Was the Treaty of Versailles fair?

Background Information

The extent to which the ToV was unfair has been debated almost endlessly by historians. There are varying interpretations and understandings of both the terms of the Treaty, and the events that followed them. In this lesson, we will briefly explore arguments on both sides, and then look at the context surrounding the Treaty.

The Treaty was Unfair: Arguments

The Treaty was a ‘Diktat’ treaty

‘Diktat’ links to the word ‘dictate’ / ‘dictator’, which means to tell somebody something and give no choice.

The Treaty of Versailles was dictated to Germany – they signed the Armistice in 1918, and then had no involvement in the Treaty until the Big Three made them sign the final agreement in 1919.

This involved Germany having to sign clauses such as the War Guilt Clause, which they strongly disagreed with. Germany protested (which we will look at in the next lesson), but was forced to sign when the Allies threatened to restart the War.

The 14 Points

Germany had surrendered and signed the Armistice in 1918 just after Wilson published his 14 Points. Whilst nobody guaranteed to Germany that the Treaty would follow the 14 Points, they believed it would look pretty close.

In the end, only one Point was fully followed (the League of Nations), and Germany wasn’t allowed in.

Was the Treaty of Versailles fair?, figure 1

This newspaper shows how, in October of 1918, Germany started to ask for peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points. They sign the armistice only a month later.

The League of Nations

As with the above point, Germany was not allowed into the League of Nations. This made the League hypocritical from the start, and was clearly about revenge more than making any kind of peace. It meant that Germany would have no way of peacefully discussing concerns that they had.

Furthermore, excluding Germany made the League look like a ‘club of winners’. This was not great for the League’s image, after all the League was meant to be an organisation for peace and cooperation between countries.

Self-Determination

Self-determination was another of the 14 Points that was rolled out unevenly and was incomplete. Whilst Germany had land taken away from them for other countries, particularly the Polish Corridor, and some land in the east to the new Czechoslovakia, Germany did not get self-determination in return.

In particular, over 3 million Germans were made part of the new Czechoslovakia (in the ‘Sudetenland), and Germany was forbidden to unite with Austria, even though they considered themselves part of one ethnic nation.

As such, Germans the biggest losers in the re-drawing of Europe under self-determination.

Empire

Germany was particularly angry that Britain and France were seen to be profiting unfairly – their colonies were taken away and effectively handed over the British and French. To Germany, colonies had nothing to do with the War in their opinion. Furthermore, it just seemed to reinforce that the priority of the Treaty was to punish Germany and benefit France and Britian, not to make a good peace.

Overall Harshness

There were many critics of the Treaty, who simply argued that the total harshness when all terms were taken into consideration, was just too high. They feared that this would create a generation of Germans who hated Britain and France, and wanted revenge.

Challenges facing the Treaty

In judging the Treaty, we need to consider the circumstances in which it as negotiated and signed, and what challenges the peacemakers faced.

Disagreement – interpersonal and public pressure

As you will have seen in the previous lesson, the Big Three had vastly different expectations and views going into the Treaty. Between the three leaders they disagreed on pretty much everything there was to disagree on – how to treat Germany, what the priorities were, who should get what, and so on…

All three were also facing rather difficult, and contradictory, pressures from home. Lloyd-George and Clemenceau were facing elections, with public pressure to punish Germany. The British public were fairly happy; the French public were not, and they voted Clemenceau out of office soon after the treaty.

On the other hand, Wilson was under public pressure to bring an easy and fair peace – Republican factions preferred a policy of ‘isolationism’ (keeping out of Europe), and if there were any flaws in the Treaty then they would not sign it. This is what happened when Wilson took the Treaty back to America for signing – Republicans in Congress blocked it, and so the U.S. could also not join the League.

Communism

In 1917, the Russian Revolution overthrew the Russian Tsar, and killed him and his family. They replaced the government with Communism – a new ideology based on the theories of Karl Marx.

Communism particularly appealed to workers and poor people, and with the devastation of the First World War, the Big Three were extremely worried that the bad conditions would lead to Communism spreading. They were particularly worried about this happening in Germany, as the country had suffered huge losses.

This put time pressure on the Big Three to get the Peace agreed and signed quickly. This was compounded by the challenges of Spanish Flu and the Naval Blockade (both of which you will learn about further down). Whilst the ‘war conditions’ were still in effect, Germany was only getting weaker and poorer, and a Communist Revolution was getting more likely every day.

Was the Treaty of Versailles fair?, figure 1

A key theme in Communism is that of workers rising up, as shown in this graphic, particularly those who live in poor conditions.

Spanish Flu

Whilst the Big Three regarded Communism as a disease, spreading from Russia, there was in fact a real disease spreading through Europe. The poor living conditions during, and as a result of, the war, had enabled a disease called Spanish Influenza (Spanish Flu) to spread throughout Europe.

Spanish Flu was terrible, it killed up to 100 million people and affected those in poverty worst of all. As such, these problems were mutually reinforcing – each made the others worse.

In particular, the devastation of the Spanish Flu – and the failure of the traditional governments to do anything effective about it – made the chance of a Communist revolution more and more likely. As such, the Big Three were under increased pressure to get the Treaty wrapped up quickly, in order that they might be able to start fixing the problems and improve peoples’ lives.

Was the Treaty of Versailles fair?, figure 2

Spanish Flu had already begun to spread during the First World War. As you can see from the poster, it had spread to America as well. During the War, people worried that it would damage the war effort. After the War, the worry was more about recovery.

British Naval Blockade

As Britain won the battle of the seas in the First World War, and eventually managed to defeat the Germany navy, Britain ended up blockading the German ports. This meant that no ships could get in or out – therefore, no food, medicine, trade, etc. could get in or out of Germany. In those days, aeroplanes would not have been used for trade, it nearly all came through ships.

Britain continued the blockade through the Peace Treaty, as they could not release until an official peace had been made. It would also serve as an effective tool if the Germans threatened not to sign the Treaty.

This meant that, along with the Spanish Flu, living conditions would remain poor in Germany until the Treaty was signed and Britain could release the blockade. This further put Germany at risk of a Communist Revolution.

A long-term vs. short-term view

In the short-term, it is crucial to recognise that the Treaty did make peace fairly quickly, and allow countries to start recovering. It brought an official end to the worst war the world had ever seen, and made significant compromises between competing interests. It also set up the League of Nations – a new project for what many believed would become a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

In the long-term, the accomplishments of the Treaty seem a little less brilliant. By 1939 Europe was back at war, with roots that grew directly from the Treaty. Furthermore, the unfairness in parts of the Treaty poisoned all that followed – Britain and France were made to look greedy, the League was seen as a ‘winners’ club’, and Germany was left alone and friendless. It is safe to say that, in the long-term, whilst the effects were exacerbated by external events, the Treaty has to be seen as somewhat a failure because of how it set up the Second World War.

Define the following terms:

Diktat
Your answer should include: Germany / no choice
The 14 Points
Your answer should include: Wilson / wishes / Versailles
Anachronistic
Your answer should include: judge / against / time period
War Guilt Clause
Your answer should include: Article 231 / Germany / blame / First World War / WWI
Spanish Influenza
Your answer should include: Spanish Flu / disease / challenge