Back   This document was on and copyright the Channel 4Learning Website at

This page went down in November 2005, so I have copied it here.


Treaty of Versailles

Background Information

This page contains information about what historians have said about the Treaty.


The events surrounding the Treaty of Versailles are well known to most people interested in the Great War, or in any kind of history. However, like many well known events, the Treaty is the subject of a surprising amount of heated academic debate. This issue centres on the vexed question of just how fair or unfair the Treaty was supposed to be. In the post World War 2 period a degree of historical détente emerged, and an agreed interpretation developed, along these lines:

bulletThe outbreak of WW1 was seen to be the result of collective foolishness by all the great powers. Therefore, the Treaty of Versailles, which placed sole responsibility for the war on to Germany, was unfair and unjust. As a result, Germans rejected the Treaty.

Count Brockdoff, leader of the German delegation which signed the Treaty of Versailles, speaking in May 1919:

We are told that we should acknowledge that we alone are guilty of having caused the war. I would be a liar if I agreed to this. We are not trying to avoid all responsibility for this world War. However, we emphatically deny that the German people should be seen as the only guilty party. Over fifty years the Imperialism of all European states has poisoned the international situation.

bulletThe rejection was further justified by the invasion of the Ruhr by French and Belgian forces in 1923. This was to enforce the terms of hated treaty. It also triggered an economic crisis in Germany. This in turn created hyperinflation which devastated the lives of many Germans.

The value of the German currency, the mark, compared to the US dollar in the period 1919-23:

July 1919 $1 = 14 marks
July 1920 $1 = 39 marks
July 1921 $1 = 77 marks
January 1923 $1 = 17 972 marks
July 1923 $1 = 353 412 marks
November 1923 $1 = 4 200 000 000 000 marks

Even in the 1920s and 1930s many British politicians came to question the wisdom of the Treaty. All of these factors helped to explain the rise of Nazism and its devastating consequences.


Historians and the Treaty

In the 1960s historians began to upset the approved version of the history of the Treaty. The German historian Franz Fischer turned the historical world upside down with his vast and detailed researches which seemed to suggest that German was mostly responsible for the Great War. In the same vein, other historians began to question just how unfair the Treaty of Versailles was. They examined the extent of the repayments in relation to Germany’s wealth and found that the repayments amounted to about 2% of Germany’s annual wealth. They examined Germany’s policies and motives in the war, and found that Germany had made no plans as to how to pay its war debts. The plan was to take those costs from the defeated countries. There was also the fact that Germany had ruthlessly stripped Russia of vast amounts of population, land and resources in the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Mounting evidence suggested that the Allies might well have been much harsher, and that the German reaction to the Treaty was based more on outrage and national pride than it was on Germany’s inability to pay.

Historian Anthony Wood writing in 1986:

Allied statesmen, urged on by the pressure of public opinion, had made peace in a spirit of revenge. The cries of 'Hang the Kaiser' and 'squeezing the German lemon until the pips squeak' were indicative of the desire not merely for a guarantee of future security, but for national humiliation of Germany … The Germans saw every difficulty in subsequent years as a further indignity that they alone must suffer as a result of the hated Treaty of Versailles.