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The Paris Peace Conference. An ignoble peace for Germany?

Essay 2017 6 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Frieden und Konflikte, Sicherheit


To what extent can the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference be regarded as “an ignoble peace” for Germany?

Carolina Gerwin

According to the German historian Krumeich, the war continued after World War One in the heads (Krumeich 2001, 53). Although the Allies tried to establish a steady peace on the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 by designing the Treaty of Versailles, it was, considering the disastrous impact and the traumatization of the First World War, impossible to reach that goal (Krumeich 2011, 64). Especially in Germany, the Treaty of Versailles was seen as an ignoble peace (Krumeich 2001, 63). However, an extract of a note by the French politician Clemenceau to the German Count Brockdorff-Rantzau stresses that France, as part of the Allies, believed that the Treaty was a public peace guaranteed by law (Michaelis and Schraepler 1958, 363ff). Therefore, it is worth examining the following research question: “To what extent can the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference be regarded as “an ignoble peace” for Germany?”. This paper argues that the Treaty was not a victorious peace in all aspects, however parts of it and the circumstances of the Conference led to the perception in the Weimar Republic that it was an ignoble peace and resulted in political and economic turmoil in the country. The book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace”, written in 1919 by John Maynard Keynes, will be used as a primary source to support the hypothesis, as he already predicted that the Treaty of Versailles would have negative consequences.

Keynes, a member of the British delegation, recognized the problematic base of the Treaty already during the Peace Conference and consequently resigned the Treasury (Keynes: Volume 16 2012, 387). On the 14th of May 1919, he wrote that the Treaty “is outrageous and impossible and can bring nothing but misfortune behind it” Keynes: Volume 16 2012, 458). In his opinion, it lacked a “provision for the economic rehabilitation of Europe” as a “Europe starving and disintegrating” was overshadowed by domestic self- interests by the leaders of the Allied countries (Keynes: Volume 2 2012, 143). Consequently, Keynes foreshadowed that the standard of living in Europe – a continent that is not self-sufficient in economic terms- will rapidly decrease, in the worst case even leading to starvation. Additionally, he stressed that this danger will “drive() other temperaments to the nervous instability of hysteria and to a mad despair.” And that would have further consequences: the destruction of both, politics and civilization (Keynes: Volume 2 2012, 144). Regarding Germany, Keynes wrote in May 1919 that if the Germans would sign the Treaty, “this will be in many ways the worse alternative; for it is out of the question that they should keep the terms (which are incapable of being kept) and nothing but general disorder and unrest could result. Certainly if I was in the Germans' place I'd rather die than sign such a peace” (Keynes: Volume 16 2012, 458). But was the Treaty indeed that hard and was Keynes right with his predictions?

Analyzing the articles of the Treaty (Versailler Vertrag 2017), it had aspects of both, a victorious and a negotiated peace: Because Germany had no other choice than signing it and because of its isolation of not being part of the League of Nations and the high pressure due to the demilitarized zone, the Treaty had indeed aspects of a victorious peace. However, as Germany remained politically independent and was still able to trade with the Allies, the contract is not fully a victorious peace. Nevertheless, especially one article, number 231 (see Appendix 1), played an important role in 1919 and afterwards, because it was continuously highlighted by the Germans and as the war-clause debate determined domestic and international politics for a long time (Boemeke and Feldman 1998, 357). Although the word “guilt,” was not used in the Treaty, the German translation of article 231 “enhanced the impression of a charge of German moral guilt” (Boemeke and Feldman 1998, 358). This view was stressed additionally by a harsh diplomatic note to the Treaty named “Mantelnote”, which revealed that Germany was not supposed to pay reparations because it had lost a war but because it was punished for a crime (Krumeich 2001, 62). That is also a reason why the war guilt clause and consequently the whole, was interpreted as unfair and unjustified by many German people in 1919. So article 231 became a trauma of a generation as the belief that Germany had fought a defensive war had been propagated for years and was used as a tool of self-defense after the war. Consequently, the Treaty of Versailles was declared as “Schandfriede”, as an “ignoble peace” (Krumeich 2001, 63).

The circumstances of the Conference and the signing of the Treaty played a crucial role in the German opinion that it was an ignoble peace: On the 18th of January 1919, the delegates of 21 countries came together in Paris to attend the Peace Conference and to debate about the Treaty. Although Germany was the main subject of the conference, it was only invited to the proclamation of the Treaty at the end of April in 1919 (Krumeich 2001, 53). Furthermore, Versailles as the place of the signing was no coincidence, but rather a symbol. By this means, the French government wanted to erase the French defeat against Germany in the Anglo-French war 1870-71. Furthermore, the foundation of the German Empire on the 18th of January 1871 should be denigrated (Krumeich 2001, 53). In addition, on the 28th of June 1919, when the German government, knowing that troops of the Allies were ready to occupy Germany, signed the Treaty, five French soldiers who were most heavily hurt in the face, were placed in the middle of the Hall of Mirrors (Krumeich 2001, 63-64). These arguments clearly show that the French government wanted revenge for the defeat of 1871 and that they made Germany responsible for the war. Krumeich stresses that the signing of the Treaty was shaped by demonstrations of power, but above all, the “threat of chaos:” The danger of a reopening of the hostility, the occupation of Berlin and the destruction of the public unity of Germany by France (Krumeich 2001, 53). Therefore, the circumstances of the Peace Conference emphasize the humiliation and depreciation of Germany as well as the punishment character, especially by France.

The Treaty and its negative perception were reflected in the first years of the Weimar Republic. It becomes obvious that the Weimar Republic was fraught with problems right from the beginning. After the failure of the Western offensive in late 1918, the leaders of the army created the stab-in-the-back myth and the Democrats, Socialists and Communists were accused of being the reason for the loss of the war. Furthermore, on the 29th of September 1918, the Supreme Army Command admitted defeat and demanded the German government to negotiate with the Allies about armistice talks (Arand et al. 2011, chapter 5.4). This is another evidence for the withdraw of the Supreme Army Command to take responsibility for losing the war. Instead, they forced the new civil government to cope with the consequences of the war. Furthermore, one of the main reasons for the parliamentarization of the German Empire was the hope that inner reforms would benefit the German Empire in the negotiations with the Allies (Arand et al. 2011, chapter 5.4). As these points stress, the leaders of the Weimar Republic had the burden of coping with a German population that (1) believed that they had fought a defensive war and were treated unfair by the Allies and (2) considered that they lost the war not because of the army but because of the ones that became the leaders of the new government. Therefore, the government under the Social democrat Friedrich Ebert, who was the first President of the Weimar republic until 1925, faced a double burden in that respect.

Moreover, the first years of the Weimar Republic, were shaped by violence, chaos and political turmoil, as Keynes predicted (Arand et al. 2011, chapter 5.5 and 6.1; Naumann 2014, 97-98):

- revolutions had to be violently defeated by armed Freikorps, as revolutionaries tried to change the political order
- several political murders were signs of the discontent of the population
- the Weimar Republic had a huge amount of debts, which led to inflation and economic turmoil
- the Ruhr crisis can be mentioned as an example for the economic chaos that was a consequence of the Paris Peace Conference
- political coups, such as the Kapp-coup in 1920 and the Hitler-coup in 1923 worsened the situation

The demands of the Treaty, Germany’s disturbed international reputation, the fact that ruling representatives of the German Empire fought against the new government, all these circumstances complicated the situation of the Weimar Republic additionally (Arand et al. 2011, chapter 6.1).

These problems were connected to the Treaty as especially the question of reparations, and therefore article 231, was tightly connected to the fate of the Weimar Republic, and provided non-supports of the government, such as right wing extremists, with a target. The policy of the Weimar Republic was judged as being a “policy of appeasement” and Germany was illustrated as the victim of foreign countries. Especially Nationalists and National Socialists misused the policy, that was supposed to bring Germany back into the circle of the European countries as an equal partner, as a tool to gain public support (Matthiessen 2011, 157).

Consequently, Keynes was right with his predictions as the Weimar Republic had a problematic starting position because of the Treaty. Diplomatic contacts and the necessary acceptance of the Treaty by the German government were defamed as a weakness and betrayal and were associated with the new Weimar Republic. The supporters of the stab-in-the-back-myth used these thoughts to strengthen their position (Mathhiessen 2011, 157). Especially Adolf Hitler and his NSDAP used the revision of the “ignoble peace” for propaganda purposes (Krumeich 2001, 63).

However, nowadays, historians argue that the Treaty of Versailles was not an “ignoble peace.” Although Kolb argues that the Treaty was too hard regarding the fact that Germany had no other choice then signing it, the Treaty was too mild in that the intervention in the German substance was not deep enough. Consequently, the Germans believed they would be able to revise the Treaty. Unfortunately, two points of the agreement, according to Kolb, had not be taken into consideration and therefore damaged the German politic at that time: (1) The Treaty of Versailles was indeed a burden but not as radical as it could have been as it had a compromise character. (2) Germany remained a Great Power and still had the opportunity to play a role in the European politics, even with more foreign-policy mobility than before 1914. However, he agrees with Gerhard Ritter who states that factual chances during the first years of the Weimar Republic failed due to mental and historical reasons (Kolb 2009, 36ff).




Titel: The Paris Peace Conference. An ignoble peace for Germany?