The Treaty of Versailles:  Mirror of Europe's Postwar Agony

By Hans A. Schmitt

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This paper seeks to make one point: The Treaty of Versailles was in no fundamental sense success or failure. The accord was merely another chapter in the long history of multilateral peace conferences summoned to terminate multilateral wars, a history which extends from 1648 to the annual summits of the dominant industrial powers of our day and conveys an impression of extensive efforts succeeded by major failures. The large cast and the large agenda, rather than ill will or outright incompetence, may account for the shortcomings of these grand affairs.

The Paris Peace Conference fits this scenario. It was convened to resolve the problems accumulated by a war that had lasted far longer and had been more costly than anyone had expected. Some of these problems antedated 1914 by centuries. Poland, for instance, had figured among European diplomatic preoccupations ever since that monarchy had become elective, certainly since 1696. Military and diplomatic attempts to contain hegemonial ambitions had likewise arisen numerous times before 1919. I need only remind you of the congresses at Utrecht (1713) and Vienna (1814/15), convened to liquidate the imperialist pretensions first of Louis XIV and then of Napoleon Bonaparte. Let me also recall that each of these attempts at making peace brought to the bargaining table alliances of divergent interests whose solidarity began to disintegrate as soon as victory was won.

Let us, however, not forget that the war which the participants of the Paris Peace Conference had fought differed from its most immediate predecessors. Frederick the Great's armies numbered tens of thousands; Napoleon led an unprecedented half mil1ion men to disaster in Russia; and the wars of the nineteenth century engaged armies of one to two hundred thousand at most. Now millions battled on many fronts in engagements lasting not days, but months. World War I had been a democratic war, not only because of the incidence of representative institutions among belligerent governments, but because it enlisted soldiers and civilians of both genders. While young males reported for combat, fathers and grandfathers, wives, sisters, girl friends and mothers, took over the farms, operated the machinery of sophisticated manufacture, and ran public utilities. These non-combatants were also involved in the fray as taxpayers and subscribers to war bonds. Economic mobilization was as essential to the war effort as was the military.

The comprehensive and unprecedented marshaling of all resources imposed more sacrifices as the war turned from the expected quick romp to victory into a four-year battle of attrition. Living standards declined, food grew critically short, and disease stalked town and country as both physicians and medicines became scarce. Nor were these proliferating hardships distributed equally. War industries nourished, paying wages that kept pace with inflation. However, other pursuits, such as building and construction, practically ceased. Less visible injustices multiplied, often in unpredictable ways. Jürgen Kocka's seminal study of Germany's home front documents, for instance, how the deterioration of civil service income hit upper echelons harder than lower classifications. Different degrees of victimization bred not only different levels of disaffection, but turned the disaffected against fellow citizens whom they perceived as suffering less or even profiting from the conflict. On a broad front, farmers resented governmental control of prices and distribution for the sake of hungry city dwellers. Townspeople saw farmers as war profiteers charging exorbitant prices for their crops, while they patriotically labored in the arms factories. As a result of these increasingly bitter divisions, the nation was in danger of becoming a victim of the very war fought to preserve it. Recent research contesting the traditional notion that war unifies a people has so far been confined to local and national case studies, but a grand synthesis, revealing war as a destroyer of national unity, will, I am sure, be written some day and will rest on a surfeit of evidence. 1

Costly and all encompassing though this conflict was, no civilian leader had wanted it. Most of you know that the literature on the origins of World War I is huge and still growing. While this profluent genre of historical writing has revealed that some governments pursued more reckless policies than others, it has, at the same time, failed to discover a Hitler hell-bent on conquest, regardless of consequences. No archives have been found that contain a master plan for world conquest; even the most aggressive parties preferred talking to shooting. After more than forty years of precarious peace, intermittently darkened by crises and threats of war that never quite materialized, the guns did finally speak, suddenly and unexpectedly. 

The crisis, like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated it, took governments by surprise. The responses, whether reckless or restrained, constructive or provocative, were spur-of-the-moment decisions made under unusual pressure, during particularly adverse circumstances. 2

Similar handicaps surround the efforts to make peace. So long as fighting continues belligerents are preoccupied with the pursuit of military victory. They cannot predict when that goal, or its opposite, defeat, will be reached. True, governments announce war aims, formulate multi-point peace programs, and their propaganda describes the terrestrial paradise that will follow the bloodbath, but when hostilities end, proposals for an actual settlement are as much improvisations as were the battle plans. Before the Paris Peace Conference the newspaper-reading public had heard of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, of the expectation of a world safe for popular self-government, and of the pledge to drive the Germans out or Belgium and to turn Alsace-Lorraine over to France. There was also the less public commitment to help Russia gain control of the Straits of the Bosporus. But how attainable, how realistic, how practical would these goals be at the unpredictable moment and in the unpredictable context of sudden peace? 

The war had begun over Serbia. By the time it ended, Austria-Hungary, which had fired the first shot to punish Serbian terrorism, had disintegrated. The decisive battles of a multilateral conflict were not fought in the Balkans, but on the French river Marne. By 1918, furthermore, a revolutionary government in Russia had abandoned the war aims of its predecessors. Examples of such as these remind us that a world accustomed to bi-lateral, one-issue wars of the nineteenth century was mired in a contest whose participants and purposes had changed repeatedly. 

As a result, problems that no one could foresee in 1914 crowded the peace conference's agenda. Claims were presented by new governments, Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croat, often still in exile. Italy added another set of demands to the common purpose of the original Allies, when she entered the war in 1915. 3  The United States' declaration of war against Germany contributed an entirely new formula--peace without retribution--that challenged the quest for revenge pursued by belligerents who had been victims of attack and invasion.

There was much to be said, there still is, for the American proposals. But they received a chilly reception. In order to understand why, we must ask: How had governments in general maintained the fighting morale of weary troops and hungry civilians? The answer is: by preaching hate. The enemy was depicted as evil incarnate. Defeat meant "the end of civilization as we know it." As sacrifices mounted, the gospel of opprobrium was joined to the promise that evil would not only be rooted out but punished as well. 4

Propaganda-a new war of words-popularized such utopian war aims. Both visionary and concrete goals combined to generate white-hot passions that could only be slaked by grinding the faces of the defeated in the dust. Part of the punishment to be visited on the forces of evil would be to compensate victims for the suffering to which aggression had exposed them. By 1918/19 this mental state prompted governments on both sides to promise their constituencies that they would impose heavy reparation payments on the defeated enemy. At Brest-Litovsk, in March 1918, the Germans forced on the new Soviet government a peace which revealed what such a settlement looked like. Russia lost 386,000 square miles of territory, 46 million inhabitants, and the bulk of its industrial resources. A German army group, headquartered in Kiev, continued to occupy large portions of European Russia from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. 5

When the Kaiser's forces began to falter and his government approached the Allies about conditions for peace, the response included the refusal to negotiate with Wilhelm II and his advisors. However, unlike Russia, Germany's military collapse was not pre- ceded by a revolution. Such an upheaval followed as a pre-condition of peace.

To repeat: Suffering had been intense, passions no less so. Governments meeting in Paris were therefore limited by a multiplicity of domestic commitments and by war aims that had not been synchronized with those of their allies. The end of World War I was a bad time to make peace.

Physical disarray at the conference site matched the absence of equilibrium and policy coordination among the participants. Paris, once again within range of heavy German guns in the summer of 1918, was poorly equipped to host a peace conference attended by 32 delegations. Sally Marks has described the resulting bedlam: 

Statesmen who needed to contemplate the problems ahead were instead coping with a ceaseless flow of querulous complaints about room allocations, dispatch boxes, and all the administrative trivia essential to the functioning of so large a conference. The confusion in Paris before and during the deliberations was almost indescribable and contributed considerably to the erratic course of events. 6

It must therefore be remembered that heads of the three major Allied governments in particular--Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson--faced these multiple handicaps resolutely, and within a reasonable time produced for signature a set of treaties named after the suburbs in which they were signed: 7  St. Germain (with Austria), Trianon (with Hungary), Neuilly (with Bulgaria), Sevrès (with Turkey), and the one which has overshadowed all others to such a degree that even seasoned historians mistakenly refer to it as the Versailles Peace Conference. 8

The agreement with Germany was signed on June 28, 1919. A formidable document of 438 articles, it became a source of controversy from the day it was first presented to the defeated enemy. Let us take a look at the text that triggered such fury.

The first 26 articles of all five treaties were taken up by the Covenant of the League of Nations. Everyone agrees that the resulting international organization was found wanting in ways too numerous to list here. It could not prevent aggression, nor could it protect its victims. The mission of universal disarmament never got off the ground. And we contemplate, in 1989, the work of its successor, the UN, we see that international organizations can make a difference, in Afghanistan, for instance, in the Gulf War, to give another example. In a host of non-military sectors international co-operation has become routine, and it cannot be denied that the League has written an important, formulative, chapter in this evolution. 

Almost a quarter of the treaty was devoted to drawing Germany's new European borders, and you may take it from a witness first emerging into consciousness in post- Versailles Weimar Germany, that German politicians of all persuasions (with the exception of the Communists ), as well as academics and members of the intelligentsia, saw no merit in any part of it. Germany lost 27 ,000 square miles of territory and 6 ½ million inhabitants, 3 ½ million of whom, by German estimates, spoke German and were, therefore, assumed to prefer life under a German administration. German critics (and I am advisedly depending on opinions from the ranks of the supporters of the Weimar regime) 9  pointed out that these losses exceeded the territory of what we call today the Benelux countries and the entire population of Sweden. Such parallels indicate the size of the border changes; they tell us nothing about their justification. To gain some insight into right and wrong we must look at the details.

Germany lost territory in the west, the east, and the north, none, of course, in the south where her neighbors were German-speaking Austrian allies and Swiss neutrals. 10  Let us begin our survey with Alsace-Lorraine in the west, whose population of 1.9 million included only three hundred thousand French speakers. But language, alas, provides no clue to the political preferences of the inhabitants. Ever since Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by France to Germany in 1871, its inhabitants had been dissatisfied with the treatment accorded them by their new masters, and in 1918 they cheered the return of French troops to their cities and towns. 11  Never, after 1918, has there been any movement in the area seeking a return to Germany, and even after the fall of France in 1940 Germany did not re-annex these provinces. 12

The adjustment of Germany's border with Denmark represents another set of unique conditions. Since 1866 Denmark had vainly pressed for a plebiscite in North Schleswig to determine the border between herself and Germany--a border which the Peace of Prague (1866) wanted fixed according to the wishes of the local population. Although Denmark had not entered World War I, her government asked the peacemakers to right this long-standing wrong. The request was granted; in fact, some Allied statesmen urged Denmark to annex as much of Schleswig as she wanted, Danish Conservatives were quite willing to exploit Germany's defeat in this way, but the Liberal and Social Democratic majority in parliament successfully kept these aggressive elements from encumbering their country with a troublesome German irredenta. The northern portion at issue was divided into two zones. The referendum in the first region resulted in a Danish majority of 75 percent, while in the second Germany carried the contest by an even greater margin. On June 15, 1920, the supervisory international commission disbanded, and the 1500 square miles of Zone 1, with 125,000 Danes and 40,000 Germans, became part of Denmark. 13

The largest transfer of land and people occurred, however, in the East. The restored Polish Republic presented claims to regions lost to Prussia during three partitions which, in 1795, ended Poland's existence as a sovereign state. The Polish demands of 1919 involved more than half of Germany's territorial losses under the treaty. Most of us know that it was in this general region that World War II began. But that war is not on our agenda today, quite apart from thc fact that the violence with which Hitler's Germany pursued claims against Poland tells us also nothing about their validity.

In 1919 the debate over Germany's eastern border with Poland was complicated enough without any reference to future crises. The new Polish government made its own substantial contribution both to complexity and acrimony. The Poland of the eighteenth century had been a multi-national commonwealth, headed by an elected king. Like all states of that age, nationality had no impact on loyalty or the drawing of boundaries. In 1919, however, the country was restored in harmony with the principle of national self-determination, and adherence to that principle would have produced an ethnic Poland far smaller than the kingdom first partitioned in 1773. Polish spokesmen attempted repeatedly to enlarge their ethnic claims with historic arguments. On a number of occasions they succeeded, and in the end their new country became a multi-national state in which Poles constituted less than 70 percent of the population. 14  Of the remaining inhabitants two-thirds were Ukrainians and Bielo-Russians. Only four percent of Poland's population, 1.4 million, was German, and, unlike their more numerous Russian counterparts, they resided in areas where they constituted an ethnic minority. One must add that Allied authorities held plebiscites in several formerly German territories, but none in regions claimed at Russia's expense. As a result of these consultations Germany retained 6,000 square miles of contested territory in East Prussia, and 2,000 square miles in Upper Silesia. In the lands actually ceded, the population--and I am citing German figures--was 61.2 percent Polish and 38.8 percent German. 15

Let me interject here two observations that apply to the adjustment of boundaries after World War I as well as to subsequent settlements of this kind. Ethnic boundaries are difficult to draw because people do not live in watertight ethnic compartments. In 1900, for instance, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, included not only 575,000 Magyars, but also over 100,000 Germans, 25,000 Slovaks and 25,000 members of other ethnic groups. At that time, the population of Helsinki was more than one third Swedish, while the population of Poznan, one of thc largest cities transferred from German to Polish control in 1919, consisted, according to the German census of 1900, of 58,552 Germans and 78,309 Poles. Any vision of cleanly separating nations by just borders wilts in the sun of eastern Europe's multi-national urban reality. Nor is it easy to determine who is what when assigning ethnic labels. In multi-national settings people survive by speaking several languages. Persons from one nation marry partners from another, producing bilingual, bi-ethnic hybrids. 16  Finally, we have some evidence that voters in a plebiscite do not invariably cast ballots along ethnic lines. An American analysis of the 1921 plebiscite in Upper Silesia has discovered that an appreciable number of Poles in that region opted for Germany. Their reasons included uncertainty about the future of the new Polish state and fear of losing investments accumulated under German rule. 17

The territorial settlement did comprehend other features that Germans found understandably difficult and onerous. Despite the revisionist emphasis on the loss of population, the most serious damage wrought by these transfers was economic. Germany gave up 26 percent of its coal and 25 percent of its iron ore mines. To the extent that these resources were located in the Metz-Thionville sector of Lorraine, whose francophone population manifested no German sympathies, they could not be re-claimed. Consequently the Germans concentrated their propaganda guns on Upper Silesia, and the Polish boundary settlement in general. This campaign kept alive a profound sense of grievance, and while subsequent German governments were eventually willing to accept the postwar borders in the west, their cold war against Poland continued unabated.

The case of Danzig represents one dramatic component of this unforgiving policy. No.13 of Wilson's Fourteen Points advocated the establishment of an independent Polish state with "free and secure access to the sea." German leaders accepted Wilson's program ''as a basis for peace negotiations," possibly without reading it; certainly, it would seem, without considering its implications. How could Poland's access to the sea be safeguarded except at Germany's expense? The only developed harbor in the area was Danzig (today's Gdansk), a city of more than 200,000 German inhabitants. From 1454 to 1793 it had been part of Poland, falling to Prussia as a result of the Second Partition. In 1919 the new Poland certainly tried to reclaim it on historical grounds, remembering no doubt that as late as 1814 local merchants petitioned the Congress of Vienna to reunite their home town with their prime market, the Polish hinterland. But a century later Danzigers had become loyal Germans, and nothing could justify their separation from Germany. Implementing Point 13 required statesmanship of the highest order. How could one provide Poland with adequate port facilities without making Danzig Polish? The solution "as a "free city," separated from Germany, ruled by a democratically elected Senate and City Council, whose unobstructed existence was guaranteed by the presence of a High Commissioner appointed by the League of Nations, and whose harbor would become the promised access to the sea. 18

What kind of marks do you give to this arrangement? Poland, fearing that usufruct of the Danzig exclave was bound to be short-lived, built another port, Gdynia, which quickly contested Danzig's primacy in the bay. The resulting rivalry made the situation even less palatable to the Germans in general, and the Free City in particular. Yet, no one can deny that the peacemakers tried to keep a promise to Poland without violating German rights of national self-determination. Danzigers, of course, refused to see it that way. From 1919 to 1939 they protested, and their voices rose as Gdynia grew. Still, the arrangement only led to war after the accession of a German government ready and eager to go to war on any pretext. 

This review must now move beyond the geographical boundaries of Germany. On the basis of the preposterous contention that the imperial government had treated its colonial population with conspicuous barbarity, Germany lost her empire. On this score, however, Germany's revisionist campaign remained muted. A Colonial Society was active, but hardly militant, nor did it ever grow into a mass movement. The reason for this may have been that only 25,000 Germans ever lived in one million square miles of overseas territory, and that the empire's contribution to German growth and prosperity remained negligible. In 1901, for instance, German exports to British India were nine times those to her own colonies. 19

Other impositions of the victors weighed more heavily. Disarmament, reparations, the war guilt clauses, and the refusal to negotiate compose a catalog of grievances that deepened German disaffection.

Under the treaty the German armed forces were reduced to an army of 100,000 men, including 4,000 officers, and a navy of six battleships, 6 cruisers, and two dozen smaller crafts with a complement of 15,000 sailors. The Weimar government was not allowed to maintain an air force. Other prohibitions excluded the manufacture and use of armor and chemical weapons, and fixed the amount of ordinance and ammunition available to equip these forces. 

Anyone predisposed to argue that these restrictions had at least the advantage of saving money should look at the reparations clauses of the treaty. Reparations generated so much controversy among the Allies themselves that the amount was not fixed until 1921, by which time the United States signed a separate peace of her own with the former enemy. Eventually Germany paid only a fraction of the total of 533 billion, exactly how much also remains a source of controversy. We have neither time nor need to get involved in a debate over the quantitative side of this difficult question. 20  We should remind ourselves instead that reparations rested on assumptions stated in Article 231 of the treaty: "The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies." (Italics mine.) This article, often referred to--misleadingly--as the war guilt clause, became to all good Germans of my generation the war guilt "lie." The assumption of German aggression was furiously denied by all political parties (again, with the exception of the Communists who imputed aggression to all capitalist regimes). A successful propaganda effort was mounted to convince the world that this article was a heinous misrepresentation. Forty-five volumes of German diplomatic documents were published, incidentally forcing other governments to publish similar disclosures from their archives. These documents, in turn, were accompanied during the first postwar decade by the publication of some 50 memoirs by major public figures and then a succession of monographs, attempting to reconstruct the events leading to the firing of the "guns of August."

This outpouring improved the German image until the appearance of Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961 which revived old specters--this time reanimated by German historians digging still deeper into the German past. 21  The result was more controversy. Germans who had no difficulty accepting German (preferably Hitler's) responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1939 still balked at this latest revision of the 1914 story. But whether one relished them or not, Fischer's revelations were no isolated phenomena. Corroborating evidence followed their publication.

Let me just give two examples. In the early 1920's the German government had commissioned Hermann Kantorowicz, a professor of Law at the University of Kiel, to write a history of the outbreak of war, giving him unlimited access to German archives. The author completed his assignment and concluded that Germany, together with Austria and Russia, in that order, deserved major blame for the tragedy, while he categorized belligerents such as Britain and France as innocent bystanders. That was, of course, not what Kantorowicz had been mandated to discover. He was sent back to the drawing board, but, try as he might, the evidence would not yield conclusions more palatable to his clients. His manuscript disappeared into the archives on which it was based, where a student of Fischer's discovered it some twenty years after World War II. 22  Had it appeared forty years earlier Fritz Fischer would have had to make his scholarly reputation in other spheres.

The second example rests on discoveries of my own. In November 1921, Friedrich Hans von Rosenberg, Germany's chief negotiator at Brest-Litovsk, sent a circular to German diplomats who had been heads of missions in 1914, soliciting their eyewitness recollections about the outbreak of the war. He hoped that their testimony would provide evidence which "skillful pens" could then use to campaign against the "guilt questions on which the Versailles Diktat rested." One addressee was Karl von Eisendecher, a very minor figure in German diplomacy (Prussian envoy to Baden since 1890), but a favorite of the Kaiser and a life-long friend of Admiral von Tirpitz, the father of the German navy. Eisendecher had repeatedly urged his sovereign to abandon a policy of aggressive naval expansion and to seek closer ties with Britain instead. In his reply to Rosenberg, therefore, Eisendecher assigned a major blame for the war to his emperor who had failed to heed such advice. No "skillful pen" could extract propaganda capital from that statement. 23

Ambassador von Rosenberg's reference to the Versailles Diktat provides me with a transition to the last item of my agenda. Unlike the Congress of Vienna and the Paris Peace Conference of 1856, the 1919 conclave witnessed no negotiations between victor and defeated. On May 7, 1919, the German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Germany's wartime minister to Denmark, was ushered into the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and into the presence of a large gathering of delegates. Georges Clemenceau, the chairman of the conference greeted them with a few chilly and pointed remarks: 

This is neither the time nor the place for superfluous words. You see before you the accredited representatives of the Allied and Associated Powers, ...which have waged war without respite for more than four years, the pitiless war that was imposed upon them. The time has come for a heavy reckoning of accounts. You have asked for peace. We are ready to grant it to you. I must of necessity add that this second peace of Versailles, which is now to be subject of our discussions, has been too dearly bought by the peoples represented here for us not to be unanimously resolved to obtain every lawful satisfaction that is due us. There will be no verbal discussion, and observations must be submitted in writing. The plenipotentiaries of Germany will be given fifteen days in which to submit their written observations on the entire treaty. 24

The Germans responded with a volume of 65,000 words. For a while it seemed as if the British might yield to many German objections. But Clemenceau arrested the rush to compromise when he pointed out that none of the modifications suggested by the British delegation abandoned a British claim on Germany. Then he went on to tell his allies: "We know the Germans better than you. Our concessions will only encourage their resistance while depriving our own peoples of their rights. We do not have to beg pardon for our victory." 25  He was determined to obtain compensation from an invader who had leveled much of northeastern France so thoroughgoingly that the scars remain visible to this day. What he accomplished instead was a contract whose legality one party, Germany, would forever challenge, because it had been signed under duress. The result of Clemenceau's purported knowledge of the Germans provided his enemy with the strongest argument against the validity of thc treaty rather than against thc justice of the document. The legal soundness of that challenge gradually produced qualms of conscience among subsequent Allied governments and blunted the determination to enforce it. Appeasement was born at the signing.

German reactions, however, were not only hostile, they also contained contradictions that are too often overlooked. The ministry for which Brockdorff-Rantzau spoke at Versailles resigned rather than sign. It was not easy to find German politicians who would assume this terrifying responsibility. One of those who finally made the sacrifice, the Catholic Reichstag deputy Matthias Erzberger, was assassinated on August 26, 1921. The following day a nationalist newspaper editorialized that "there could be no doubt that the majority of the German people would now breathe a sigh of relief" because the deceased was a "standing menace to Germany so long as he was alive." The same editorial used the occasion to conclude that "only extremism can make Germany again what it was before the war." 26  On the other hand, Brockdorff's social-democratic successor, Hermann Müller, suffered no visible retribution. He continued to function as head of the SPD, and on June 28, 1928--nine years to the day after he had put his name under the treaty--he headed what became Weimar Germany's most longevous government, the "great coalition," which held office until 1930. Shortly after its dissolution Müller died a natural death in Berlin. The third signer, another Catholic named Johannes Bell, a Reichstag member since 1912, lived to play significant role in the rapprochement between Catholics and Nazis that followed Hitler's investiture in 1933." 27 He even survived World War II and went to his eternal reward in 1949.

Nothing about the treaty of Versailles, then--its origins, its drafting, or the responses it elicited--submits to rational explanation. As I have suggested at the outset, the treaty makes sense only if we view it as part of the frightful time from which it emerged.

The year 1918 was a time of hate. People had become accustomed to solving problems with a gun. But was the treaty, with all its irrationalities and self-defeating features, misguided in the same sense? It is true that it overshot the mark when it demanded a far greater effort of enforcement than its authors and their governments were, in the long run, able to muster. But that merely confirms Gordon Wright's observation that "treaties are less important for what they contain than for how they are applied." 28

In the case of the Treaty of Versailles, lack of enforcement turns out to have been a more serious defect than any clause in the text. The United States dared what Germany could not; it never signed. Britain was divided by doubt. Many of the small powers, such as Belgium, received less than what they thought to be their due (not necessarily from Germany), and, let us not forget, in French public opinion Clemenceau turned from Father Victory (Pere la Victoire) at the time of the armistice, into a Loser of Victory (Perd la Victoire) by the time of the signing. In 1920 Clemenceau lost the contest for France's presidency because he had not obtained what many Frenchmen considered adequate compensation for their suffering.

And the Germans? What would it have taken to please them? Fewer reparations? More negotiations? I have never seen or heard anyone ask the question, and for good reason: We have no way of knowing. If we understand that Frenchmen and Belgians hated an invader who had leveled their towns, requisitioned their property, and killed their sons and fathers, if we understand that Germany's neighbors wanted Germany disarmed so that they could sleep peacefully instead of standing guard around the clock, we have come close to explaining Allied goals pursued in Paris in the winter and spring of 1919. But we must also understand the fundamental reason for Germany's reaction. We have already spoken about the surprise of war and the surprise of peace. What hit Germans the hardest was the surprise of defeat. On November 11, 1918, no foreign armies threatened Germany with invasion. For four years the imperial armies, in Europe at least, had rushed from victory to victory--overrunning Belgium and then Rumania, standing at the gates of Paris, investing both the Baltic and Ukraine and now, out of nowhere, appeared a balance sheet which showed the agents of this succession of victories to be the defeated. It made no sense, and no treaty confirming such an incomprehensible verdict could expect German acceptance. Nothing shook the German's belief that their armies returned undefeated from the field of battle. Everything following the armistice was so out of tune with these assumptions that it produced not just disaffection, but collective paranoia and disorientation. As we have see in the Erzberger case, a stunned nation, incapable of accepting what had happened, became singularly receptive to the idea that only extreme measures could set things right.

When we consider, then, what people thought and saw, when we review the conflicting perceptions of reality separating victor from defeated, only pure, blind luck could have led to a lasting peace in 1919. Albert I of Belgium has been credited with the most sensible verdict on the peace conference of 1919: "What would you have?" He is quoted as having said. "They did the best they could." And they did. From our point of vantage we can be generous and thank them for giving us the League, and the precedent of popular consultation on issues that had not been attended by democratic ritual before. World War II overshadowed these modest gains, but it did not invalidate them, and in its wake, some of the mistakes of 1919, at any rate, were not repeated. What would you have? This is the laborious way in which mankind occasionally makes progress.

Copyright © 1989 Hans Schmitt; reprinted with permission of Dr. Schmitt and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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