The Treaty Of Versailles probably didn’t cause World War II. It didn’t help, though

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

As we commemorate the centennial of the Armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, it’s worth remembering that two decades later the main combatants, joined by Japan in south-east Asia, were back at it in World War II.

An estimated 60 million people died in that conflagration (20 million soldiers, 40 million civilians). So while WW I, at the time, was touted as “the war to end all wars” it was anything but.

Historians have had a century to chew over WWI, the Armistice, and follow-up peace conference in Paris in 1919 that led to the Treaty of Versailles and other treaties. And there are some, says University of Regina historian Ian Germani, who trace a direct line between that turbulent time and WWII.

But is that reasonable?

“I think that’s probably overly deterministic,” he says. “Margaret MacMillan, in particular, in her fantastic book Paris 1919, argues it wasn’t inevitable that the peacemaking should result, 20 years later, in another conflict. That ignored, she said, some of the intervening events.”

Still, the Paris peace process was flawed. And those flaws, in turn, did lay groundwork for WWII.

Could war have been prevented? That’s an impossible question to answer. But it’s an interesting one to think about.

Setting The Scene

Fighting in WWI broke out between the Allies (France, Britain, Russia) and Central Powers (Germany, Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman/Turkish Empire) on Aug. 1, 1914. By year’s end, says Germani, opposing armies were bogged down in brutal trench warfare. “On the Western Front, at least, you don’t have a restoration of mobile warfare until March 1918,” he says.

That came courtesy of a German offensive. Troops got within 120 km of Paris, which caused a brief crisis in the Allied command. But after a few days, the attack stalled.

A few weeks earlier, Germany had settled its Eastern Front war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with newly Soviet Russia. “That liberated German forces for a final offensive in the West,” says Germani. “But it’s a gamble.”

Initially neutral, the United States had finally decided, in April 1917, to enter the war on the Allied side. American troops had yet to arrive in large numbers, but they were coming. And Germany knew once they arrived, they would overwhelm its war-weary army.

Hence, the gamble.

Paris Parlay

As early as January 1918, Allied leaders were making peace overtures to the Central Powers. Best-known is U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Speech (delivered to Congress on Jan. 8), where he identified 14 principles related to self-determination, territorial accommodation, arms reductions and more that could form the basis of peace.

The speech was distributed behind German lines, and it did carry weight, says Germani.

“The German perception, which was kind of a promise President Wilson put out, was if they got rid of their militarist government, then a negotiated, honourable peace could be arranged. That lay behind their readiness to accept the exile of the Kaiser and establishment of a new government.”

Rather than a “Peace Between Equals” as Wilson proposed, though, the treaty’s terms were dictated largely by the victors. Many were harsher than Germany had expected, and that led to a feeling of betrayal.

“The treaty deprived Germany of about one-tenth of its pre-war population and 13 per cent of its territory,” says Germani. “Anschluss with Austria was also verboten. The German-speaking population of Austria, which probably would’ve been satisfied to join Germany, was denied that possibility. So the idea of self-determination was applied to those nationalities who were perceived to have been on the winning side and not those on the losing side.

“In the aftermath of Versailles,” Germani adds, “there are millions of Germans living outside the new Weimar Republic. Most controversial was the Polish corridor where western Prussia was annexed to be part of a new Polish state. The same thing happened with the French annexation of Alsace-Lorraine — many of the German-speaking population chose to move rather than change nationalities.”

War Guilt

Another grievance for Germany were clauses 231-232 of the treaty, which attributed responsibility for the war to the Central Powers and imposed reparations.

Historians have a much more nuanced view of WWI’s origin. United under Bismarck in the 1860s, Germany had defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71, and with its surging industrial and naval strength, was worrying Britain. After several centuries of rule, the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires were crumbling too, and Czarist Russia was in turmoil.

Technology and other modernist influences were taking hold as well, reshaping European society and causing considerable political, economic and cultural uncertainty.

“Those anxieties and insecurities all play into the crisis,” says Germani. “One problem Margaret MacMillan notes is that in 1914 you had a lot of weak men trying to appear strong. There was a fear of being perceived as [weak] and not showing the necessary resolution in defence of national interests.”

At various times, in various ways, historians have mounted plausible arguments that the Allies (France and Britain primarily, but also Russia) were actually responsible for WWI.

“The majority view is that the burden of responsibility lay with the German military and political leadership who were willing to take the risk of war in 1914,” says Germani. “But the implication that sole responsibility lies with Germany or the Central Powers is a difficult position to uphold.”

To compensate civilians for damage suffered during the war, Germany was required to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) in reparations. Bitterly opposed to the idea of war guilt, Germany was reluctant to pay.

To force compliance in 1923, France and Belgium occupied Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr Valley. That prompted the German government to print Reichmarks by the billions, sparking hyperinflation, so that Germans were reduced to using baskets and wheelbarrows to carry around the cash needed for everyday life.

Germany’s monetary policy was irresponsible, says Germani, but politics were in play too.

“‘Okay, you want payment? Here you go. It’s not worth anything’. That was a message German politicians could disseminate to the electorate, and they were happy to hear it. It was a way of protesting the treaty.”

League Of Nations

As part of the Versailles Treaty, Wilson proposed the creation of an international body that could adjudicate disputes without nations resorting to war. But when the treaty came before the U.S. Senate, it was voted down by antagonistic Republican and Democrat factions.

Having enjoyed an economic boom selling munitions and other equipment to both sides during the war’s early years, and unscathed by the carnage Europe had suffered, the U.S. was on a fast track to becoming a global superpower. And its decision not to sign the treaty was a major blow to the league’s ability to enforce peace, says Germani.

“We think of November 1918 as the moment when peace broke out,” says Germani. “But for many people it doesn’t bring peace. You have conflict between states, you have civil war within states between different nationalities, you have revolution, Europe is an incredibly violent place following the Armistice.”

Germany and Russia were also disqualified from joining the league, so from the start it faced an uphill struggle. And when the dogs of war began to stir again in the early 1930s, it couldn’t restrain them.

Intervening Events

Referencing Margaret MacMillan’s idea that WWII wasn’t an inevitable outcome of the Armistice, Germani cites the Great Depression in 1929 as another key.

“That helped bring to power, a few years later, the Nazis who are committed to overturning the treaty. Prior to then, they hadn’t done well at the polls. In fact, between 1925–29, you had something of a rapprochement between France and Germany.”

That contrasted with the peace process itself, where France, still stinging from its Franco-Prussian War defeat, had sought retribution.

“The signing of the Versailles Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors was designed to be as humiliating as possible for the Germans,” says Germani. “That was where the Second German Empire had been founded in the aftermath of France’s 1871 defeat. So the French were determined to rub in Germany’s defeat by having the signing ceremony there.

“That caused great offence in Germany, and certainly unease within the victorious powers,” Germani says. “Already, in 1920, you have [British economist] John Maynard Keynes publishing The Economic Consequences of the Peace in which he expressed grave reservations about the treaty.”

A second critical factor was the success the German military had sidestepping responsibility for the war and peace treaty, claiming instead that it had been undermined by social-democrats in the Weimar government.

“The army itself, by the terms of the treaty, is reduced to 100,000 men,” says Germani. “It wasn’t allowed any tanks and aircraft. But the leaders are still well-connected to right-wing circles — and looking for ways to reverse decisions made at Versailles.” That included the Beer Hall Putsch which Hitler and 2,000 of his Nazi followers led in Munich in November 1923.

Yet another complicating factor was the divergent interests of Britain and France, says Germani.

“France is much more interested in imposing harsh terms, for understandable reasons. The British are more concerned about the possibility of Germany serving as a check on Soviet communist influence.

“So there are different priorities, and the treaties are a result of compromises worked out. Some historians would argue the terms weren’t unreasonable. What was lacking was the will to enforce them. That contributed a lot to the appeasement, the nagging suspicion that perhaps the Germans had a point.”

And the rest, as we all sadly know, is history.