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The Myth of the Territorial Injustice of the Treaty of Versailles

Updated on January 23, 2018
German territorial losses were extensive, but most were not unjust.
German territorial losses were extensive, but most were not unjust. | Source

Myth: Versailles stole large amounts of German land undeservedly, and in a manner completely opposed to the Fourteen Points.

Wilson's 14 points called for a treaty which would respect ethnic self-determination. The Treaty of Versailles took away some 65,000 square kilometers of German territory, the vast majority of which (51,800 kilometers), went to Poland. In it, were 7 million people. German nationalists bitterly resented this loss, and agitated for a return to the territorial boundaries of 1914, claiming that the territorial losses were illegitimate.

The 1920 plebiscite in North Schleswig : as can be seen, the results were fair in regards to the population's will, and both German and Denmark had some of their nationals on the other side of the border.
The 1920 plebiscite in North Schleswig : as can be seen, the results were fair in regards to the population's will, and both German and Denmark had some of their nationals on the other side of the border.

This was not true for the most part, and in particular under the way in which German nationalist thought itself structured its territorial claims. Alsace-Lorraine in the West had been annexed by Germany in 1871 from France, without a referendum, and had a strong movement for re-attachment to France or at least for local autonomy throughout the period of German rule. Its re-annexation to France was hardly unjust given the Germans had themselves annexed the territory without a referendum. The detachment of the Saar from Germany, was done only after the Germans had purposefully destroyed French coal mines - sometimes after the Armistice - and hence purposefully damaged the French economy, requiring some form of coal restitutions to be made. To the North, Schleswig, annexed by Prussia in 1864 from Denmark, held a referendum about whether it wished to rejoin its former owner. This was a free and fair referendum which was not, unlike most of the day, rigged : the northern part voted for Denmark.

An ethnographic map of Germany/Poland, showing regions in red as possessing a German majority, and regions in Green as a Polish majority, both graduated by respective level of majority. The red line is the border between the two.
An ethnographic map of Germany/Poland, showing regions in red as possessing a German majority, and regions in Green as a Polish majority, both graduated by respective level of majority. The red line is the border between the two.

By far the most contentious to the Germans was Poland, where in the East the Germans lost the most land. German anti-Polish hatred played the main role in singling out Poland, and they argued that it was unjust that Germans should be forced to live under the culturally inferior Polish. This argument is I hope, one which can be set asides. The Polish-German border was one which was not absolute ethnically, but which had regions with partial Polish or partial German minorities. Some choice had to be made of where minorities would end up in Germany or Poland. As it stands, the border roughly approximates the ethnic border to the greatest possibility. Unfortunately, this also meant that East Prussia was cut off from Germany, but that was an inevitability based on ethnic arrangements. There was one glaring area here which was ethnically Germany and which was taken from Germany : the Free City of Danzig. This was not Polish territory, but an independent state under League of Nations protection. It was created to fulfill a term of Wilson's 14 points : the guaranteed access of Poland to the sea. Poland had no other major port, and if it had to ship all of its goods through German territory, it would be little more than a vassal state of Germany. This was hardly an idle question, since Germany would launch a vicious trade war against Poland from 1925 onwards, which brought intense suffering to the Polish economy. Some sort of measure was required to enable Poland to have economic independence from such German pressure, and the only other alternative was to annex Danzig directly to Poland. As it stands, the Treaty of Versailles chose what was the least offensive option that it could come up with. This stands as a region where unfortunately, the interests of two nations stand directly in competition : any "just" settlement for one side would be bitterly resented and hated by the other.

There was only one region in Europe which might be viewed as unnecessarily harsh to Germany, and which was decided during the treaty itself (Memel, in the East, was annexed by Lithuania years later, but was not delivered to Lithuania during the treaty itself : it too could be viewed as an unjust event, as the territory continued to be heavily against Lithuanian control). The small territory of Eupen-Malmedy, an ethnically German region, was annexed to Belgium in a rigged referendum, with continued opposition both in Germany, and in Eupen-Malmedy, to this annexation for decades. Germany and Belgium went so far as to negotiate in the 1920s about Germany buying it back. Still, the loss of the tiny region of Eupen-Malmedy is hardly worth the title of a crippling and deeply unfair peace settlement.

Germany also lost its entire colonial empire, but all of these territories except for Tanzania were already occupied by the Allies, and few truly cared about the loss of it. It did result in bitter disputes between China and Japan about German territories in China and whether they would become part of China or Japan. However, these events are distant from Europe, and generally forgotten in the popular consciousness, although the treaty resulted in the May 4th movement in China against Japanese encroachment.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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