The Legacy of Versailles

This is a reprint of an article by Professor Gerhard Rempel,

who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts.


Foreign policy and domestic policy are always closely related. This was particularly true of the Weimar Republic, because it emerged within the context of a lost war, armistice and peace negotiations, accompanied by demobilization and economic difficulties. Throughout the 1920's elections and domestic political developments were closely linked to the final liquidation of the war. In a sense, the motive force behind the entire foreign policy of the Weimar Republic originated in the nature of the peace concluded at Versailles.

So, we have to look back at that peace-making procedure to explain the gradual reinstatement of Germany within the European family of nations. Harold Nicolson, a member of the British delegation in Paris has left us his appraisal of the reasons why Versailles was a failure. "We came to Paris," he wrote, "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. It was the misfortune of democratic diplomacy."

Nicolson goes on to elaborate the prevailing disillusionment of the experts at Paris. The treaties which were imposed on the enemies of the Allies, Nicolson believes, were neither just nor wise. "Never in the history of man has such vindictiveness cloaked itself in such unctuous sophistry." That there was an increasing moral deterioration in the course of the conferences is unquestionable. Greed and revenge soon raised its ugly head and vitiated the noble and idealistic principles which Wilson sought to embed in the new political structures. Although it should be evident, that this kind of hypocrisy is found in all postwar settlements and probably could not have been entirely avoided in Paris either.

There was a definite contrast between the new world concept symbolized by a vigorous America emerging into great power status and the old European world weighted down by tradition and resistance to change. Evidence of a new scheme of things was, of course, also found in the European countries, but mostly in Russia, Germany and Austria, were revolutionary forces sought to restructure the social and political system. But these powers were not represented at Paris in 1919.

Wilson talked about a new diplomacy and so did the Soviets in Russia, but at the peace conference the old diplomacy seemingly prevailed. Wilson got his League of Nations, but it was accepted grudgingly by the other allies. The attempt to reconcile the old world and the new world was the essential error and misconception of the conference and the root cause of all resultant falsity, according to Nicolson. The suspicion that America was asking Europe to make sacrifices to righteousness, which America would never make, and had never made herself, produced a mood of diffidence, uncertainty and increasing despair. The League of Nations, which was to make Wilson's new order work, lost its significance and viability when the U. S. Congress rejected American participation.

The only thing which Europe could do was to save the face of the American president. The only thing that Wilson would do was to save the face of Europe.

The face of Europe may have been saved, but it was subsequently marred and scarred by persistent controversy and conflict over the kind of compromises made at Versailles with regard to defeated Germany. The Germans were quick to realize that the hurt conscience of the Allies could be exploited for their own benefit. The critics of Versailles in the Western countries provided propaganda for the domestic German foes of the government and its policy of compliance with the Versailles settlement.

The early years of Weimar foreign policy were therefore rancorous times. They were provoked mostly by the implacable reparations issue, and culminated in the disastrous French occupation of the Ruhr. With the adoption of the Dawes Plan, thanks to American initiative, there was some hope of coming to reasonable terms between Germany and her former enemies. But the central fact of these years was the Locarno Treaty, which finally promised to bring Germany into a workable system of European politics. With that Treaty the bad boy of Europe seemingly was accepted by the European family on fairly equal terms.

The idea for a security pact designed to allay French fears and guarantee Germany's western borders originated with the Germans. The Cuno government suggested it in December, 1922. The subject was broached again in May 1923, September 1924 and February 1925. That this persistent effort finally resulted in triumph was largely due to the courage and tenacity of Gustav Streseman, the Weimar Republic's most important foreign minister and Lord D'Abernon, the British Ambassador to Berlin.

Stresemann, the architect of Locarno, was motivated by fear of independent British action to provide the shaky French with security at Germany's expense. He sent a memorandum in January 1926 to test English policy. At this time London was unwilling to make an agreement that carried French evacuation of the Rhineland as a corollary. So Streseman moved in the other direction and opened negotiations with the French government in February. When the Geneva Protocol, which was to strengthen the League of Nations and give France greater security, was rejected by a new conservative British government, Stresemann saw an opportunity for a border agreement which the British were now willing to consider.

But Germany flatly refused to guarantee the Polish frontier as well, while French opinion was equally adamant on its absolute necessity. London leaned towards the German argument, being willing to underwrite a guarantee of Germany's western frontier but had little interest in the East. Stresemann was undoubtedly responding to prevailing German opinion, vociferously expressed by the rightwing parties, that refused to reconcile itself to the current boundaries with Poland. Stresemann's primary goals were


1) the protection of Germans abroad;
2) the readjustment of the eastern frontiers and
3) a union with German Austria.

The latter was specifically prohibited by the Versailles Treaty, but the idea refused to die in German minds. However, Stresemann was shrewd enough to realize that these goals would have to be achieved by using "finesse," as he put it, and by avoiding any "great decisions." This presumably meant that a piecemeal approach was more likely to succeed than the more typically German sledgehammer method. He seems to have entertained the notion that Danzig, under League of Nations supervision, could be fully recovered.

Other former German territories ceded to Poland could also be reincorporated, once Germany's diplomatic position was strong enough. To Stresemann's way of thinking the essential issue was not really compliance or non-compliance with the stipulations of the Versailles Treaty, but whether equality could be denied to Germany forever. He was intent upon raising Germany once more to full power status. It is probably wrong, therefore, to call Stresemann's diplomacy "fulfillment policy."

The French seemed to sense this basic orientation, when they insisted that peace in Europe could only be guaranteed if Germany made accords with her eastern neighbors, who would not be part of the proposed security pact. But the French were not the only ones who created problems for Stresemann.

At home the Nationalists and the Communists, on the the extreme poles of the political spectrum, violently opposed his policy-even threatened his life. Both parties-for different reasons-wanted a more definite eastern orientation. This combined opposition forced Stresemann to raise some reservations about article 16 in the League of Nations Covenant. This article implied that Germany might have to participate in a League action to defend Poland, if the latter were attacked by Russia. German entrance into the League was generally held to be part of a security package. But the French insisted on unconditional German entrance into the League if she wanted a security pact.

The problem engendered by article 16 was discussed at Locarno, among representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The German government was very quixotic about this. While it accepted an Allied invitation to Locarno, the government at the same time unleashed a broadside on the issue of war guilt and the evacuation of the Cologne zone of occupation. This did not sabotage the conference, however, and a compromise was achieved, whereby members of the League would cooperate against aggressors, but each country would do what was compatible with its military and geographic situation. The upshot of this was that Germany signed arbitration treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia and agreed to maintain the territorial status quo determined by the Versailles Treaty. The French thus gained a renunciation of the claim to Alsace-Lorraine and the desired security guarantee from Britain. But the real gainer was Germany, since she made only a nominal sacrifice, a change in the territorial status quo being wholly unrealistic.

It was now incumbent on Germany to convince the Allies of her good will. The Rightist parties said it would mean the permanent acceptance of the Versailles Diktat. In fact the Nationalists left the Reichstag in protest. But Stresemann remained firm. He told his countrymen that Locarno meant the Versailles methods had finally been replaced by conciliation. The Allies made it easier for the Reichstag to approve the treaty by immediate evacuation of the Cologne zone. The vote was 271 to 174 and passage was assured mostly because the Social Democrats decided to back Stresemann.

However, the "Locarno spirit" did not create an era of universal amity. In March 1926 complications arose over Germany's permanent seat on the Council of the League, since Poland, Czechoslovakia, Spain and Brazil also demanded permanent seats on the Council. Britain backed Spain and France supported the Poles. Sweden opposed Poland. Spain finally gave up, but Brazil stuck to her guns.

The reaction to these unseemly wranglings were violent in Germany, whose honor seemed to be aroused again. The Nationalists now accused Stresemann of treason, but the SPD once more saved the government. The Soviet Union now feared isolation and a reversal of the Rapallo policy, initiated by the famous treaty of 1922. The Reichswehr, so dependent on the secret military arrangement with Russia, was also worried. Stresemann quickly assured Russia that Germany would never be a party to an anti-Bolshevik crusade, and that article 16 was nothing to worry about. To confirm Rapallo, the Berlin Treaty with Russia was signed in April 1926. This treaty assured neutrality if either one of them were attacked by a third power. The same arrangement applied to a possible economic boycott. Germany even promised to oppose any anti-Bolshevik movement on be international scene.

The Berlin Treaty created a sensation in Europe, since many felt that it had virtually converted German-Soviet friendship into an alliance. France, Czechoslovakia and Poland, understandably enough, were particularly concerned. Poland and Rumania proceded to renew their alliance. France also made an alliance with Rumania to adumbrate what was known as the French alliance system. So, 1926 was a turning point in the early history of the Weimar Republic. It ushered in what has generally come to be known as the good years of the Weimar Republic. Some, like Dietrich Orlow, have called this period "Fool's Gold."