Back   The Failure of Versailles

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...

This piece is the first part of an article by G. Rempel, The Legacy of Versailles

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