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The Myth that the Treaty of Versailles was Unprecedentedly Harsh

Updated on February 4, 2018
A French poster during the war decrying the harshness of German terms to Russia and Romania and urging to fight until final victory.
A French poster during the war decrying the harshness of German terms to Russia and Romania and urging to fight until final victory.

Myth: Versailles was a treaty with outstrips any other in terms of harshness, and its terms were unprecedented in terms of their unfairness to Germany.

Whether the Treaty of Versailles was a fair, just, or reasonable treaty are all potential areas for debate, but Versailles was not unprecedented in its harshness at the time. Barely a few years earlier (in 1917), the Germans had imposed the Treaty of Brest Livotsk on Russia which involved the Russian cession of Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and significant territory in the Caucasus - land with a quarter of the population and industry of the former Russian empire, and 9/10ths of her coal. This territory was to be granted to German client states : the argument that they were merely taking territory away from Russia which was not populated by Russians and hence wasn't truly Russian can be used easily enough concerning Versailles, which mostly took away territory from Germany which was ethnically non-German. In Romania, there were both important territorial losses to the Central Powers when Romania surrendered (although admittedly it also gained Moldavia), but even more importantly it was forced to lease its oil wells for Germany for 90 years, and it was effectively transformed into a puppet state of Germany by the implementation of German administrators with veto rights over the Romanian cabinet. At the same time, the Entente imposed peace treaties on Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, were all harsher than Versailles. Compared to these treaties imposed recently by the Germans, Versailles is not particularly harsh : Germany's population losses were nothing close to a quarter of the population, industrial losses were not on the same level, and while the Allies could be inflexible in their demands, the German government was free of Allied administrators appointed at its heart to direct it. Looking back in time, the Treaty of Frankfurt between France and Germany imposed harsh reparations on France (5 billion francs, an amount which is actually higher than the amount actually paid by Germany following Versailles), annexed Alsace-Lorraine, and occupied huge swathes of Eastern France, far larger comparatively than the Rhineland (and ones which were only evacuated quickly due to rapid French repayment). If it had no points about disarmament or the so-called "War guilt clause" the point remains the same : the treaties of the era which were harder on the defeated power or comparable are many.

The Treaty of Brest Litovsk : note that Poland and Lithuania were already occupied.
The Treaty of Brest Litovsk : note that Poland and Lithuania were already occupied.

An oft cited example which could have been used as a basis for Versailles was that of the Congress of Vienna, which decided the organization of Europe and was relatively conciliatory towards the loser, France. In some ways, this "conciliatory" element is a myth. French reparations were some of the largest in the 19th century, France's form of government was changed by force, several French colonies were taken, over 150,000 foreign soldiers were garrisoned in France, and although France even made modest territorial gains compared to her pre-Revolutionary situation, she had been recognized by international peace in 1802 as controlling the Left Bank of the Rhine which was lost to her : French territorial losses were thus in actual fact immense. However, even more importantly, French monarchists could claim a place as having contributed to the war. French monarchist emigrés had provided tens of thousands of soldiers at the least to Allied cause, as well as significant financial resources, and the French monarchist regime had opposed Napoleon during the Hundred Days. The French monarchists could claim their legitimate devotion to the Allied cause, for decades. What was the competing claim of the German republicans who overthrow the German Empire? A revolution after four bloody years of war, and only after it was quite clear that Germany had lost in the field. The comparison between the two, beyond any political elements in the acceptability of treatment of Germany, are evidently dramatically different. If Republican Germany was not represented at the Paris Peace Conference while the Kingdom of France was represented at Vienna, it is easy to see why.

Finally, Vienna was a peace between the statesmen of Europe, aiming to put things back to how they were before : it was an element to constrain, rather than to accommodate, the forces of nationalism and revolution. Versailles was not, Versailles was a peace which was made after years of popular mobilization. Just as the Germans if they were victorious could hardly have accepted a peace from the Allies without taking popular opinion into account, so too the Allies could hardly ignore the forces of nationalism which had fueled their own war efforts and which they now had to contend with across Central and Eastern Europe. The two peaces were from different eras, in different modes of thought, and in response to different situations, and are not truly comparable.

See the source link for the numbered participants at the Congress of Vienna.
See the source link for the numbered participants at the Congress of Vienna. | Source

The starker truth is that even after the treaty, France was still weaker in victory than Germany was in defeat, with the only temporary restrictions applied upon the Germans by reparations and disarmament being broken in barely more than a decade. The United Kingdom, by arrogance, short-sightedness, or cowardice, failed to supply a solution which would be able to close this power gap, an abdication of responsibility on the part of the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The British were unwilling to either accept a France strong enough to control German revanchism, or which was sufficiently reconciled with Germany to end the threat of war. This was best demonstrated after the conference, when Philip Kerr, one of Lloyd George's political advisors, wrote to Lloyd George on talks between Louis Loucheur (French finance minister) and the Germans that he [Loucheur] was "hanging things up as much as he can, but with an active and able man like Loucheur pressing things forward with all his might and supported by a very active Belgian delegate it is not at all easy." The Americans were unable to solve this power gap due to their isolationism and lack of involvement in European affairs. Instead of being a treaty unprecedented for its harshness, the Treaty of Versailles is unprecedented for how little capacity was taken from the losing party in its future capacity to wage aggressive war against the signatories who brought it to terms.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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