of the treaty fresh from the presses. Like everyone else, he had never before seen it as a whole. The sheer scope, the cumulative impact of all the provisions, worried him. Unable to get back to sleep, he wandered out into the empty Paris streets. There, as day was breaking, he ran into Jan Smuts and John Maynard Keynes. “We agreed,” Hoover recalled years later, “that the consequences of many parts of the proposed Treaty would ultimately bring destruction.”20
The publication of the treaty crystallized the unease of many of the peacemakers but whether it was caused by the peace terms themselves, the nature of the Peace Conference, the future of the world, or their own future, is not always easy to distinguish. Lansing, the American secretary of state, who had been sitting resentfully on the sidelines, found that the treaty confirmed his worst fears about Wilson as a negotiator. He dashed off a vehement memorandum: “The terms of the peace appear immeasurably harsh and humiliating, while many of them are incapable of performance.” Bullitt, still smarting from the failure of his Russian diplomacy, organized a meeting of the younger members of the American delegation at the Crillon. “This isn’t a treaty of peace,” he said. They must all resign. About a dozen agreed. Bullitt pulled the table decorations to pieces to award red roses to those who joined him and yellow jonquils to those who did not. The letters of resignation spoke of disillusionment, of how Wilson’s great principles and the idealism of the United States had been sacrificed to serve the interests of the greedy Europeans. Bullitt, typically, made sure that his letter went directly to the press.21
In the British delegation, the reaction was similar. Nicolson caught the mood. “We came to Paris confident that the new order was about to be established; we left it convinced that the new order had merely fouled the old. We arrived as fervent apprentices in the school of President Wilson; we left as renegades.” The British pardoned themselves for having created an “imperialistic peace”; it was all the fault of the Italians and the French. In Britain, the emotions of the “khaki” election of the previous December had dissipated and more tolerant feelings toward Germany were emerging. The archbishop of Canterbury declared himself “very uncomfortable” with the treaty. He spoke, he said, for “a great central body which is ordinarily silent and which has no adequate representation in the ordinary channels of the Press.” 22
The French reaction, of course, was different. Critics complained that the treaty was too weak, apart from some on the left who found it too harsh. Their complaints made little impact on the public. Many French thought Clemenceau had got the best terms he could: “glorious and comforting” was how one journalist described them. In any case, there was little appetite for reopening the whole weary round of negotiations. After the Germans sent their detailed counterproposals on May 29, the French press was scathing: “monument of impudence,” “odious piece of buffonery,” “arrogance.” A noted liberal exclaimed that the only words he could find for the German note were “indecency and lack of conscience.”23
The British and the Americans, by contrast, were impressed. Henry Wilson, no friend of the Germans, wrote in his diary: “The Boches have done exactly what I forecast—they have driven a coach and four through our Terms, and then have submitted a complete set of their own, based on the 14 points, which are much more coherent than ours.” At that moment, the separatists in the Rhineland, with support from some of the French military, staged a futile bid for independence. On June 1 placards went up in several cities along the Rhine. Where they were not immediately torn down by angry crowds, they met with a profound silence. Attempts to seize government offices failed ignominiously. Brockdorff-Rantzau immediately sent a strong protest to Clemenceau. On June 2 Wilson and Lloyd George showed Clemenceau reports they had received from their own generals in the Rhineland complaining about French intrigues. Lloyd George suggested that the Allies might have to rethink their fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland.24
Lloyd George was in fact rethinking the whole treaty. He was well aware that, in the long run, it was not in Britain’s best interests to have a weak and possibly revolutionary Germany at the heart of Europe. It also did not seem to be in his own political interest. In a by-election in Central Hull, the candidate advocating “a good, an early and non-revengeful peace” crushed the coalition candidate. His closest colleagues warned that the British public would not support a harsh treaty. The detailed German comments on the treaty, which the Allies received on May 30, echoed many of the concerns that Lloyd George had discussed with his British colleagues. The deputy prime minister, Bonar Law, found the German objections “in many particulars very difficult to answer.” Lloyd George agreed. The Germans were in effect saying to the Allies: “You have a set of principles which, when they suit you, you apply, but which, when they suit us, you put by.”25
The most eloquent critic of all was Smuts. “I am grieved beyond words,” he wrote, “that such should be the result of our statesmanship.” And his words rolled on: “an impossible peace, conceived on the wrong basis,” “our present panic policy,” “shocking,” “drastic.” It would be “practically impossible for Germany to carry out the provisions of the Treaty.” The reparations clauses were unworkable “and must kill the goose which is to lay the golden eggs.” (Yet it was Smuts himself who had pumped up the figure for reparations by adding in pensions for the widows and orphans of Allied soldiers.) The occupation of the Rhineland and the handing over of German territory to Poland were “full of menace for the future of Europe.” He doubted very much that he would be able to sign the treaty as it stood. Lloyd George rather sharply asked him if South Africa was prepared in the same spirit of conciliation to hand back German Southwest Africa. “In this great business,” came the reply, “South West Africa is as dust in the balance compared to the burdens now hanging over the civilised world.”26 But Smuts did not offer to give it up.
Sufficiently disturbed by all this, Lloyd George called the British empire delegation together on June 1. Several key ministers from the British government, including Austen Chamberlain, the chancellor of the exchequer; Montagu, the secretary of state for India; and Churchill, secretary of state for war, who had come over from London the night before, joined the meeting. Smuts made an impassioned speech. The peace terms “would produce political and economic chaos in Europe for a generation and in the long run it would be the British Empire which would have to pay the penalty.” There was, he added, “far too much of the French demands in that settlement.” There was a general murmur of agreement. “The hatred of France for Germany,” said Churchill, “was something more than human.” General Botha, the prime minister of South Africa, who rarely spoke, reminded them that it was the anniversary of the day, seventeen years ago, when he and Lord Milner had signed the peace that ended the Boer War. “On that occasion it was moderation which had saved South Africa for the British Empire, and he hoped on this occasion that it would be moderation which would save the world.” The meeting unanimously authorized Lloyd George to go back to the Council of Four and ask for modifications of the terms on Germany’s frontiers with Poland, on reparations, on the Rhineland occupation and on the scores of smaller but irritating “pin pricks.” In addition, he would request a promise to Germany that it could enter the League of Nations soon.27
The following day Lloyd George told the Council of Four that his colleagues would not authorize him to sign the treaty in its present form; nor would they agree to having the British army march into Germany or the British navy resume the blockade. Wilson and Clemenceau were horrified at the prospect of redoing the work that had been so painfully accomplished. Both concluded that Lloyd George had lost his nerve. “It makes me a little tired,” Wilson told the American delegation, “for people to come and say now that they are afraid the Germans won’t sign, and their fear is based upon things that they insisted upon at the time of the writing of the treaty.” Privately, he said that Lloyd George appeared “to have no principles whatever of his own, that he reacted according to the advice of the last person who had talked with him: that expediency was his sole guiding star.” Wilson, for all his earlier reservations, was not now prepared to budge. Clemenceau would give way only on minor matters. As he pointed out in the Council of Four, he had fought his own people to get to this point; if he made any further concessions his government would fall. Lloyd George’s view, at least as he reported it in his memoirs, was that he was not suggesting major changes, only ones to bring the treaty more into line with Wilson’s own principles.28
Two weeks of frequently acrimonious discussions followed. (At one point Wilson is reported to have said to Lloyd George, “You make me sick!”) In the end, Lloyd George got one substantial concession: it was agreed that the people of Upper Silesia would decide by plebiscite whether to stay with Germany or join Poland. Otherwise, he achieved little beyond irritating his allies. On the Rhineland occupation, which he proposed to shorten, he faced the implacable opposition of Clemenceau, who, as he told House, would not agree to even fourteen years and 364 days. Eventually some small changes were made to minimize friction between the occupying forces and the German administration and civilians. On the League, the Allies merely assured Germany that they would admit it when they thought that it was behaving properly.29
Lloyd George made very little headway on the reparations clauses, partly because he himself still did not know just what he wanted. He had argued strenuously in the past against putting a fixed sum in the treaty. Now he hesitated. Possibly some sort of amount could be mentioned to cover pensions and so on, and the Germans could undertake to repair the damage to Belgium and France. Or perhaps the Germans could say how much the repairs would cost and then the Allies could tell them if it was not enough. He thought at least they should look into it again. Wilson, who had only given way on the fixed sum in the face of opposition from the French and the British, exclaimed to Baker, his press secretary, that Lloyd George was arrogant and intolerable.30
Nevertheless, the reparations commission was asked to look at the whole matter again. Again it failed to agree. The French and the British found it impossible to fix a sum; the Americans suggested 120 billion gold marks and even drafted a note to the Germans. Wilson said firmly that justice demanded that the Germans bear a heavy burden, but that the Allies must not drive the German economy to ruin. “I rather like the crust and the sauce of this pie,” said Lloyd George, “but not the meat.” Wilson replied, “You must however prepare your stomach for meat that will be able to sustain you.” Certainly, said Lloyd George, but under one condition: “it is that you give me enough of it.” Clemenceau interjected, “And especially, I would like to be sure that it will not go into someone else’s stomach.” Lloyd George proposed a variety of ingenious schemes to give the impression of a fixed sum without actually naming a figure. “This is your reply to the American proposal about fixing the figure,” said Wilson incredulously. “Have you read the rest of the American report?”31 The clauses were left as they were.
On June 16 the Germans were informed that they had three days to accept the treaty (the deadline was later extended until June 23)—or the Allies would take the necessary steps. Brockdorff-Rantzau and his chief advisers left that night for Weimar. An angry crowd whistled and jeered as their cars rolled toward the railway station. A secretary was knocked out by a rock. The French authorities were unrepentant—remember, said a report, what the Germans did to Belgium—although they later paid the unfortunate woman, who never recovered, a substantial amount.32
Reports from Allied agents indicated that it was highly likely that the German government would reject the treaty. The German public was strongly against signing, although it was not clear if it was prepared to fight. Brockdorff-Rantzau, as the Allies knew from intercepted telegrams, was urging rejection and his delegation was behind him. “If Germany refuses,” said Clemenceau at the Council of Four, “I favour a vigorous and unremitting military blow that will force the signing.” Wilson and Lloyd George agreed without hesitation. On May 20, Foch, as supreme Allied commander, gave the order for a massive drive by forty-two divisions into central Germany. The British prepared to renew the naval blockade.33
Two days before the deadline an event occurred that further hardened Allied determination. Far from Paris, at Scapa Flow, the officers of the interned German fleet had been listening to the news from Paris with increasing dismay. The winter had been long and gloomy. The crews had not been allowed to go ashore, a disappointment in particular for the radical sailors who had volunteered for duty so that they could spread the revolution to Britain. The men, bored and mutinous, obeyed routine orders only after prolonged discussions and the ships that had been the pride of the German navy were now filthy. The admiral in charge determined to salvage something of German naval honor. At noon on June 21 British sailors noticed that all the enemy ships had simultaneously raised the German ensign. When one after another the dreadnoughts and destroyers began to list, it was obvious what was happening. The British were too late to save more than a few; by five that afternoon, 400,000 tons of expensive shipping had gone. (Most of the German sailors took to their lifeboats but ten were killed when the British fired at the German ships in a last-ditch attempt to stop the scuttling.) The Germans were delighted; and so was House, who told his diary, “Everyone is laughing at the British Admiralty.” The peacemakers were annoyed. “There was no doubt,” said Lloyd George, “that the sinking of these ships was a breach of faith.” Wilson agreed: “He shared Mr. Lloyd George’s suspicions to the full, and did not trust the Germans.” There should certainly be no further extension of the deadline, as the German government had requested. In fact, there was some relief that a possible source of conflict between Britain and the United States had been removed.34
In Germany, the political situation was chaotic. The coalition government was deeply divided over whether to sign the treaty. Political leaders in the west, along the Allied invasion route, were for peace at all costs, as were the premiers of most of the German states, who saw themselves having to make separate treaties with the victors. The nationalists talked bravely of defiance without making any useful suggestions about how to put it into practice. Among the military, wild schemes circulated: to set up a new state in the east which would be a fortress against the Allies; to have a mass revolt by the officers against the government; or to assassinate the leading advocate of signing, the centrist politician Matthias Erzberger.35
The son of a village postman from the Catholic south, Erzberger was bold, cheerful and pragmatic. During the war, his had been the most influential voice for a moderate, negotiated peace. His enemies, and they were many, loathed him for his red face and little eyes, his maddening smile and his habit of saying the unthinkable. Brockdorff-Rantzau, his opposite in almost every respect, could barely be civil to him. In 1919, Erzberger was Germany’s armistice commissioner. He was convinced that Germany could not afford to start fighting again. Public opinion, for all the noisy demonstrations from the nationalists, seemed to agree with him. Yes, he told his colleagues in the cabinet, the treaty will place terrible burdens on the German people; and, yes, the right might try a military coup. But there would be a chance for Germany to survive. With the state of war ended, factories would start producing again, unemployment would go down, exports would rise and Germany could afford imports. “Bolshevism will lose its attraction.” If Germany did not sign, then the picture would be very different. The Allies would occupy the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland; their advance eastward would cut the country in half; the Poles would probably attack from the east; the economy and the transportation system would collapse. “Plunder and murder will be the order of the day.” Germany would break up into “a crazy patchwork quilt” of states, some under Bolshevik rule, others under right-wing dictatorships. Germany must sign.36
That was not how Brockdorff-Rantzau saw it. He asserted, without much solid evidence, that the Allies were bluffing. They did not want to have to occupy Germany. They were bound to make concessions, even negotiate seriously, if only Germany stood firm. Britain and the United States would probably break with France. His delegation passed a unanimous recommendation: “The conditions of peace are still unbearable, for Germany cannot accept them and continue to live with honour as a nation.” The military took the same view. He could not, said Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, hold out any hope of success against the Allies, “but as a soldier I can only prefer honourable defeat to a disgraceful peace.”37 The cabinet, which had been leaning toward acceptance of the terms, was deadlocked and resigned on June 20. Brockdorff-Rantzau resigned as head of the German delegation and left politics altogether. (In 1922 he returned as ambassador to Moscow, where his imperious manners deeply impressed the Bolsheviks and where he worked, with considerable success, for closer relations between his country and the Soviet Union.)
Germany now had no government and no spokesman. It almost did not have a president, but Ebert was persuaded that he had a duty to stay on. The deadline of seven P.M. on June 23 drifted closer. On June 22, Ebert finally managed to put together a government. After another lengthy debate, the National Assembly voted in favor of signing, with the reservation that Germany did not recognize the articles dealing with the surrender and trial of those responsible for the war and the “war guilt” clause. The response from Paris was swift: “The German government must accept or refuse, without any possible equivocation, to sign the treaty within the fixed period of time.” In Weimar there was fearful confusion. Many deputies and cabinet ministers had left for home, confident that their work was done. The German government asked Paris for an extension of the deadline and then met all night without, however, reaching a decision. Word came from Paris on the morning of June 23 that the deadline would not be extended. At the eleventh hour, after the German army had let it be known that it was in favor of signing, the government managed to get a resolution through the National Assembly. Many of the right-wing nationalists, vociferous opponents of signing, were privately relieved at the decision. In another resolution they voted that they did not doubt the patriotism of those who had supported the government. The session closed as the assembly’s chairman said, “We commend our unhappy country to the care of a merciful God.” 38
The peacemakers waited tensely for the final German word. At about 4:30 in the afternoon a secretary rushed into the Council of Four to say that the German reply was on the way. “I am counting the minutes,” said Clemenceau. At 5:40 the note arrived. The statesmen crowded around as a French officer translated the German. Lloyd George broke into smiles, Wilson grinned and Clemenceau dashed off orders to Foch to stay his advance and to the military in Paris to fire their guns. No more work was done at the Peace Conference that day.39
The signing ceremony was set for June 28, the anniversary of the assassination of the archduke and his wife at Sarajevo; the place was the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, where the German empire had been proclaimed in 1871. Clemenceau took personal charge of the arrangements. In great good humor he marched a party through the immense formal rooms of the palace, amusing them with ancient scandals about French kings. Look at those two, he whispered, pointing to Wilson and Balfour: “I bet they are speaking filth; see the look of an old satyr that Balfour has.” He ordered magnificent furniture and tapestries to be brought in to add grandeur and an offending inkwell to be taken away. (Eminent French officials scoured the museums and antique stores of Paris for one that met with his approval.40)
Many of the plenipotentiaries were also in the antique shops, looking for seals in metal, stone, whatever they could find. (It was a diplomatic tradition that signatures have a personal stamp.) Hughes of Australia had to be talked out of one showing Hercules slaying a dragon; he finally used a button from an Australian army uniform. (He had his way, however, with a four-foot-high marble replica of the Venus de Milo, which he bought for his long-suffering assistant.) Lloyd George thought he might use a gold pound. “Then leave it for me,” said Clemenceau. “I don’t have any more,” Lloyd George replied. “They’ve all gone to America.” On June 27, as a secretary carefully dripped red wax through a funnel, the plenipotentiaries duly wielded their seals on the treaty in preparation for the next day’s signing.41
There was also a hunt for tickets. Each of the Big Five had sixty places in the Hall of Mirrors. “A very awkward number,” said Wilson. “If it were restricted to say ten it would be easy to make a selection, but if one has to select sixty there are certain to be many heart-burnings.” One enterprising American businessman managed to get into the grounds outside the palace by claiming his cigarette case stamped with the manufacturer’s coat of arms was a pass. The glamorous red-haired writer Elinor Glyn charmed Lloyd George into letting her attend as a reporter. There were stories of places going for exorbitant prices.42
Other, more alarming, rumors circulated. In Berlin, a party of German soldiers had seized flags from the Franco-Prussian War due to be returned to France and burnt them in front of the monument to Frederick the Great while a crowd sang patriotic anthems. Could the Germans refuse to sign, even at this late date? On June 25, the French reported that the skeleton German delegation at the Hôtel des Réservoirs was in high spirits: only low-ranking officials would be sent to sign the treaty. When the Council of Four sent an emissary to inquire, the delegate in charge reported that his government was having great difficulty in finding any minister who would take the responsibility of signing. It was only on June 27 that word came that two representatives were on their way: the new foreign minister, Hermann Müller, and Johannes Bell, the minister of transport. The German delegates arrived at three in the morning, after the customary slow trip by train through the battlefields. New rumors buzzed around Paris: the two would sign, but then they would shoot themselves, possibly Lloyd George and Clemenceau as well, or perhaps simply throw a bomb.43
The twenty-eighth of June dawned as a glorious summer day. That morning, the Anglo-American guarantee to come to France’s defense if she were attacked by Germany was given formal shape as the French signed separate treaties with the British and the Americans. How much the guarantee was worth was another matter. House doubted that it would get Senate approval: he had always seen it as a useful sop to the French, not a serious commitment. Wilson tended to agree: “We yielded,” he told a press conference, “in a certain measure, to meet this French viewpoint.” He confidently expected that the guarantee would be unnecessary once the League was up and running, long before Germany became a menace again.44
Cars took the peacemakers out to Versailles. (The female secretaries from the British delegation were less fortunate; they were packed, “like sardines,” into lorries.45) The mile-long drive from the gates to the palace itself was lined with motionless French cavalry in their blue uniforms and steel helmets, the red-and-white pennants on their lances fluttering in the breeze. From the courtyard, filled with more troops, the invited passed up the Grand Staircase lined with members of the élite Garde Républicaine in their white trousers, black boots, dark blue coats and shining silver helmets with long plumes of horsehair, sabers held up in salute.
In the Hall of Mirrors, the crowd—statesmen, diplomats, generals, reporters, some handpicked ordinary soldiers (the French ones bore the scars of terrible injuries), a scattering of women—buzzed and chattered as they took their places on red upholstered benches. The press corps jostled at one end of the room. This was to be the first time that a major treaty was filmed. Frances Stevenson was indignant: “How can you concentrate on the solemnity of a scene when you have men with cameras in every direction, whose sole object is to get as near as they can to the central figures?” There were several conspicuous absences. Foch had gone to his headquarters in the Rhineland. He never forgave Clemenceau: “Wilhelm II lost the war. . . . Clemenceau lost the peace.” The Chinese seats were empty because China was refusing to sign the treaty, in protest against the decision to award Shantung to Japan.46
One by one the main figures made their way in and found their seats at a huge table flanked by two shorter ones. Clemenceau was beaming. “This is a great day for France,” he told Lansing. A copy of the treaty in a special leather box lay on a small Louis XV table. Overhead portraits of Louis XIV—as Roman emperor, great ruler and victor over foreign powers— surveyed the latest chapter in the long struggle between the French and the Germans. At three P.M., the ushers called for silence. “Bring in the Germans,” ordered Clemenceau. An Allied guard came through the door and behind them the two German delegates, dressed in formal suits. “They are deathly pale,” reported Nicolson. “They do not appear as representatives of a brutal militarism.” Many of the audience, including Nicolson himself, felt deeply sorry for them.47
Clemenceau opened the proceedings with a brief statement. The German delegates walked forward, conscious of the thousand pairs of eyes. They pulled out the fountain pens which they had carefully brought so that they need not use the pens provided by French patriotic societies, and put their signatures to the treaty with trembling hands. Otherwise they showed little emotion. A signal flashed out from the room to the outside world. Guns around Versailles boomed and the noise spread out to France as other guns took up the chorus. One by one, the Allies and associated powers added their signatures to the treaty and then queued to sign two other agreements, a protocol on the administration of the Rhineland and a treaty with Poland.48
Paul Cambon thought the whole affair disgraceful. “They lack only music and ballet girls, dancing in step, to offer the pen to the plenipotentiaries for signing. Louis XIV liked ballets, but only as a diversion; he signed treaties in his study. Democracy is more theatrical than the great king.” House thought it more like a Roman triumph, with the defeated being dragged behind their conqueror’s chariots: “To my mind it is out of keeping with the new era which we profess an ardent desire to promote. I wish it could have been more simple and that there might have been an element of chivalry, which was wholly lacking. The whole affair was elaborately staged and made as humiliating to the enemy as it well could be.” Perhaps, thought a young American more optimistically, the old vicious cycle of revenge and more revenge in Europe had finally been broken.49
The audience at first watched in respectful silence, but as the minutes dragged by the noise of conversation rose. Delegates who had finished signing wandered off to chat to friends. Others took copies of their programs around to get autographs. The Germans sat in solitude until finally a daring Bolivian, and then two Canadians, came up to ask for their signatures. After three quarters of an hour there was a call for silence and Clemenceau pronounced the meeting over. The Germans were escorted out. Müller had promised himself that he would be businesslike: “I wanted our ex-enemies to see nothing of the deep pain of the German people, whose representative I was at this tragic moment.” Back at the hotel he collapsed. “A cold sweat such as I had never known in my life before broke out all over my body—a physical reaction which necessarily followed the unutterable psychic strain. And now, for the first time, I knew that the worst hour of my life lay behind me.” He and the rest of his party insisted on leaving for Germany that night.50
The peacemakers walked down to the terrace overlooking the great formal gardens as the fountains spurted into the air. A huge and enthusiastic crowd surged around them. Wilson was nearly pushed into a fountain. Lloyd George was rescued, angry and disheveled, by a squad of soldiers. “A similar thing would never have happened in England,” he told an Italian diplomat. “And if it had happened, someone would have had to pay.” Afterward Lloyd George, much to his annoyance, was made to sit down and write a letter to the king announcing that the peace had been concluded. 51
Wilson left by train that night for Le Havre and the United States. Clemenceau came to see him off and, according to one reporter, said with unusual emotion, “I feel as though I were losing one of the best friends I ever had.” A small crowd uttered a few listless cries to speed the Americans on their way. At the Hôtel Majestic the British were given a special celebratory dinner, with one more course than usual and free champagne. Afterward there were dances, one for the hotel staff and another for the guests. Smuts, perhaps as yet another protest against the treaty, joined the staff dance. Paris itself became a giant party, as the streets filled with people singing and dancing. Along the Grands Boulevards the buildings blazed with lights and cars towed the captured German cannon about. (It took the authorities days to collect them all again.) Late that night, as Lansing finished up his account of the day, he could still hear the noise of celebrations outside.52
While Paris rejoiced, Germany mourned. In its cities and towns the flags flew at half-mast. Even good socialists now talked of “a peace of shame.” Off in the Baltic, where German volunteers were fighting against Bolshevism (and to reassert German power), the news came like a thunderclap. “We shivered,” said one, “from the terrible cold of abandonment. We had believed our country would never betray us.” Nationalists blamed the traitors at home who had stabbed Germany in the back, and the governing coalition which had signed the treaty.
The Weimar Republic never recovered from that double burden. The nationalists blithely ignored their own promise not to doubt the patriotism of those who voted for the treaty, and did their best to stigmatize them in the eyes of the German people. In 1921, when he was on holiday in the Black Forest, Erzberger was assassinated by two former army officers. “The man,” said a leading nationalist paper, “whose spirit unhappily still prevails in many of our government offices and laws, has at last secured the punishment suitable for a traitor.” His murderers fled to Hungary but returned to Germany in triumph as “Erzberger’s judges” when Hitler came to power. Both were finally tried after the Second World War. 53
In England, meanwhile, John Maynard Keynes considered his future. He had resigned from the Treasury and left Paris in disgust before the treaty was signed. “I’ve gone on hoping even through these last dreadful weeks,” he wrote to Lloyd George on June 5, “that you’d find some way to make of the Treaty a just and expedient document. But now it’s apparently too late. The battle is lost.” Keynes was in a curious mood. He told Virginia Woolf that Europe, and in particular the governing classes of which he was a part, were doomed, yet he wrote to another friend that he was tremendously happy to be back at Cambridge. In personal terms he was extremely successful, both professionally and socially, but he felt guilty about his part in the war when so many of his Bloomsbury friends had been pacifists. They in turn laughed at his worldly success, his new friends, his experiments in heterosexuality. Perhaps The Economic Consequences of the Peace was something of an act of atonement. Perhaps, too, as Lamont, the American expert on reparations, said, “Keynes got sore because they wouldn’t take his advice, his nerve broke, and he quit.”54
Keynes spent much of the summer writing. In October he met the German banker Melchior again at a conference in Amsterdam. He read him a draft; Melchior was very impressed. This was not surprising, because Keynes echoed much of what the Germans themselves were saying about the Treaty of Versailles. The Economic Consequences of the Peace came out just before Christmas in 1919 and has remained in print ever since. It sold over 100,000 copies and was translated into eleven languages, including German, within a year of its appearance. Extracts were read out in the U.S. Senate by a leading opponent of the treaty. The book was wildly successful in Germany, and in the English-speaking world it helped to turn opinion against the peace settlements and against the French. In 1924, a cabinet minister in the Labour government in Britain referred to the treaty as “a treaty of blood and iron which betrayed every principle for which our soldiers thought they were fighting.”55
Among Germans, as memories faded of the desperate state of affairs in 1919, the belief spread that Germany could have resisted the peace terms if only weak and venal politicians had stood firm. The treaty was, as a popular song put it, “only paper.” In 1921, a French diplomat reported to Paris that “a violent campaign using the press, posters and meetings is underway in Germany to undermine the legal basis of the Versailles treaty: German guilt in the war.” The German Foreign Office set up a special “war guilt” section which poured out critical studies. In the beer halls of Bavaria, the young Hitler drew crowds with his ringing denunciations of the “peace of shame.”56
Public opinion in Britain and the United States increasingly swung round to the view that the peace settlements with Germany were deeply unfair. During the next decade, memoirs and novels such as the German All Quiet on the Western Front (which sold 250,000 copies in the first year of its English edition) showed that soldiers on both sides had suffered equally from the horrors of trench warfare. The publication of confidential documents from prewar archives undermined the assumption that Germany alone was responsible for the war. Books on the origins of the war apportioned the blame more evenly, to the vanished regimes in Russia or Austria-Hungary, to arms manufacturers or capitalism generally.57
In Germany itself, grievances were kept fresh by the myriad of nationalist groups who made much of the fact that millions of German-speakers now found themselves under alien rule, in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, in Poland and in the free city of Danzig. The disarmament clauses were seen as hypocritical and the prohibition on union between Germany and Austria a clear violation of the principle of self-determination. Reparations were “punitive” and “savage,” their unfairness compounded by the fact that Germany had to sign the Treaty of Versailles without knowing what the final amount would be. In Germany the Diktat (“dictated treaty”) took the blame for all that was wrong with the economy: high prices, low wages, unemployment, taxes, inflation. Without the burden of reparations, life would go back to normal; the sun would shine and there would be happy afternoons in the beer gardens, wine cellars and parks. Germans ignored the fact that fighting the Great War had been expensive, and that losing it had meant they could not transfer the costs to anyone else.58 Like most people since, they also did not grasp that reparations payments never amounted to anything like the huge amounts mentioned in public discussions.
The final figure was set in London in 1921 at 132 billion gold marks (about £6.6 billion or $33 billion). In reality, through an ingenious system of bonds and complex clauses, Germany was committed to pay less than half that amount. It would pay the remainder only when circumstances permitted, such as an improvement in Germany’s export figures. Germany also got generous credit for payments in cash or in kind it had already made, such as replacing the books in the Louvain library in Belgium that German troops had burned at the beginning of the war, or for German railways in the territory transferred to Poland. (It tried unsuccessfully to claim the ships scuttled at Scapa Flow.) Even when the payment schedules were revised downward several times, however, the Germans continued to argue that reparations were intolerable. With a unanimity rare in Weimar politics, Germans felt they were paying too much. Germany regularly defaulted on its payments—for the last time and for good in 1932. Orlando had warned of this in 1919, when he said that the capacity to pay was related to the will of the debtor. “It would be dangerous,” he added, “to adopt a formula which would, as it were, reward bad faith and a refusal to work.”59
In the final reckoning, Germany may have paid about 22 billion gold marks (£1.1 billion, $4.5 billion) in the whole period between 1918 and 1932. That is probably slightly less than what France, with a much smaller economy, paid Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. 60 In one way the figures matter; in another they are completely irrelevant. The Germans were convinced that reparations were ruining them. If Germany was not prepared to pay reparations, the Allies were not prepared to enforce their will. While the Treaty of Versailles provided for sanctions— specifically, prolonging the occupation of the Rhineland—the Allies had to want to use them. By the 1930s neither the British nor the French government was prepared to do so over reparations or anything else.
In 1924, a British member of the Inter-Allied Commission of Control, which was established by the Treaty of Versailles to monitor Germany’s compliance with the military terms, published an article in which he complained that the German military had systematically obstructed its work and that there were widespread violations of the disarmament clauses of the treaty. There was a storm of protest in Germany at this calumny. (Years later, after Hitler had come to power, German generals admitted that the article had been quite right.61) Where, said the Germans, was the general disarmament so often talked about? Why should Germany be the only nation in the world to disarm? The Americans, who had retreated so visibly from world affairs with the repudiation of the League, could scarcely disagree. Nor could the British. The French found themselves increasingly isolated when they complained that Germany was disobeying the military clauses.
The extent of the violations was not completely known at the time, even to the French. Flying clubs were suddenly very popular and were so effective that when Hitler became chancellor he was able to produce a German air force almost at once. The Prussian police force, the largest in Germany, became more and more military in its organization and training. Its officers could easily have moved into the German army, and some did. The self-appointed Freikorps, which had sprung up in 1918, dissolved and its members reformed with dazzling ingenuity as labor gangs, bicycle agencies, traveling circuses and detective bureaus. Some moved wholesale into the army. The Treaty of Versailles limited the number of officers in the army itself to 4,000 but it said nothing about the noncommissioned officers. So the German army had 40,000 sergeants and corporals.62 Foch had been right; a volunteer army could provide the backbone for rapid expansion.
Factories that had once produced tanks now turned out inordinately heavy tractors; the research was useful for the future. In the Berlin cabarets, they told jokes about the worker who smuggled parts out of a baby carriage factory for his new child only to find when he tried to put them all together he kept getting a machine gun. All over Europe, in safe neutral countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, companies whose ultimate ownership was in German hands worked on tanks or submarines. The safest place of all, farthest from the prying eyes of the Control Commission, was the Soviet Union. In 1921 the two pariah nations of Europe realized they had something to offer each other. In return for space and secrecy for experiments with tanks, aircraft and poison gas, Germany provided technical assistance and training.63
When historians look, as they have increasingly been doing, at the other details, the picture of a Germany crushed by a vindictive peace cannot be sustained. Germany did lose territory; that was an inevitable consequence of losing the war. If it had won, we should remember, it would have certainly taken Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of the north of France and much of the Netherlands. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk showed the intentions of the German supreme command for the eastern frontiers. Despite its losses Germany remained the largest country in Europe west of the Soviet Union between the wars. Its strategic position was significantly better than it had been before 1914. With the reemergence of Poland, there was now a barrier between it and the old Russian menace. In place of Austria-Hungary, Germany had only a series of weaker and quarreling states on its eastern frontier. As the 1930s showed, Germany was well placed to extend its economic and political sway among them.
The separation of East Prussia from the rest of Germany was an irritation, but such separations were nothing new in the history of Prussia, which for most of its existence had been a series of noncontiguous parcels of territory. Is such a separation necessarily bound to bring trouble? Alaska is separated from the rest of the United States by a large piece of Canada. When was the last time Washington and Ottawa complained to each other about transit rights? 64 The real problem with the Polish Corridor was that many, perhaps a majority, of Germans in the interwar years did not accept it, for all sorts of reasons to do with attitudes toward the Poles and resentment of the Treaty of Versailles. If relations between Poland and Germany had been better, that land barrier need not have been troublesome. Danzig became a free city, but it was still open to German investment and German shipping.
In the west, Germany also faced an advantageous situation. France was gravely depleted by the war, unwilling and, by the 1930s, increasingly unable to summon up the determination to oppose Germany. The guarantee from the United States and Britain was worthless after the failure of the American Senate to ratify it. France’s attempts to build alliances with the weak and quarreling nations in Central Europe were a measure of its desperation. It got little support from the British, who made it clear that their empire was their primary concern. The clearest demonstration that the peacemakers had not emasculated Germany came after 1939.
With different leadership in the Western democracies, with stronger democracy in Weimar Germany, without the damage done by the Depression, the story might have turned out differently. And without Hitler to mobilize the resentments of ordinary Germans and to play on the guilty consciences of so many in the democracies, Europe might not have had another war so soon after the first. The Treaty of Versailles is not to blame. It was never consistently enforced, or only enough to irritate German nationalism without limiting German power to disrupt the peace of Europe. With the triumph of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, Germany had a government that was bent on destroying the Treaty of Versailles. In 1939, von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, told the victorious Germans in Danzig: “The Führer has done nothing but remedy the most serious consequences which this most unreasonable of all dictates in history imposed upon a nation and, in fact, upon the whole of Europe, in other words repair the worst mistakes committed by none other than the statesmen of the western democracies.” 65