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Treaty of Versailles and Germany's reaction

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The First World War was a destructive event that left Western economies broken down by infrastructural damages and caused substantial human suffering from the high death toll. In response to this devastation, members of the world assembled at the Paris Conference in January of 1919 in an attempt to restore the peace. However, goals to fix damages and form an orderly world were merely an illusion since the founders of the treaty of Versailles had national ambitions, interests in war aims, and were influenced by public demands. Instead of a moderated peace, the Treaty of Versailles was posed on Germany under harsh terms that fostered German indignation and ruined the prospects for maintaining a future free from disagreement and violent warfare. By exploring the historiography behind the construction of the treaty, the relation of the pre-armistice agreement to article 231, and German resistance, it will be apparent that the treaty of Versailles actually precipitated future conflict in international relations. One of the founding leaders in the Paris peace conference was Woodrow Wilson. Before designing the terms of the treaty of Versailles, Wilson advocated for a “peace of reconciliation, one which would reintegrate Germany into a community of peace-loving democracies.”1 However, nearing the end of the war, Wilson abandoned the idea of a negotiated peace and supported a dictated peace instead. According to Trachtenberg, after America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson changed his thoughts on a compromised peace and instead viewed the Germans as the aggressor.2 In this sense, Wilson’s idea of reconciliation changed into a form of justice that was designed to punish Germany for causing the war. For Wilson, reconciliation was “possible only if the guilty nation somehow made up for its crime and worked its way back into the community of civilized nations.” 3 As this quotation illustrates, Wilson held negative feelings towards Germany and sought to make them pay for the harm they committed. Further, these views would be influential in shaping the environment of the Versailles settlement that treated Germany as an evil enemy.
The stance that Wilson developed towards justice also led him to support a dictated peace, which disregarded negotiations with Germany while instituting more power in the allies for the construction of the peace terms. For example, in Trachtenberg’s article he explains Wilson’s willingness to negotiate with Clemenceau’s interests. Trachtenberg states, “the French…were primarily concerned with extorting the largest possible reparations from Germany, while it was on these economic issues that the Wilsonian reintegrationist approach to Germany was most operative.”4 Ultimately, Wilson’s support for justice was centralized on punitive reparations that were bound to anticipate a negative German reaction. When the treaty of Versailles was introduced to Germany on the 29th of April 1919, it was met with much criticism because the terms did not match Wilson’s fourteen principles in the pre-armistice agreement of 1918. Of specific concern was article 231, which required Germany to accept the “responsibility of causing all the loss and damage to which the allied and associated governments were subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”5 This clause caused outrage in Germany and was considered to be an unfair lie. The German population interpreted article 231 as a disgrace to the nation because the reparations were based on the acceptance that they originated and caused the war to occur. Most of the German indignation can be traced to the pre-armistice agreements with Wilson where Germany accepted peace under terms that did not require admitted guilt. Under the armistice agreement, there necessitated “compensation for all the damage done to the civilian population of the allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea and from the air.”6 Although Germany had agreed to economic reparations and territorial adjustments, article 231 presented an element of guilt that was inconsistent with the principles of the armistice agreement. It was inevitable that the treaty of Versailles would result in failure, as Germany was unwilling to agree on such a provision that presented an attack against their national pride. Also, facilitating the German reaction to the treaty of Versailles was their exclusion from participating in the Paris Conference. Temperley elaborates on this exclusion stating, “Germans were not allowed anything but written intercourse with the allies at Paris during 1919 until after the peace was signed…They had therefore no opportunity of ascertaining how the different clauses were drawn up and what they meant.”7 The dictated peace caused confusion and heightened conflict because there was no formal communication and negotiation with Germany. According to Temperley, it is evident that there was a misunderstanding as the “allied reply of 16 June does not anywhere admit that Article 231 part VIII, reparation section charges Germany with moral war guilt.”8 From this quotation, it is clear that the Allies failure to allow for German interaction in the Paris Conference fostered German sensitivities and created a difficulty in coming to a peaceful settlement. After officially signing the treaty on 28, April 1919, Germany became liable to pay for the reparations. The reparation commission was formed in order to fix Germany’s liability payments to an amount that met their capacity to pay. 9 However, the reparation commission failed to meet a reasonable capacity. Finch explains that “On April 27, 191, the Reparation Commission established Germany’s total indebtedness in the amount of 132,000,000 gold marks.”10 The Germans met this amount with criticism as they found the current economic situation unable to address such a heavy burden. Finch claims that although the payment schedule was temporarily modified in Germany’s favour by a number of intervening decisions, Germany still failed to meet the required payments and eventually demanded for a moratorium.11 This desire to postpone the payment schedule was a direct resistance to the treaty of Versailles. Requiring such a significant fee in Germany’s weak post-war economy was bound to cause opposition and acts of protest. The result of Germany’s unwillingness to abide by the reparation commission’s payment schedule led to the occupation of the Ruhr. This occupation took place in January 1923 and was led by French and Belgian troops on the declaration by the reparation commission that formally declared Germany at default.12 Although the allies believed the occupation would force the Germans to fulfill the treaty obligations, it did not succeed in doing so. Viewing the French occupation as an invasion, the Germans resisted French control through the refusal to work together and exploit resources. This passive resistance is evident in the lack of cooperation of the workers in the mines as well as the refusal of German railroad men to operate the shipment of coal and coke reserves. 13 This resistance was an important element that proved the foreign troops could not achieve necessary reparation payments through means of invasion. In conclusion, the Treaty of Versailles did not produce a world peace, but actually facilitated future conflict. The world powers that met at the Paris peace conference failed in interpreting the complexity and problems they had to face. The goal the architects of Versailles originally had to fix the damages and form an orderly world was merely an illusion. Instead, national ambitions and a retributive justice posed as the framework for the peace terms. Specifically, the liberal principles that Wilson outlined in the pre-armistice agreement did not match clause 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. This article ignited dispute to the agreement of the treaty since Germany would not accept the guilt of being the sole author in the causation of the war. This outrage led to resistance in the reparation payments and would continue to create future problems in treaty negotiations.

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