By Eric Vandenbroeck 4 August 2018

Shantung the Versailles Treaty and the Manchurian episode

On a stopover in Honolulu where I will be attending a meeting, I will now complete the synopsis of some of the things I covered during my seminars in China the previous two weeks. On 11 July 2017 I already reported the strivings of Woodrow Wilson during the Versailles deliberations in reference to Eastern Europe and in particular also Poland. whereby one of the subjects I was asked to highlight in China was not only the the Japanese invasion of Manchuria began on 18 September 1931, when the Kwantung Army of the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria immediately following the Mukden Incident. The Japanese established a puppet state called Manchukuo, and their occupation lasted until the end of World War II.

Much more important to the Chinese, even today, is the so called Shantung incident which ignited to start Chinese nationalism. In fact the Versailles treaty Articles 128 to 158 specified that treaties made by Germany with a number of states were to be invalidated. The most important of these concerned the Chinese Shantung peninsula (Articles 156– 158) where, since 1898, Germany had held a 99-year lease for 100 square miles at Kiachow Bay in the south. Here, at Tsingtao, they constructed a harbor where the German Cruiser Squadron was stationed. Tsingtao was overrun by the Japanese in the early months of the war, and they expanded their base far beyond the territory leased to Germany. The Allies, keen to secure continued Japanese assistance in East Asia and the Pacific, had assured Japan in 1917 that it could take over from Germany in Shantung after the war, but U.S. delegates at the peace conference objected to the acquisition. Under pressure to finalize the treaty in the last days of April, Wilson agreed to a compromise: Japan could take over Germany’s economic rights in Shantung - the port, the railways, and the mines - but had to pull out its occupation forces. When the Chinese delegates were handed these terms, they left the conference. Japan withdrew from Shantung in 1922, but invaded the Chinese mainland, including Shantung, fifteen years later. It was the beginning of a war and an occupation that was to take the life of twenty million Chinese. 

What is less known is the behavior of Woodrow Wilson when end April 1919 Wilson (USA), Clemenceau (France), and Lloyd George (Britain) settled the last major issue on their agenda, which was indeed the quarrel between the Republic of China and the Japanese Empire.1

But what happened here is that the Japanese had secretly promised military and naval assistance to the British and the French. The Chinese however had also assisted, and the latter were now insulted. This whereby the Chinese claims echoed with Wilson and his 14 points.

The arguments of the French and in particularly Lloyd George on the other hand was: It is impossible for us to say to the Japanese: "We were happy to find you in time of war; but now, good buy!" This whereby the Japanese compounded Wilson's anxieties by threatening to withdraw from the Peace Conference unless their Chinese claim was honored. Thus in a double bind, Wilson feared that if the Japanese followed the Italians out the door and declined to sign the treaty, Wilson explained, Germany might also decline. And that thus the only hope for world peace was "to keep the world together get the League of Nations with Japan in it, and then try to secure justice for the Chinese." So Wilson joined Clemenceau and Lloyd George in awarding the German rights in Shantung to Japan. And in the agreement not written into the Versailles treaty Articles, Japan promised to return Shantung Peninsula to Chinese sovereignty "at the earliest possible time."

China's faith turned to anger and disillusion when, in early May 1919, news reached China that the Big Three had decided to give economic control of the Shandong Peninsula to Japan. Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Beijing on May 4, protesting Japanese businesses, expressing their anger at the Western leaders in Paris, and burning down the house of a prominent Chinese politician with ties to Japan. Calls for a full boycott of Western and Japanese goods soon followed, as did a wave of strikes in Shanghai, Wuhan, and other Chinese cities.


The view from Japan

Given the above, the First World War had starkly revealed both China’s weakness and Japan’s strength. For their part, Japanese leaders knew that the European influence in Asia would likely decline after the war, and they very much wanted to be the power that would fill in the resulting vacuum. Their delegation to Paris was led by Prince Saionji Kinmochi, a seventy-year-old elder statesman and former prime minister who had studied at the Sorbonne and had been a classmate of Georges Clemenceau there. Japanese leaders mistrusted the principles of Woodrow Wilson, seeing right through his noble-sounding ideals to the racist core that underlay them. As one Japanese newspaper wrote, Wilson was an angel in rhetoric but a devil indeed. The Japanese knew that Wilson held Asians to a lower standard of development than he did Europeans. They also blamed Wilson’s promises of national self-determination for the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in both China and Korea. Hoping to catch Wilson in a trap and expose his hypocrisy, the Japanese delegates came to Paris seeking to force the insertion of a racial equality clause into the final treaty. Either the Allies would agree, and thereby undercut their own rationale for imperialism, or they would refuse and give the Japanese a tremendous public relations victory across Asia, especially inside the European and American colonial empires.

But not having China present among the signatories was another of the bad tastes that the signing ceremony left behind. British diplomat Sir James Headlam-Morley and American general Tasker H. Bliss were among the senior officials who sympathized with the Chinese and thought they had been correct to refuse to put their names on a treaty so humiliating to their country. The Shandong decision was deeply unpopular not only among the Chinese, but also among diplomats in Paris who recognized just how badly it undermined the very principles upon which they were trying to rebuild the world. Headlam-Morley worried about the ramifications of China’s noninvolvement in that new world order. Chinese anger at the West, as well as the West’s acquiescence in Japan’s power grab, would inevitably lead to an increase in Japanese strength, a development that worried both the Europeans and the Americans. It also, Headlam-Morley feared, set up the dangerous possibility of the creation of a bloc of anti–League of Nations states led by an alliance between Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. Neither option augured well for the West or for stability in East Asia. The Americans, too, were worried about the growth of Japanese power, but Wilson scarcely had time to think about Asia. First he had to find a way to get the US Senate to approve the Treaty of Versailles and its most controversial provision, the Covenant of the League of Nations. The battle to do so proved to be one of the most arduous, partisan, and acrimonious debates in the history of American American politics. In the end it may well have led Wilson to suffer the strokes that incapacitated him, destroyed the remainder of his presidency, and muddled his legacy.

As symbols of how much remained to accomplish, the Italians were showing signs of anger over Allied refusal to recognize their claims to Fiume, and in China, a series of protests, some of them violent, had broken out over the news that Japan would take effective control of the Shandong Peninsula. In March the German minister of defense, Gustav Noske, had ordered forty thousand members of the Freikorps paramilitary units to use machine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, and even airplanes against left-leaning Germans. More than 1,200 of them lay dead. Sooner or later the negotiations had to end, and the treaty with Germany had to be signed if any semblance of stability were to return.


The Treaty of Versailles

As I pointed out on 20 Jan. 2017, the League of Nations ratified the Treaty of Versailles of which I detailed what excactly it entailed, officially ending World War I with Germany. Much has been written about the treaty which concluded the First World War, its competing and sometimes conflicting goals. A second article published shortly thereafter overed Weimar politics and the Versailles Peace Treaty.

In the elections held in September 1930, when the number of Nazi representatives rose to 107, the new Nazi members behaved like hooligans at the first sitting of the new Reichstag. Alan Bullock pointed out that “in speaking of the Nazi movement as a ‘party’ there is awas no more a party in the normal democratic sense of the word than the Communist Party is today. It was an organized conspiracy against the State”. Hitler himself always insisted that his organization was a movement rather than a party. 2

Several other factors combined to weaken the Versailles System as it had been revised by the Treaty of Locarno. The Locarno Treaties were seven agreements negotiated at Locarno, Switzerland, on 5–16 October 1925 and formally signed in London on 1 December, in which the First World War Western European Allied powers and the new states of Central and Eastern Europe sought to secure the post-war territorial settlement, and return normalizing relations with defeated Germany (the Weimar Republic). It also stated that Germany would never go to war with the other countries. Locarno divided borders in Europe into two categories: western, which were guaranteed by Locarno treaties, and eastern borders of Germany with Poland, which were open for revision.


The Reparations Conference at Lausanne

This was then followed by the long delayed Reparations Conference that opened at Lausanne on 17 June 1932, a fortnight after Germany's Brüning Government’s fall. Brüning was replaced as Chancellor by Franz von Papen, a former soldier who had joined the Centre Party and now displaced his own Party’s leader to become Chancellor.

Representatives from Great Britain, Germany, and France met at Lausanne that resulted in an agreement to suspend World War I reparations payments imposed on the defeated countries by the Treaty of Versailles. Thus by this time the British policy was firmly set towards the cancellation of reparations. At an Anglo-French conference held at the British Embassy in Paris MacDonald, now Prime Minister of the National Government, declared that British policy “was that the Great Powers must agree to wipe the slate clean” (BDFP II, 3: 173) but the French Prime Minister, Herriot cautioned that if a final settlement was reached at Lausanne, “the French Government would have an impossible task. It was necessary to proceed by stages” (ibid.: 175). He went on, “He himself was not entirely convinced of Germany’s good faith.

The injustices heaped upon a defeated Germany, allegedly undefeated in the field and stabbed in the back at home, in effect serve to reinforce an idea that things would be normal if only the external burdens, imposed by the allies, could be lifted. One could also argue that the constant, indeed ritual, complaints about Versailles in effect served to disguise the extent to which the War had impoverished Germany … These illusions were dangerous … [because] … as long as the truth about the War, its causes and consequences remained excluded from mainstream public political discussion, it was impossible to face harsh economic and political realities … Responsible politics remained a hostage to myths about the First World War, and Weimar democracy eventually had to pay the price.3

After the first plenary sessions at Lausanne there ensued a long series of meetings, some between the British and the French or the British and the Germans only, others being more multilateral, which failed to reach agreement until the Conference was close to having to be adjourned because its leading members were required by urgent business in their own countries. Much of the disagreement concerned a proposal that in return for reparations being cancelled, Germany should make a contribution to the restoration of Europe and would issue bonds to do this but there was much disagreement on the terms on which these bonds should be issued. However, by the time the fourth plenary session convened on 8 July, an agreement had been reached, although agreement was so late that the documents were not ready for signing and the session had to be adjourned while they were typed.

On 14 September the German Foreign Minister, von Neurath advised Henderson that “in view of the stage reached by the discussions at the Conference the question of equality of rights for the disarmed states could no longer remain without a solution. On that occasion, he accordingly declared that the German Government (which had refused to take part in the conference) could not take part in the further labors of the Conference before the question of Germany’s equality of rights had been satisfactorily cleared up”.

The disarmament question, therefore, remained unresolved and Germany’s intention to rearm was becoming clearer; for some time her clandestine attempts to rearm with Soviet Russian help had been known to the Western allies. In April 1922 Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of trade and friendship at Rapallo, Italy. The published version of the treaty established friendly relations between the two nations that included trade and investment. But the treaty also had a secret annex, signed two months later, that established close military cooperation between the two powers.

Much has been written about the appeasement diplomacy that led up to the Second World War and it is not the primary focus of this article. However, one of the mainsprings of the Allies’, especially the British, tolerance of Hitler’s early expansionary moves was the by now well-established view among Western politicians and newspapermen alike that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were unjust and provided a just cause for German complaints and activities. Lord Lothian, the former Philip Kerr remarked of the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 that the Germans “were only walking into their own back garden”. The appeasement policy, which was very much the creation of the English right wing in Parliament and outside it, was enthusiastically supported by Geoffrey Dawson, the Editor of The Times and many others, including the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson. Among British Ministers and their circle of acquaintances, particularly the group known as the Cliveden Set, support for appeasement and rejection of the Versailles Treaty was general.

In his policy statement Mein Kampf Hitler had stated that his major international ambition was “Lebensraum in the East”, not a desire to attack the Western Powers, which gave the French and British Governments the hope that diverting Hitler’s ambitions eastward could be achieved.

Meanwhile Churchill’s warnings were ignored; Anthony Eden was replaced as Foreign Secretary by a core member of the Cliveden set, Lord Halifax. Eden became a bitter opponent of the appeasement policy. Vansittart and the pro-French Foreign Office were marginalised, while Chamberlain increasingly relied instead on Sir Horace Wilson for advice and reassurance. Like all industrial relations experts, Wilson would have been expert in negotiations and securing compromises, rather than facing down enemies. Welcome advice was always forthcoming from Sir Neville Henderson. The appeasers met up socially frequently, often at Cliveden but also at All Souls College, Oxford, as A. L. Rowse recorded:

They would not listen to warnings because they did not wish to hear. And they did not think things out because there was a fatal confusion in their minds between the interests of their social order and the interests of the country. They did not say much about it because they would have given the game away and anyway it was a thought they did not wish to be too explicit about even to themselves but they were anti-Red and that hamstrung them in dealing with the greater immediate danger to their country, Hitler's Germany.4

In March 1938 Hitler marched into Vienna and announced the Anschluss of Austria- her incorporation into the Reich. Next, he demanded the return of the Sudeten Germans to the Reich, a demand that was granted at the Munich Conference which denuded Czechoslovakia of her defences against a German invasion and was followed early the next year by an invasion and occupation of the entire country. At the time of the Munich conference Chamberlain denied the need to go to the aid of Czechoslovakia, “A faraway country of which we know nothing”. On his return from Munich the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, notoriously waved the piece of paper that he claimed promised “peace for our time”, only soon to be proved cruelly wrong. Only then did the Western powers recognize that Hitler was bent on the aggressive expansion of the Third Reich. Hitler’s next demand was for the restoration to Germany of Danzig and the Polish Corridor. This was a step too far and his invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 provoked the outbreak of the Second World War. All the dreams of a European peace were lost for the five and a half year duration of what was to be a terrible second war.

As for the Versailles Treaty at the Paris Peace Conference (which I earlier covered in context of the making of the Middle East) the “Big Three” were able to agree a series of pragmatic compromises that did not always command the support of their colleagues or publics bemuse they had interests which brought them together: Clemenceau’s desire to maintain the alliances with Britain and America, Lloyd George’s search for the means to ensure a lasting European peace and Wilson’s desire to punish Germany for her wartime and pre-war crimes. The personal chemistry that developed among them made the agreement of a peace treaty possible. Then in the early 1920s, the animosity that existed between Lloyd George and Poincaré prevented any chance of agreement between them on how to secure reparations payments.

However studies have shown that a relatively moderate increase in taxation, coupled with an equally moderate reduction in consumption, would have enabled the Weimar Republic to meet the reparation debt.5 In fact, Shuker has shown that the net capital inflow ran towards Germany in the period 1919 to 1933 at a minimum of at least 2 percent.6

The reparation terms obliged Germany to pay 50 billion gold marks. Keynes - expecting that the C Bonds would eventually be canceled - advised the German government to accept. (Sally Marks, "Reparations Reconsidered: A Reminder," Central European History 2, p.361.)

The historian of Anglo-German ancestry Elizabeth Wiskemann recalled: On the morning after the German “election” [the Reichstag election of 29 March 1936] I traveled to Basle; it was an exquisite liberation to reach Switzerland. It must have been only a little later that I met Maynard Keynes at some gathering in London. “I do wish you had not written that book’,” I found myself saying (meaning The Economic Consequences, which the Germans never ceased to quote) and then longed for the ground to swallow me up. But he said, simply and gently, “So do I.”7

Despite his undisputed command of economics, Keynes did not pick up that most of the London schedule was phony money. When, by the second half of the 1930s, it had become clear that Germany had not been ruined by the Treaty of Versailles but was recommencing its attempt to take possession of most of continental Europe, he saw that he had erred, and regretted having written The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

But America’s default and British evasion, a true case of Albion perfidy since Lloyd George may have bamboozled Clemenceau by inserting in the British Treaty of Guarantee the condition that it would come into force only if the Americans ratified their guarantee treaty.8 The failure of the two guarantee treaties was to be the cause of a great deal of trouble in the years following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Ruth Henig 9 quotes FS Northedge who stated that the effect of the failure of the USA to join the League was “to widen the gulf between British and French attitudes towards the peace and thus to contribute to their fatal inability to act together when the great challenges to the League came in the 1930s”.

In the end all these men’s individual aspirations and achievements were overborne by events over which governments and their members had no control: the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that followed it, although the preoccupation of those Governments with balanced budgets and “sound money” undoubtedly made matters much worse than they need have been.

The Manchurian episode and the League of Nations

An important development, on which I based a recent Seminar in China, took place in September 1931 on the other side of the world and was the first of the acts of aggression that were to destroy the League of Nations’ credibility because it could not prevent or reverse them. On the pretext that Chinese saboteurs had tried to sabotage a Japanese owned extra-territorial railway that ran across the province of Manchuria, the Japanese army invaded that province on 18 September and eventually rechristened it “Manchukuo”.

The source of this action was the extreme nationalism of army officers who openly disobeyed the civilian Government in Tokyo. The Government attempted to control the army and deny the existence of the problem but the army did not support them: “There now followed weeks of public embarrassment and secret humiliation for the Wakatsuki Government. While the army in the field boldly extended the scope of its operations, Japanese representatives at the League of Nations in Geneva and in Washington, London and other capitals, declared that these military measures were only temporary and would soon cease”.10

Fighting then spread to Shanghai and other parts of China. The League sent an investigatory commission to Manchuria under Lord Lytton to investigate the situation. Meanwhile, the Government was increasingly discredited internationally because of the “blatant contrast between Japanese promises and the actions of Japanese troops spreading fan-like through Manchuria led the world to suppose that the cabinet in Tokyo had adopted a policy of deliberate chicanery and deceit. This was not so. What was happening was the breakdown of co-ordination between the civil and military wings of the Japanese structure of state power.11 When the Lytton Committee reported it condemned Japan for an act of aggression, although it found many Japanese grievances to be justified. The Lytton Report was adopted by the League, “whereupon Japan, much to the private anguish of the emperor, flounced out of the League”.12

The League of Nations sought to restrain Japan through sanctions and sought Article 16 intervention but it was unable to do so because the major power in the Pacific was the USA. She has always regarded the Pacific rather than the Atlantic as her mare nostrum but she was not a League member and was not inclined to get involved in taking action against Japan because of growing isolationist sentiment in Congress and among the public. Also she was disinclined to put at risk her trade with Japan.13 The only other Power with major forces in South-East Asia was Britain, who was also not inclined to use force against the Japanese. Taylor 14 commented that “The only Power with any stake in the Far East was Great Britain; and action was to be least expected from the British at the exact moment when they were being forced off the gold standard and facing a contentious general election. In any case, even Great Britain, though a Far Eastern Power, had no means of action”. So was executed the first act of naked aggression by one of the future Axis powers and thus was the frailty of the League exposed for all to see. The League was similarly ineffective when the Chinese appealed for help after the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937 but by then its credibility had been further damaged by Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and the League’s abject failure to stop it.

Hence by the end of 1931, the European and worldwide situation was looking increasingly unstable, with the anti-system parties in Germany steadily gaining seats in the Reichstag and the French unsympathetic to German demands for relief from reparations. And whereby the above mentioned Reparations Conference at Lausanne which finally resolved this problem had to be postponed from early 1932 to June and July. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria was another cloud on the horizon because it was a grave challenge to the credibility of the League of Nations.


1. Patricia O'Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made, 2018, p. 384

2. A. Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Connecticut, 1962, p. 176

3. Richard Bessel, "Why did the Weimar Republic collapse?", in Ian Kershaw (ed.), Weimar: why did democracy fail?, pp. 126–27.

4. A. L. Rowse, All Souls and Appeasement: A Contribution to Contemporary History,1961, p. 110

5. See for example William R. Keylor, Versailles, and International Diplomacy, pp. 501–02; Also Stephen Schuker, American "Reparations."

6. Schuker, op. cit., pp. 10–11.

7. Elizabeth Wiskemann, The Europe I Saw, 1968, p. 53.

8. A. Lentin, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and the Elusive Anglo-French Guarantee Treaty, 1919. In A. Sharp & G. Stone (Eds.), Anglo-French Relations in the Twentieth Century: Rivalry and Co-operation (pp. 104– 119). London: Routledge, 2000.

9. R. Henig, Britain, France and the League of Nations in the 1920s. In A. Sharp & G. Stone (Eds.), Anglo-French Relations. London: Routledge, 2000, p.147.

10. R. Storry, A History of Modern Japan, 1963, p. 188.

11. ibid. p. 189

12. ibid. p. 193

13. A. J. P. Taylor, The Course of German History, 1961, p. 63

14. ibid pp. 62– 63.



For updates click homepage here





shopify analytics