The day of facing the facts for the Germans came on 7 May 1919, a week after their arrival at Versailles. Representatives of 27 nations had assembled in the dining-room of the Trianon Palace Hotel, where the final chapter of the war opened at three in the afternoon. Clemenceau wasted no time in coming to the point:
This is neither the time nor the place for superfluous words. You see before you the accredited representatives of the Allied and Associated Powers, both great and small, which have waged war without respite for more than four years, the pitiless war that was imposed on them. The time has come for a heavy reckoning of accounts. You have asked for peace. We are ready to grant it to you.1
As the large white folio volume containing the peace conditions was handed to Brockdorff-Rantzau, the prime minister reminded the Germans that there was to be no discussion, that all observations had to be in writing, and that they had fifteen days to submit their comments. On completion, Clemenceau asked whether anyone else wanted to speak. The head of the German delegation did.
Acknowledging defeat and accusing the Allies of making Germany pay as the vanquished party and submit to punishment as the guilty one, Brockdorff-Rantzau immediately turned to the question of war guilt, which he called a lie. He claimed that Germany had been waging a defensive war, and insisted that it should not be burdened with sole responsibility. He maintained that the war had been the product of European imperialism, and blamed the Allies for cold-bloodedly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants by the continuation of their blockade. He also asked for a neutral commission to investigate objectively who was responsible for the outbreak of war, and he reiterated that peace was to be on the basis of the Fourteen Points and the Pre-Armistice Agreement. Germany accepted liability for civilian damage in Belgium and in occupied France, and would agree to contribute to their reconstruction with ‘the technical and financial participation of the victors’. He added that ‘experts on both sides will have to study how the German people can best meet their obligation of financial reparation without breaking down under the heavy load’.2
Neither what he said nor the way he said it was well received. Brockdorff-Rantzau, ‘a most sinister looking person, an incarnation of the whole Junker system’, according to chief secretary of the war cabinet, Maurice Hankey, spoke in German, ‘in a harsh rasping voice’ and, contrary to international diplomatic protocol, remained seated. Billy Hughes, as the text was being translated, approached Lloyd George, asking him whether Clemenceau ‘would allow this fellow to go on like this’. Clemenceau had turned red with anger. Wilson was exasperated. ‘The Germans are really a stupid people’, he commented on the way out. ‘They always did the wrong thing during the war, and that is why I am here. They don’t understand human nature. This is the most tactless speech I ever heard’. Lloyd George agreed: ‘it was deplorable to let him talk’. His private secretary, Phillip Henry Kerr, summed up the feeling in the room: ‘At the start everybody felt a little sympathy with the Hun, but by the time Brockdorff-Rantzau had finished, most people were almost anxious to recommence the war’.3
It had not been the aim of Brockdorff-Rantzau’s speech to soothe the Allies. Aside from the fact that it was chiefly addressed to the German domestic audience, it gave a clear indication that Germany would fight the Peace Treaty tooth and nail. The Trianon Palace address was the beginning of a long propaganda exercise to discredit the victors. The Germans would refer continuously over the next weeks to the ‘hunger blockade’ (which did not exist), and would wage an unrelenting campaign against the assumption of ‘unilateral war guilt’ — something that no country other than Germany detected in the treaty. Throughout its time in Paris, the German delegation, in the manner of Leon Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk, flooded the Allies with notes, constantly delayed procedures, and involved itself in as much public diplomacy as possible to engage the world’s sympathies.4
At the same time, the German cabinet in Berlin pursued numerous attempts to erode the treaty conditions. Like the delegation in Paris, it put the responsibility for the outbreak of war on Russia. It conceded only that the invasion of France through Belgium had violated international law, and hence would pay only for the damage done in those countries, not for the destruction in Poland, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, and Italy, nor for damage done to shipping. When this made no impression on the Allies, the German government made a counter-proposal that it claimed was in line with the Fourteen Points. Territorially, Germany would agree to a cessation of part of Poznan to Poland, but there had to be plebiscites in Alsace-Lorraine and northern Schleswig. Germany would provide Polish access to the sea. The Germans of Austria and Bohemia would be allowed to join the Reich, and there was to be no occupation of the Rhineland. Further points of the counter-proposal were immediate German entry into the League of Nations, and a German mandate over its colonies. Germany would keep its merchant fleet and, like the delegates, the government demanded a neutral enquiry into responsibility for the outbreak of war. In return, Germany offered to pay 100 billion goldmarks, the first payment to be made in 1926 and the rest in interest-free annual instalments amounting to no more than one billion per annum over the first ten years. Germany would also participate in the reconstruction of France and Belgium, provided it could join the Reparation Commission, the power of which was to be greatly reduced.5
This proposal was also rejected by the Allies. Nevertheless, the strategy of the German peace delegation to spread disunity in the Allied camp does seem to have borne fruit as the signing of the treaty drew closer. In Britain, some politicians and a section of the public at large began to feel uncomfortable about the Peace Treaty, which they regarded as too harsh. The most outspoken criticism came from the South African delegate, Jan Christian Smuts. He attacked the reparation demands, which he judged as too high, conveniently overlooking his key role in deciding reparation payments. He also argued that some of the territorial clauses were a menace to Europe’s future. Lloyd George took the wind out of Smuts’ sails by raising the issue of German South-West Africa, about to become a South African mandate, which Smuts was in no way willing to give up.
Even so, on 1 June, Lloyd George called a meeting of the British empire delegation at which he agreed to go back to the Council of Four to ask for modification of some terms, including the reparation issue. When he told Wilson and Clemenceau the next day that his colleagues would not authorise him to sign the treaty as it stood, they were incredulous. Horrified at the prospect of redoing months of work, they concluded that the British prime minister had lost his nerve. Wilson, who had had enough of the wily Welshman, accusing him privately of having no principles whatever of his own and that expediency was his sole guiding star,6 refused to budge this time except on two points. Lloyd George managed a concession on Upper Silesia (where there would be a plebiscite) and an agreement that Germany could enter the league once Europe had settled down. On 16 June, the German delegation was told that they had three days to sign.
The growing concern with which German people had been watching developments in Paris soon turned to despair and hatred. Woodrow Wilson, originally hailed as a saviour, became the object of unlimited scorn. Novelist Thomas Mann spewed his anger upon Clemenceau, in whom he saw a ‘poisonous old man … with oval eyes’, a sign that the French prime minister might possess the blood-stock which would ‘carry Western civilisation to its grave and create Khirgizian conditions’.7 Reference to the barbaric east was also to be found in Max Weber’s comments. Weber, who had joined the German delegation as an expert adviser, claimed that there was no way that in August 1914 the German empire could avoid conflict with Russia. He claimed that ‘Tsarism [was] the most horrible system of subjugation of human beings and nations ever devised’ — matched only by the peace treaty the Allies were about to impose.8 Leading Centre-Party deputy Konstantin Fehrenbach described the treaty as ‘the immortalisation [Verewigung] of the war’, predicting that ‘German women will give birth to children, and [that] these children will break the slave-chains and wash away the shame, which has been done to the German countenance’.9 Historian Antony Lentin has hit the nail on the head:
[T]here is no denying the historical importance of the profound psychological unwillingness to look facts in the face and the ‘apocalyptic’ despair that gripped many German thinkers by no means conservative in outlook. Victims not merely of imperial tradition and wartime propaganda, but of a heady succession of undeniable victories and massive annexation in the east, at the same time convinced that Germany had fought a war of self-defence, they gave little thought to the consequences of defeat and of Allied fears of Germany. This explains perhaps part of the depth of their shock and disillusion. One has the impression that Germany was as blinkered intellectually and imaginatively as it was blockaded physically: a ‘dreamland’ indeed.10
The German government now faced the reality of the treaty. ‘The hand that signed the treaty must wither’, commented chancellor Phillip Scheidemann on receiving the terms. He and his entire cabinet resigned, but not before adding the term Schandparagraph[disgrace-paragraph] to the illustrious list of derogatory German terms about the Allies’ peacemaking. Scheidemann’s resignation was a fitting end to a political life in which no objective biographer would find major merit. Hidden away in his drawers was documentary evidence that the German high command bore a major share of responsibility for August 1914.11
In the end, it was all to no avail. Following intelligence reports from Germany that the government was not willing to sign, the Allies on 20 June ordered the preparation of an assault into central Germany by over forty divisions. The British also took steps to renew the naval blockade. On 21 June, the German navy scuttled itself at Scapa Flow. By the time the British awoke to the operation, all but a few ships had been sunk. All told, 400,000 tons of shipping — a fortune in scrap metal — was gone.
The Germans were divided as the deadline drew closer by the hour. Brockdorff-Rantzau demanded that Germany should stand firm and not sign; the Allies were bluffing, and there would be no occupation. Field Marshal Hindenburg also wanted to hold out: better an honourable defeat than a disgraceful peace. On 22 June, the German National Assembly voted in favour of signing, provided that Germany would not have to accept Article 231. The Allies did not budge: sign or we move. There was one final dramatic parliamentary session the next day. Catholic Deputy Matthias Erzberger, who had signed the Armistice and who held the most realistic view of the situation, urged that the treaty be signed. (He would be murdered by nationalist thugs two years later.) Army chief Wilhelm Groener informed the house that Germany was in no position to renew military action. At three that afternoon, by a margin of 237 to 138, the National Assembly voted to accept. The note reached the peacemakers one hour and twenty minutes before the deadline ran out.
The signing ceremony took place on 28 June, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of the crown prince and his wife at Sarajevo. At 3.45 p.m., the German signatories, foreign minister Hermann Müller and minister of transport Johannes Bell, signed the treaty in the Hall of Mirrors. The audience included all of the plenipotentiaries who had witnessed the opening five months earlier. Only the Chinese were missing; they had left the conference in protest against the handing over to Japan of the former German base of Tsingtaou on the Shantung peninsula.
The Treaty of Versailles — Parts I to VII
It is necessary to analyse the content of the Versailles Peace Treaty to establish whether it contributed politically, economically, militarily, geographically, or in any other way to the failure of democracy in the Weimar Republic and the ‘seizure of power’ by the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). Part I of the treaty contained the 26 paragraphs establishing the League of Nations. The German delegation had objected to not having been invited to become a foundation member, which, it claimed, violated promises president Wilson had made in his speeches to congress on 8 January and 27 September 1918. This was repudiated. Wilson maintained that he had made it clear from the outset that Germany would not be included because it had proven untrustworthy, but that after redeeming its character, ‘not by what happens at the peace table but by what follows’, it should be allowed to join. Although it is reasonable to question why Germany should agree to the establishment of an organisation to which it was barred entry, membership of the League can hardly be said to have been a major political issue before it did join in September 1926.
Part II (Articles 27–30) defined Germany’s new borders. Part III dealt with ‘Political Clauses for Europe’ (Articles 31–117). Many of these articles were uncontroversial. As far as Luxembourg was concerned (Articles 42–43), for example, the Germans declared that the Grand Duchy would no longer enjoy the benefits of membership in the German Customs Union, to which the Allies responded that, because of the violation of its neutrality during the war, Luxembourg itself had already decided to quit the union. A plebiscite in Schleswig (Articles 109–114) was not questioned by either side. When it was held in February 1920, the vote went along ethnic lines: the northern parts voted to return to Denmark, the southern to remain with Germany. There was no objection from Germany to the dismantling of all military equipment on the island of Heligoland (Article 114). Germany reaffirmed Article 15 of the Armistice Agreement, renouncing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and all subsequent treaties with Russia (Article 115–116), and also declared that it had no intention of shifting the Austrian-German frontier by force (Article 80). No reference was made to Articles 81 to 86, which concerned the Czechoslovak state. In line with Armistice conditions, Articles 40 to 42 stipulated that the demilitarised zone on the left bank of the River Rhine was to extend 50 kilometres to the east. This provoked an angry German reaction, but the failure of the United States to ratify the military-assistance agreement with France, and Britain’s steady withdrawal from continental European affairs, meant that there was no military value in the left bank clauses, as Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936 was to illustrate.
With the exception of northern Schleswig, Germany objected to the loss of its pre-war territory. Belgium, which had severely suffered from four years of German occupation, was rewarded with the district of Prussian Moresnet near Liege, as well as the territory between the small towns of Eupen and Malmedy, all told about 400 square miles with a population of 50,000 (Articles 31–39). This region was heavily forested, and so Belgium recovered some of the timber it had lost during the war. Germany objected on the ground that the population was German — incorrect, as far as Malmedy was concerned, as it belonged to the Walloon (that is, French-speaking) part of Belgium. The Allies responded that Eupen and Malmedy had been separated from the neighbouring Belgian lands of Limburg, Liege, and Luxembourg in 1814–15 when these had been assigned to Prussia and when, they alleged, ‘no account was taken of the desires of the people, nor of geographical or linguistic frontiers’. Moreover, the region ‘continued in close economic and social relations with the adjacent portion of Belgium …’ and, at the same time, ‘had been made a basis for German militarism’.12 However one may view the correctness of the decision to award Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium, the loss to Germany was negligible. The same goes for Germany’s handover to Lithuania of the Baltic port of Memel with its hinterland (Article 99), thus providing the newly founded state with a harbour. Memel’s population was about equally divided between Lithuanians and Germans.
The return of Alsace-Lorraine to France (Articles 51–79), however, was no small matter. Germany had acquiesced in Article Eight of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, ‘that the wrong done by Prussia to France in 1871, as regards Alsace and Lorraine, which has disturbed the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, must be righted in order that peace again may be assured in the interest of all’. Nevertheless, Germany now maintained that Alsace-Lorraine was old German territory, having become part of the German empire more than a thousand years before. Claiming that ‘racial and political characteristics of the inhabitants have been so little influenced that even to-day four-fifths of the country’s population is still German in its language and customs’,13 it argued that a plebiscite should be held here. This was refused outright. The Allies claimed that the inhabitants had been annexed against their will, and were only too ready to throw themselves back into the arms of France, ‘as into those of a long-lost mother’.
Articles 45 to 50 dealt with the Saar Basin, the population of which was 90 per cent German. The French initially wanted to annex outright the Saar district, with its rich coalfields, to compensate for the destruction of mines in northern France and as part of the overall payment due from Germany for war damage. After heated debate in the Council of Four, Clemenceau had to settle for a compromise that gave the French fifteen years’ possession of the coalmines. As the Saar did in fact vote to return to Germany in 1934, production figures for the Saar coal industry, or indeed for Saarland generally, after that date cannot be included in the calculation of German economic losses caused by the Peace Treaty.
By far the most territory Germany had to cede went to its new eastern neighbour. As part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Poland had in early modern times been a formidable power in eastern Europe, but by the eighteenth century political life in Poland had reached a stage of near anarchy. Its kings were the puppets of powers abroad and rival noble families within. With no effective government, the land-owning class, the szlachta, exploited the Polish peasantry to such a degree that their living conditions were the worst in rural Europe. Their status has been compared with that of West Indian slaves.14 An ultra-conservative Catholic clergy, with its emphasis on otherworldly fulfilment, added to the burdens on Poland’s villages. In a rare act of political cannibalism in 1772, even by eighteenth-century European standards, the Russian empress, Catharine the Second, the Prussian king, Frederick the Second, and Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria carved the kingdom up among themselves. For those Poles who became part of Prussia, living conditions greatly improved. Most Polish patriots who clamoured for the restitution of their homeland came from those parts that had fallen under Habsburg and tsarist rule.
After six unsuccessful uprisings through the course of the nineteenth century, World War I provided the chance for rebirth. Point Thirteen of the Fourteen Points had stipulated that there was to be an independent Polish state, ‘which should include the territories inhabited by indisputable Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea’. Given the geography of the region, this access could only be provided by the River Vistula, which runs into the Baltic just west of Danzig, on its way passing through the territory of the Prussian provinces of Pomerania, West Prussia, and Poznan. Originally purely Polish in population, 150 years of Prussian rule, with its vigorous Germanisation policy, had created a mixed population of Poles and Germans, with most of the land owned by Prussian Junkers. The part ceded to Poland by the treaty (Articles 87–98), after lengthy and often inimical deliberations in the Council of Four, was inhabited mainly by Poles. Attempts to enlarge this area, commonly referred to as the ‘corridor’, in Poland’s favour by incorporating into it parts of East Prussia were stopped by plebiscites. The corridor also surrounded the city of Danzig (the Polish Gdansk), where there was a major German population. Danzig became a Free City (Article 100–108) under the auspices of the League of Nations, but maintained its strong economic and cultural ties with the Reich.
The fate of Upper Silesia, because of its large industrial area, was strongly contested by both sides. The population was 65 per cent Polish-speaking. A quarter of German coal came from here, four-fifths of it zinc, and almost a third of its lead. Both countries claimed that their economies could not function without Upper Silesian coal. A plebiscite held two years later brought no clear result — the north and west choosing to stay with Germany, and the south preferring to become part of Poland. The centre, where the industrial area was located, although largely Polish-speaking, returned a fifty-fifty vote.
Many Poles may have decided to vote for Germany from fear of recrimination by their employers, as Germans owned most of the mines and steel mills, or in the belief that living conditions even in a defeated Germany were better than those in Poland. An independent commission set up by the League of Nations finally awarded 70 per cent of the total area to Germany, but handed two-thirds of the industrial part to Poland. However, Article 90 of the treaty, which had stipulated that for a period of fifteen years Germany could purchase all products of the mines at the same price as the Poles, was re-affirmed. Neither the German mine and steel-mill owners nor the rural landowners were dispossessed. Nevertheless, the Upper Silesian settlement accounts for the bulk of Germany’s industrial losses.
What does this amount to? Almost all of the figures circulating about Germany’s territorial and population losses state that the Reich lost almost 70,000 square kilometres of its territory, amounting to 13 per cent, and 6.5 million inhabitants or 10.2 per cent of its population. Robert Boyce has recently queried these statistics. He points out that much of the land in question had been acquired in the previous half-century by military conquest, and was neither historically nor ethnically German. He stresses that even the Nazis made little protest over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and northern Schleswig, but — with the exception of Eupen-Malmedy — focused all their anger upon German losses in the east. If one accepts this reasonable argument, the loss of territory is reduced to 9.4 per cent and of population to 7 per cent. Moreover, Boyce contends that German losses are overstated for three further reasons. First, a large number of people in pre-war German or Prussian territory were ethnically non-Germans. Second, when territory was transferred, some ethnic Germans refused to be transferred with it, but moved to other parts of Germany. Third, the German statistics that almost all historians use most likely overestimate the German losses. On this point, Boyce refers to a 1919 British study, which noted:
The figures of the 1910 census are demonstrably falsified, and even if they were accurate they would describe a state of things artificially created by the police of ruthlessly suppressing the Polish language and of substituting German for Polish peasants on the land by the expenditure of public money to which the Poles as taxpayers are compelled to contribute, and this on top … of the presence of large numbers of German officials (railway porters and post office clerks, &c) and their families.
However, even if the German population moving out of the transferred region is left to one side, the non-Germans are counted in the territorial changes, and the official German statistics are accepted, Boyce concludes that the population loss amounts to 1.8 per cent, a fraction of the 10 per cent invariably claimed.15
Similarly, just as the Upper Silesian mines and plants constitute the only industrial loss that can be substantiated, claims that Germany lost a third of its pre-war coal production and three-quarters of its iron capacity are dubious. The output of Germany’s coal and heavy industry had surpassed pre-war figures by the mid-1920s, much earlier than that of the United Kingdom,16 and the same goes for the chemical and electrical sectors of Germany industry.
There can be no genuine talk of a ‘Carthaginian Peace’. Had Germany won the war, it would have incorporated large parts of eastern Europe and European Russia, much of northern France, and the whole of Belgium and Luxembourg. Compared to this, and taking into account the terms imposed by Prussia on defeated states in the second half of the nineteenth century, German losses at Versailles were moderate.
Part IV of the treaty, ‘German Rights and Interests outside Germany’, began with the German colonies (Articles 119–127). In its response to the Versailles Peace Treaty, Germany claimed to have been an exemplary colonial power, having abolished ‘devastating and incessant predatory warfare between the tribes’ and the ‘high-handedness of the chiefs and witch-doctors and the kidnapping of slaves and the slave trade’. All told, Germany had always looked to the welfare of the natives. In particular, it had brought peace and order to its colonies, and a well-organised system of native education provided vocational and agricultural schooling. The Allies dismissed these claims. They referred to pre-war studies, private and official, conducted in Germany into the Reich’s colonial administration, which pointed to cruel and methodical repression, arbitrary requisition of territory, and various forms of forced labour.17 The first administration of Heinrich Ernst Göring (the father of the notorious Nazi) in German South-West Africa stood out for its brutality. The year 1904 saw the twentieth century’s first genocide, when General Lothar von Trotha drove the Herero people into the Namibian desert, where up to 100,000 perished from thirst and starvation.18
The Allies’ accusation of German colonial maladministration was an example of the pot calling the kettle black, and with hindsight the loss of the colonies was a blessing. None of the other colonisers had objected to the German empire’s belated acquisition of territory overseas, as the richest pickings had long been made. In terms of nineteenth-century colonialism, the German possessions in Africa and the Pacific yielded few returns and had to be subsidised, and they did not provide an outlet for Germany’s rapidly expanding population. By 1913 the number of Germans in the African colonies totalled 18,362, many of whom were military and administrative staff and temporary residents engaged in railway construction. The actual number of German settlers would have been around ten thousand, most of them in German South-West Africa.
Economically, the colonies provided Germany with only 2 per cent of its so-called ‘colonial wares’: cotton, rubber, tobacco, and copra palm kernels. Less than a third of one per cent of Germany’s total foreign commerce came from the African colonies, and trade with the Pacific Islands was even less. By the time the twentieth-century mining boom had reached Africa and the Pacific (and in particular New Guinea), national liberation movements had brought the mandate system to an end. The seeds of anti-colonialism were being planted at Paris even while the peacemaking process was in progress. Ho Chi Minh, a young Vietnamese working as a kitchen hand at the Ritz Hotel, presented a petition seeking Vietnam’s independence from France.19 As the French and Americans were to find out decades later, it would have been wise to have listened to him.
The loss of its colonies meant that Germany was spared humiliation and cost when, after World War II, liberation movements in ‘Third World’ countries pushed out their European overlords. The German population of what had been German South-West Africa supported the Union of South Africa, with its apartheid system. When the African National Congress put an end to apartheid, Nelson Mandela returned the government of the former mandate to its original inhabitants. Like other white minorities of southern Africa, the German settlers acquiesced peacefully, and in Namibia, as the ex-colony is now called, black and white now live in harmony.
Treaty Articles 128 to 158 specified that treaties made by Germany with a number of states in North Africa and Asia20 previous to and during the war were to be invalidated. The most important of these concerned the Chinese Shantung peninsula (Articles 156–158) where, since 1898, Germany had held a 99-year lease for 100 square miles at Kiachow Bay in the south. Here, at Tsingtao, they constructed a harbour where the German Cruiser Squadron was stationed. Tsingtao was overrun by the Japanese in the early months of the war, and they expanded their base far beyond the territory leased to Germany. The Allies, keen to secure continued Japanese assistance in East Asia and the Pacific, had assured Japan in 1917 that it could take over from Germany in Shantung after the war, but U.S. delegates at the peace conference objected to the acquisition. Under pressure to finalise the treaty in the last days of April, Wilson agreed to a compromise: Japan could take over Germany’s economic rights in Shantung — the port, the railways, and the mines — but had to pull out its occupation forces. When the Chinese delegates were handed these terms, they left the conference. Japan withdrew from Shantung in 1922, but invaded the Chinese mainland, including Shantung, fifteen years later. It was the beginning of a war and an occupation that was to take the life of twenty million Chinese.
Part V of the treaty — Military, Naval and Airforces (Articles 159–221) — was severe. Germany had to reduce its army to 100,000 men, of whom only 4,000 could be officers. The latter were allowed to serve for 25 years; the other ranks, for twelve. Germany was also banned from possessing tanks or armoured cars, heavy guns, poison gas, or other chemical weapons. Only a limited amount of smaller armaments was exempt. Likewise, the navy was to be reduced to 36 smaller ships and 15,000 personnel, and Germany was allowed no submarines or military aircraft. Arms and ammunition could only be produced in a number of designated plants. In addition to the Articles on the Rhineland referred to above, all existing stocks of weapon and fortifications in the region had to be destroyed. There were to be restrictions on the manpower and training of organisations such as the police, customs, and coastguards. Private societies such as veteran’s associations were not to pursue military goals. The system of cadet students in high schools and universities was to be discontinued. These restrictions were aimed at reducing the likelihood of renewed German aggression.
It was characteristic of the Peace Treaty and the peacemaking process that what was demanded on paper and what happened in reality did not match. ‘Military men’, comments Versailles expert Stephen Schuker, ‘no more believed in the permanent disarmament of a major industrial nation than they gave credence to the tooth-fairy’.21 Implementation of the 62 disarmament articles was to be carried out by the Germans themselves, supervised by an Inter-Allied Military Control Commission (IAMCC) in an arrangement characterised by one historian as ‘like the ropes of the Lilliputians over Gulliver’.22
The Allies felt satisfied by the middle of 1921 that naval and aerial disarmament had by and large been achieved. But while ships and aeroplanes could not easily be hidden, other armaments could. The IAMCC had a staff of only 1,200 soldiers, and could not extend its control over the whole of Germany. Obstruction was common. Allied inspectors were given a hostile reception in most plants and barracks, and were hindered in carrying out their task.
There were widespread violations of the military articles of the Peace Treaty. Large caches of war material were frequently discovered,23 and German arms producers soon found ways to circumvent Allied control. Rheinmetall, for example, produced artillery under the guise of railway equipment. Factories that had previously manufactured tanks now fabricated inordinately huge tractors. The joke was told in Berlin’s cabarets of the worker who smuggled parts out of his pram factory for his newborn, only to find when he put them together that he had assembled a machine gun.24 The bulk of post-war armament production was moved outside the country, with manufacturers transporting their plants to neutral countries such as Switzerland, Holland, and Sweden. Leading arms producer Krupp, for example, set up a giant firm in the Netherlands, and was able to gain control of Swedish armament producer Bofors.25
German avoidance of the disarmament demands reached its peak after the Treaty of Rapollo, signed with the Soviet Union on 16 April 1922. Rapollo was a spin-off from the Genoa conference held in April and May 1922, in which representatives of 34 countries, including Germany and Russia, discussed ways to tackle the economic problems left by the war. With the conference making little headway, the German and Soviet foreign ministers, Walther Rathenau and Georgi Chicherin, slipped away with a team of delegates to nearby Rapollo to settle the differences between their countries.
Officially, the treaty was to normalise diplomatic and economic relations and to renounce all territorial and financial claims resulting from the war. Unofficially, the result was clandestine military co-operation, which enabled the Reichswehr to test on Soviet soil weapons and equipment forbidden by the Versailles Treaty and to train military personnel in their use. In return, German know-how was to improve the Soviets’ deficient and backward military.
A number of German firms (among them Junkers, Krupp, Rheinmetall, and Stolzenberg) participated in the reconstruction of the Soviet armaments industry, and in 1924 a German-Soviet company was set up to manufacture poison gas, ammunition, and aircraft. The enterprise failed because of economic, technical, and personnel problems, but not before a shipment of 300,000 rounds of ammunition was discovered heading for Germany — causing a storm of indignation in the Western media.26
The treaty with the Soviet Union also assisted in circumventing the demands made in the Versailles military clauses to reduce the size of the German army. During the peacemaking processs, the British delegate on the commission dealing with disarmament, Henry Wilson, had argued for a volunteer army where members would serve for a number of years. French commander Foch, however, warned that the creation of such an army led by long-serving officers would form the nucleus of a much larger force and, to avoid this, demanded a system in which conscripts would serve no longer than a year. The French lost out, at Lloyd George’s insistence, and the concept of a conscript German army was abandoned. By the end of 1920, the British members of the IAMCC believed that Germany had reduced the size of its army to the required 100,000 men. The French were more sceptical, and they were supported by Brigadier-General J. H. Morgan, a dissenting voice among the British in the IAMCC. Morgan was active in uncovering German attempts to circumvent the clauses of the treaty. In two articles published in The Times in September 1921, he pointed out that Germany had enough personnel, clothing, and armaments for 800,000 men.27
Foch’s fear that the volunteer army would grow around a large nucleus of well-trained officers proved well founded. Because the peacemakers failed to place restrictions on the number of non-commissioned officers in the Reichswehr, the number of sergeants and corporals amounted to 40,000.28 This contravention assisted Nazi Germany with its re-armament policy of the mid-1930s.
Part VI (Articles 214–226) of the treaty specified that there should be a speedy, orderly, and humane repatriation of prisoners of war and interned civilians, and that the fallen on both sides should be buried in their respective territories as far as this was possible. Part VII on penalties dealt in part with Kaiser Wilhelm. He was to be extradited from the Netherlands and put on trial for ‘supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties’ (Article 227). The next Article recognised the right of the Allies ‘to bring before military tribunals persons accused of having committed acts in violation of the laws and customs of war’. The committee in charge of drawing up penalties had also been charged with establishing responsibility for the outbreak of war, a task that could not be carried out because members did not have at their disposal material to investigate. The conclusion to Part VIII stated the optimistic demand that the German government provide all documents and information necessary to deal with the criminal acts and the perpetrators (Article 230).
Reparations and Article 231: ‘Paragraph of disgrace’, or ‘Paragraph of good fortune’?
By the time the details of the Versailles Peace Treaty had been made public, interest in the prosecution of war crimes had all but vanished, at least in Britain and the U.S. The question of ‘war guilt’ was another matter. Article 231, introducing Part VIII on ‘Reparations’, stated ‘That 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’. There was no reference suggesting that Germany was responsible for the outbreak of war. The term ‘aggression’, as it did in the Pre-Armistice Agreement, referred to German violation of international conduct as spelt out in The Hague Convention of 1907, and in particular to Imperial Germany’s unprovoked attack upon neutral Belgium. Article 231 was merely an introductory clause stating the ethical and jurisdictional justification for the reparation liability. Insisting that Article 231 assigned ‘war guilt’ (Kriegsschuld) to Germany, the German response was strident. No other part, sentence, or paragraph of the Versailles Treaty was attacked with such ferocity.
The insistence on Article 231 as the source of all evil that was to befall Germany has surprised treaty specialists outside Germany for some time. Given the importance of the issue for this book, I have taken the liberty of quoting one of these specialists at length:
The issue of German responsibility — as specified in the notorious article 231 of the peace treaty — has given rise to the most egregious popular misconceptions about the reparation settlement that have persisted down through the decades. The truth of the matter is that this provision had been inserted at the behest not of some French or British hard-liner (such as the devious ‘Klotzkie’, the bombastic ‘Billy’ Hughes, or the obdurate ‘heavenly twins’), but rather of the American representatives of the Reparation Commission, Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles. The courtly southern gentleman and the stolid Wall Street lawyer had been conscientiously seeking diplomatic language that would mollify the British and the French while reducing the amount of Germany’s financial obligation were it held liable for the totality of war costs, as Clemenceau and Lloyd George had been frantically demanding in order to satisfy their publics’ insistence on integral repayment. By affirming [in article 231] Germany’s moral responsibility for the war and its legal liability for the damage to persons and property, while implicitly acknowledging [in article 232] her financial incapacity to pay the enormous bills that was certain to result from an objective inspection of the devastated regions of France and an actuarial projection of pension costs, Davis and Dulles thought that they had devised a brilliant solution to the reparation dilemma: Here was a means of furnishing what Arthur Walworth has aptly called a ‘psychological sop’ to Allied public opinion as compensation for the loss of the huge German payments that Allied leaders knew could and would never be made.29
There is one obvious reason for Germany’s sensitivity about Article 231. To concede that the German empire bore responsibility for the events of July–August 1914 and the calamity that followed them was unthinkable. To admit that the sacrifices — the two million of their people dead, the four million crippled, blinded, or otherwise incapacitated, the sufferings demanded of the bulk of the population — may have been of Germany’s own making, no upright German could contemplate.
There was another reason why Article 231 was vilified. The German government was aware of its true meaning. Before negotiations commenced, it was reluctant to bring the question of war guilt to the table, and it was not altogether in agreement with Brockdorff-Rantzau’s decision to jump the gun and base the attack in his reply of 7 May on the issue of German war guilt.30 The German note of 29 May referred to Article 231, but did not mention that it implied war guilt.31 When the Allies became aware of the furore created by the clause, they pointed out that the German delegation had ‘misinterpreted the reparation proposals of the treaty’.32
The Austrian and Hungarian governments, which had faced provisions similar to Article 231, had not questioned their inclusion, but accepted them as what amounted to petty legal points to back up the Allies’ reparation claims as specified in the Pre-Armistice Agreement. Had the German government acted likewise, there would have been little justification for dissent. On the contrary, if German politicians and opinion-makers had disputed or challenged the Allies on this point, attention would have been drawn again to the collapse of the German war effort in September–October 1918, to the acceptance of the Fourteen Points with the Pre-Armistice Agreement, and to Germany’s signing of the full Armistice terms — in short, to the fact that the nation had in all but name made an unconditional surrender. Had such a discussion occurred, it would have countered the ever-increasing feeling of the German public that the empire had not lost the war.
Weeks before the collapse, the public believed that the fatherland was set for victory. Because no foreign soldier had set foot on German soil, SPD leader Ebert, soon to become president of the German Reich, could welcome the troops with the proud assurance ‘that no enemy has conquered you’. With the political right recovering from the sudden shock of defeat, and with war hero Ludendorff (who had fled in November to Sweden in false whiskers and tinted glasses) and his companions from the former OHL proclaiming the story of the brave German soldier, undefeated in the field but stabbed in the back by shoddy left-wing politicians and Jews (long before anyone had heard the name Adolf Hitler), renewed discussion about the true nature of the ending of the war could be avoided.
With Article 231 discounted as an Allied attempt to blame Germany for the outbreak of war and make it pay on that basis, myriad possibilities emerged for the Germans to mount a crusade against the Versailles Peace Treaty. ‘Expert’ historians could be (and were) used to provide volumes — forty in all — of counter-evidence as to the reasons for the war. A government department could be (and was) set up to spread the message that the war had not been Germany’s fault, and endless propaganda countering such a false assumption could be (and was) circulated around the world. And if it could be shown that the German empire did not cause the war, then not just the reparation clauses, but the Versailles Peace Treaty as a whole, was based on a falsehood, was an attack by the Allies, and was null and void. Article 231 could be (and was) blamed for the entire malaise that befell the Republic — economic difficulties such as inflation, high prices, low wages, and unemployment, and the country’s permanent political instability — and, above all, for the Republic’s inglorious end in January 1933. Viewed in such terms, Article 231 for Weimar Germany was not a paragraph of disgrace but of good fortune.
Article 232 of the treaty assured Germany that, Article 231 notwithstanding, the amount to be paid would be within the limits of the country’s capacity to pay. The amount was to be estimated by an Inter-Allied Reparation Commission (Article 233). This commission would determine the extent of Germany’s obligation on 1 May 1921, after taking into account all the evidence and allowing the German government ‘a just opportunity to be heard’. An initial payment of 20 billion goldmarks was to be made (Article 235) before this deadline. The remaining clauses (Articles 236–244) and their annexes spelt out the details for this initial payment.
Like the territorial settlement, the reparation terms of the first payment were modest. Payment could be made either in cash or, as happened for the most part, in kind. Reparation credit was given for coal, timber chemicals and dyes, industrial and agricultural machinery and locomotives, rolling stock, and shipping. Germany was credited for confiscated military equipment, and for its colonies and transferred territories, including the Saarland but excluding Alsace-Lorraine. As far as the transfer of industrial equipment and plants from occupied territory was concerned, no levy was imposed. Included in the first payment were the Rhineland occupation costs and the Allies’ expected outlays in providing Germany with food and raw materials — an amount of eight billion goldmarks.
Germany was to surrender all ships over 1,600 tons gross, half of those between 1,000 and 1,600 tons gross, a quarter of its steam trawlers and fishing boats, and a small part of its river fleet. This was to compensate for the losses caused by German submarine warfare, Britain alone having lost eight million tons of shipping. Over 2.6 million tons were handed over during the next two years. The loss of shipping, however, did not have an undue impact on the German economy. Ships were handed over only gradually, and by the end of 1919 leading German shipping companies such as HAPAG and Norddeutscher Lloyd were beginning to use agencies to run their former fleets.33 Ship-building replaced the losses and helped to revive Germany’s post-war economy, and by 1921 the German merchant fleet was greater than its pre-war size.34
All of these requirements were within Germany’s capacity to pay, and did not effectively cripple the immediate post-war economy.35
The subsequent part ‘Special Provisions’, which dealt with the return of items of historical importance, has sometimes given critics of the treaty grounds for ridicule. Article 245, which covered the restoration to the French government of trophies, archives, historical souvenirs, and works of art carried away in the two previous wars, was reasonable, although one does wonder why, of all the confiscated documents, ‘the political papers taken by the German authorities on October 10, 1870, at the Chateau of Cercay, near Brunoy, belonging to Mr. Rouhier, formerly Minister of State’ should have been singled out for special mention. The subsequent clauses could perhaps have been settled privately.
Article 246 specified that the original Koran of the Caliph Othman, which had been taken from Medina by the Turks and handed to Wilhelm II, should be returned to the King of Hedjaz (the western part of today’s Saudi Arabia), and that the skull of Sultan Mkawa, which had been removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa, should be handed over to the British government in good condition.
Article 247 required the replacement of all items of value (manuscripts, incunabula, printed books, maps, and other objects of collection) destroyed by the burning of the Library of Louvain, for which Germany would be given reparation credit. No such credit was allowed for returning the leaves of the Triptych of the Mystic Lamb, painted by the Van Eyck brothers, from the Berlin Museum to the Church of St. Bavon at Ghent; nor for the return of the Dierick Bouts’ triptych of the Last Supper to the Church of St. Peter at Louvain.
The remaining seven parts of the treaty were concerned mainly with post-war arrangements for international financial and economic matters, customs and international traffic regulations, maritime and river navigation, aerial navigation, postal and telecommunications systems, and ports, waterways, and railways. Clauses here did not arouse the acrimony that accompanied the earlier parts, especially those on reparation. In its reply, Germany objected again to its exclusion, short-term, from the League of Nations and its affiliated organisations, and even more so to not being immediately admitted to all of the post-war trade arrangements. The Allies responded by pointing to the economic reality that had resulted from the war:
The illegal acts of the enemy have placed many of the Allied States in a position of economic inferiority to Germany, whose territory has not been ravaged, whose plant is in a condition enabling manufactures and trade to be at once resumed after the war. For such countries, a certain freedom of action during the transition period is vitally necessary … hence during the transitory period formal reciprocity with Germany is not practicable.36
Reciprocity would be forthcoming once economic balance was restored.
The Reparation Commission
After two years of deliberations, the Reparation Commission announced a total reparation debt of 132 billion goldmarks enshrined in the London Schedule of Payments presented to Germany on 5 May 1921. The amount was regarded as the lowest figure that would not cause a major public backlash in the Allied countries, but in reality it was for public consumption only; the commission consigned all but 50 billion goldmarks to never-never land.
The commission, in a highly complicated payment schedule, divided the reparation debt into A, B, and C Bonds. A and B Bonds, which amounted to a nominal value of 50 billion goldmarks, covered genuine German war debts such as occupation costs, coal deliveries, reparations, and food purchases as specified in Articles 233 to 244 of the treaty and their annexes. A and B Bonds would bear a modest interest rate of 5 per cent, and were to be delivered to the Reparation Commission by 21 July and 1 November 1921 respectively.37 Repayments were to be made at the rate of two billion goldmarks per annum, in addition to a variable annuity of 26 per cent of the value of Germany’s exports. The annual payment would thus be linked to the county’s economic performance — an obvious invitation for the German government to cook the books.
C Bonds were also to be delivered to the Reparation Commission by 1 November, but authorisation and repayment was not to occur until the obligations under the A and B Bonds had been met. To meet this target, Germany would need to export to the value of approximately 21 billion goldmarks per annum. Because this was a near impossibility, it was estimated that the A and B Bonds would not be settled for 36 years, and only then would C Bond repayments begin. The likelihood that a recovered Germany would then meet any such obligations was nil. In fact, as the whole C Bond business ‘would depend upon complete German good faith, favourable political conditions, and extraordinary German prosperity, and even then, would remain improbable’,38 the 83 billion goldmarks worth of C Bonds was phony money and was never meant to be anything else. Gaston Furth, assistant secretary of the Belgian delegation to the Reparation Commission, put it bluntly:
[T]he Authors of the Schedule of Payments knew themselves that the C Bonds were only a fiction and that, if they had not wished or dared to touch the total of the debt, they had deliberately arranged to reduce in fact to 50 billion the nominal amount of 132 billion. In this there was an undeniable deception but an undoubtedly useful and even necessary deception. The men who had been studying the reparations question for several years knew then that one could not reasonably require of Germany more than 3 billion per year and that, consequently, there was no hope that she could pay off a debt of more than 50 billion gold marks. But the statesmen believed that public opinion in the allied nations was not sufficiently enlightened not to rebel at the brutal announcement of a total so short of its expectations. In brief, the Schedule of Payments elegantly resolved the difficulty on which all previous negotiations had foundered: the German debt was reduced in fact to a reasonable amount but this reduction was sufficiently cleverly disguised to keep public opinion from perceiving it and becoming aroused.39
To reiterate, the total sum Germany was obliged to pay in reparations was effectively 50 billion goldmarks. Yet even this was only a nominal figure. Experts recognised that the bonds could not be marketed at nominal value at the interest rate of only 5 per cent. Estimates of the 1921 present value ranged between 25 billion goldmarks (Keynes) and 35 billion (Furth), but whatever the exact figure, it is clear that the extent of the obligation Germany was to meet in 1921 was considerably less than 50 billion goldmarks in value. By coincidence, Germany had made a previous offer to the U.S. government to pay reparations to a present value of 50 billion marks.40 This was refused, because the sum was not considered large enough to allow for public acceptance in the receiver countries.
Germany made its first cash payment in the summer of 1921, but paid only a fraction of the subsequent annuities. It also fell short on payments in kind, in particular on the delivery of coal. The destruction of coalmines by retreating German troops prior to the Armistice had deprived France of 50 per cent of its coal production. As coal was the chief source of energy at that time, France was dependant on German deliveries. Saar coal, which totalled eight million tons per annum, brought some relief, but the key to French supplies was the delivery of the 27 million tons Germany was obliged to provide under the terms of the Peace Treaty. Germany’s chief coal region, the Ruhr, was so rich that Weimar should have been able to deliver. Yet Germany consistently defaulted, even though the Allies offered five dollars per ton as a goodwill gesture, and the quotas were constantly revised downward until they met barely half of the required amount. By the end of 1922, the London Schedule had run into great difficulties.41
In January 1923, the Germans defaulted in their coal deliveries for the thirty-fourth time in 36 months. As a consequence, French, Belgian, and Italian engineers, accompanied by a small contingent of troops, entered the Ruhr. Britain, the fourth member of the Reparation Commission, was highly critical of this action, but for France more was at stake than collecting coal. With a few exceptions, the whole peacemaking process had failed to work in France’s favour. It had lost on the issue of war criminals, and Germany was failing to comply with provisions on disarmament and assistance with the costly reconstruction of France’s provinces. Were it to lose out on reparations as well, the French prime minister at the time, Raymond Poincaré, knew that the post-war balance would tilt against his nation. The fundamental issue of the Ruhr occupation was not the delivery of coal or timber: it was a last-ditch effort to force Germany to acknowledge defeat in World War I and the validity of the Versailles Peace Treaty.42
Occupation of the Ruhr coalfields netted the Allies 900 million goldmarks, but Germany did well, too. The mark had been rapidly depreciating since the war, partly because the Weimar government wanted to avoid budgetary and currency reform, but mainly because that way it could escape reparations. As the German government financed the resistance to the Ruhr occupation from an entirely empty treasury, hyper-inflation resulted. The hyper-inflation of 1923, a nightmare for the bulk of the German population, was brought about not by reparation costs or the Ruhr occupation, as the government claimed, but by Germany’s deliberate decision to undermine the reparation demands and to dismantle the mountain of debts caused by the war. Hyper-inflation netted Germany 15 billion goldmarks held by foreign investors in German bank accounts. Against this, Germany had paid less than 1.5 billion goldmarks in cash reparations up to 1923. Furthermore, the inflation took care of war bond obligations totalling around 60 billion goldmarks, and reduced other state debts to zero. Sections of big business also profited from the collapse of the German mark, and so did people who owed money.43
The Ruhr occupation also spelt the end of the London Schedule of Payments. In 1924, the United States placed itself in charge of reparations and other aspects of post-war Europe with the introduction of the Dawes Plan. Washington’s renewed interest in Europe was caused by a growing concern over the loss to America of overseas markets. American producers of wheat, pork, cotton, tobacco, and other commodities were suffering severely from the economic instability of the old world.44 An international committee chaired by American banker and U.S. vice-president Charles Dawes reduced the overall reparation amount and scaled down the annual payments to one billion goldmarks for 1924–25.45 This amount was to increase each year to 2.5 billion by 1928–29. In return for Germany’s introducing a program of currency stabilisation and austerity, a consortium of American lenders arranged substantial loans to Germany (totalling, in the end, 12 billion goldmarks) to meet initial reparation payments and to provide a stimulus for the economy.
Germany paid the first Dawes Plan instalment mainly from the American loan, but asked for renegotiation before the 2.5 billion reparations threshold was reached. The resulting Young Plan, which further reduced Germany’s commitment, was cut short by the world Depression that began in September 1929. Three more years of futile international wrangling followed before reparations met their de facto death at the Lausanne Convention of July 1932.
Altogether, Germany had paid between 20 and 21 billion goldmarks in reparations. Of the approximately 7 billion goldmarks paid in cash, 2 billion were paid by Germany itself. The remainder was paid out of loans from the Dawes and Young Plans. Cash reparation payments for the 13 years of the Weimar Republic amounted to 0.91 per cent. The gross burden on the German economy for the same period was 2.72 per cent.46 This was scarcely an insurmountable economic strain on the Weimar economy.
Even these loans were later repudiated by Hitler. But the Nazis did not have the final word. When the ‘Thousand Year Empire’ met its end after twelve years, the United States, in the post-World War II settlement, insisted that $100 million still be paid for the Dawes loan bonds. This was a fraction of the approximately $3.5 billion U.S. losses incurred during the Weimar years. The story of the reparations part of the Treaty of Versailles ended on 3 October 2011, when Germany made its last payment.
In the end, the burden of paying for the damage done by the war had to be met by the victors. They had to pay for the reconstruction of devastated regions, the pensions of disabled veterans and war widows, and their own debts. I can find no better summary of this sad aspect of twentieth-century history than the conclusion of the American reparation expert Sally Marks:
In addition to reinforcing German economic superiority, the history of reparations generated a vast bureaucracy, a mountain of arcane documents, much bitterness, endless propaganda [and] more than its share of historical myths, … It is evident that Germany could have paid a good deal more if she had chosen to do so, particularly since she paid little out of her own considerable resources. But Germany saw no reason to pay and from start to finish deemed reparations a gratuitous insult. Whether it was wise to seek reparations from Germany is arguable, although the consequences of not seeking them would have been far-reaching, as the failure to obtain them proved in time to be. Certainly it was unwise to inflict the insult without rigorous enforcement. In the last analysis, however, despite the fact that reparations claims were intended to transfer real economic wealth from Germany to the battered victors and despite the financial complexity of the problem, the reparations question was at heart a political issue, a struggle for dominance of the European continent and to maintain or reverse the military verdict of 1918.47
Winners and losers
The United States did well out of both the war and the peace. It seized twice as many merchant ships as it had lost, and sequestrated $425 million worth of German property. American business benefited from fortunes made during the war by the Allies’ demand for foodstuffs, raw materials, and ammunition, and banks profited from big loan operations to facilitate business.48 In the Paris negotiations, the United States claimed six billion goldmarks, of which it eventually received 400 million.49 Its war debt, by contrast, was relatively low. The war left the United States in a class of its own, as the leading world power economically and politically.
The United Kingdom’s position was different. To its advantage, the German naval threat had been eliminated, and some overseas possessions had been added to its empire. There is a popular textbook claim, sometimes making its way into academic literature, that Britain also benefited from ridding itself of a major trade competitor. This was not the case. The German economy recovered faster and more strongly in the inter-war period.50 Before the war, Britain had been a firm supporter of the global system of free trade, which, it hoped, would be restored as soon as possible. This support, as will be shown below, greatly guided her policies in the 1920s, to the detriment of France and the benefit of Germany. No one in British politics or industry contemplated taking out continental Europe’s largest industrial nation.
Britain’s post-war economic performance was dismal. Its share of global industrial production sank by a third (from 14.1 to 9.4 per cent), while that of the United States rose from 35.8 to 42.2 per cent. Key British industries such as textiles, coal, and steel suffered a substantial decline after the war, as did shipbuilding. Formerly the pride of British industry, shipbuilding employment figures declined 4.6 per cent, and the tonnage produced fell by 2.7 per cent per annum.51
On paper, Britain was a creditor state, but the bulk of this debt was owed by tsarist Russia (which had ceased to exist) or by countries on the verge of bankruptcy. The British government had also made commitments to support its war victims (veterans unable to work and dependents of fallen soldiers) and its unemployed, without foreseeing the persistence of long-term unemployment in the years after the war. With no reparations coming in, it soon became clear that British economic life faced grave difficulties post-war. As Trevor Wilson correctly remarks, the victory, far from enhancing Britain’s position in the world, constituted a burden that its economy could not sustain.
The outlook for another alleged winner, Belgium, was even grimmer. The German invasion had been accompanied by a wave of violence directed at the Belgian civilian population. All told, 4,700 Belgian civilians lost their lives. Following the example of the persecution of alleged francs-tireurs during the war of 1870–71, German soldiers from the first day embarked on a rampage of pillage, arson, and murder, culminating in the burning of the mediaeval town of Louvain in the last week of August 1914. The brutality of this act shocked the world. The German Foreign Office blamed the Belgians for the disaster, but as observers from neutral countries had witnessed what was happening, their claim found little acceptance. A manifesto addressed by 93 German professors and intellectuals to the ‘Civilised World’, which stressed the civilising aspects of German culture and denied any German wrongdoing, also made no impact, in view of so much evidence to the contrary.52
During its occupation of Belgium, Germany picked the country clean, dismantling factories, tearing up railway tracks, and transferring livestock to Germany. Industries that might have competed with their German counterparts, such as the spinning industry, were wiped out. The coke, iron, and steel industries were also hit. Of the 60 blast furnaces Belgium had before the war, only nine survived intact. Coke production fell to one-seventh of pre-war levels, steel to less than one-tenth, lead to a fifth, and zinc production to one-twentieth. The situation for the chemical industry, cement production, and glassworks was almost as dire. In addition to machinery and tools, the Germans removed stocks of industrial goods, semi-finished products, and spare parts ‘down to the smallest screw’.53 In total, 85 per cent of Belgium’s industrial production was paralysed after the Armistice, and three-quarters of its workforce (900,000 out of 1,200,000 people) were still unemployed six months after the war’s end. A third of the main railway tracks and half of the local lines were either carried off to Germany for steel, or destroyed, or heavily damaged. Destroyed, too, were 350 railway bridges, and of 3,500 locomotives, only 81 survived. The small quantity of rolling stock left was in poor condition after four years of no maintenance.
Farming was equally affected. The Germans had moved livestock out of Belgium even during and after the Armistice, in contravention of its terms. It had lost two-thirds of its horses, over half its cattle and pigs, 35,000 sheep and goats, and two million chickens. The Belgian population during the period of the peace conference was kept alive only through large-scale American aid.
Only coalmines escaped destruction. The authorities had planned to flood them as they had in France, but held back probably because of Woodrow Wilson’s request late in the Armistice negotiations. Though the mines were spared, they were still in poor shape. There was a substantial lack of tools and a severe shortage of pit ponies.54 From 1916, Belgian men and women had been forced to work in German mines and plants, and the few miners left for Belgian pits were suffering from malnutrition. As a result, Belgian coal production fell to 40 per cent of pre-war levels.
After the war, Belgium’s hopes of receiving generous compensation for the damage done were soon dashed. Lloyd George and Clemenceau were not impressed by the Belgians’ claims at the peace conference, although the Americans were more sympathetic.55Wilson agreed to Belgium’s being the only country allowed to add its war costs to the reparation bill, and consequently it was awarded a priority payment of $500 million — although some of this was used to pay for settlement of its pre-Armistice debt to the U.S. Belgium also received a stretch of forest between Eupen and Malmedy, to make up for the deforestation carried out by the Germans, along with a small slice of the former German East African colony.
Arguably, the French contributed most to the German defeat in the battlefields. For this, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France. It also gained Togo and the Cameroons in Africa, as well as some former Turkish territories. It was entitled to receive Saar coal for fifteen years (with the prospect — albeit slight — that the people of the Saar might choose to stay with la Grande Nation), and was entitled to German coal deliveries for an unspecified amount of time (of which not much actually arrived). On paper, there was also the promise of German physical assistance in the repair of war-caused damage (which never arrived). The gains were modest compared with French expectations. France, like Britain, emerged from the war disadvantaged.
Trevor Wilson’s summary of the reality of post-war Europe is concise:
The crucial fact about Germany’s situation after 1919 was that the internal upheaval at the end of the war and the territorial settlement which followed it had brought neither the social dislocation which had befallen Russia nor the dismemberment which had taken the Habsburg and Ottoman regimes. Germany remained the greatest power on the Continent. It overshadowed France, as before, in terms of population and economic development. So potentially, it overshadowed France in war-making capacity.
In truth, not only had the war failed to alter the fundamental imbalance between France and Germany in the former’s favour, in important aspects it had moved the balance yet further to Germany’s advantage. The apparent restoration of France’s status in Europe which had developed after 1890 was fatally undermined by events beginning 1917. After all, the Franco-Russian alliance had from 1894 confronted Germany with a potent deterrent to war-making — the menace of a war on two fronts. If despite its potency, that deterrent had failed in effect in 1914, how much more threatening was the situation for France after 1919, with no major power on Germany’s eastern frontier on whom France could rely for assistance. That is, the withdrawal of Russia from a clear-cut, regular place in the European power alignment following the Bolshevik seizure of power had introduced a fatal element of instability into European affairs such as had not existed prior to 1914 — itself not an era of surpassing stability. Should a regime arise in Germany tempted to seek a replay of the endeavours of 1914–1918, the circumstances of the post-war years were altogether more menacing for supposedly victorious France.56
French strategists repeatedly pointed to the threat to peace posed by the undiminished strength of nationalist and imperialist sentiments within the German political, economic, and military elites. Their view found no acceptance, and instead the French were (and in most of the literature still are) criticised for being unreasonable, obstinate, aggressive, and unforgiving. London, in particular, took the high moral ground: ‘The British wrapped their policy in rectitude, complete with elevated oratory about the only route to permanent peace, and soon convinced themselves and much of the Western world that they had a monopoly on international morality’.57 The French saw the dividends of the Versailles Peace dissipate one by one. The Dawes Plan ended France’s leading influence in the Reparation Commission with its right of sanction in case of German default, and forced the French to lift the economic and military occupation of the Ruhr.58 Having won the war, France lost the peace.
All of the European belligerents suffered heavy losses, but Germany, as Stephen Schuker commented long ago, ‘emerged from World War I despite military defeat less damaged in terms of human and economic resources than the other European combatants’.59With its economy intact, the Reich had not endured invasion. It had suffered no transfer of entire industrial plants to enemy territory, no devastation of agricultural land, no complete denuding of forests. Despite the loss of Lorraine’s iron ore and its temporary loss of Saar coal, Germany remained Europe’s industrial powerhouse. When the five-year constraints written into the Peace Treaty lapsed in 1925, Germany was heading for industrial hegemony in Europe. If to this we add the weaknesses of the successor states in eastern Europe following the collapse of the Habsburg and tsarist empires, and the weak state of France, Germany’s position in geo-political and military terms was arguably stronger than it had been in August 1914. In the converse of what befell France, though it may have lost the war, it won the peace.