The world of Geopolitics is a convoluted and often unexciting one, and so it is understandable that that branch of social studies is commonly editorialized for students in high school, and occasionally those in universities. However, there is one particular iota of human history so blatantly misrepresented, and yet so crucial to the state of our modern world, that the utter failure of even Historians to acknowledge the truth surrounding it is baffling. The Interwar Period in Europe, following the devastation of World War 1 and preluding World War 2, is often glossed over due to the overshadowing nature of the wars that it buffers, but one must not forget that with it came the Great Depression, a complete restructuring of Europe, and perhaps most crucially, the creation of Nazi Germany.
The birth of Fascism in Europe and the rise of Hitler is unequivocally one of the most influential phenomenons of the last century, causing the death of millions across the world and entirely redefining global politics, and yet it is simultaneously one of the least accurately portrayed. As any high school history teacher will tell you, to understand the rise of Nazism one must look back to the infamous Treaty of Versailles. This treaty, one of many signed at the Paris Peace Conference, is thought of as an inciting incident in a gripping and tragic story of how the Allied Powers of World War 1, in their great immaturity and mercilessness, took revenge on a sorely beaten Germany, demanding so much of the defeated country that her economy collapsed. It then makes sense that in the resulting state of poverty and desperation, the German people placed their faith in a fascist that promised them a return to greatness. This story, while being a satisfying explanation for Nazi Germany and World War 2, is a myth.
It is true that a German economic depression largely contributed to the rise of Hitler, but that depression was not the fault of Allied spite, and it was not the fault of the Treaty of Versailles. In reality, the truth is quite a bit more complicated. The Treaty of Versailles was not excessive in its demands of Germany, it did not directly contribute to the German economic impression, and its modern interpretation as having singled-out Germany was a lie invented by the Nazi party in Germany that has gained ubiquitous popularity since then because of the simplified story of interwar history it creates.
To understand how all of this became so fouly misconstrued, one must more closely examine the history of postwar treaties, and some German economics. At 11 O’clock on the 11th of November, 1918, an armistice was signed between the allied powers of WW1 and the German Empire. Germany’s allies had hitherto signed separate armistices, and so this marked the end of fighting in Europe.
Months later, in early may of 1919, German diplomats met for the Paris Peace Conference and were presented with the proposed Treaty of Versailles. These diplomats were not met kindly in Paris: The specialized train they took was made to slow down as it made its way through war-stricken areas of France, and they were treated rudely by employees of the hotel they were meant to stay in (MacMillan, pg. 460). Edward M. House, advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson and an American diplomat at the Paris Peace conference, expressed his concerns about holding peace-talks in Paris, remarking that “it will be difficult enough at best to make a just peace, and it will be almost impossible to do so while sitting in the atmosphere of a belligerent capital” (MacMillan, pg.
27). All this tension was not without reason, however. The war had left France devastated in a way no other Western European country experienced. This was worst on the front lines. The natural landscape was decimated, the infrastructure had been reduced to rubble, and the ground was littered with shrapnel and other debris of war. House’ son-in-law, Gordon Auchincloss, had visited some of these scenes, and wrote home a letter saying “I have never seen such horrible waste and such intense destruction” (MacMillan 148).
The War did not merely scar the land, but also the country as a whole. France was not the only country to suffer extreme losses at the hands of Germany – Russia had lost millions of soldiers and was forced to pay millions of gold rubles in reparations to Germany under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and German war crimes in Belgium were no myth – but she had experienced the brunt of it. France had lost millions of lives, and many of her coal mines had been destroyed by the German invaders.
The cost of rebuilding France, and in turn, Belgium, would be immense. It followed naturally that because Germany caused a majority of the damage to those countries and experienced almost no invasion or damage to itself, that she should be made to economically assist France in this very cumbersome process of reconstruction. French officials also feared that because of France’s innate economic and industrial inferiority to Germany, if Germany was not forced to pay substantial reparations and thereby share the weight of post-war costs with France, that Germany would quickly rise again as an economic and militaristic superpower that would stand as a great threat to France (Marks, pg. 244). This was the premise for the demands that would eventually constitute the Treaty of Versailles.
Reparations were not a greedy attempt to plunder an impoverished Germany, but rather an attempt to make Germany right its wrongs by sharing its relative wealth with the countries that were left economically devastated by the German Army in the war. The German diplomats, however, did not see it this way. After reading the Treaty of Versailles, the diplomats were outraged. Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, foreign minister of the German empire and head of diplomats in Paris exclaimed “This fat volume was quite unnecessary. They could have easily expressed the whole thing more simply in one clause – ‘Germany surrenders all claims to its existence'” (MacMillan 465). There was one particular area of the treaty that the German diplomats were most disturbed by: Part VIII, Reparations.
To head off this section was the infamous Article 231, otherwise known as the “War Guilt Clause”, and a number of further articles describing the way in which Germany would perform reparations payments. Article 231 stirred up particular controversy at the conference, and in the decades to come. It read: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. (The Treaty of Versailles, Part VIII, Section I, Article 231). The German plenipotentiaries interpreted this as a means of pinning all blame for the war on Germany, which they felt was unfair and an insult to their nation. It remains some matter of debate exactly how responsible Germany was for the instigation and continued violence of World War 1, but it is an unassailable fact that this understanding of the article’s meaning is patently false.
One must understand that the Treaty of Versailles was one of many signed at the Paris Peace Conference, and was specifically devoted to Germany. The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was devoted to Austria, the Treaty of Trianon was devoted to Hungary, the Treaty of Neuilly-sur Seine was devoted to Bulgaria, and the Treaty of Sèvres, while never ratified, was devoted to Turkey. The same article was present, almost verbatim, in every one of these treaties, and specified each country individually, just as the Treaty of Versailles specifies Germany. Not only this, but the Treaty of Versailles does not solely blame Germany for damage sustained by the war, rather indicating “Germany and her allies”. This illogical fixation on article 231 led to it becoming a propaganda device for German Nationalists, and eventually the Nazi Party. While concerns over article 231 are easy to dismiss, German uproar over reparations payments is more complicated.
Article 235 of the treaty stated that Germany must pay the equivalent of 20 billion gold marks in the form of currency or commodity between may of 1919 and may of 1921, at which point the Reparations Council would meet and discuss a new plan for German payments. This was not an absurd figure given the economic resources of Germany and the extensive damage to France and Belgium, and despite that Germany would only go on to pay 8 billion in these interim payments (Marks, pg. 233). The Reparations Council met in late April of 1921, and determined that the net total in due reparations payments not only on the part of Germany, but on her allies as well, would be the equivalent of approximately 132 billion gold marks.
However, it was utterly unrealistic for any of the other central powers to pay anything in reparations, as most had weak economies and a great deal of reconstruction to do, so this check fell to Germany. The 132 billion figure had been determined during negotiations between the Belgians, French, and Italians who sought a higher demand, and the British who argued for a lower demand, wanting Germany to return to economic prosperity as quickly as possible so that trade might presume as before the war. It was seen as the lowest amount in payments that the allied governments could demand without public outcry in allied countries affected by the war. However, even still the allies recognized that this was quite a sum to ask of Germany.
The payment was hence broken down into three sections, A, B, and C bonds, with A bonds constituting the interim payment of 12 billion gold marks that Germany had failed to deliver, B bonds constituting another 38 billion gold marks, and C bonds being entirely fictional. Indeed, the C bonds stood as a superficial symbol of German defeat to satisfy public demand that Germany be punished, and were never meant to be paid in any extent. In total, the German government was only required to pay a total of 50 billion gold marks in debt following the Reparations Commision, well within their economic capabilities and below the German government’s counter-offer (Marks, pg. 237). It was the aim of the allied powers that the Treaty of Versailles would serve to help rebuild a damaged France and Belgium, but not be so harsh that the German economy could not quickly return to prosperity. However, due to Germany’s response, this did not go exactly as planned.
In 1921 Germany had paid about 8 billion gold marks in reparations, and by the onset of World War 2 they had paid only 20 billion, barely enough to cover the interim payments due previously by May 1st of 1921. In fact, it was only on October 3rd of 2010 that Germany finished paying off its debt, having recommitted to her duty in the 1950s (Crossland). This gargantuan failure on the part of the allied powers in collecting their war debt is what ultimately made the Treaty of Versailles a failure, and in many not-so-obvious ways, German reparations avoidance set the stage for the rise of Hitler and World War 2. Enforcing reparations was difficult from the beginning. The London Schedule of reparations payments, as determined by the Reparations Council in 1921, would have Germany pay the 50 billion gold marks over a long period of time, with regular annuities over that timeline.
The allied powers occupied the German customs post in Dusseldorf to oversee the delivery of the first billion gold marks that summer, which the Germans successfully paid in full (Marks, pg. 237). The allies then pulled their forces from the customs post, assuming that Germany would continue delivering payments on time.
They did not. Germany made some payments in late 1921 and early 1922, but never enough, and in 1922 payments had all but ceased entirely. The Germans excused their failure to meet the London Schedule on their weakened economy, which had experienced a fair deal of inflation since World War 1. German officials blamed this inflation on the reparations demands of the allies, but allied economic experts were not so sure. These economists noticed a distinct pattern, or, rather, a lack thereof, that suggested to disprove these claims.
The greatest period of German inflation was following the drafting of the London Schedule in 1921, during which time the Germans paid very little in reparations. Meanwhile, the German economy was remarkably stable prior to 1921, during which time she had paid the greatest sum in reparations (Marks, pg. 239).
It seemed, and was indeed the case, that the German government was not experiencing economic implosion due to monetary demands of the allies, but was intentionally destroying its currency in an attempt to dodge payments. The archives of the Reich Chancellery confirm that the German government was indeed ignoring economic reform policy during this time, allowing inflation to destroy the mark, thereby making its value so low that paying off reparations would barely put a dent in the German economy (Marks, pg. 239). The allies had realized this, but were divided over the appropriate course of action to respond. The British sought to appease Germany, issuing a four-year moratorium on reparations payments such that the German economy would recover, whereas the French demanded that the allied forces punish this insolence by occupying some form of German land or economic hub as collateral to enforce payments (Marks, pg.
240). In December of 1922, Germany failed to produce a large delivery of reparations in the form of timber, which was paradoxically a payment designed in kind and quantity by the German government itself. They then failed repeatedly in monthly deliveries of coal, and so a conference was held in January in which the allied powers and Germany would present plans to redraw reparations plans. When this conference ended indecisive, with no new plan established, Germany’s coal defaults were declared by the reparations council.
France, seeing this as her opportunity, responded by occupying the Rhine-Ruhr river valley basin with the help of Italy and Belgium to manually produce the German exports that had been due, all to the dismay of Britain.