Was the Treaty of Versailles fair

100 years of the Treaty of Versailles: The failed peace

The Allies spent six months negotiating the Versailles Treaty in Paris in 1919. They want to punish the losers, compensate the winners and create a new, lasting world order. It is a diplomatic undertaking of unprecedented proportions - but one that ultimately divides Europe even more deeply

Versailles, May 7, 1919. It's the first really warm day after a long winter. In the park near the hotel “Trianon Palace”, the magnolias and crab apple trees are in bloom when a column of cars slowly rolls over the driveway in the early afternoon: khaki-colored automobiles with tall soldiers; black, blue and gray limousines with heads of government and diplomats from 32 countries in their funds.

They have come to present the Germans with the conditions for a peace agreement: a treaty made up of 440 articles on guilt, compensation and new borders - the result of a four-month conference to which the defeated were not invited, so far largely kept secret.

A discussion between the former opponents of the war is not planned. The Germans should only receive the text of the contract and submit any comments in writing: within two weeks and in duplicate.

Shortly before 3 p.m. the meeting room was filled with delegates of almost every skin color and origin. Only the Germans are still missing.

In strict accordance with the protocol, the country representatives are grouped around a horseshoe-shaped table. In the middle sits the host, Georges Clemenceau, the 77-year-old French Prime Minister, who is said to one day be buried standing upright, his face turned to the hated Germany.

The strains of the negotiation can be seen in the old man with the bushy mustache. His gnomish eyes look tired and the eczema on his hands has gotten so worse that he has to hide them under gray gloves.

Seated on his left is David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, 56 years old, a charming man with a rosy face and a thick head of white hair.

At the conference, he proved to be a brilliant rhetorician - but at times also an opportunist who can change his mind in a matter of minutes if necessary. Always looking for a tactically optimal balance between the desire for a level-headed post-war order and the chances of his own re-election: in a country that he had promised during the election campaign to “squeeze the German lemon until the kernels squeak”.

Clemenceau on the right sits Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, gaunt, stiff, and erect, with the habit of a preacher.

As the first American head of state, he personally traveled to Europe to campaign for a completely new kind of peace order with the full weight of the rising great power: free of self-interest and secret power diplomacy, with a guaranteed right of all peoples to self-determination; for a peace without vengeance under the blessing control of a newly created world parliament, to which he has given the name "League of Nations".

Even before the armistice was signed in November 1918, Wilson defined a just peace order in a 14-point program as the most important American war goal. For many intellectuals, he has since embodied the connection between philosophy and power. He considers himself morally superior to all the tricks of his European allies. But in the art of negotiation, the idealist usually has to admit defeat to the power strategists from the old world.

It gets quiet shortly after 3 p.m. A usher announces the German delegates. Skinny, pale and sweating with excitement, Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, the first foreign minister of the new German republic, leads a group of diplomats into the room. After a moment's hesitation, all those present rise - a relic of courtesy from another world, before 1914. Brockdorff-Rantzau single-mindedly approaches the table inside the horseshoe.

He saw a sketch of the room in a French newspaper; the places for the Germans were marked with the "dock".

“The hour of reckoning is here,” says Clemenceau. “You asked us for peace. We are inclined to grant it to you. ”One of his employees hands Brockdorff-Rantzau the contract. The German lets the sheets slip briefly through his fingers and pushes the pile aside again.

Now he can address the representatives of the victorious powers directly, probably his only chance. He wants to sacrifice it to a gesture of German self-assertion - and just sit there while he reads the speech. A diplomatic affront.

“We know the force of hatred that we encounter here,” the German Foreign Minister explains to his indignant listeners. “We are required to admit that we are solely responsible for the war. Such a confession would be a lie from my mouth. "

In Germany the people will rejoice at the intransigence of their emissary. In the hall of the "Trianon Palace", however, Clemenceau blushes with anger. Lloyd George breaks an ivory letter opener in anger. And President Wilson, shaking his head, says to a confidante: "The Germans really always do the wrong thing."

When Brockdorff-Rantzau has finished, he leaves the room with his delegation. In the door he turns around again, looks the representatives of the victorious powers in the face and lights a cigarette. One of the bystanders notices that his lips are trembling. Even before the Treaty of Versailles bears a single signature, it became clear that it might be able to settle peace. However, they do not bring about reconciliation.

The first constitution for the world: the Treaty of Versailles

Never before in the history of diplomacy has an agreement been negotiated with so much effort. From January to June 1919, much of the world was redesigned in a war-torn Paris. In the rose garden of the Tuileries, a crater reminds of the air raids on the city, and in the window openings of Notre Dame, instead of the valuable colored panes, there are still yellow replacement glasses from the days of the bombing.

On the boulevards, in the cafés and in 58 committees and working groups, hundreds of diplomats distribute the remains of the three empires that perished in the war: Germany, Austria-Hungary and that of the Ottomans. *

“You feel like you are in a screeching parrot house,” says a Briton, describing the cacophony of interests. Serbs and Romanians are fighting over the Banat, the Chinese and Japanese over the German colony of Kiautschou. The Poles want Danzig, the Greeks the port of Smyrna in Asia Minor. The New Zealanders are interested in the Pacific islands of Nauru and Samoa, the Italians in a strip of coastline in Dalmatia.

The English worry about their trade interests, the French demand security from Germany. The Belgians want a reward for the deployment of their Congolese troops against German East Africa. The Arabs demand the promised independence in return for their fight against the Turks. Czechs and Slovaks want to expand their newly founded state. The desire of the Armenians, Ukrainians and Kurds for independence has been discussed for a long time.

The Russians are not invited - and therefore seem all the more threatening. And the representatives of the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea speak out for several thousand Swedish-speaking residents who do not want to be worn out in the power struggle of the states.

The British alone - together with other members of their empire - accommodated a total of 400 delegates in five hotels near the Arc de Triomphe. The Americans are at times even represented by 1,300 men.

Their headquarters are in their president's apartment at number 11 Place des Etats-Unis. This is where the most important decisions of the conference are made. From the end of March 1919, the Council of Four met twice a day in Wilson's study: Wilson himself, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and the Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.

The four want to solve the most complicated questions of the new world order in front of the fireplace. Their most important topic is far too sensitive for them to be able to afford to discuss all of their arguments publicly: It is about how to deal with defeated Germany.

The four heads of government sit together more than 20 times, crawling together over Wilson's map of Europe spread out on the floor, marking borders, discussing the peoples' right to self-determination and the future of the German colonies, mostly on the basis of British and French plans - because Orlando is only going on anyway Italian territorial claims and Wilson is more interested in adhering to his principles than in concrete details.

On a single day, for example, the four discuss the amount of reconstruction aid to be demanded from the Germans, the question of an Allied occupation of the Rhineland, the future of the Saarland coal mines and the possible construction of a tunnel under the English Channel so that the British can help the French more quickly can if the Germans attack again.

But they are not making any headway on most of the questions: How much compensation can Germany even pay without the young democracy collapsing? How high must the published sum of all demands be so that none of their compatriots can accuse the peace makers of being too friendly to German?

How many soldiers are to be allowed to Germany so that it does not endanger France but can defend itself against Bolshevik attacks?

Can the Kiel Canal be entrusted to little Denmark, or should it be filled in? Does Heligoland have to be blown up? How can the German navy be divided up without the Allies' maritime balance of power being disturbed?

Is the emperor to be tried as a war criminal, even to be displayed to the people in a cage, as a British parliamentarian has already demanded? Or is Wilhelm in exile in the Netherlands alone with his shame?

"The emperor has to go to England to be sentenced," said Lloyd George at a meeting. “Be careful not to let his ship sink,” jokes Clemenceau. And where do you go with him then? “Please not Bermuda,” calls out Wilson. "I want to retire myself."

Most of the time, however, the mood among the negotiators is serious. Hundreds of thousands are starving and waiting for food in Germany. In 1919 alone, a dozen local wars flared up in Europe - for example between Turkey and Greece. And every month the USA sends 300,000 soldiers back home - this means that the possibility of pushing through the peace agreement with threatening gestures disappears.

If the negotiations fail, all sides openly threaten chaos. Clemenceau is even determined to march on as far as Berlin and smash Germany if the losers of the war do not submit to the treaty.

In Berlin, however, the politicians are drawing a different scenario: Without a strong Germany, no one could stop the Bolsheviks' triumphant advance to the west. Like an infectious disease, Brockdorff-Rantzau told a British general, communism will come upon the weakened Germans. "And I will personally ensure that the English are also infected."

The statesmen feel the burden of responsibility

With Lloyd George, these threats do not fail to have their effect: “It would be the worst,” he writes in a memorandum, which is intended to urge the French to moderate their demands, “if the Germans would make their intellect and enormous organizational skills available to revolutionary fanatics . "

The peace agreement should therefore not produce bitterness, he tells his colleagues. And also means: no need for an extended commitment of the British Army on the continent - which could cost him the next election victory at home.

The statesmen in the US President's Paris apartment feel the burden of responsibility. For weeks they yell at each other, make up again, forge alliances and set rhetorical traps. Once the Italian Orlando even bursts into tears when nobody wants to support his claim to the Adriatic port of Fiume (Rijeka). Wilson, his adversary in the dispute, takes him comfortingly in his arms.

The American head of state will later proudly call the powerful quartet a “council of friends”, “close friends who all believe in the same thing”. But that is a serious misjudgment that will largely shape the course of the conference.

The US president, who is popular with the European population, refuses to admit that the power politicians of the old world see him as an easy victim of their strategic tricks. An idealist with a lot of pathos and little diplomatic experience - who also made his top negotiating goals known long before the conference: the creation of a League of Nations and the guarantee of national self-determination. The do-gooder is therefore open to blackmail.

Clemenceau in particular knows how to take advantage of this. While Wilson, as chairman of a committee, takes care of all the details of the new League of Nations, the French only send a few diplomats who are bound by instructions to that body - with the task of wearing down the US president by making demands that are hopeless from the outset.

“Let yourself be forced to make one concession after the other,” Clemenceau instructed his negotiators. "Your setbacks at the League of Nations will help me to demand even more concession on the Rhineland issue."

The tactic is working: the French head of government knows very well that he does not need the negotiating leeway not with the more theoretical questions of a still vaguely defined world parliament, but with the definition of the German western border - the provision that affects the interests of the French nation like no other .

The French are starting to play poker correspondingly high. The right bank of the Rhine is to be demilitarized over a width of 50 kilometers, on the left one must formally establish self-governing Rhenish republics that can serve as a buffer between France and its hereditary enemy. "A crazy suggestion," counters Wilson: "I'd rather be stoned on the street than agree to it."

In mid-April 1919 the peace conference is about to be canceled

The French probably foresaw that he would react in this way - a Rhine state founded for purely strategic reasons and against the will of the population would be against the American principle that all peoples should determine their own fate.

But for Clemenceau this demand is a good starting point. It can only be pushed back by the millimeter. Wrest the British and Americans with a guarantee that they will come to the aid of France in the event of renewed German aggression.

He insults Wilson as a "friend of the Germans" and accuses him of acting like a self-appointed Jesus Christ in his moral ardor. Whereupon the President ordered a steamer to the port of Brest - threatening to leave.

"Peace Conference in Crisis", headlines the "New York Times". And a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry rudely declares that President Wilson probably wants to "go home to his mother".

Wilson is disillusioned. In mid-April 1919 the conference with which he wants to realize his visions is about to be broken off. The Italians threaten to withdraw from the talks because Wilson still refuses to give them Fiume. The French press opposes the American's "stubbornness". And his only ally on the Rhineland issue, Prime Minister Lloyd George, traveled to London for a few days.

Now is the time for Clemenceau to ensnare Wilson. Yes, he could move closer to the American position. If only the president could at least endorse the proposal for a temporary occupation of the Rhineland: divided into three zones, with staggered deduction after five, ten and 15 years - provided the Germans fulfilled their obligations under the contract. In gratitude, France could support the US position in border disputes in Asia Minor.

The American head of state cannot resist. He agrees. At least he can convince himself that he has dissuaded the French from their desire to quasi annex the western Rhineland by a vassal state: In 15 years this region will be governed by German again - just as the peoples' right to self-determination requires.

Clemenceau sees it differently, however: "In 15 years I'll be dead," he says to a colleague.“But if you do me the honor of visiting my grave, then you will surely be able to tell me: We are still standing on the Rhine. And that's where we stay. "

The distribution of mandate areas leads to conflicts

It is not Wilson's only concession. John Maynard Keynes, the economic advisor to the British delegation, criticized the American president, “with friendliness and a feigned will to reconcile,“ the Europeans can repeatedly push Wilson away from his positions. He then misses the moment when he should dig his toes into the ground at the latest - and before he even knows it, it is too late. He's just too slow. And too difficult to understand. "

The US President gives in to the Italians, as they want to expand their national territory to the Brenner - and thus accepts that 250,000 German-speaking South Tyroleans come under foreign rule. He will later excuse the concession by carelessly reading his map of Europe.

He gives in to the French who want to prevent Austria from joining Germany. Of course, he does not want to have this form of expression of national self-determination directly banned - but Clemenceau asserts that the League of Nations must first approve the state union. Unanimously. So with the French right of veto.

In Eastern Europe in particular, Wilson's principles repeatedly come into conflict with Clemenceau's strategic interests: he is planning a “Cordon Sanitaire” there, a belt of well-fortified states from Finland to the Mediterranean that will keep the Russians back and the Germans in check from the east should hold. To this end, the French want to draw the borders of the new countries according to strategic requirements - not, like Wilson, according to ethnic ones.

The American lets it happen time and again: In Poland, with the region of Poznan and the corridor between Pomerania and East Prussia, enclaves are being created that are inhabited by millions of Germans.

In East Galicia, the peace conference denies the largely Ukrainian population the right to self-determination: so that the area with its oil fields can be added to Poland, which is protected by France.

The results of the peace negotiations create long-lasting hostility between Romania and Hungary. And with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the great powers are confirming a multi-ethnic state that cannot exist in the long term.

The main thing is that the treaty creating the League of Nations is not damaged: That is how the US President sees it. Because only if all nations agree to it, this new organ of collective security policy will later be able to correct any injustices in good time.

And what should happen to the German colonies? In Wilson's new world order, there is no room for annexed overseas territories, whose mineral resources must restore the economy of the colonial powers and whose population must be drawn into European wars under European command. On the other hand, there are desires: France wants Togo, South Africa wants German Southwest, Australia wants New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, Italy wants a piece of Somalia. A contradiction that the peacemakers cannot bridge - at best rhetorically.

In the end, it is the South African Jan Smuts, member of the delegation of the British Empire, who serves the US President the interests of the old colonial powers in a politically correct formulation: “Great empires will be dissolved”, he writes in a memorandum, “and some places stay behind Peoples who still need a lot of care before they can be released into independence. This is where the League of Nations is challenged. ”Wilson is impressed.

The moralist particularly likes one word in the plan: from now on the colonies will be called “mandate areas”, a term with a benevolent connotation.

Smuts divides the regions into three categories according to their stages of development; the most backward are to be treated by their sponsor states almost as part of their own territory for their own good - not forever, but for a lease period of 999 years. And of course monitored by the League of Nations, to which annual reports on the progress of the protégés are to be sent.

The compromise calms Wilson's conscience and serves the interests of the other victorious powers. The big winner, however, is the South African Smuts: Since his proposal, the US President has regarded him as an honest ally in the fight for a just world order - and has at the same time secured supremacy over German South West Africa.

Only small Belgium, which was devastated by German troops in four years of occupation, is initially ignored when the colonies are distributed. Only after violent protests at the end of the conference will two pieces of land be separated from the former German East Africa and assigned to the Belgians as mandate areas: the territories of Rwanda and Burundi.

The statesmen negotiate billions for months

The allies have been fighting over money the longest. The situation here is paradoxical: the country of the loser of the war is largely undamaged - in France, on the other hand, 4,000 towns are in ruins, 20,000 factories have been dismantled or destroyed, and mines flooded. In Belgium there is an unemployment rate of 80 percent: mainly because the Germans have removed all industrial facilities. Britain borrowed nearly $ 5 billion from the Americans to cover its war costs. France owes four billion to the Americans and three billion to the British.

The German Empire, on the other hand, financed its war effort solely with domestic debt securities - and given the high inflation, the new republic will hardly have to repay them in real terms. Should the losers emerge from the war, of all things, as the continent's strongest economic power? No, they have to pay for the damage, the allies agree on that. But how?

Excessive demands would cause the German economy to collapse - which runs counter to British export interests in particular. Too low reparations, however, would incite public opinion in the victorious countries against all too gentle peacemakers - and cost the negotiators their offices.

What about the war-related tax losses? The killed cattle? The stolen works of art? And is Germany allowed to pay for necessary food deliveries with gold, as the US would like? In that case, however, a large part of the imperial state treasure would already have been allocated before the French and Belgians could assert their claims.

The statesmen play with billions for months. The British want to set the total of claims at $ 120 billion, the French at $ 220 billion, the Americans at $ 22 billion. The world economist John Maynard Keynes, however, warns the politicians that the German republic could pay a maximum of ten billion.

But on what basis can the reparations be calculated? Wilson made a commitment on this point even before the armistice: the Germans would only be asked to pay the costs of civilian damage, no fines, no contributions to the Allies' war costs. After a moment's hesitation, the French agreed, as they would be entitled to almost three quarters of all reparations.

Lloyd George doesn't like to accept that. If Wilson can carry out his plan, Britain will only receive compensation for a few sunk merchant ships, the civilian damage on the island will not be much greater (even if the British government spent more money on the war than any other allies).

The Germans want to limit their loss of territory

The Briton relies on Jan Smuts from South Africa, whose Solomonic formulations so impressed President Wilson. This again solves the problem very elegantly: If Wilson only wanted to include civilian damage in the calculation, then this would certainly also include the widow's and orphan's pensions for the relatives of fallen soldiers, which account for a large part of the war costs in Great Britain.

"An absurd, illogical requirement," grumble US experts. But Wilson likes the South African's morally charged argument: “Logic? I don't give a damn about logic. The Germans should pay the widow's pensions. ”David Lloyd George is satisfied with the result of the fictitious transaction: The British share of the German reparation payments increases to 28 percent, the French share drops to 52 percent.

The fact that the sum of the compensation to be paid by the Germans doubles - at least in theory - is no longer significant for the British, who shortly before preached moderation: a total of all the reparations demanded will be included in the final version of the contract anyway do not appear - for fear of public opinion. And each of the negotiators knows that Germany will not be able to meet all of the demands anyway.

Moral guilt and financial standing: A young lawyer from Wall Street, member of the American delegation, is charged with somehow solving the political dilemma legally: John Foster Dulles, the future US Secretary of State, drafts two articles of the treaty text with which he speaks to everyone Believes to be fair.

According to Article 231, the Germans should admit their moral guilt for the war and its consequential damage in order to appease the angry population in the victorious states. And in Article 232 the Allies should admit that Germany will not be able to compensate for all of this damage - and thus protect the young republic from excessively high demands.

The peacemakers consider this a fair compromise. Nobody foresees that it is primarily these clauses that make the treaty unbearable for the Germans. The victorious powers order the German representatives to Versailles on April 28th - and hope for a smooth transaction.

When Foreign Minister von Brockdorff-Rantzau traveled with 180 diplomats and journalists in a special train through the devastated northern France (at walking pace, as Clemenceau personally ordered), the German politicians already suspected that the conditions of the Allies would be harsh. Prime Minister Philipp Scheidemann of the SPD gave his envoy strict instructions to avoid the question of war guilt as much as possible - and to wrest concessions from the victorious powers on specific issues.

Around the accommodation of their former opponents of the war, the shabby “Hôtel des Réservoirs”, the French put up a fence made of raw laths - as it is said, to prevent attacks on the guests who now hand-held boxes full of documents, maps and memoranda in their rooms dragging: documents for a negotiation between winners and vanquished that will never take place.

Day and night, the German delegation is fine-tuning its position papers, drowning out its meetings with gramophone music from Wagner's "Tannhauser" in order to make eavesdropping difficult for French agents. The Germans still believe that the Allies will hear their proposals, in which they limit the loss of territory for the Reich - and prefer to pay higher compensation for them.

The treaty on May 7th led to outrage among Germans

The delegates are all the more shocked when they finally hold the treaty in their hands on May 7th. When a delegate passed the most important points over to Berlin by telephone that evening, he roared into the receiver so loudly in indignation that the French secret service could only partially understand his torrent of speech: Alsace-Lorraine, Posen, the Memelland and almost all of West Prussia from the Reich separated, the left bank of the Rhine occupied by Allied troops, referendums in Upper Silesia, Eupen-Malmedy and North Schleswig. 13 percent of the German territory is lost.

The Saar area is subordinated to the League of Nations - and the French are allowed to exploit the coal mines for 15 years. 75 percent of the German iron ore deposits go to the winners. All colonies are to be ceded, as are almost all merchant ships. The German army is being downsized: 100,000 soldiers, 15,000 sailors, and 4,000 officers are henceforth the upper limit. Airplanes, tanks and submarines are prohibited.

The Kaiser is to be extradited as a war criminal, as are other Germans accused by the Allies. And the Reich has to sign a blank check for the Allies for their financial claims, the amount of which a commission will determine later.

"The long text of the treaty would have been completely unnecessary," says Brockdorff-Rantzau with resignation: "You could have simply written: Germany is giving up its right to exist." Also in the Allied camp, where many of the negotiators are only now completely in control of the treaty hold, the critics dare to move forward.

The British accuse the French and Italians of making the treaty too harsh. A group of young Americans, once enthusiastic adepts of their idealistic president, quit diplomatic service in protest.