The “Unbearable” Treaty
Germany after the Treaty of Versailles
Shows land lost
It is sometimes stated that the Treaty of Versailles, (1919) was the cause of World War II, because it was brutal and that it inspired Hitler, because of its brutality to avenge Germany. This is to put it politely a myth.1
If you read Mein Kampf, the part were Hitler describes his life altering decision to enter politics and avenge a "betrayed" Germany he talks about when he learned Germany had been defeated, i.e., requested an armistice. Hitler indulges in some purple prose polemics there. This is many months before the treaty of Versailles. The fact is even before the Treaty the ultra-nationalist press was screaming about "betrayal". Hitler says the following about what happened after he was informed on November 10, 1918 of Germany's defeat:
As for myself, I broke down completely when the old gentleman tried to resume his story by informing us that we must now end this long war, because the war was lost, he said, and we were at the mercy of the victor. The Fatherland would have to bear heavy burdens in the future. We were to accept the terms of the Armistice and trust to the magnanimity of our former enemies. It was impossible for me to stay and listen any longer. Darkness surrounded me as I staggered and stumbled back to my ward and buried my aching head between the blankets and pillow.
I had not cried since the day that I stood beside my mother's grave. Whenever Fate dealt cruelly with me in my young days the spirit of determination within me grew stronger and stronger. During all those long years of war, when Death claimed many a true friend and comrade from our ranks, to me it would have appeared sinful to have uttered a word of complaint. Did they not die for Germany? And, finally, almost in the last few days of that titanic struggle, when the waves of poison gas enveloped me and began to penetrate my eyes, the thought of becoming permanently blind unnerved me; but the voice of conscience cried out immediately: Poor miserable fellow, will you start howling when there are thousands of others whose lot is a hundred times worse than yours? And so I accepted my misfortune in silence, realizing that this was the only thing to be done and that personal suffering was nothing when compared with the misfortune of one's country.
What a gang of despicable and depraved criminals!
The more I tried then to glean some definite information of the terrible events that had happened the more my head became afire with rage and shame. What was all the pain I suffered in my eyes compared with this tragedy?
The following days were terrible to bear, and the nights still worse. To depend on the mercy of the enemy was a precept which only fools or criminal liars could recommend. During those nights my hatred increased--hatred for the originators of this dastardly crime.
During the following days my own fate became clear to me. I was forced now to scoff at the thought of my personal future, which hitherto had been the cause of so much worry to me. Was it not ludicrous to think of building up anything on such a foundation? Finally, it also became clear to me that it was the inevitable that had happened, something which I had feared for a long time, though I really did not have the heart to believe it.
Emperor William II was the first German Emperor to offer the hand of friendship to the Marxist leaders, not suspecting that they were scoundrels without any sense of honour. While they held the imperial hand in theirs, the other hand was already feeling for the dagger.
There is no such thing as coming to an understanding with the Jews. It must be the hard-and-fast 'Either-Or.'
For my part I then decided that I would take up political work.2
Further when you read Mein Kampf Hitler's aims were NOT just a revision of the injustices of Versailles but getting hegemony over Europe and turning Eastern Europe into a vast colonial empire with a subject serf population. As for democracy Hitler hated it on principle. Versailles was good propaganda for Hitler but it was not what he was angry about. What made his blood boil, (aside from his anti-Semitic ravings) was that Germany was not in its naturally dominant position. The far greater brutality of the treaty of Brest Litovsk didn't bother Hitler because it was nothingless than what "inferior" Slavs deserved.3
So some still believe that the Treaty was uniquely harsh and terrible; despite the fact it left Germany the most powerful, (economically speaking) state in Europe, and in some way improved its position because the war caused the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.4
Aside from the reparations part of the Treaty, (which were carried out in a very limited fashion in reality), the Treaty was not the horrible Carthaginian peace it was made out to be. Many of its provisions were actually quite reasonable. I note many critics also ignore the context of the Treaty in terms of allied aims and needs, and also the context of German war aims. The allies were perfectly aware of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Treaty of Bucharest, both of which were vastly harsher than Versailles. It did not make them inclined to be generous.5
It is also heavily documented that ultra-nationalists made much hay from the Treaty of Versailles by wild exaggeration, lying and other flagrant tactics. For example the parts of the Treaty that awarded parts of Eastern Germany to the new Polish state and called for referendums in some places, were bitterly resented by the ultra-nationalists, for reasons that can only be called racist. The fact that Posen and the Polish corridor region were over 80% Polish made no difference. The idea of "German" land being given to @$%^^&&**$ Poles infuriated them. Ditto for Danish areas returned to Denmark, (by referendum). And of course the return of Alsace/Lorraine to France bothered them despite the fact the inhabitants had since 1871 wanted to be back in France. All this was greeted by the ultra-nationalists with, what at times, can be described as hysterical fury.6
Regarding what the ultra-nationalists and pan-Germans wanted during the war, Fritz Fischer's Germany's War Aims in the First World War, goes into great detail about war aims of these rather foolish men. Described are plans to annex Belgium, large areas of France, along with huge reparations. And Fischer describes the savage, punitive nature of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and its lesser known companion the treaty of Bucharest. Both savage and ruthless. There also described are the plans to create a vast colonial empire in eastern Europe. There are also described in detail how the Germans violated Brest-Litovsk soon after signing it and forced the Russians to sign further subsequent treaties.7
These extremists played a powerful role in aiding Germany to defeat, by antagonizing their enemies and chaining German policy to unrealistic aims.
It is simply true that after the war the same ultra-Nationalists and pan German fools who propagated unrealistic aims during the war did in fact blame the treaty of Versailles for all Germany's woes and did mightily help to propagate the myth of the stab in the back.8
In the fall of 1919 the Reichstag held hearing about what happened in October - November 1918. In one of the most shameful abdications of responsibility, Ludendorf and Hindenburg stated in their testimony that the German army had been undefeated but had been stabbed in the back. Given that they knew the real story this blatant lying can only condemned.9
On the German right it became de-rigure to condemn the treaty and to blame, liberals, socialists etc., for the "stab in the back". The judiciary during the Weimar years covered itself with disgrace by its tendency to whitewash and excuse right wing violence. For example its treatment of the Kapp coup. Also their treatment of Hitler during his trial in 1924 was disgracefully lenient and the sentence a joke.10
During the period 1919-1922 there were almost 400 political assassinations in Germany of those 354 with right wing and 22 left wing. The victims came from all walks of life. Of the 354 right wing murders 326 were unpunished / unsolved. Of those right wing assassins convicted they got an average of 4 months in jail. Of the left wing assassins 10 were executed and those jailed got an average of 15 years in jail. I could here mention also the murder of Rathenau, a patriotic German, by a right wing death squad for being soft on Versailles and being a Jew. The assassins were treated by large elements of the ultra-Nationalist right wing as heroes.11
In point of fact the post war environment was economically very bad, From Portugal to Romania, authoritarian movements flourished, it wasn't just Germany. The Great Depression pushed many societies over the edge. If Italy, one of the victorious allies, could turn Fascist shortly after the war it is not surprising that authoritarian movements sprung up through out Europe. (In 1926 Poland became a Dictatorship for example).
It was to a large extent a matter of perception, the extremist right-wing chattering classes never tired of blaming the Treaty for just about every problem Germany had, which was false, while at the same time promoting the "stab in the back" lie. This continual propaganda campaign certainly was very effective, but it was based on a deliberate misperception of the Treaty and events. Finally it is a fact that the Nazi party had 2.6% of the popular vote in the last election before the Great Depression. Considering the rapid rise in voting power the Nazi's had during the early part of the Great Depression (in 1930 18.3%, in 1932, 37.4% then 33.1%), I would say the depression was the great factor in getting the Nazi's to power, but even so it was not a certainty and relied on good deal of backroom intrigue. If there had been no great depression there would have been no out of control fire. As it was by the time Hitler got into power much of the Treaty of Versailles had ceased to have any real world applicability.12
That the ultra-Nationalists led Germany to disaster in World War I is amply documented by Fischer among others. That they refused to take responsibility is also amply documented. Let me give one example of their foolishness, the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 which brought the US into the war, owed a lot to ultra nationalist nonsense and the decisive persons pushing for it were Ludendorf and Hindenburg. At the time the decision was foolish has anyone looking at US economic production figures could see. After this some of the ultra nationalists dreamed of reparations from the US!13
In the end a irresponsible set of Nationalist fools peddling myths combined with bad luck brought the Nazis to power. The results are too well known.
1. The works that peddle this myth are legion. One could start with the works of J.F.C. Fuller. See for example his The Conduct of War, Da Capo Press, New York, 1961, pp. 217-225.
2. Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf, pp. 175-176, from a Internet pdf. copy. Last two pages of chapter called Chapter 7: The Revolution.
3. IBID, pp. 61-111, (chapter 3), 521-541, (chapter 14).
4. Weinberg, Gerhard L., Germany Hitler & World War II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 11-22.
5. IBID. Watt, Richard M., The Kings Depart, Penguin Books, London, 1968, pp. 555-588, Evans, Richard J., The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp. 62-76, 148, 179, Craig, Gordon A., Germany 1866 – 1945, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. 424-432, Fischer, Fritz, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 1967, pp. 247-279, 475-638.
6. Footnote 4, Craig, pp. 488-495, Weiss, Ideology of Death, Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago, 1996, pp. 206-225.
7. Footnote 5, Fischer.
8. IBID, pp. 636-638, Weiss, 222-238, Weinberg, pp. 11-22, Watt, Footnote 5.
9. Fischer, p. 637.
10. I'm not overstating the right wing sympathies of the Weimar judiciary see Hitler's Justice, by Ingo Muller, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1991, pp. 10-24.
11. Jones, Nigel, The Birth of the Nazis, Robinson, London, 1987, p. 228, and 203-229.
12. Evans, p. 446 and 156-230, Watt, pp. 515-517.
13. Fischer, pp. 280-309.