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The Myth of French Vindictiveness Towards Germany at the Treaty of Versailles

Updated on November 14, 2017
A typical German vision of the treaty: an allegorical Germany is faced with a guillotine, held by Clemenceau and watched by the British and Americans. Also painfully inaccurate.
A typical German vision of the treaty: an allegorical Germany is faced with a guillotine, held by Clemenceau and watched by the British and Americans. Also painfully inaccurate.

Myth: If France didn't want to use the Treaty of Versailles to break up Germany, at the very least it wanted to use it to permanently cripple Germany.

It has already been shown that France's intention was not to break up Germany, but how did France wish to deal with the German state that it would leave intact at Versailles? This subject too, is the focus of a host of misinterpretations and errors.

The most famous of this supposed French excess were outrageous French demands for huge German reparations, which would cripple Germany for decades and make it a slave to France. France, under the vengeful Clemenceau, chose to throw away a just peace under the 14 points, in exchange for massive German reparations to greedily enrich itself and to destroy Germany. The French Minister of Finance Louis-Lucien Klotz, is ridiculed for the slogan "L'Allemagne paiera" - Germany will pay.

Unfortunately, the facts do not bear this out. To start with, there was a desperate need for some sort of reparations or foreign assistance, given the need to rebuild France (and Belgium, a neutral power invaded by the Germans), which had been heavily damaged by war. However, France's initial vision for a peace with Germany did not call for large reparations. Their hope instead was that rebuilding would be carried out by the prolongation of inter-allied assistance as had been established during the war. The Allied bloc would continue to exist in much the form that it had in the final year of the war, with preferential tarifs between the powers, financial and currency accords, and raw material controls. Under this scheme, German reparations were quite markedly second in their importance to French reconstruction and French post-war economic security. It was the Americans who rejected this, and hence required France to seek reparations from Germany instead.

The French did use the threat of a punitive reparations settlement as a bargaining tool against the Americans, but this did not succeed, and their real demands were generally a relatively moderate sum of some $30 billion - a fixed sum, in contrast to the British who were unwilling to agree to one as they wished for a larger indemnity. Indeed, France went even farther than this, proposing $23 billion and without pensions - something that both the British but even the supposedly lenient Americans rejected!

Similar restraint was shown by the French on military clauses, where the French proposal for the German army was a conscript force limited to 200,000 soldiers, compared to the Anglo-American proposal for a 100,000 man volunteer army. The Anglo-American army was the one which was ultimately adopted. Both had merits, but if anything, the French proposal was the one which was more acceptable to the Germans : less capable of forming an experienced cadre for an expansionist army build up, it provided enough reservists to better defend German borders.

Indeed, of all the major powers of the Western Alliance, it was France alone which went as far as a consideration of a policy of a rapprochement with Germany. According to Marc Trachtenberg, major French politicians like Arstide Briand and Painlevé thought that "it might not be in France's interest to reduce German power too drastically in face of the Russian Revolution and the evident ascendancy of England and France", which some conservatives agreed with, while banks and industrial firms wanted to assume their pre-war relations with France. The French during and after the peace talks had economic talks with the Germans, and proposed for joint economic talks with the Germans - something that American President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George ignored - and the seed of later proposals for rapprochement which were tried in the 1920s had already appeared by 1919. Perhaps these were an attempt to make Germany accept the bitter pill of the treaty, but why not take them at face value, in that French elites were quite earnest in proposing that a form of rapprochement could occur between France and Germany? They did after all, continue throughout the interwar, with multiple plans to attempt to reach a more satisfactory economic settlement on the basis of some sort of reconciliation with the Germans being proposed by the French, such as when Louis Loucheur negotiated with the Germans in late 1919 and the Seydoux plan for an industrial, rather than monetary, reparations settlement. In any case, it further displays that the claim that France was bent only on destruction towards the defeated Germany is inaccurate at best and bankrupt at worst.

It is a terrible shame that so much of the prejudiced attitude comes from John Maynard Keynes, who did much to perpetuate the notion of the French leader Clemenceau as ravenously anti-German. His description of Clemenceau harkened more to the idea of a crude near-barbarian rather than a sophisticated man who had long endeavored for the promotion of liberty and democracy : "...a foremost believer in the view of German psychology that the German understands and can understand nothing but intimidation, that he is without generosity or remorse in negotiation, that there is no advantage he will not take of you, and no extent to which he will not demean himself for profit, that he is without honor, pride, or mercy. Therefore you must never negotiate with a German or conciliate him; you must dictate to him."

In addition to whatever misunderstandings of French policy that have been entered into the annals of history since 1919, we must so too record this dismal slander of French leadership, which has even more than any hard policies proposed by France rendered France a hulking monstrous creature of revenge rather than being the careful negotiator and moderate state which it was.

George Clemenceau portrayed as a an anti-German hawk who uses force to get his own way : a previous plate in the document drew allusion to the German militarist government doing the same thing, to deprive Allied legitimacy.
George Clemenceau portrayed as a an anti-German hawk who uses force to get his own way : a previous plate in the document drew allusion to the German militarist government doing the same thing, to deprive Allied legitimacy. | Source

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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