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The relations between France and Germany up to the 21st century have never been outstanding. Ever since Napoleons domination of Germany, and Germanys later victories in their domination of France, the two countries have always been rivals with one another, to the point where they hated one another. In the decade prior to World War I, Germany had a massive buildup of military strength. When World War I began however, Germany seemed to be stuck up against all of Europe. Their defeat in the war spurred the creation of the Treaty of Versailles, a treaty directed at the losers of the war, that was greatly influenced by their enemy, France. France’s aims during the discussion of the treaty during the post war peace conferences were evidently the intent of crippling Germany until they would never be able to rise up as a threatening power in Europe. This statement seems one sided at first, but through further analysis, I found France’s thoughts and situation at the time to be justifiable to some extent, and that their cruelty towards Germany understandable. I have therefore decided to investigate just how much of France’s aims towards Germany can be justified by their fear of Germany invasion, and a sense of national security.
This paper will analyze acts of aggression between France and Germany prior to the peace conferences after the war, and uncover the extent of the hate between the two countries. Because the peace conferences consisted of multiple European personalities, including Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America, a number of their mindsets at the time will be analyzed. This analysis will allow for a further look into Germany’s mental position in the minds of European leaders at the time. The specific points of the treaty will also be assessed in whether or not they follow through with France’s situation at the time, and their necessities.
Through all of this analysis, it was found that France’s aims towards Germany were justifiable, in that France’s proximity of German territory evoked fear and a want for heightened security against Germany. Germany had invaded France many times, and each time had been complete domination, so their fear of German strength was understandable at the time. However, at the same time, there were some French aims that seemed to be abuses of their power over Germany after World War I, such as their confiscation of many natural resources including the German Saar Mines, and the massive reparations Germany was forced to pay.
It was evident, ever since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, that France and Germany had tensions that had the potential to catalyze a future war between not only them, but the entire world. The initial rule of Napoleon ruined future relations with Germany, with his conquest of all of the German states into his French Empire, and the forceful conversion of the German states into those of France. Along with the Franco-Prussian War, and the German annexation of France’s Alsace-Lorraine, a French state that consisted of all French peoples  , the hate that France had for Germany was unimaginable, and the brutal war debt that Germany forced France to pay certainly didn’t mitigate the tensions. Prior to World War I, Germany was undoubtedly the only country that had military strength rivalling that of Great Britain’s, and this gave reason for the French to fear German invasion, because they did not stand a chance against the overwhelming military strength of Germany. World War I however, was a turning point in the balance of powers in Europe, and as a result of Germany’s defeat to the Allied countries of France, Britain, and Russia  , Germany was ultimately placed into France’s position pre-World War I. It was during this time that France felt a sense of control and power over Germany, and it seemed that they wished to utilize this newfound power to implement the long awaited revenge they had for Germany since the 1800s, to be done during the post-World War I peace conferences, and namely the Treaty of Versailles. The conference for the discussion of this treaty was organized by Woodrow Wilson, the democratic President of the United States, who “hoped that the shape of Germany and the successor states in central and eastern Europe would be clearer, to ensure a sustainable peace in Europe.”  The members of the Allied winners  , feeling more antagonistic, felt that Germany’s terms of defeat, fate of its colonies, indemnities, military limits, and reparations, should be implemented upon them without actual conference nor discussion with Germany themselves, because they were clearly the loser of the war.  This aim was most apparent in Clemenceau, the Prime minister of France at the time, who saw Germany as a permanent enemy, and knew that France was not the lone victor of the war  . He, along with all of France, had experienced multiple German invasions and feared that Germany could start another war, and France would be its first target, due to the proximity of both countries. These fears were spread to its allies, and as a result, Germany had restricted military numbers in soldiers and vehicles, large amounts of land confiscated, and unlimited reparations  to pay. Germany was crippled to the point where not only could they not start another war, but also being on the verge of collapse. It is arguable that France was justified in their aims of the treaty for their own and national security, but was this massive amount of restrictions just an abuse of power for revenge? This paper will argue that France’s aims were bent on revenge for Germany’s superiority in Europe prior to World War I, but will also give a discussion for other factors such as national security, and a fear for Germany, that may have influenced their offensive position towards Germany during the post-World War I peace conferences.
Franco-German Relations Pre-World War I
Even when Germany didn’t formally exist, but existed as the country of Prussia, France never had good relations with the Germans, which is especially evident during the rule of Napoleon during the 19th century. During this time, he invaded Germany multiple times, and after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in October 14, 1806  , Napoleon converted the divided thirty-nine German-speaking states into his Confederation of the Rhine, and destroyed the former Holy Roman Empire that ruled over Germany. A treaty that Napoleon implemented onto Prussia as a result of their victory in this battle was the treaties of Tilsit  , which resulted in large reparations owed to France by Prussia, and stripped them of almost half of their owned territory. Anger in the German states because of this defeat evoked German nationalism in later generations in these states, views in opposition of France domination, and Napoleon’s rule  . During this time, one of the most hated views of France was that under Napoleon’s rule, the monarchs of the German states were referred to as his vassals, and all the German states were just part of the French empire  . Being conquered by France, Germany’s initial view on France was a hostile one, and posed a rocky road for future relations between the two countries. At this point, France had been the dominant power in Europe, towering over all of the European countries, especially Germany. The control that France had during this time may have angered the envious Germany, giving them a mind set on reorganizing the balance of power in Europe, with France at the bottom. However, with Napoleon’s unstoppable empire at France’s borders, the Germans would seek their revenge later after Napoleon’s fall of power, in the Franco-Prussian War.
The Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s between France, ruled by Napoleon the 3rd (Napoleon’s son), and the Kingdom of Prussia, ruled by Otto von Bismarck, ended in the defeat of France’s second empire, and a laid foundation for Germany as a significant power in Europe. This meant more than a great victory over France for Prussia, but also the unification of its states with itself being the capital, into one unified Germany in 1871  . France’s defeat in this war also meant the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, a French city that was purely Francophone, but forcibly taken under German control. The German annexation of this particular state was guaranteed to make France a permanent enemy, and at the time even Bismarck knew this and opposed the annexation, but was overruled by his general (General Moltke) insisting it was necessary as a “defensive barrier.”  The indemnity that was imposed on France after this war, was identical to the amount that Napoleon charged on Prussia during his rule, which portrays the mindset of revenge that Germany had for France, because they wanted France to experience the same suffering that was imposed on them by France.
With their faltered relations leading up to World War 1, it seemed as though the anger towards the other country would not end here, as there were acts of blatant aggression from Germany towards France that later became the actual beginnings of the war. For instance, the Schlieffen Plan of the early 20th century must be addressed, a historical event that was the catalyst for the First World War. This plan called for German troops to invade France through the neutral country of Belgium, and assume domination of French troops, then immediately turn around and defeat Russian troops on their East side, in order to consecutively engage troops from two countries  . The organization and follow through of this plan portrays the overzealousness of Germany, and their overestimation of their control over Europe, possibly because of their domination by Napoleon’s enormous army back in the 1800s. Even though the entire plan was flawed, due to the need for the German army to fight two consecutive battles against two different countries with no rest, there was one particular flaw that questions the thoughts Germany had at the time. The plan was originally created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, and modified by General Molkte, as mentioned previously. The flaw was that in order to cross over to France undetected, the German army was required to march through the neutral country of Belgium, whom was in an alliance (London Treaty of 1839) with Great Britain at the time. Their invasion of Belgium caused Britain to immediately declare war on Germany, which was the start of the war. According to German records, Germany was completely aware of this alliance, but didn’t believe Britain would honor their treaty with Belgium and retaliate, a major mistake on their part  . They were surprised to hear that, “The Britons will go to war for a mere scrap of paper.”  Although this particular flaw in German logic can be blamed on ignorance, this ignorance was arguably as a result of their desire to invade France, without any setbacks, which furthers the view of German-Franco hatred prior to the War.
Aggression between France and Germany during World War 1
The anger towards one another between Germany and France was one of the main contributors to the war, but these feelings didn’t end with the declaration of war in Europe. Throughout the course of the World War (1914-1918), it was evident through the acts of aggression from both countries, that Germany and France’s hate for one another was everlasting.
One of the first major battles of World War I, on the Western Front, was the Battle of Verdun in 1916, where Germany forced France into a battle of attrition on a French city called Verdun  . A German general by the name of General Falkenhayn, saw this ancient stronghold as a vulnerable target. His strategy was to continually bombard Verdun with heavy artillery shells, and this would divert France’s attention here, thus drawing them away from the Western Front, to Verdun. This plan, he believed, would “bleed France dry of troops,” and win the war  . The outcome was as he had planned, with French soldiers forming a defensive position, but unaware that they were vulnerable to German attacks from all sides simultaneously. The two sides were composed of two million German attackers against two hundred thousand French defenders, however France kept sending in reinforcements, which just ended in more casualties on the French side. France suffered considerably more casualties and deaths than Germany did.  Although this strategy of attacking Verdun and forcing a battle of attrition was a cruel act, it is arguable that because the alliances of the war were favored towards France anyways (Triple Entente), Germany had no other choice but to use such tactics to gain an edge over the war. Another arguable point revolves around the already evident German relations with France. This particular act could very possibly be another unveiling of Germany’s overwhelming power onto France, and by angering France by attacking one of their most precious ancient strongholds, Germany gave France a reason to be more grim and merciless in future encounters, namely the peace conferences when the war ends, and defeat was handed to Germany by the Triple Entente Alliance.
Prelude to the Treaty of Versailles
When World War 1 was over, and Germany was declared the loser, and the Allies the victors, preparations were set to create a sustainable peace in Europe, and to make sure a war of the same magnitude was prevented at all costs. This fight for peace was led by Woodrow Wilson, the democratic president of the United States since 1912  . Along with him, there were several other European leaders who joined the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. These personalities were Lloyd George of Britain, Clemenceau of France, Orlando of Italy, and of Wilson himself. Each leader had a separate view of how the peace treaty should have proceeded, and the kind of peace they wanted.
Wilson’s perspective on European peace was expressed through his famous Fourteen Points. His points specifically demanded the end of all secret treaties (to prevent incidents like the Schlieffen Plan), freedom of the seas, removal of barriers and discrepancies in international trade, the reduction of weapons by all powers, even land distribution, evacuation of occupied territory, a redrawing of European boundaries along borders, and an international organization with a task of solely preventing war (To be called the League of Nations)  . In Wilson’s point of view, he wanted to create a new type of treaty, because he believed that it was the old treaties that focused on policies of power, secret deals that excluded mention to the victimized countries, and the creation of secret alliances made between countries  . These were significant factors that led to the first world war, and Wilson wished to reform these kinds of treaties to avoid another war. However, Wilson’s Fourteen Points had much difficulty in being accepted by the Allies, because each country had a different idea of peace, and how it was to be attained. Specifically, each of the Allies had a grudge for Germany, either because of its military presence during the war, or from past relations. At the end of the war, Germany accepted an armistice in preparation for upcoming peace treaties because their initial belief was that the Treaty of Versailles was to be created on the basis of Wilson’s proposed Fourteen Points, with only minor modifications  . As well, because Germany was coming under a new rule of socialistic and democratic perspectives after having overthrown their current Kaiser, they had a belief that this new democratic Germany would be treated considerably by the victorious Allies, because they would re-emerge into Europe as a new Germany  . The Allies had a considerably different perspective towards Germany, after its previous accomplishments and increase in power, and being unaware, Germany accepted the Armistice of 11 November 1918  .
Demands of the Allies with the Treaty of Versailles
Lloyd George of Britain
Germany was arguably the most hated country during World War I, because it was the enemy of the Triple Entente, but primarily because of its enormous increasing military powers. Germany’s naval power was imminent when it became Great Britain’s top rival in the National Arms Race  , where countries ‘raced’ to construct a greater amount of weapons to show military superiority. Britain was originally the richest country with a veto over naval warfare, with all countries not daring to fight with Britain in sea battles. However, with Germany’s dramatic increase in power prior to World War 1, Britain lost their control over the seas, because although the numbers of ships they had were greater, Germany’s naval power was great enough to rival that of Britain’s  . After the war, to consolidate their power over the seas once more, Britain wished to remove Germany from naval warfare, and the treaties they had control over gave them the authority to do so. Observing the demands George had against Germany and the reasons for their weak relations, seems only because Britain was envious of increasing German strength, and wanted to uphold their previous title of the most feared naval force in Europe.
Georges Clemenceau of France
France had placed Germany on the top of their list of hated and feared countries, with reasons as mentioned earlier, such as the earlier German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, which they demanded be returned at the Paris Peace Conference, and the complete domination of France by Germany during the Franco-Prussian war  . But the most evident reason was their argument that most of the war had been fought on their soil, and they demanded that Germany pay for all the damages done. At the time, there was no numerical total, but it was certain that the amount in damages that Germany had to pay was well over nine trillion francs, a sum that even Clemenceau himself said, “would lead to nothing practical,”  meaning that this sum of money France was demanding wasn’t solely because of the damages, but with a motive to cripple Germany’s economy as well. Clemenceau also insisted on their demand for security against Germany, claiming that if Germany retained ownership of their lands, enough support could start another war. However, his paranoia for security from Germany has evidence, because having seen two German invasions of France during his rule, and being dominated in both of these, Clemenceau knew full well that France was not the lone victor of the war, but rather the Allies as a whole. Because Germany almost directly borders France, it seemed understandable that Clemenceau would be so desperate for a greater sense of security from Germany. France proposed to cut down Germany to almost French size, that the west parts of the Rhine be set up as independent states under the Allies’ control. (The land that was taken away from Germany can be found in the appendix). If not for the rejection of the request by Wilson and Lloyd George, this confiscation of land would have been approved. Clemenceau battled the rejection, but failed and agreed to put down his request on the condition that Britain and the USA would immediately come to their aid if Germany were to launch an attack on France. As well, instead of the control of the Rhineland, Clemenceau proposed the demilitarization of it instead. This alternate suggestion seems justifiable, in that France craved national security, because the Rhineland was indeed a direct border between France and Germany, and if Germany stationed troops in this area, France could be in danger of an attack. However, France’s demand for the confiscation of Germany’s Saar coal-mines seems to be a far stretch from security. A large portion of Germany’s income came from the export of coal from these mines, and without them, the amount of reparations France set on Germany would be almost unattainable, along with the economic setbacks on Germany as a result of restrictions on its economy in the treaty. These mines, along with the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, a small strip of Schleswig to neutral Denmark, and two tiny districts Eupen and Malmedy, to Belgium were the only territorial losses that Germany suffered from their loss of the war, which is relatively small and modest, considering the magnitude of their loss. Clemenceau’s desire to maximize the amount of power to be taken away from Germany, even if not all of their proposals were accepted by the Allies, seemed to be solely to fulfill a sense of security from a country that was directly bordering the Rhineland and had the likelihood of invading France at any time if the opportunity was available.
End Result of the Treaty of Versailles
The demands in reparations that the Allies placed on Germany were massive, and as mentioned, was well over any kind of sum Germany could afford to pay. The only possible way for Germany to come up with such a sum would be from export profits. This course of action would however, compete and interfere with the Big Four’s economies. This economic reasoning was ignored by the Allies’, because of their mind being set on repaying their enormous debts to the USA at the time. They regarded the debt they forced onto Germany “as simply another means of righting their wrongs and of putting off the danger of a German revival.”  When the Treaty of Versailles was completed in May 1919 and ready to sign, the Germans initially refused, due to obvious reasons of unjust conditions. The Allies threatened Germany with hostile action in response to their refusal, and this threat caused chaos in Berlin due to conflicting perspectives. The Germans knew that there was no possible way to retaliate against the victors of the war, with their damaged and insufficient army, but every German citizen (and the Allies) knew that the conditions were completely absurd and meant to collapse Germany into a state where it was impossible to revive itself, rather than simply the pursuit of peace, as initially proposed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points but later rejected by the sheer influential power of the maddened Allies. Wilson was willing to abdicate to the demands of the Allies, in return for the acceptance of his proposal of a League of Nations (Germany was excluded however). The League of Nations was formed at Geneva during the Paris Peace Conference, but the United States didn’t join ironically even though Wilson suggested it, nor did Germany until 1926, or Russia until 1934. The Official Treaty of Versailles was completed in three months. During its process, the Germans did not have the right to make or suggest decisions, and the Russians were not present during the making of the treaty. According to Wilson, the formation of the League of Nations was supposedly made to adjudicate international relations and be a means to solve problems between international powers. It is arguable that the system’s only purpose seemed to be for maintaining the status quo in powers, in favor of France and Britain, and the exclusion and isolation of Germany, which was completely contrary to Wilson’s initial proposal.
Germany, prior to World War I, was one of the most feared and hated powers by France along with its Allied countries. During the era of Napoleon’s rule of Germany in the 19th century, Germany had been near the bottom in the balance of powers in Europe. With Napoleon’s domination of Europe at the time, Germany was inevitably one of the targets for his invasions to conquer all of Europe. Under his rule, Germany felt like a useless French state, and vowed to seek revenge on France. When Napoleon was defeated, Germany took this fantastic news as a turning point in their position of power, by dramatically increasing their military strength to the point where they rivaled Britain in the Arms Race. Germany put their newly built army on display during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, ensuring the defeat of France, and the result of their victory was the annexation of the French state of Alsace-Lorraine, a large factor of France’s hate for Germany in their later encounters. However at the same time, Germany’s presentation of their massive buildup of military strength evoked fear in France at the same time, because an invasion from Germany could happen at any time, considering the proximity between the two countries.
The defeat of Germany by the Triple Entente Alliance in World War I, gave France a chance to revert their fear of Germany, because with their influential power in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the creation of the Treaty of Versailles, France being one of the victors, could impose almost any amount of reparations and restrictions on Germany as they felt necessary. Clemenceau’s fear of Germany was still evident during this time, because he wished to cripple Germany to the point of no revival.
France’s hate for Germany, as well as their fear of them, were significant factors to France’s aims for crippling Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. The question is which one was the main contributor? With further research, it is possible to find the answer to this question. With the current evidence, it seems reasonable that France had the same mindset as Germany had after their buildup of power. Because France suddenly had so much power over Germany, after being Germany’s underdog prior to World War I, revenge could have been a very influential factor that fueled their desire to crush Germany under the Treaty of Versailles and ensure that their opportunity for a return to power would never arrive.
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