Peace or armistice? The Treaty of Versailles, 28 June 1919

On June 28, 1919, at 3.12 pm, in the Hall of Mirrors of the historic Palace of Versailles, the German Social Democrat Hermann Müller, Foreign Minister for just over a week, and the Minister of the Colonies, the centrist parliamentarian Johannes Bell, signed, in the name of the German government, the peace treaty that formally ended the First World War.

A diktat of the winners

Although it would never have been ratified, for example, by the United States of America, in spite of the fact that Woodrow Wilson, as we know, had been one of its main supporters, signatories of the Allied Treaty were 26 nations1.

Germany therefore submitted to its true and proper Allied diktat, given that the text of the treaty had been notified a little more than a month before, on 7 May 1919, accompanied in that occasion, among others, by these words of the French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau:
«You have imposed the war on us: we will take measures so that a second aggression like this can no longer be repeated. The time has come for a heavy showdown».

According to the testimony of the Italian diplomat Aldrovandi Marescotti, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau replied to him:
«We do not disregard the magnitude of our powerlessness and the extent of our defeat. We know that the strength of German weapons is broken. We know the power of hatred that comes to us, and we have felt the passionate will with which the winners want us to pay as losers and as culprits.»2

Winners and judges

In this brief exchange the climate in which the Treaty had matured is already fully expressed: in many ways it represents an absolute novelty in the history of diplomatic relations.

Also in other eras and in other contexts the winner had imposed a diktat on the vanquished, as in this case happened with Germany, which did not take part in the Paris Conference and which was threatened, in case of refusal to sign the treaty, of the immediate resumption of military operations in the West, in the midst of a social and political crisis that was tearing apart and disintegrating the country, after the collapse of the Second Reich of Wilhelm II.

The novelties lie rather in the fact that the winners had formed themselves into a League of Nations, and that the latter appeared to be Germany’s counterpart: thus placing the defeated powers in the condition of non-Nations, or at least of States excluded from the international society.

The Allied powers therefore dictated their own conditions by becoming international judges, almost as if they too had not concurred, with actions and omissions, at the outbreak of the frightening conflict; almost as if the conflict had not been a terrible clash of modern industrial and military powers, but a simple international police operation.

Germany and the “guilt of war”

This juridical-ideological position was fully confirmed in another novelty, the one that perhaps weighed more in cultivating the spirit of revenge of the German people, in two other fundamental points of the Treaty, in Chapter VII, as well as in the infamous art. 231.

In the first, the Allies reserved the right to try the former emperor William II «for a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties», a formulation that, at least from Machiavelli on, makes any scholar of history smile in about the existence of an international morality (we know something about it even today…).

Article 231, indeed, poured on Germany the whole guilt of the war, a hasty sentence thanks to which the Allies could easily open the question of the reparations that Germany would have had to pay. A punishment that therefore aroused the unfounded suspicion that this attribution of guilt to the enemy won served in truth as a legal justification for a sort of permanent expropriation of Germany, aimed, above all on the English side, to eliminate a formidable industrial and commercial competitor, who had questioned Britain’s primacy as a leader in European economic development.

This also opened up the complex historiographical question, known in Germany as Kriegsschuldefrage, which not only animated the political debate between the two wars, but which was revived in the 1960s, when the German historian Fritz Fischer wanted to explain the Second World war as a relapse of the original German guilt.

Historiographical thesis that today is decidedly outdated, as the English historian, certainly not suspicious of pro-German sentiments, has recently demonstrated, Christopher Clark3: and as for any other, from contemporary equanimous, he had already lucidly and repeatedly documented the Austrian-German thinker Rudolf Steiner in his many interventions on the outbreak of the war, speaking of a «zero point» of European politics, due to the total incapacity of the central European ruling classes to contrast with intelligence and foresight, on the one hand, the lucid western imperialist politics, and, on the other, the Russian autocracy that sought a glue in panslavism ideological to cement an empire prey to an irreversible social crisis.

The long history of “repairs”

The consequences of acceptance of the Treaty were very heavy for Germany: in defiance of the proclamations of the Fourteen Points, it lost over 6.5 million of its fellow citizens, equivalent to at least one tenth of its population, one seventh of its territory, and all colonies – that the Allies, in the greatest respect of the aforementioned international morality, shared beautifully.

Furthermore, Germany had to cede its war fleet and a large part of the merchant fleet, suffered very heavy taxes, financial and industrial indemnities: in the Treaty, however, the amounts and methods of payment were not yet fixed, thus leaving the loser in a position of extreme uncertainty for its immediate future.

Allied financial experts defined German debt in January 1921 at 226 billion gold marks. This calculation was communicated to the German government, inviting it to respond within a month to London, where, between 7 and 10 March 1921, there was a clash between the allies and the German representatives, who affirmed the impossibility for Germany of support a similar payment.

At this point, economic and financial sanctions began, with the establishment of an allied customs line on the Rhine, and the occupation of Duisburg, Ruhrort and Düsseldorf. On 27 March, the Repair Commission announced that the German debt for war reparations amounted to 132 billion gold marks.

A new conference (London, 29 April – 5 May 1921) established the so-called state of payments, which defined the annual amount owed by Germany to the allies, based on indices established by the allies, between 3.04 and 4.6 billion gold marks. Germany agreed that these amounts were greater than its economic capacity and therefore, only following the ultimatum presented by the Allies on 5 May, the state of payments was accepted by Germany.

Thus a long and exhausting international economic-financial dispute was determined, which would pass through various other international conferences and another world war, to conclude, apparently, even in 2010, when the newly reunified democratic Germany ended up paying lots and debt interest, repeatedly discussed and downsized.

Wars without peace

And yet, even from the English side, there had been no lack of invitations to moderation to a France that, having found itself close to collapse in 1914, hoped to close the German problem once and for all, taking revenge for the scorching defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Generally known and often cited are the observations by the economist Maynard Keynes, who gave an altogether obvious reading of the possible economic consequences of such a treaty.

Less well known is the fact that during the Paris Conference on March 25, 1919, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George expressed his reservations about the imposition of the defeated to George Clemenceau, French Prime Minister, in the so-called Fontainebleau Memorandum of conditions of peace too harsh. Lloyd George wrote:
«You may strip Germany of her colonies, reduce her armaments to a mere police force and her navy to that of a fifth rate power; all the same in the end if she feels that she has been unjustly treated in the peace of 1919 she will find means of exacting retribution from her conquerors. The impression, the deep impression, made upon the human heart by four years of unexampled slaughter will disappear with the hearts upon which it has been marked by the terrible sword of the great war. The maintenance of peace will then depend upon there being no causes of exasperation constantly stirring up the spirit of patriotism, of justice or of fair play to achieve redress. Our terms may be severe, they may be stern and even ruthless but at the same time they can be so just that the country on which they are imposed will feel in its heart that it has no right to complain. But injustice, arrogance, displayed in the hour of triumph will never be forgotten or forgiven».

In these words, somehow, we find the anticipation of the famous answer that Nancy Witcher Astor, viscountess of Astor, the first English woman to sit in the House of Commons, gave during a dinner in London, shortly after Adolf’s rise to power Hitler, to those who asked her where the new German chancellor was born:
«In Versailles», was the concise but meaningful answer.

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  1. Serbia, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Japan, Portugal, Italy, Greece, United States, Panama, Cuba, Siam, Liberia, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia, Ecuador, Hejaz, Peru, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Uruguay. China had refused to take part in the solemn event. Russia, as we know, had emerged from the conflict, after the October revolution, with the peace of Brest-Litovsk, in 1918. []
  2. L. Aldovrandi Marescotti, Guerra diplomatica, Mondadori, Milan, 1936, p. 300-301. []
  3. Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914, London, Allen Lane, 2012; tr. It., Laterza, Bari, 2015. []