This June 28th marks the centenary of one of the most consequential peace treaties signed in the 20th century. On June 28, 1919 (interestingly exactly five years to the day that the assassination of Francis Ferdinand and his wife launched World War I) the victorious Allies gathered at Louis XIV’s magnificent palace in Versailles to dictate the treaty that ended what was then called “The Great War.”
The terms were harsh. Article 232 of the treaty stated that Germany accepted full responsibility for the war. She agreed to pay heavy reparations to France, Belgium and Great Britain, would maintain only a small army without offensive weapons such as airplanes, submarines or tanks and would surrender large pieces of territory to the new Polish state in the East while restoring the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to France. Along with the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires, the treaty signaled an enormous shift in the balance of power in Europe, one that had lasted for all practical purposes for a century, since the end of the Napoleonic wars.
To what extent did this treaty that ended one terrible war contribute to a second more awful conflict twenty years later? At another level could you argue that the extreme nature of the Versailles Treaty led to the rise of dictators such as Benito Mussolini and especially, Adolf Hitler?
It is safe to say that the actions of the leaders at Versailles were counterproductive, if understandable, given what happened to their nations during World War I. The French, with their population already stagnating, lost about one quarter of their adult male population; the British suffered 750,000 killed; Italy a like figure. For comparison the number of British killed between 1914 and 1918 was almost double those who died in World War II. Even the United States which only took an active part in battle for about five months, suffered 114,000 deaths (they suffered 400,000 killed in 44 months during World War II). For Germany the figure was 1.8 million killed. These losses generated a terrible sense of loss on the part of the victors and a thirst for revenge on the part of the defeated Germans.
There quickly emerged among the Germans a belief that they had been betrayed by traitors — communists, pacifists and Jews and their cowardly political leaders, known as “the November criminals” who surrendered an undefeated Germany to the Allies on November 11, 1918. The fact that this wasn’t true didn’t matter. By November 1918 the Germans had been defeated on the battlefield and the nation worn down by the British blockade which led to mass starvation during what was called the “turnip winter” of 1918. Extremist political parties seized the theme of betrayal with enthusiasm, among them a small right wing populist faction that later became the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis. It was their eventual leader, Adolf Hitler who raised this sense of betrayal, the myth of the stab in the back, to new levels.
While it is probably true that the economic problems of post war Germany, especially the terrible hyper-inflation of the early 1920s which destroyed the German middle classes contributed to Hitler’s rise to power, the bitter aftermath of the war played a significant part in winning him an audience. The German Republic that emerged after the war, the Weimar regime, was doomed from the start. It was saddled with the sense of betrayal and treachery that German people felt. However, what clinched Hitler’s ultimate takeover in January 1933 was the second great economic catastrophe for Germany (and the world), the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s.
The combination of the so-called “wrong of Versailles,” the belief that Germany hadn’t really been defeated but betrayed, and the twin economic crises of the 1920s and early 1930s gave Hitler a platform that he as a skilled demagogue could exploit. Hitler’s Nazi party was an insignificant one in the German parliament as late as 1928 with just a handful of deputies. Four years later it was the largest political party and movement in Germany. Hitler came to power in a legal manner having been able to exploit those frustrations the German people felt after World War I better than any of his democratic rivals. The Versailles treaty and its flaws played a contributing role to that disaster for the world.