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Treaty of Versailles


The Germans were horrified at what they saw as the harshness of the peace treaty. They had hoped for milder terms in line with the Fourteen Points. There has been a lively argument since 1919 about the fairness of the Treaty of Versailles.


Was the Treaty of Versailles fair?

Germans had difficulty coming to terms with defeat. They had been proud of their army and were surprised and upset when Germany was defeated. Some said that people inside Germany, Jews, socialists and communists - had deliberately organized the surrender. They talked about the 'stab in the back'. The politicians who signed the armistice were called the 'November criminals'.


Those Germans who felt that their country had been betrayed were appalled by the treaty. The section of the Versailles Treaty that most angered people in Germany was Clause 231 describing German 'war guilt'. They felt that it was wrong to put the entire blame for the war on their country. The payment of reparations was also deeply resented.


The Big Three had not allowed Germany to negotiate the treaty. The Germans were simply given the treaty and forced to sign it. This lack of discussion and consultation angered Germans who called it a 'diktat': a dictated peace.


The loss of German land was a severe blow. The fact that East Prussia was now separated by the Polish Corridor seemed unfair. Germans also resented bitterly the loss of their colonies in Africa.


Conflicting interpretations

Some of the people on the winning side also thought that Versailles was quite wrong. One non-German critic of the Versailles Treaty was John Maynard Keynes. He had been a British official at Paris and later he became a very famous economist. Keynes left the Conference early, disgusted at the treatment of Germany. In 1920 he wrote a famous attack on the Treaty of Versailles. His book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace was widely read. Many people in Britain, the USA and Germany agreed with Keynes.


Between 1920 and 1939 many writers and politicians in Britain and the USA agreed with the view of Keynes. As a result politicians, particularly in the British government, were ready to make concessions to Germany to try to improve on a flawed treaty. Since 1950 most historians have disagreed with Keynes and have taken a more sympathetic view of the treaty.


Assessing the terms of the Treaty

It was wrong to put the sole blame for the war on Germany. Other countries had been aggressive in the years leading up to 1914. One of the causes of the war was imperialism; many countries, including Britain and France, had tried to build up world empires.


The settlement removed only limited amounts of land from Germany. In places like Alsace-Lorraine and the Polish Corridor most people were not German-speakers and saw themselves as French or Polish.


The treaty was unfair because it punished the people of Germany instead of the rulers of Germany. Reparations hurt ordinary Germans who were not guilty.


German statements about the Fourteen Points were hypocritical. When Wilson described them in a speech in January 1918 the Germans made no reply. They only took the Fourteen Points seriously much later in the year when they had been beaten and were looking for the best possible terms. When Wilson was talking about the need for a just peace the Germans were busy defeating the Russians and imposing a brutal peace treaty on them. When they were winning, the Germans ignored fairness; when they were losing they demanded it.


Germany was tricked because her government had been offered justice and fairness by Wilson when he made his speech about the Fourteen Points. When the Germans stopped fighting they expected to be dealt with under Wilson's terms. There was nothing about war guilt and reparations in the Fourteen Points.


The treaty aimed to destroy the economy of Germany. This was a mistake that would do no-one any good. People throughout Europe would lose out if there were no successful German factories and businesses.


The basic strength of the German economy was not destroyed by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany soon recovered its position as the most successful economy in Europe. In 1925 Germany was producing twice as much steel as Britain.


The German Army was reduced in size but the leaders of the German Army were not removed. The army remained a power force in German society. The generals were ready and able to re-build German armed forces when the time was right.