Military history

THE SHADOW OF VERSAILLES

Before the drafting of the Weimar Constitution was finished an inevitable event occurred which cast a spell of doom over it and the Republic which it was to establish. This was the drawing up of the Treaty of Versailles. During the first chaotic and riotous days of the peace and even after the deliberations of the National Assembly got under way in Weimar the German people seemed to give little thought to the consequences of their defeat. Or if they did, they appeared to be smugly confident that having, as the Allies urged, got rid of the Hohenzollerns, squelched the Bolshevists and set about forming a democratic, republican government, they were entitled to a just peace based not on their having lost the war but on President Wilson’s celebrated Fourteen Points.

German memories did not appear to stretch back as far as one year, to March 3, 1918, when the then victorious German Supreme Command had imposed on a defeated Russia at Brest Litovsk a peace treaty which to a British historian, writing two decades after the passions of war had cooled, was a “humiliation without precedent or equal in modern history.”2 It deprived Russia of a territory nearly as large as Austria-Hungary and Turkey combined, with 56,000,000 inhabitants, or 32 per cent of her whole population; a third of her railway mileage, 73 per cent of her total iron ore, 89 per cent of her total coal production; and more than 5,000 factories and industrial plants. Moreover, Russia was obliged to pay Germany an indemnity of six billion marks.

The day of reckoning arrived for the Germans in the late spring of 1919. The terms of the Versailles Treaty, laid down by the Allies without negotiation with Germany, were published in Berlin on May 7. They came as a staggering blow to a people who had insisted on deluding themselves to the last moment. Angry mass meetings were organized throughout the country to protest against the treaty and to demand that Germany refuse to sign it. Scheidemann, who had become Chancellor during the Weimar Assembly, cried, “May the hand wither that signs this treaty!” On May 8 Ebert, who had become Provisional President, and the government publicly branded the terms as “unrealizable and unbearable.” The next day the German delegation at Versailles wrote the un bending Clemenceau that such a treaty was “intolerable for any nation.”

What was so intolerable about it? It restored Alsace-Lorraine to France, a parcel of territory to Belgium, a similar parcel in Schleswig to Denmark—after a plebiscite—which Bismarck had taken from the Danes in the previous century after defeating them in war. It gave back to the Poles the lands, some of them only after a plebiscite, which the Germans had taken during the partition of Poland. This was one of the stipulations which infuriated the Germans the most, not only because they resented separating East Prussia from the Fatherland by a corridor which gave Poland access to the sea, but because they despised the Poles, whom they considered an inferior race. Scarcely less infuriating to the Germans was that the treaty forced them to accept responsibility for starting the war and demanded that they turn over to the Allies Kaiser Wilhelm II and some eight hundred other “war criminals.”

Reparations were to be fixed later, but a first payment of five billion dollars in gold marks was to be paid between 1919 and 1921, and certain deliveries in kind—coal, ships, lumber, cattle, etc.—were to be made in lieu of cash reparations.

But what hurt most was that Versailles virtually disarmed Germany* and thus, for the time being anyway, barred the way to German hegemony in Europe. And yet the hated Treaty of Versailles, unlike that which Germany had imposed on Russia, left the Reich geographically and economically largely intact and preserved her political unity and her potential strength as a great nation.

The provisional government at Weimar, with the exception of Erzberger, who urged acceptance of the treaty on the grounds that its terms could be easily evaded, was strongly against accepting the Versailles Diktat, as it was now being called. Behind the government stood the overwhelming majority of citizens, from right to left.

And the Army? If the treaty were rejected, could the Army resist an inevitable Allied attack from the west? Ebert put it up to the Supreme Command, which had now moved its headquarters to Kolberg in Pomerania. On June 17 Field Marshal von Hindenburg, prodded by General Groener, who saw that German military resistance would be futile, replied:

In the event of a resumption of hostilities we can reconquer the province of Posen [in Poland] and defend our frontiers in the east. In the west, however, we can scarcely count upon being able to withstand a serious offensive on the part of the enemy in view of the numerical superiority of the Entente and their ability to outflank us on both wings.

The success of the operation as a whole is therefore very doubtful, but as a soldier I cannot help feeling that it were better to perish honorably than accept a disgraceful peace.

The concluding words of the revered Commander in Chief were in the best German military tradition but their sincerity may be judged by knowledge of the fact which the German people were unaware of—that Hindenburg had agreed with Groener that to try to resist the Allies now would not only be hopeless but might result in the destruction of the cherished officer corps of the Army and indeed of Germany itself.

The Allies were now demanding a definite answer from Germany. On June 16, the day previous to Hindenburg’s written answer to Ebert, they had given the Germans an ultimatum: Either the treaty must be accepted by June 24 or the armistice agreement would be terminated and the Allied powers would “take such steps as they think necessary to enforce their terms.”

Once again Ebert appealed to Groener. If the Supreme Command thought there was the slightest possibility of successful military resistance to the Allies, Ebert promised to try to secure the rejection of the treaty by the Assembly. But he must have an answer immediately. The last day of the ultimatum, June 24, had arrived. The cabinet was meeting at 4:30 P.M. to make its final decision. Once more Hindenburg and Groener conferred. “You know as well as I do that armed resistance is impossible,” the aging, worn Field Marshal said. But once again, as at Spa on November 9, 1918, when he could not bring himself to tell the Kaiser the final truth and left the unpleasant duty to Groener, he declined to tell the truth to the Provisional President of the Republic. “You can give the answer to the President as well as I can,” he said to Groener.3 And again the courageous General took the final responsibility which belonged to the Field Marshal, though he must have known that it would eventually make doubly sure his being made a scapegoat for the officer corps. He telephoned the Supreme Command’s view to the President.

Relieved at having the Army’s leaders take the responsibility—a fact that was soon forgotten in Germany—the National Assembly approved the signing of the peace treaty by a large majority and its decision was communicated to Clemenceau a bare nineteen minutes before the Allied ultimatum ran out. Four days later, on June 28, 1919, the treaty of peace was signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

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