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Attempt At Peace At The Treaty Of Versailles History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

To this day, many historians still believe that the Treaty of Versailles was a failure and a primary cause of World War II. The Paris Peace Conference focused on creating the treaty with the defeated German empire. However, many Europeans were angry that the Germans caused the First World War, and Britain and France attempted to lay responsibility on Germany for their belligerent actions. Ultimately, the Treaty of Versailles failed to create peace, especially within Europe, because of the conflicting views between Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, and David Lloyd George, namely the Big Three. “The acknowledged heads of the Allied and associate powers […the ‘Big Three’…]” differed greatly “on their goals for peace” (Hay 9). Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of France, wanted to weaken Germany so it could never attack again, and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, wanted Germany to pay reparations. However, President Wilson desired long-lasting world peace and meant no harm to Germany, unlike France and Britain. With two of the Big Three wanting Germany, in one way or another, to be held responsible for World War I, it was inevitable that the Treaty of Versailles would be skewed towards this plan. The treaty eventually had three main ramifications on Europe. The continent underwent economic and political dislocation, tensions arose within Germany, and World War II erupted twenty years later.

The Treaty of Versailles caused Europe to endure a period of economic and political instability in the 1920s and early 1930s. John Maynard Keynes, a young British economist, was among the earliest and most outspoken critics of the treaty. In 1920, Keynes published a book entitled The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In this work, Keynes predicted not only economic but political dislocation would affect Europe because of the treaty’s economic provisions, particularly those dealing with reparations. The reparations commission ultimately settled on amounts of money that Germany could not realistically pay without crippling its economy (Hay 19). Since Germany was, in Keynes’s analysis, the economic engine of Europe, German poverty would infect the rest of the continent, opening the door to starvation and, perhaps, bolshevism. In his book, Keynes is bold in arguing that “those who sign this Treaty will sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women and children” (230). Through this theory, Keynes explains that the majority of the European population is accustomed to a relatively high standard of life in which they anticipate constant economic improvement rather than deterioration. However, by the destruction of this organization and the interruption of the stream of supplies, which Keynes says the Treaty of Versailles will cause, a part of the population is deprived of its means of livelihood. He continues his theory by remarking that the “danger confronting us…is the rapid depression of the standard of life of the European populations to a point which will mean actual starvation for some” (Keynes 228). Through these words, Keynes suggests that the Council of Four, namely Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando Vittorio of Italy, paid no attention to these possible consequences. Keynes fervently argues that the only issue that cannot arouse the attention of the Council of Four is the disintegration of Europe. To say the least, Keynes points out that this supposed ignorance was a major blunder by the signatories of the Treaty. In the larger picture, Keynes was correct. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was to lose all her colonies, more than a third of her coal fields, three quarters of her iron-ore deposits, a third of her blast furnaces, and all her merchant marine. In addition to these consequences, the reparation payments were to be paid by a significantly weakened Germany because it was substantially smaller than it had been before World War I. Consequently, Germany, on every border, was to lose land and people (Watt 416). Meanwhile, the army and the navy, reduced to pitiful proportions, would be unable to protect the nation against attacks by even the weakest of Germany’s neighbors. As the years after the signing of the Treaty progressed, these reparations and consequences would prove to be very significant to the economy of Germany. The theories set forth by Keynes seemed very harsh at first, but in reality they were correct.

In addition to the economic and political dislocation the Treaty caused to Europe, severe tensions were caused with Germany that had long-term effects on the political stability of Europe in twentieth century. The focus of the Paris Peace Conference was on creating the treaty with the defeated German empire, the eventual Treaty of Versailles. However, each member of the Big Three had a different view of creating “peace” in Europe. Consequently, the Treaty of Versailles was “a slapped-together affair that few were happy with and that certain observers, such as Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French officer and supreme commander of Allied forces, were certain would lead to another war” (Hay 10). Foch was right. Instead of being the war to end wars, World War I transitioned easily into World War II, an even more devastating conflict. Each member of the Big Three failed to create a peaceful and orderly Europe in Paris in 1919. Perhaps most importantly, the treaty embittered and humiliated Germany to the point that “rabble rousers” such as Adolf Hitler preached vengeance against those who proposed and accepted the dictated peace of 1919. One reason for the failure of the Treaty to promote peace was because, throughout the Paris Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau favored harsh terms against the Germans. He continually reminded negotiators that he had seen Germany invade France twice during his lifetime, and he was not going to allow it to happen again. French public opinion along with Clemenceau’s mentality advocated harsh terms and extreme measures to restrict Germany’s war-making capacity. The final version of the Treaty of Versailles, so hastily assembled that few had actually seen it in its entirety, was presented to Germany’s representatives on May 8. The Germans, who took no part in negotiations, would be forced to accept a number of humiliating terms. Germany had to “return Alsace-Lorraine to France,” give up “other portions of German territory…to Denmark and Poland,” and “accept a French occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years while the bulk of the production of the coal-rich Saarland would go directly to France” (Hay 16). Though these repercussions may seem harsh, the worst of the Treaty was yet to come.

Even though most of the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles made it seem as if no more damage could be done to the Germans, the most galling term of the Treaty was soon to astonish Germany. Article 231, infamously known as the War Guild clause, required Germany to accept full responsibility for starting World War I and to pay reparations to Britain, France, and other countries. As a preface to the treaty, the Allies had attached one short paragraph, known as Article 231. “It is unfair to say that this section had been drafted casually, but certainly no one had foreseen its ultimate consequences” (Watt 442). In fact, the peace conference’s Committee on the Reparation of Damages had not even thought of including it until the French suggested that it might be worth it to introduce the whole subject of reparations with a statement to establish the moral justice of the claims. Thus, when the Germans received the treaty, the Allies were astonished to find that this particular paragraph was the most violently disputed point in the entire treaty. From the Germans’ perspective, Article 231 was hard to accept because they believed that they had fought a just and honorable war whose origins were European wide. Certainly, they claimed, they bore little more responsibility for the war than France, Russia, or the other powers. Moreover, the Germans remembered that the Allies had claimed to be at war with Kaiser Wilhelm’s regime, not the German people, and the Kaiser’s regime was gone. The German’s wanted to know how the Weimar Republic could be asked to pay for the crimes of its predecessor (Hay 16). When the treaty was presented to the Germans, their reaction was all that could be expected since they were being compelled to sign a “blank check: they were obligating themselves to accept in advance any amount which the Reparations Commission might determine” (Watt 441). Nonetheless, these were the terms that were presented to the chief German delegate, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, on May 7. Germany was given a deadline of twenty-four hours to notify the Allies whether they would sign the treaty. For over a month, Germany had made no indication whether they would sign the treaty. On June 22, President Wilson sent a message to the new Weimar government that “the time for discussion is passed” (Hay 17). Accepting that no realistic option existed, Gustav Bauer, the chancellor of Germany, notifies Versailles that the German representatives would arrive on June 28 to sign the Treaty on behalf of the Weimar Republic. Though it was only a small paragraph in the large Treaty, Article 231 caused a major uproar in Europe, but in the end, Germany had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Finally, the Treaty of Versailles’ terms were not harsh enough, thus causing tensions leading up to World War II. As mentioned earlier, many territories that Germany had previously occupied were no longer in Germany’s possession after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. French domination at various points of such regions as the Ruhr, Saarland, and the Rhineland provoked German resentment. In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler found many sympathizers as he rose to power on the basis that the German nation should once again be free of foreign influence as well as territorially united. Germans rejoiced when, in 1936, Hitler marched his armies into the Rhineland in blatant disregard of the treaty’s territorial restrictions. Ultimately, the events of the Paris Peace Conference proved the political undoing of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson, further attesting to the fact that few had faith in their achievements (Hay 20). Clemenceau, despite his harsh stance, was actually attacked by the French press and rival politicians for having been too soft on Germany. Many Frenchmen had hoped, in fact, to dismember Germany by dividing it into numerous smaller states. Instead, Clemenceau had left a united Germany seething with anger and bitterness. In the United States, President Wilson failed to convince Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. “American absence from the league was exacerbated by the additional absences of the Soviet Union and, until 1930, Weimar Germany” (Hay 20). With the absence of these great powers, the league could never hope to assert the influence that Wilson had envisioned when he drew up his Fourteen Points. Before long, Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, realized that the league was not a meaningful obstacle to their expansionism ambitions, and they took full of advantage of this opportunity. Throughout the Paris Peace Conference, the victors of World War I took an unsatisfactory and weak middle course, creating a hole that could be filled by such willful leaders as Hitler. However, Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles, although he found its existence a “godsend for his propaganda.” Moreover, “even if Germany had been left with its old borders…he still would have wanted more: the destruction of Poland… [and] above all the conquest of the Soviet Union” (MacMillan 493). In the end, as has often been suggested, the Treaty of Versailles was either too harsh or not harsh enough. Since the Treaty of Versailles allowed leaders such as Adolf Hitler to gain momentum, the Treaty was a primary cause of World War II.


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