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The Myth that France Wanted to Break up Germany After WW1

Updated on February 3, 2018

It is nearly a hundred years since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at Paris in 1919. This was the Treaty of the Peace, signed between the Allied powers - consisting of the major nations of the United Stats, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Japan, as well as a long list of minor powers, and Germany, which ended WW1. Often claimed as a Carthaginian peace which led to WW2 by imposing a harsh treaty on Germany after WW1, Versailles has a host of myths and misconceptions about it. In an attempt to dispel these, ten of the biggest ones are listed below. Before that, the significant terms of the Treaty of Versailles are listed here.

- The transfer by annexation or plebiscite of Alsace-Lorraine to France, Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium, Schleswig to Denmark, Posen, parts of Eastern Prussia, parts of Sileia, and Pomerelia to Poland, parts of Silesia to Czechoslovakia, Danzig to the Free City of Danzig, and Memel to the Allies (later to be annexed by Lithuania).

- Transfer of German colonies to mandates, overseen by the French, British, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

- Reduction of the German Army to 100,000 volunteers with equipment restrictions.

- Reparations to pay for certain war damages sustained by the Allied Powers, which also included an Article 231 which would be interpreted by Germany as a "War guilt clause".

- Occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years, and its demilitarization thereafter.

- Outlawing of a potential union (anschluss) between Germany and Austria.

- Foundation of the League of Nations.


10 of the most prevalent myths concerning the Treaty of Versailles are laid out in a following series of posts, which can be accessed by URL links below.

Action française map from 1915 : never actually French government policy
Action française map from 1915 : never actually French government policy | Source

1. France Wanted to Break up Germany

Myth: France at Versailles either wanted to cripple Germany (expanded later on), or if it could, it wished to destroy Germany as a state and balkanize them like in 1870.

During the Great War, there was a political party which advocated for the balkanization of Germany : Action française. A French far-right, monarchist, Catholic, and revanchist party, it also carries another distinguishing feature : small size. Action française was never involved in the French government, and while its influence grew throughout the war, it was always but a small fraction of French political thought. An apt comparison might be to fascist third parties in the United States today : their actual capability to influence policies is non-existent. Action française published one post-war plan, shown above, which called for breaking up Germany. This was a proposal which was never considered by official policy, much less adopted as French objectives towards Germany by the Quai d'Orsay (the popular name for the French foreign office).

The Rhenish republic was a serious proposal and (intermittently) supported by the French, but that's hardly equivalent to the oft cited claim that the French wanted to break up Germany.
The Rhenish republic was a serious proposal and (intermittently) supported by the French, but that's hardly equivalent to the oft cited claim that the French wanted to break up Germany.

French policy instead stressed finding a workable way to contain Germany, and in some cases even went so far as proposing a reconciliation with Germany, but it never proposed the active break up of Germany. The closest which might be found is the French policy on the Rhineland, where French leaders proposed at times the creation of an independent Rhenish state to ensure French security by preventing German access to the Left Bank of the Rhine. France would even go so far as to intermittently give it support after the treaty was signed. At the treaty itself however, France largely abandoned such objectives in exchange for an Anglo-American security proposal which would see the English and Americans mutually guarantee France against future German aggression. This never was created despite intense French sacrifices for it, as the Americans did not sign the treaty, and the British used the failure of the Americans to sign to not ratify the mutual protection pact. French policy never envisioned anything more vis-a-vis Germany than the separation of the Rhineland, and that was always a bargaining counter for achieving other French objectives. There is a world of difference between a policy of actively breaking up Germany and an often-changing and never absolute policy for possibly breaking off a single region from it, which was withdrawn in exchange for a security guarantee. Instead of French policy towards Germany being the ambition to break up Germany overriding its interests in a shared alliance with England and America, instead it was the interests in a continuing alliance that overrode expansionist interests towards Germany.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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