Versailles: the settlement that settled nothing

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US president Woodrow Wilson celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Versailles

US president Woodrow Wilson celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was a vicious project, during which the Great Powers prioritised their own imperialist interests over the rhetoric of a “just and lasting peace”. Steve Guy looks at its consequences.

The Great War had ground on for four long years, and the Allied leaders were caught by surprise when revolution in Germany compelled the military dictatorship of Ludendorff and von Hindenburg to sue for peace in November 1918. As a result, the peace talks only commenced in January 1919, with a commitment by the Allies to producing a “just and lasting peace”. In fact, there were five peace treaties concluded by late 1920. Of the five, the one with Germany, the Treaty of Versailles, levied the most onerous demands on the vanquished foe.

Initially all the victorious nations were accorded full conference credentials, but by March 1919 the proceedings were dominated by the Council of Four, the leaders of the “Great Powers” – the United States (Woodrow Wilson), Britain (David Lloyd George), France (Georges Clemenceau) and Italy (Vittorio Orlando).

It has been claimed that Versailles led to the creation of an august body, the League of Nations, which would have the authority to settle international disputes by a process of arbitration that could be enforced, if necessary, on warring states. But none of the major powers wished to see their imperial ambitions stunted by such a body, and the discussions were soon dominated by arguments about how the spoils of war should be apportioned. The Great Powers led the scramble for their share of the booty, stripping Germany of its colonies, with Britain and France leading the pack and going on to divide up the Middle East between them. It was this rapaciousness that prompted Lenin to condemn the League as “a thieves’ kitchen”.

As to the treatment of Germany, the economist Keynes, participating as a British Treasury conference adviser, summed up the Allies’ intentions thus: “The future life of Europe was not their concern; its means of livelihood was not their anxiety. Their preoccupations, good and bad alike, related to frontiers and nationalities, to the balance of power, to imperial aggrandisement, to the future enfeeblement of a strong and dangerous enemy, to revenge, and to the shifting by the victors of their unbearable burden on to the shoulders of the defeated.”

Germany was faced with demands that it indemnify the allies for the total cost of the war, the Allies’ costs as well as its own, and with an Allied occupation force remaining on German soil until the debt was discharged in full. In fact, the total sum owed was never completely quantified, but left open-ended, as the Allies disagreed about what it should be, only that it should be paid over 30 years. There was never any reckoning on Germany’s ability to pay, and the subsequent plunder of all of its assets, including the expropriation of the coal mining region of the Saar by France, and occupation of the Rhineland by a multinational force, made default even more likely, justifying the continued occupation. The Allies maintained the economic blockade in order to compel the German delegation to sign the treaty, worsening the plight of a populace already malnourished after four years of war.

The Allies also stipulated that Germany had to surrender or destroy all its weaponry, and disband its armed services, except for a force of 100,000 troops, to be deployed to deal with “internal unrest”. This force, spearheaded by the reactionary Freikorps, was used to suppress the German Revolution, killing and wounding thousands of German workers.

Some commentators have written approvingly about the pledges made by the victorious Allied powers to the subject nationalities in the defeated empires, principally those of Austria-Hungary. But as those empires were swept away by war and revolution, the peoples of Eastern Europe looked both west and east, to the Allied powers and to the Bolsheviks, for the realisation of their aspirations for self-determination. Initially the Allies had vacillated over these demands, but the perceived threat of the Bolshevik Revolution rolling westwards forced them into accelerating the process of recognising the fledgling nations of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

To foster their opposition to the Bolsheviks, the Allies assisted the petty bourgeois nationalists in territorial annexations of the predominantly German-inhabited lands such as the Sudetenland in Czech Bohemia, and the Danzig corridor in Poland. The Romanian government, declaring itself opposed to the Bolsheviks, annexed huge areas of Hungary with the tacit agreement of the Allies, thus helping to create an anti-Bolshevik geopolitical bloc, extending from the Baltic coast through the Carpathian Mountains to the Black Sea.

The Allied states had succeeded in imposing a brutal, crushing peace on their defeated adversaries, overseeing the division of much of the world among themselves and averting the spread of proletarian revolution.

The legacy of the Treaty of Versailles was one of bitterness and hatred throughout Europe, particularly in a Germany humbled politically, pauperised economically, with the population psychologically prostrated by the war and its ruthless aftermath. Renewed inter-imperialist rivalry fragmented the fragile unity of the former allies of Britain, Russia and France, allowing the sinister forces that emerged in Germany after the defeat of the revolution to take advantage of these divisions. Once again Germany’s expansionist ambitions were reasserted, paving the way to new wars of conquest and destruction.