Back   Sources on British Reactions to the Treaty of Versailles



It is true that many British people hated the Treaty from the very beginning.   The most famous critic of the Treaty was a brilliant young economist called John Maynard Keynes:




Source A

An Economic Disaster

1)   The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable....   Nations are not authorised, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers....


2)   The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe - nothing to make the defeated Central Empires into good neighbours, nothing to stabilise the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia...   The Council of Four paid no attention to these issues, being preoccupied with others - Clemenceau to crush the economic life of his enemy, Lloyd George to bring home something that would pass muster for a week, the President to do nothing that was not just and right....

JM Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919)

Keynes's book had a massive effect on the educated people of Britain   It created the belief that Germany had been badly treated, and this in turn led to British preparedness to 'appease' Hitler in the 1930s.   

Harold Macmillan, the future Prime Minister, did not agree with Keynes's argument, but claimed instead  that 'the legend of the unfair peace did infinite harm in both Germany and Britain'..



However, other British people were equally hostile to the Treaty.   Many of them were idealists who had hoped that a new international moral order would come out of the Conference:


Source B

1)    A Punitive Treaty

Not stern, but actually punitive....   The real crime is the reparations and indemnity chapter, which is immoral and senseless.   There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms.   The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters.

                Harold Nicolson, Letter to his father, quoted in his Diary (8 June 1919)

Nicolson was a British delegate at Versailles


2)    A Protest

Had a talk with Barnes [one of the British officials].   In his view the villain of the Treaty was Wilson, who had proved himself to be anything but a strong man, and a child in the hands of Clemenceau, who, as Barnes put it, 'could buy him at one end of the street and sell him at the other'....   Barnes had written several times to the PM protesting about the terms of the Peace Treaty especially the Reparation Clauses..

Thomas Jones, Whltehall Diary (2 July 1919)

Jones was Assistant Secretary in the War Cabinet


3)    Disgusted

We are all so disgusted with the peace that we have ceased to discuss it.

Beatrice Webb, a famous Socialist writer and historian (1919)


4)    Nothing

It is not statesmanship.   It is not business.   It is not common sense.   It is not the clean Peace by which I always meant, and other people meant, to end war with the war.

HH Asquith, former Prime Minister, campaigning for election in 1920


5)    With the benefit of hindsight

One of the main defects in the Treaty of Versailles was that it did not define the total liability of Germany; at that time estimates of this liability ranged from between £15,000 million and £25,000 million, and sums of this magnitude greatly exceeded Germany's capacity to pay....

The war had been fought to destroy German militarism; but the Treaty ensured that it should be reborn.

Herbert Asquith, Moments of Memory

Written in the 1930s by HH Asquith's son.   It was a common belief that reparations were too much for Germany to pay, but Harold Macmillan wrote in 1966: 'it is almost comical to recall the facts.   Over the years Germany actually paid £1000m.   To meet this she borrowed from the outside world £1,500m.' 



The historian Mary Cathcart Borer added a different perspective; she argued that it was the failure to solve the problem of Britain's war-debts which ruined the future, and she blamed the USA:


Source C

Economic Disaster

Great Britain had lent millions of pounds to the Allies during the war and had herself been borrowing heavily from America....   Mr Churchill went to the United States to discuss the war debt, pointing out the economic chaos throughout the world which the payment of these enormous sums of money would cause; but the United States of America was adamant.   'They borrowed the money, didn't they?' was President Coolidge's comment.

Great Britain had suggested an all-round cancellation of war debts, but after learning of the United States insistence of payment she declared to the Allies that 'she would collect no more from her debtors, ally or former enemy, than the United States collected from her'.   At the end of the war, Britain owed the United States some $4000 million.   'The enforcement of the Baldwin-Coolidge debt settlement', wrote Mr Churchill in 1948, is a recognisable factor in the economic collapse which was soon to overwhelm the world'.

Mary Cathcart Borer, Britain - Twentieth Century (1966)

Because America insisted that Britain repaying her war-debts to America, Britain was forced to insist on the huge reparations payments from Germany.



Most school textbooks state that Lloyd George, too, hated the settlement.   They mostly base this on his oft-quoted statement that 'We shall have to fight another war again in 25 years time'.   It is certainly true that Lloyd George spent the last month of the negotiations trying to persuade Clemenceau and Wilson to make the Treaty less harsh, and he did admit in 1938 that 'I do not claim that the Treaty is perfect in all respects'.

       However, on his return from Versailles he was treated like a hero, even by his political enemies.   In Parliament he justified the Treaty's terms and, 15 years later, on the eve of the Munich crisis, he refused to accept that it was any failings of the Treaty which were responsible for the imminent Second World War:


Source D

1)    'Stern but just'

The terms are in many respects terrible terms to impose upon a country.   Terrible were the deeds which it requites...   Germany not merely provoked, but planned the most devastating war the earth has ever seen...   She deliberately embarked upon it, not to defend herself against assailants, but to aggrandise herself at the expense of her neighbours.   I cannot think of a worse crime.

              [The aim of the Treaty is] to compel Germany, in so far as it is in her power, to restore, to repair and to redress.   Yes, and to take every possible precaution of every kind that is in our power against the recurrence of another such crime - to make such an example as will discourage ambitious peoples from ever attempting to repeat the infamy.

           Lloyd George, speaking in Parliament (3 July 1919).  


2)    A German Comment

The Treaties were never given a chance by the miscellaneous and unimpressive array of second-rate statesmen who have handled them for the past 15 years....   The failure of a great deal of what is best and noblest in the Treaties has been entirely due to the fact that there has been no will-power or steady resolve behind their execution...

       All of [the 1919 peacemakers] would be especially shocked at the spectacle of the great democratic countries, which in 1919 commanded universal respect, now shivering and begging for peace on the door-step of two European dictators.

           David Lloyd George, Memoirs of the Peace Treaty (1938).    



Finally, here is what a German thought about the Treaty's effect on Britain:


Source E

A German Comment

The Peace of Versailles injured Germany deeply; but was the war worth while?   Its immediate reactions have been most unsatisfactory [for Britain].   France and the United States have been strengthened politically in a way that is by no means to Britain's interest.   Versailles, the League of Nations and separate treaties have built up for France a position of power in Europe that is most unwelcome….  

            Economically, too, where Germany has been successfully competed with on the Continent, the profits have gone to France, not to British industry.   

            Even more striking is the post-war ascendancy of the United States.   It is the great gainer by the war, financially, industrially and politically.   It has gathered in Europe's gold, in payment for war supplies; it is the creditor of the States of Europe and takes ruthless political advantage of its financial superiority….   Financial power has further immensely increased American commerce; while British exports to all parts of the world have fallen, American have gone up.    

            Where Germany has been driven from the field it has been to the advantage, not of Britain, but of America and Japan.    While American industry expands, British industry, in its vital sections (coal, cotton), contracts.    America has become the greatest financial magnate in the world.

           Wilhelm Dibelius, A German writing for Germans about Britain (1921).