Donald G Wileman lecture

on the TREATY OF VERSAILLES is honoured to be able to host this wonderful lecture by the Canadian Professor Donald G Wileman.  

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•  The Treaties by name

•  History and historiography of the Treaty of Versailles

The Classic version


Revisions since the 1970s

•  How They All Did It Wrong

The French

The British


•  A Separate Peace?

•  The State of Play, 1921-22



Cast (in order of appearance):

Etienne Clémentel – Louis Loucheur – Klaus Schwabe – Mark Trachtenberg – Emile Haguenin and René Massigli –

 Alexandre Millerand and Aristide Briand – Karl Joseph Wirth – Walther Rathenau.


*** *** ***



The Treaties by Name


The Peace of Paris (1919) was made up of 5 treaties, all named after various castles in France where the said treaties were signed.  The A S Kanya-Forstner Iron Law of Conference Placement is that if a diplomatic meeting is held someplace in Europe you’ve never heard of, chances are it’s either a castle near Paris, or a resort town on the Mediterranean, so the conference delegates can have some fun in their off-hours.  The treaty of Trianon was made with Hungary; the Treaty of St. Germain was made with Austria; the treaty of Neuilly was made with Bulgaria; the Treaty of Sèvres was made with the Ottoman Sultan.  The Treaty with Germany was signed at the palace of Versailles – for the sole reason that this is where the Germans had insisted on declaring their Empire after beating France badly in 1871.  Of these treaties it’s Versailles that the fuss is generally made about. 


One of the few safe comments to make about the Treaty of Versailles is that nobody ever loved it.  The Germans denounced it as a fraud and a cheat which barely had a nodding acquaintance with President Wilson’s 14 Points for a just peace.  The French cursed the treaty because it led them to exchange solid advantages – particularly German territory – for British and US security guarantees – guaranties which then fell through when the US did not ratify the treaty.  By the 1920s most Britons deplored the Treaty as well, both for being unfair to Germany and for being so harsh economically that it kept the economy of Europe from fully recovering from the War.  The US, of course, rejected the Treaty fairly massively: US citizens saw it as a document which – particularly through the League of Nations, whose Charter was written right into the it – tried to embroil them in the corrupt politics and quarrels of old Europe – problems which the USA had supposedly been designed as an escape from!  Once another Great War broke out, only 20 years later, the discredit of the Treaty of Versailles was complete.  This cartoon helped a lot as well:


There are scholars who speak of the time between the wars as a 20 years’ armistice and nothing more.  George Kennan, the diplomat who designed the US’s “containment” strategy after World War II, wrote that neither the Treaty itself, nor the 25 or so international conferences that subsequently played around with it, are even worth studying, because they were boring and ultimately sterile. 


That’s a very tempting argument indeed!  – but as you’ll know by now, I dearly love to rush in where angels fear to go. 




History and historiography of the Treaty of Versailles


The Classic version

The version of events that they were teaching when I went through undergrad university went something like this: By November 11th, 1918, the Western Allies believed that the Germans had been defeated in the Field.  The Germans believed that they had negotiated an Armistice, leading towards a peace based on the 14 Points – most especially on the bits which read “no annexations or indemnities”.


Beyond that sort of misunderstanding, the 14 Points themselves were flawed in their assumptions: that National self-determination would lead to national democracies, which in turn would lead to international democracy – because without oppressed minorities there would be no need for revolutions nor any point in imperialist aggression.  All this would be maintained through collective security run by an international body.  There was nothing in it which could not have been said by Napoléon III – or by Cavour (two of the founders of Italy).


What was wrong with this?  Well, for starters how about the rather nineteenth-century assumption that populations of different nationalities could easily be distinguished and then sorted out into National States, all very nice and neat?  In practice the populations tended to be very mixed, especially in Eastern Europe and most especially once you got anywhere near the borderlands.  In many cases there was no way the different ethnicities could have been sorted and separated short of busing (or of something we nowadays would denounce as “ethnic cleansing”).  Even where a clear linguistic border could be drawn, drawing it might destroy the local economy on which people’s lives depended.  It sometimes happened that a factory went on one side of a border and the suburb its workers lived in on the other.  In the old Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy especially, many nationalities had been ruled by foreign minorities for so long that the foreigners had become indigenous.  The countryside might be Croat or Slovene or Slovak or whatever, the cities were apt to be German and Jewish.


With the single (though great!) exception of Czechoslovakia, none of the successor states in Eastern Europe remained democratic.  In hindsight, this hardly seems surprising – all the others were backward, agricultural, low on resources and lacking in the developed middle classes who are the natural main constituency of liberal democracy.  Worse, such middle classes as there were in Eastern Europe tended to be either German, Jewish or both – and thus less than totally interested in new states which were not of their nationality.  Thus the successor states were naturally prone to dictatorship.  In later years their regimes often aped Fascism or Nazi-ism. 


Still in the classic version of events, any chance that the 14 Points had, despite these flaws, was ruined by the way they were applied.  All the belligerent states, including minor players like Portugal, had representatives at the Paris Peace Conference, but matters were dominated by the Big Five (the US, Britain, France, Italy and Japan) and even more by the representatives of the biggest 3: President Wilson of the US, Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain, and Premier Clemenceau of France.  Here was the first watering-down of the 14 Points: despite all that they said against “secret diplomacy”, most of the decisions affecting the Peace of Paris were arrived at between 3 or 4 elderly men, behind closed doors, guarded by troops who were told to keep out even other members of the Big 3’s own delegations.


Another watering-down arose from the uncertain strength of President Wilson’s political position.  As Sir Arthur Nicolson later pointed out in his book Diplomacy, Wilson’s main problem at the Paris Peace Conference was that while the other leaders knew he was not fully representative of US public opinion, they could hardly say so to the face of an elected President of the United States.  So they gave in to him – but gave less than they might have done.  A draconian old-fashioned peace might have worked.  A fully Wilsonian peace might have worked (though Nicolson clearly doubts this) – but the mix was fatal. 


And while it wasn’t directly based on the 14 Points – in some ways it contradicted them – the famous “war guilt” clause, Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, fell in neatly with the kind of moral fervour to “punish the wicked” which played to Wilson’s prejudices and which had been very much a part of the propaganda in all the warring nations – propaganda which every electorate which was consulted now voted to put into effect!  Far from a peace based on the 14 Points, Premier Clemenceau of France was intent on dismembering Germany, and making a separate State of the Rhineland – which is German-speaking, but in some views ethnically different from the German east: Allemanic rather than Teutonic.  Prime Minister Lloyd George of England already saw the need for some conciliation, but he was constrained both by the demands of Dominions such as Canada – who wanted vengeance – and by the fact that he had just won an election on a platform of hanging the Kaiser and of squeezing Germany until the pips squeaked.  Premier Orlando of Italy was interested only in more territory for Piedmont – I beg your pardon, for Italy.  This he needed desperately – to justify the megadead of the war to a people who, in their vast majority, had never wanted to get involved in the first place.  Orlando disgusted even his allies by claiming all the land France and Britain had promised Italy in the old-style secret treaties of the early years of the war, plus all the land that Italy was entitled to under Wilsonian self-determination! 


Over the course of the negotiations Wilson repeatedly gave way to the British and French, and put all his remaining eggs into the League of Nations, only to first have to water it down under pressure from Congress, and then still have Congress turn both the League and the Treaty of Versailles down altogether. 


The net result of all this was a Treaty unjust enough that it finally had to be imposed on the Germans – whose representatives had deliberately been kept separate from the deliberations, so that they could not influence the Peace Conference (as Talleyrand was supposed to have done for France a century earlier back at the Congress of Vienna).  The treaty of Versailles included some minor territorial losses, the demilitarisation of the Rhineland “forever”, and the reduction of the German Army to 100,000 men, with no Cadet Schools, aircraft or General Staff.  Germany's merchant Marine was taken away to help make up the losses suffered by Britain and France.  The protests that the Germans made against the less Wilsonian aspects of the Treaty were brushed aside.  This only helped make the German diplomats look like traitors when they eventually had to sign the Treaty, anyway under threat of force.  And by the time the German representatives were faced with the Treaty there was no doubt that Germany had to sign.  Not only had the terms of the Armistice made sure that Germany was in no position to fight again; a Revolution in that country had also melted most of the German Army away like snow in July. 


What’s generally taken as the worst sin in the treaty are the Reparations.  They were obviously going to be huge, but no figure had yet been set for them when the Treaty was signed.  Historically, the French have taken most of the blame for this, either for deliberately seeking to keep Germany down with a crushing burden of payments, or at least for being so blind as not to see that Germany couldn’t pay.  In either case, it was classically argued that Reparations guarantied lasting German enmity and handicapped German democracy.  Reparations were France’s fault, (or so it was said) and Reparations paved the way for Hitler. 



AJP Taylor

That’s what was still being taught when I was young and dinosaurs other than Barney roamed the earth.  The first significant revision of this classic view came in the 1960s with the publication of AJP Taylor's Origins of the Second World War.  On Versailles, Taylor's book is not so much a Revision as a shift of emphasis.  Taylor points out that the basic cause of the First World War had been what he called “the German problem” – the fact that a united Germany was inevitably the strongest state in Europe by its own “natural weight” – a point which you’ve heard people start to make again since German reunification.  In Taylor's rather Hobbesian view of Diplomacy, any post-war version of Germany was therefore bound to start asserting its claim to be #1 again unless it was broken up – the "solution" which, in effect was taken after World War II, when Germany was divided between the Eastern and Western blocs. 


According to Taylor, once the Western Allies of World War One decided to give Germany an armistice, leaving it basically intact, they had made the only decision that mattered.  The only hope that they might then have had, was to be very nice to it in the hope that it would turn out to be a civilised Great Power – and Taylor clearly doubted the possibility of this very much. 


Taylor also sought to end the endless bloody arguments on how much Reparation Germany could have paid, first by getting his own dig in, but then by pointing out that the ability to pay didn't matter.  The Germans, almost unanimously, thought that they had signed for a Peace based on the 14 Points and that Reparations were therefore a swindle, backed only by the power of their old enemies – clearly something which they had no moral obligation to pay. 



Revisions since the 1970s

More thorough and more detailed attempts at revision were made starting in the late 1970s – mainly on the basis of French documents that had finally come unclassified (the French tend not to declassify anything until the wives of the grandchildren of the people involved are dead).  I'll refer you to the 1979 volume of the Journal of Modern History as an example.  Here, most of the historians working the field acknowledged that you can only revise so far.  The achievement of work since the 1970s on the Peace of Paris has been not to reverse our basic view, but to nuance the picture of the Peace Conference as a struggle between "Good" Advocates of reconciliation with Germany and the "Bad" French, who insisted on keeping Germany down.  It now looks increasingly as if everyone played a rôle in screwing up the Peace.  Why does this fail to surprise us? 


One Great Power at a time, then!:




How They All Did It Wrong


The French

It now seems that most of the French representatives went into the peace negotiations much less interested in Reparations than they would later become.  For one thing, people like Etienne Clémentel – who had been French Minister of Commerce for most of the War – thought not only that Reparations might be impossible to collect, but that Germany couldn't possibly afford to pay for the rebuilding of France with Reparations unless France was willing to turn the whole of Germany into an economic slave which would hate France forever. 


What the French Government of 1919 wanted most out of the Peace was more of the economic co-operation that the Allies had practised during the War.  The common war effort, especially in 1918, had brought support for the Franc, loans, and cheap coal.  Above all it had set up a system where an Interallied commission decided what the Allies needed to fight the war, bought it co-operatively (instead – for example – of Britain and France bidding against each other as in the early years of the war) – and automatically got the US credits needed to do the buying.  France wanted this system to be used to rebuild the economy of the ten Départements.  which the Germans had Occupied during the war, and laid waste to as they retreated.  Most especially, Clémentel wanted continued Interallied rationing of raw materials and their sale at fixed prices.  Hopefully this would gradually change the Allies of 1918 into an economic bloc, harmonising their tariffs, finances and currencies.  The United States, after all, had entered the War late.  It had suffered few casualties.  Both its neutrality and eventual involvement had profited it tremendously, turned the US from a debtor nation into a very substantial creditor – as Britain and France cashed in their securities and temporarily stopped competing in markets all over the world.  Why shouldn’t the US – so few of whose people had died – write the war debt off and continue economic co-operation, to even up its contribution to the common cause?


Ninety years later – after another World War, the Marshall Plan, the European Union, the trade treaty that the EU and North America are trying to make and so forth – it seems fairly clear that this would in fact have been the best solution – along with full US participation in the League of Nations, while we're making wishes to order.  But as we saw with Bethmann-Hollweg, it seldom pays to be too far ahead of your time.  For one thing, Clémentel’s hopes ignored the balance of power.  The Big Three were equal, but the US was already far and away the most equal.  There had always been members of the British Parliament and of the US Congress who talked in the same terms as Clémentel, so it wasn't until March of 1919 – which is to say, four months after the Armistice had decided in favour of a unified Germany – that the French discovered their plans wouldn’t wash with the majority of US and British legislators.  A US Congress dominated by the Republican Party wasn't going to go for this sort of continued economic control by governments.  Nor would the US give up the advantages it was clearly going to have in “free” economic competition with an injured France and Britain.  A majority even of the US Democratic party would probably not have bought Clémentel’s solution – US Americans in general would probably have echoed Wilson’s successor, President Calvin Coolidge, who broke his famous silence long enough to say: “They hired the money, didn’t they?”


Some French politicians, such as Louis Loucheur also disliked Clémentel’s plan – for much the same reasons as the US Republicans and Britih Conservatives did – too much Government involvement in the economy to suit the people who were used to running the economy in peacetime.  Louis Loucheur’s opinions mattered, because he was the main French economic negotiator, and post-war Minister of Industrial Reconstitution.  It's also safe to add, that while the Prime Minister of England – that renegade Liberal David Lloyd George – had a better idea than most of what rebuilding Britain and Europe was going to cost, and was therefore more open to notions of organizing it the way the War had been organized, the same could not be said of his caucus.  After Lloyd George’s “Hang the Kaiser” campaign, the British parliament was almost three-fourths made up of what Stanley Baldwin called: “A lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war”.  Stanley Baldwin would later lead the Conservative party. 


It was only after this sadly unimaginative performance by the US that the French started ruining the peace.  Look at it from the French point of view: If their former allies would not help them rebuild, they would try to do the next best thing – use Germany as best they could while keeping that country down to size.  Premier Clemenceau still thought in terms of trying to carve the Rhineland off Germany, rather than of hobbling it with Reparations, but the attempt would go on in all sorts of forms throughout the 1920s: The question for France became: How to use the Victory as leverage on Germany?  How do you get the use of a much larger economy than yours without being dominated by it?  Here you can hear, not only the private nightmares of the Canadian supporters of Free Trade with the US, but also echoes of AJP Taylor: How do you solve “the German Problem” (as Taylor defined it) without breaking the Germany up?  The French never found a satisfactory answer between the two World Wars, and it may well be that, with Germany undivided, there wasn't one – which is one of the reasons we’re trying to drown the re-united Germany of today in the European Union as quickly as decency will allow. 


Even so, it seems valid to say that by passing up the opportunity to reinforce the new German Republic of 1918 with a soft peace, or by the quick easing of a harsh one, France got the worst of all possible worlds: By the mid-1930s France had to deal with a Germany which was neither friendly, nor democratic, nor economically available to France.  But as of 1918, basing French policy on German good behaviour seemed like a hell of a risk to take, a lot of past history to ignore, and a lot of dearly-won victory to throw away. 



The British

With the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, we're well into the period where everything he said had at least two meanings and where he seemed to have at least three different possible futures constantly in mind.  But people who've examined the whole of what was written and said, both at the time and since, seem to have found certain strains of consistency.  In particular, it was Lloyd George and his appointees at the Paris Peace Conference who, in the later negotiations, constantly pushed the Reparations figure up, notably by insisting that the costs of waging the war – and later even the costs of veterans’ pensions – be added to the bill for the immediate damage done by the Germans. 


This made a big difference.  At various times in the conference, the French and US negotiators agreed on a global Reparations bill of between 120 thousand million and 100 thousand million marks – at least half of it in Gold marks.  ((You’ll often see references to Gold Marks in the literature.  This wasn’t some sort of special coin.  What it means is the amount of gold that a German mark had bought in July 1914; before the War and its Inflation began)).  The advantage of this figure is that it is not, after all, not so very far from the counter-offer of 100 thousand million ordinary Marks which the Germans made once they saw the Treaty – though the German offer was made for payment over a long period of time and without interest.  Certainly a fixed and relatively modest Reparations figure would have helped the medicine go down in Germany.  It’s also true that such a deal would have cost a smaller percentage of the German GNP than West Germany was later able to pay to meet the huge oil price increases OPEC made the 1970s.  All of this suggests (though it falls short of proving) that if France and the US had chosen to set a lower specific figure on Reparations and then imposed it on Britain, they would have set a penalty the Germans could have afforded to pay, and lessened German resistance to the Treaty by approaching both the 14 points and the German bargaining position – though here again, don’t forget that not one German in a hundred felt that Germany ought to pay any Reparations at all! 


So it’s moot whether the US and France could have made a successful Treaty of Versailles.  But if you compare the Franco-American figure of roughly 100 thousand million Marks in Reparations with the British guesstimate of 480 thousand millions, you'll see that Britain made the peace settlement far worse.  This difference, as well as arguments over how to divide Reparations up, was the main reason why no exact figure was arrived at by the Peace conference, and the main reason why the Germans were forced to figuratively sign a blank cheque – where have we heard this phrase before?  – which a later conference would then fill out. 


There are various explanations of what Lloyd George was Up To in all this:

Definitely he was trying to buy the French out of their notions of an independent Rhineland, and of giving as much eastern German territory to Poland as possible.  As a bribe, he was offering what he called “a very heavy indemnity” instead. 

– The idea that the Germans should be fined for their sins harmonized with both Lloyd George’s and Wilson's notions of justice. 

– Something we think we know after almost a century of research and argument, is that in 1919 Lloyd George was still genuinely angry and indignant about the German attack on Belgium in 1914 and about the war in general.  He was not yet the man who would say “We all slithered over the brink [into WWI]”.  In 1919 Lloyd George still thought – rightly as far as we currently know – that Germany had committed acts of aggression.  Therefore it must be punished, and the whole World thus put off from ever doing such evils again.  This failed.  So much for the deterrence argument for justice. 


One more reason for the high British Reparations figures also seems likely.  Tangled with the amount of Reparations was the argument over how they should be divided up.  If the Reparations figure had been set around 100 thousand million marks, France's minimum claim from that would have been 64 thousand million – a neat 64%.  We know from his own writings of the time that Lloyd George thought this far too high a share.  It therefore seems quite plausible that he may have introduced the costs of waging the war into the equation in order to strengthen the British claim for a bigger share.  That may explain Lloyd George. 




The USA's representatives’ reactions are harder to figure out.  Having in the main agreed with France on a fixed Reparations figure, instead of pressing Britain to agree with it, they pushed the French to give the British a bigger share of the as-yet-non-existent swag.  We still don’t understand why.  The French are in no doubt: Anglo-Saxon conspiracy


It's been suggested – by the historians Klaus Schwabe and Marc Trachtenberg among others – that Clemenceau permitted France to be moderate on Reparations only because he thought the Germans would default anyway, and France would get to stay in the Rhineland forever.  He said as much to Marshal Foch.  But you ought to be careful about believing what Clemenceau said to Foch at a time when he was trying to keep a notorious and in 1919 rather popular Right-winger happy. 




A Separate Peace?

If you believe that the French were sincere, that helps make sense of the fact that – seemingly in despair at the way things were going with their allies – the French actually sent out feelers for a separate peace to the Germans before the end of the Paris Peace conference!  According to documents in German archives, two high-ranking officials of the French foreign office, Emile Haguenin and René Massigli, offered to do a direct deal behind the back of “the Anglo-Saxon powers”.  Nothing came of this because the Germans, who had put their hopes in the US and the 14 Points, smelled a rat.  Perhaps they were right to do so.  The Germans were insisting on the principle of the 14 Points.  If you give up a principle to get a deal and the deal then collapses, you’ve got nothing.  That’s what happened to René Levesque and the Quebec veto in 1982.  Whatever their reasons, the Germans refused France’s advances. 




The State of Play,1921-22

Once the Treaty ceremonies were over and the US had defected from the Peace, France tried as far as seemed possible to leave its options open.  When Germany insisted that it couldn’t afford to pay the Reparations it had signed for, the French governments of Alexandre Millerand and Aristide Briand (one after the other) both tried to get British support for forcing Germany to pay.  Meanwhile, under the sanctions provided for by the Treaty, France occupied three cities in the Ruhr, separated the Rhineland from the rest of Germany with a customs barrier, and negotiated with both Rhineland separatists and even with German particularists who wanted to turn Germany into a loose federation – groups who had practically no popular support at all. 


In retrospect France’s actions look like one of those “halfway” policies which anger almost everyone instead of being a deal everyone can live with – however grumpily.  Still, partial measures are the normal staples of democratic politics, and normally they work.  Note as well that France temporarily gave up its underhanded tactics when the German Government of Wirth and Rathenau (both at the same time) looked genuinely like trying to fulfil the Treaty.  That particular agreement however – which centred on paying Reparations with goods rather than money – failed because the industrialists in both France and Germany hated it.  By the end of 1921 Germany was filing for bankruptcy again. 


The German Government’s claim for bankruptcy was true enough, but there was a joker in the pack.  The highly inflationary policies that Germany pursued right after WW I made the payment of Reparations difficult.  They were also a tremendous boost to German industries, which could borrow at home, then undersell France abroad, and pay back their loans in depreciated money.  According to historian Walter McDougall, by 1922 the “unthinkable” already seemed to be happening: Germany was on the rebound, with Anglo-Saxon toleration, while France had achieved neither financial stabilisation, nor economic recovery, nor security.  And that, as much as anything else, was the reason for the French invasion of the Ruhr – which is Another Story.