On 25 Dec. 2010 expert historian Margaret MacMillan author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World famously wrote in an article: "While the amount, less than $100 million, was trivial by today’s standards, the payment brought to a close one of the most poisonous chapters of the 20th century. It also, unfortunately, brought back to life an insidious historical myth: that the reparations and other treaty measures were so odious that they made Adolf Hitler’s rise and World War II inevitable. - In truth, the reparations, as the name suggests, were not intended as a punishment. They were meant to repair the damage done, mainly to Belgium and France, by the German invasion and subsequent four years of fighting. They would also help the Allies pay off huge loans they had taken to finance the war, mainly from the United States. At the Paris peace talks of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson was very clear that there should be no punitive fines on the losers, only legitimate costs."

Contrary to the widespread belief, the treaty with Germany did not break Wilsonian principles, and none of the president’s Fourteen Points was violated. Rather, it was Germany’s presentation, or more correctly its deliberate misinterpretation, of the Fourteen Points that stood at the heart of the matter. Claims that the German empire lost 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population are based on phony statistics. Article 231 of the treaty, the much maligned ‘war guilt paragraph,' did not assign war guilt to Germany. Above all, it was not the ‘burden’ caused by reparation demands that stood behind the calamitous collapse of the Weimar economy which accompanied the massive defection of middle-class voters to the Nazi Party from the late 1920s onward.

Nevertheless, it was the beginning of a long propaganda exercise to discredit the victors. The Germans would refer continuously over the next weeks to the ‘hunger blockade’ (which did not exist) and would wage an unrelenting campaign against the assumption of ‘unilateral war guilt’ — something that no country other than Germany detected in the treaty.

It is necessary to analyze the content of the Versailles Peace Treaty to establish whether it contributed politically, economically, militarily, geographically, or in any other way to the failure of democracy in the Weimar Republic and the ‘seizure of power’ by the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). Part I of the treaty contained the 26 paragraphs establishing the League of Nations. The German delegation had objected to not having been invited to become a foundation member, which, it claimed, violated promises President Wilson had made in his speeches to Congress on 8 January and 27 September 1918. This was repudiated. Wilson maintained that he had made it clear from the outset that Germany would not be included because it had proven untrustworthy, but that after redeeming its character, ‘not by what happens at the peace table but by what follows’, it should be allowed to join. Although it is reasonable to question why Germany should agree to the establishment of an organisation to which it was barred entry, membership of the League can hardly be said to have been a major political issue before it did join in September 1926.

Part II (Articles 27– 30) defined Germany’s new borders. Part III dealt with ‘Political Clauses for Europe’ (Articles 31– 117). Many of these articles were uncontroversial. As far as Luxembourg was concerned (Articles 42– 43), for example, the Germans declared that the Grand Duchy would no longer enjoy the benefits of membership in the German Customs Union, to which the Allies responded that, because of the violation of its neutrality during the war, Luxembourg itself had already decided to quit the union. A plebiscite in Schleswig (Articles 109– 114) was not questioned by either side. When it was held in February 1920, the vote went along ethnic lines: the northern parts voted to return to Denmark, the southern to remain with Germany. There was no objection from Germany to the dismantling of all military equipment on the island of Heligoland (Article 114). Germany reaffirmed Article 15 of the Armistice Agreement, renouncing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and all subsequent treaties with Russia (Article 115– 116), and also declared that it had no intention of shifting the Austrian-German frontier by force (Article 80). No reference was made to Articles 81 to 86, which concerned the Czechoslovak state. In line with Armistice conditions, Articles 40 to 42 stipulated that the demilitarized zone on the left bank of the River Rhine was to extend 50 kilometres to the east. This provoked an angry German reaction, but the failure of the United States to ratify the military-assistance agreement with France, and Britain’s steady withdrawal from continental European affairs, meant that there was no military value in the left bank clauses, as Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936 was to illustrate.

With the exception of northern Schleswig, Germany objected to the loss of its pre-war territory. Belgium, which had severely suffered from four years of German occupation, was rewarded with the district of Prussian Moresnet near Liege, as well as the territory between the small towns of Eupen and Malmedy, all told about 400 square miles with a population of 50,000 (Articles 31– 39). This region was heavily forested, and so Belgium recovered some of the timber it had lost during the war. Germany objected on the ground that the population was German — incorrect, as far as Malmedy was concerned, as it belonged to the Walloon (that is, French-speaking) part of Belgium. The Allies responded that Eupen and Malmedy had been separated from the neighboring Belgian lands of Limburg, Liege, and Luxembourg in 1814– 15 when these had been assigned to Prussia and when, they alleged, ‘no account was taken off the desires of the people, nor of geographical or linguistic frontiers.'

Moreover, the region ‘continued in close economic and social relations with the adjacent portion of Belgium …’ and, at the same time, ‘had been made a basis for German militarism.'1 However one may view the correctness of the decision to award Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium, the loss to Germany was negligible. The same goes for Germany’s handover to Lithuania of the Baltic port of Memel with its hinterland (Article 99), thus providing the newly founded state with a harbor. Memel’s population was about equally divided between Lithuanians and Germans.

The return of Alsace-Lorraine to France (Articles 51– 79), however, was no small matter. Germany had acquiesced in Article Eight of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, ‘that the wrong done by Prussia to France in 1871, as regards Alsace and Lorraine, which has disturbed the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, must be righted in order that peace again may be assured in the interest of all’. Nevertheless, Germany now maintained that Alsace-Lorraine was old German territory, having become part of the German empire more than a thousand years before. Claiming that ‘racial and political characteristics of the inhabitants have been so little influenced that even to-day four-fifths of the country’s population are still German in its language and customs,' two its argued that a plebiscite should be held here. This was refused outright. The Allies claimed that the inhabitants had been annexed against their will, and were only too ready to throw themselves back into the arms of France, ‘as into those of a long-lost mother.'

Articles 45 to 50 dealt with the Saar Basin, the population of which was 90 per cent German. The French initially wanted to annex outright the Saar district, with its rich coalfields, to compensate for the destruction of mines in northern France and as part of the overall payment due from Germany for war damage. After a heated debate in the Council of Four, Clemenceau had to settle for a compromise that gave the French fifteen years’ possession of the coal mines. As the Saar did in fact vote to return to Germany in 1934, production figures for the Saar coal industry, or indeed for Saarland generally, after that date cannot be included in the calculation of German economic losses caused by the Peace Treaty.

By far the most territory Germany had to cede went to its new eastern neighbor. As part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Poland had in early modern times been a formidable power in eastern Europe, but by the eighteenth-century, political life in Poland had reached a stage of near anarchy. Its kings were the puppets of powers abroad and rival noble families within. With no effective government, the land-owning class, the szlachta, exploited the Polish peasantry to such a degree that their living conditions were the worst in rural Europe. Their status has been compared with that of West Indian slaves. 3 An ultra-conservative Catholic clergy, with its emphasis on otherworldly fulfillment, added to the burdens on Poland’s villages. In a rare act of political cannibalism in 1772, even by eighteenth-century European standards, the Russian empress, Catharine the Second, the Prussian king, Frederick the Second, and Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria carved the kingdom up among themselves. For those Poles who became part of Prussia, living conditions greatly improved. Most Polish patriots who clamored for the restitution of their homeland came from those parts that had fallen under Habsburg and tcarist rule.

After six unsuccessful uprisings through the course of the nineteenth century, World War I provided the chance for rebirth. Point Thirteen of the Fourteen Points had stipulated that there was to be an independent Polish state, ‘which should include the territories inhabited by indisputable Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea’. Given the geography of the region, this access could only be provided by the River Vistula, which runs into the Baltic just west of Danzig, on its way passing through the territory of the Prussian provinces of Pomerania, West Prussia, and Poznan. Originally purely Polish in population, 150 years of Prussian rule, with its vigorous Germanization policy, had created a mixed population of Poles and Germans, with most of the land owned by Prussian Junkers. The part ceded to Poland by the Treaty (Articles 87– 98), after lengthy and often inimical deliberations in the Council of Four, was inhabited mainly by Poles. Attempts to enlarge this area, commonly referred to as the ‘corridor’, in Poland’s favour by incorporating into it parts of East Prussia were stopped by plebiscites. The corridor also surrounded the city of Danzig (the Polish Gdansk), where there was a major German population. Danzig became a Free City (Article 100– 108) under the auspices of the League of Nations, but maintained its strong economic and cultural ties with the Reich.

The fate of Upper Silesia, because of its large industrial area, was strongly contested by both sides. The population was 65 per cent Polish-speaking. A quarter of German coal came from here, four-fifths of it zinc, and almost a third of its lead. Both countries claimed that their economies could not function without Upper Silesian coal. A plebiscite held two years later brought no clear result — the north and west choosing to stay with Germany, and the south preferring to become part of Poland. The center, where the industrial area was located, although largely Polish-speaking, returned a fifty-fifty vote.

Many Poles may have decided to vote for Germany from fear of recrimination by their employers, as Germans owned most of the mines and steel mills, or in the belief that living conditions even in a defeated Germany were better than those in Poland. An independent commission set up by the League of Nations finally awarded 70 per cent of the total area to Germany but handed two-thirds of the industrial part to Poland. However, Article 90 of the treaty, which had stipulated that for fifteen years Germany could purchase all products of the mines at the same price as the Poles, was re-affirmed. Neither the German mine and steel-mill owners nor the rural landowners were dispossessed. Nevertheless, the Upper Silesian settlement accounts for the bulk of Germany’s industrial losses.

What does this amount to? Almost all of the figures circulating about Germany’s territorial and population losses state that the Reich lost almost 70,000 square kilometers of its territory, amounting to 13 per cent, and 6.5 million inhabitants or 10.2 per cent of its population. Robert Boyce has recently queried these statistics. He points out that much of the land in question had been acquired in the previous half-century by military conquest, and was neither historically nor ethnically German. He stresses that even the Nazis made little protest over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and northern Schleswig, but — with the exception of Eupen-Malmedy — focused all their anger upon German losses in the east. If one accepts this reasonable argument, the loss of territory is reduced to 9.4 per cent and of population to 7 per cent. Moreover, Boyce contends that German losses are overstated for three further reasons. First, a large number of people in pre-war German or Prussian territory were ethnically non-Germans. Second, when territory was transferred, some ethnic Germans refused to be transferred to it, but moved to other parts of Germany. Third, the German statistics that almost all historians use most likely overestimate the German losses. On this point, Boyce refers to a 1919 British study, which noted:

The figures of the 1910 census are demonstrably falsified, and even if they were accurate they would describe a state of things artificially created by the police of ruthlessly suppressing the Polish language and of substituting German for Polish peasants on the land by the expenditure of public money to which the Poles as taxpayers are compelled to contribute, and this on top … of the presence of large numbers of German officials (railway porters and post office clerks, &c) and their families.

However, even if the German population moving out of the transferred region is left to one side, the non-Germans are counted in the territorial changes, and the official German statistics are accepted, Boyce concludes that the population loss amounts to 1.8 per cent, a fraction of the 10 per cent invariably claimed. 4

Similarly, just as the Upper Silesian mines and plants constitute the only industrial loss that can be substantiated, claims that Germany lost a third of its pre-war coal production and three-quarters of its iron capacity are dubious. The output of Germany’s coal and heavy industry had surpassed pre-war figures by the mid-1920s, much earlier than that of the United Kingdom, 5 and the same goes for the chemical and electrical sectors of Germany industry.

There can be no genuine talk of a ‘Carthaginian Peace.' Had Germany won the war; it would have incorporated large parts of Eastern Europe and European Russia, much of northern France, and the whole of Belgium and Luxembourg. Compared to this, and taking into account the terms imposed by Prussia on defeated states in the second half of the nineteenth century, German losses at Versailles were moderate.

Part IV of the treaty, ‘German Rights and Interests outside Germany’, began with the German colonies (Articles 119– 127). In its response to the Versailles Peace Treaty, Germany claimed to have been an exemplary colonial power, having abolished ‘devastating and incessant predatory warfare between the tribes’ and the ‘high-handedness of the chiefs and witch-doctors and the kidnapping of slaves and the slave trade’. All told, Germany had always looked to the welfare of the natives. In particular, it had brought peace and order to its colonies, and a well-organized system of native education provided vocational and agricultural schooling. The Allies dismissed these claims. They referred to pre-war studies, private and official, conducted in Germany into the Reich’s colonial administration, which pointed to cruel and methodical repression, arbitrary requisition of territory, and various forms of forced labour. 6 The first administration of Heinrich Ernst Göring (the father of the notorious Nazi) in German South-West Africa stood out for its brutality. The year 1904 saw the twentieth century’s first genocide, when General Lothar von Trotha drove the Herero people into the Namibian desert, where up to 100,000 perished from thirst and starvation. 7

The Allies’ accusation of German colonial maladministration was an example of the pot calling the kettle black, and with hindsight, the loss of the colonies was a blessing. None of the other colonizers had objected to the German empire’s belated acquisition of territory overseas, as the richest pickings had long been made. Regarding nineteenth-century colonialism, the German possessions in Africa and the Pacific yielded few returns and had to be subsidized, and they did not provide an outlet for Germany’s rapidly expanding population. By 1913 the number of Germans in the African colonies totaled 18,362, many of whom were military and administrative staff and temporary residents engaged in railway construction. The actual number of German settlers would have been around ten thousand, most of them in German South-West Africa.

Economically, the colonies provided Germany with only 2 per cent of its so-called ‘colonial wares’: cotton, rubber, tobacco, and copra palm kernels. Less than a third of one per cent of Germany’s total foreign commerce came from the African colonies, and trade with the Pacific Islands was even less. By the time the twentieth-century mining boom had reached Africa and the Pacific (and in particular New Guinea), national liberation movements had brought the mandate system to an end. The seeds of anti-colonialism were being planted at Paris even while the peacemaking process was in progress. Ho Chi Minh, a young Vietnamese working as a kitchen hand at the Ritz Hotel, presented a petition seeking Vietnam’s independence from France. 8 As the French and Americans were to find out decades later, it would have been wise to have listened to him.

The loss of its colonies meant that Germany was spared humiliation and cost when, after World War II, liberation movements in ‘Third World’ countries pushed out their European overlords. The German population of what had been German South-West Africa supported the Union of South Africa, with its apartheid system. When the African National Congress put an end to apartheid, Nelson Mandela returned the government of the former mandate to its original inhabitants. Like other white minorities of southern Africa, the German settlers acquiesced peacefully, and in Namibia, as the ex-colony is now called, black and white now live in harmony.

Treaty Articles 128 to 158 specified that treaties made by Germany with a number of states in North Africa and Asia 9 previous to and during the war 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.

Part V of the treaty — Military, Naval, and Airforces (Articles 159– 221) — was severe. Germany had to reduce its army to 100,000 men, of whom only 4,000 could be officers. The latter were allowed to serve for 25 years; the other ranks, for twelve. Germany was also banned from possessing tanks or armored cars, heavy guns, poison gas, or other chemical weapons. Only a limited amount of smaller armaments was exempt. Likewise, the Navy was to be reduced to 36 smaller ships and 15,000 personnel, and Germany was allowed no submarines or military aircraft. Arms and ammunition could only be produced in some designated plants. In addition to the Articles on the Rhineland referred to above, all existing stocks of weapon and fortifications in the region had to be destroyed. There were to be restrictions on the manpower and training of organizations such as the police, customs, and coastguards. Private societies such as veteran’s associations were not to pursue military goals. The system of cadet students in high schools and universities was to be discontinued. These restrictions were aimed at reducing the likelihood of renewed German aggression.

It was characteristic of the Peace Treaty and the peacemaking process that what was demanded on paper and what happened, in reality, did not match. ‘Military men,' comments Versailles expert Stephen Schuker, ‘no more believed in the permanent disarmament of a major industrial nation than they gave credence to the tooth-fairy.' 10 Implementation of the 62 disarmament articles was to be carried out by the Germans themselves, supervised by an Inter-Allied Military Control Commission (IAMCC) in an arrangement characterized by one historian as ‘like the ropes of the Lilliputians over Gulliver.' 11

The Allies felt satisfied by the middle of 1921 that naval and aerial disarmament had by and large been achieved. However, while ships and airplanes could not easily be hidden, other armaments could. The IAMCC had a staff of only 1,200 soldiers, and could not extend its control over the whole of Germany. Obstruction was common. Allied inspectors were given a hostile reception in most plants and barracks, and were hindered in carrying out their task.

There were widespread violations of the military articles of the Peace Treaty. Large caches of war material were frequently discovered, 12 and German arms producers soon found ways to circumvent Allied control. Rheinmetall, for example, produced artillery under the guise of railway equipment. Factories that had previously manufactured tanks now fabricated inordinately huge tractors. The joke was told in Berlin’s cabarets of the worker who smuggled parts out of his pram factory for his newborn, only to find when he put them together that he had assembled a machine gun. 13 The bulk of post-war armament production was moved outside the country, with manufacturers transporting their plants to neutral countries such as Switzerland, Holland, and Sweden. Leading arms producer Krupp, for example, set up a giant firm in the Netherlands, and was able to gain control of Swedish armament producer Bofors. 14

German avoidance of the disarmament demands reached its peak after the Treaty of Rapallo, signed with the Soviet Union on 16 April 1922. Rapollo was a spin-off from the Genoa conference held in April and May 1922, in which representatives of 34 countries, including Germany and Russia, discussed ways to tackle the economic problems left by the war. With the conference making little headway, the German and Soviet foreign ministers, Walther Rathenau and Georgi Chicherin, slipped away with a team of delegates to nearby Rapollo to settle the differences between their countries.

Officially, the treaty was to normalize diplomatic and economic relations and to renounce all territorial and financial claims resulting from the war.

Unofficially, the result was clandestine military co-operation, which enabled the Reichswehr to test on Soviet soil weapons and equipment forbidden by the Versailles Treaty and to train military personnel in their use. In return, German know-how was to improve the Soviets’ deficient and backward military.

Some German firms (among them Junkers, Krupp, Rheinmetall, and Stolzenberg) participated in the reconstruction of the Soviet armaments industry, and in 1924 a German-Soviet company was set up to manufacture poison gas, ammunition, and aircraft. The enterprise failed because of economic, technical, and personnel problems, but not before a shipment of 300,000 rounds of ammunition was discovered heading for Germany — causing a storm of indignation in the Western media. 15

The treaty with the Soviet Union also assisted in circumventing the demands made in the Versailles military clauses to reduce the size of the German army. During the peacemaking process, the British delegate on the commission dealing with disarmament, Henry Wilson, had argued for a volunteer army where members would serve for some years. French commander Foch, however, warned that the creation of such an army led by long-serving officers would form the nucleus of a much larger force and, to avoid this, demanded a system in which conscripts would serve no longer than a year. The French lost out, at Lloyd George’s insistence, and the concept of a conscript German army was abandoned. By the end of 1920, the British members of the IAMCC believed that Germany had reduced the size of its army to the required 100,000 men. The French were more skeptical, and they were supported by Brigadier-General J. H. Morgan, a dissenting voice among the British in the IAMCC. Morgan was active in uncovering German attempts to circumvent the clauses of the treaty. In two articles published in The Times in September 1921, he pointed out that Germany had enough personnel, clothing, and armaments for 800,000 men. 16

Foch’s fear that the volunteer army would grow around a large nucleus of well-trained officers proved well founded. Because the peacemakers failed to place restrictions on the number of non-commissioned officers in the Reichswehr, the number of sergeants and corporals amounted to 40,000.28 This contravention assisted Nazi Germany with its re-armament policy of the mid-1930s.

Part VI (Articles 214– 226) of the treaty specified that there should be a speedy, orderly, and humane repatriation of prisoners of war and interned civilians and that the fallen on both sides should be buried in their respective territories as far as this was possible. Part VII on penalties dealt in part with Kaiser Wilhelm. He was to be extradited from the Netherlands and put on trial for ‘supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties’ (Article 227). The next Article recognized the right of the Allies ‘to bring before military tribunals persons accused of having committed acts in violation of the laws and customs of war.' The committee in charge of drawing up penalties had also been charged with establishing responsibility for the outbreak of war, a task that could not be carried out because members did not have at their disposal material to investigate. The conclusion to Part VIII stated the optimistic demand that the German government provides all documents and information necessary to deal with the criminal acts and the perpetrators (Article 230).


Reparations and Article 231: ‘Paragraph of disgrace’, or of good fortune?

By the time the details of the Versailles Peace Treaty had been made public, interest in the prosecution of war crimes had all but vanished, at least in Britain and the U.S. The question of ‘war guilt’ was another matter. Article 231, introducing Part VIII on ‘Reparations’, stated ‘That 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’. There was no reference suggesting that Germany was responsible for the outbreak of war. The term ‘aggression’, as it did in the Pre-Armistice Agreement, referred to German violation of international conduct as spelled out in The Hague Convention of 1907, and in particular to Imperial Germany’s unprovoked attack upon neutral Belgium. Article 231 was merely an introductory clause stating the ethical and jurisdictional justification for the reparation liability. Insisting that Article 231 assigned ‘war guilt’ (Kriegsschuld) to Germany, the German response was strident. No other part, sentence, or paragraph of the Versailles Treaty was attacked with such ferocity.

The insistence on Article 231 as the source of all evil that was to befall Germany has surprised treaty specialists outside Germany for some time. As William R. Keylor wrote in Versailles and International Diplomacy:

The issue of German responsibility — as specified in the notorious article 231 of the peace treaty — has given rise to the most egregious popular misconceptions about the reparation settlement that have persisted down through the decades. The truth of the matter is that this provision had been inserted at the behest not of some French or British hard-liner (such as the devious ‘Klotzkie’, the bombastic ‘Billy’ Hughes, or the obdurate ‘heavenly twins’), but rather of the American representatives of the Reparation Commission, Norman Davis, and John Foster Dulles. The courtly southern gentleman and the stolid Wall Street lawyer had been conscientiously seeking diplomatic language that would mollify the British and the French while reducing the amount of Germany’s financial obligation where it held liable for the totality of war costs, as Clemenceau and Lloyd George had been frantically demanding in order to satisfy their publics’ insistence on integral repayment. By affirming [in article 231] Germany’s moral responsibility for the war and its legal liability for the damage to persons and property, while implicitly acknowledging [in article 232] her financial incapacity to pay the enormous bills that was certain to result from an objective inspection of the devastated regions of France and an actuarial projection of pension costs, Davis and Dulles thought that they had devised a brilliant solution to the reparation dilemma: Here was a means of furnishing what Arthur Walworth has aptly called a ‘psychological sop’ to Allied public opinion as compensation for the loss of the huge German payments that Allied leaders knew could and would never be made. 18

There is one obvious reason for Germany’s sensitivity about Article 231. To concede that the German empire bore responsibility for the events of July– August 1914 and the calamity that followed them was unthinkable. To admit that the sacrifices — the two million of their people dead, the four million crippled, blinded, or otherwise incapacitated, the sufferings demanded of the bulk of the population — may have been of Germany’s own making, no upright German could contemplate.

There was another reason why Article 231 was vilified. The German government was aware of its true meaning. Before negotiations commenced, it was reluctant to bring the question of war guilt to the table, and it was not altogether in agreement with Brockdorff-Rantzau’s decision to jump the gun and base the attack in his reply of 7 May on the issue of German war guilt. 19 The German note of 29 May referred to Article 231 but did not mention that it implied war guilt. 20 When the Allies became aware of the furor created by the clause, they pointed out that the German delegation had ‘misinterpreted the reparation proposals of the treaty.' 21

The Austrian and Hungarian governments, which had faced provisions similar to Article 231, had not questioned their inclusion but accepted them as what amounted to petty legal points to back up the Allies’ reparation claims as specified in the Pre-Armistice Agreement. Had the German government acted likewise, there would have been little justification for dissent. On the contrary, if German politicians and opinion-makers had disputed or challenged the Allies on this point, attention would have been drawn again to the collapse of the German war effort in September– October 1918, to the acceptance of the Fourteen Points with the Pre-Armistice Agreement, and to Germany’s signing of the full Armistice terms — in short, to the fact that the nation had in all, but name made an unconditional surrender. Had such a discussion occurred, it would have countered the ever-increasing feeling of the German public that the empire had not lost the war.

Weeks before the collapse, the public believed that the fatherland was set for victory. Because no foreign soldier had set foot on German soil, SPD leader Ebert, soon to become president of the German Reich, could welcome the troops with the proud assurance ‘that no enemy has conquered you.' With the political right recovering from the sudden shock of defeat, and with war hero Ludendorff (who had fled in November to Sweden in false whiskers and tinted glasses) and his companions from the former OHL proclaiming the story of the brave German soldier, undefeated in the field but stabbed in the back by shoddy left-wing politicians and Jews (long before anyone had heard the name Adolf Hitler), renewed discussion about the true nature of the ending of the war could be avoided.

With Article 231 discounted as an Allied attempt to blame Germany for the outbreak of war and make it pay on that basis, myriad possibilities emerged for the Germans to mount a crusade against the Versailles Peace Treaty. ‘Expert’ historians could be (and were) used to provide volumes — forty in all — of counter-evidence as to the reasons for the war. A government department could be (and was) set up to spread the message that the war had not been Germany’s fault, and endless propaganda countering such a false assumption could be (and was) circulated the world. Moreover, if it could be shown that the German empire did not cause the war, then not just the reparation clauses, but the Versailles Peace Treaty as a whole, was based on a falsehood, was an attack by the Allies, and was null and void. Article 231 could be (and was) blamed for the entire malaise that befell the Republic — economic difficulties such as inflation, high prices, low wages, and unemployment, and the country’s permanent political instability — and, above all, for the Republic’s inglorious end in January 1933. Viewed in such terms, Article 231 for Weimar Germany was not a paragraph of disgrace but good fortune.

Article 232 of the treaty assured Germany that, Article 231 notwithstanding, the amount to be paid would be within the limits of the country’s capacity to pay. The amount was to be estimated by an Inter-Allied Reparation Commission (Article 233). This commission would determine the extent of Germany’s obligation on 1 May 1921, after taking into account all the evidence and allowing the German government ‘a just opportunity to be heard’. An initial payment of 20 billion gold marks was to be made (Article 235) before this deadline. The remaining clauses (Articles 236– 244) and their annexes spelled out the details for this initial payment.

Like the territorial settlement, the reparation terms of the first payment were modest. Payment could be made either in cash or, as happened for the most part, in kind. Reparation credit was given for coal, timber chemicals and dyes, industrial and agricultural machinery and locomotives, rolling stock, and shipping. Germany was credited for confiscated military equipment, and for its colonies and transferred territories, including the Saarland but excluding Alsace-Lorraine. As far as the transfer of industrial equipment and plants from occupied territory was concerned, no levy was imposed. Included in the first payment were the Rhineland occupation costs and the Allies’ expected outlays in providing Germany with food and raw materials — an amount of eight billion gold marks.

Germany was to surrender all ships over 1,600 tons gross, half of those between 1,000 and 1,600 tons gross, a quarter of its steam trawlers and fishing boats, and a small part of its river fleet. This was to compensate for the losses caused by German submarine warfare, Britain alone having lost eight million tons of shipping. Over 2.6 million tons were handed over during the next two years. The loss of shipping, however, did not have an undue impact on the German economy. Ships were handed over only gradually, and by the end of 1919 leading German shipping companies such as HAPAG and Norddeutscher Lloyd were beginning to use agencies to run their former fleets. 22 Ship-building replaced the losses and helped to revive Germany’s post-war economy, and by 1921 the German merchant fleet was greater than its pre-war size. 23

All of these requirements were within Germany’s capacity to pay and did not effectively cripple the immediate post-war economy. 24

The subsequent part ‘Special Provisions’, which dealt with the return of items of historical importance, has sometimes given critics of the treaty grounds for ridicule. Article 245, which covered the restoration to the French government of trophies, archives, historical souvenirs, and works of art carried away in the two previous wars, was reasonable, although one does wonder why, of all the confiscated documents, ‘the political papers taken by the German authorities on October 10, 1870, at the Chateau of Cercay, near Brunoy, belonging to Mr. Rouhier, formerly Minister of State’ should have been singled out for special mention. The subsequent clauses could perhaps have been settled privately.

Article 246 specified that the original Koran of the Caliph Othman, which had been taken from Medina by the Turks and handed to Wilhelm II, should be returned to the King of Hedjaz (the western part of today’s Saudi Arabia), and that the skull of Sultan Mkawa, which had been removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa, should be handed over to the British government in good condition.

Article 247 required the replacement of all items of value (manuscripts, incunabula, printed books, maps, and other objects of collection) destroyed by the burning of the Library of Louvain, for which Germany would be given reparation credit. No such credit was allowed for returning the leaves of the Triptych of the Mystic Lamb, painted by the Van Eyck brothers, from the Berlin Museum to the Church of St. Bavon at Ghent; nor for the return of the Dierick Bouts’ triptych of the Last Supper to the Church of St. Peter at Louvain.

The remaining seven parts of the treaty were concerned mainly with post-war arrangements for international financial and economic matters, customs and international traffic regulations, maritime and river navigation, aerial navigation, postal and telecommunications systems, and ports, waterways, and railways. Clauses here did not arouse the acrimony that accompanied the earlier parts, especially those on reparation. In its reply, Germany objected again to its exclusion, short-term, from the League of Nations and its affiliated organizations, and even more so to not being immediately admitted to all of the post-war trade arrangements. The Allies responded by pointing to the economic reality that had resulted from the war:

The illegal acts of the enemy have placed many of the Allied States in a position of economic inferiority to Germany, whose territory has not been ravaged, whose plant is in a condition enabling manufactures and trade to be at once resumed after the war. For such countries, a certain freedom of action during the transition period is vitally necessary … hence during the transitory period, formal reciprocity with Germany is not practicable. 25

Reciprocity would be forthcoming once economic balance was restored.

After two years of deliberations, the Reparation Commission announced a total reparation debt of 132 billion gold marks enshrined in the London Schedule of Payments presented to Germany on 5 May 1921. The amount was regarded as the lowest figure that would not cause a major public backlash in the Allied countries, but in reality, it was for public consumption only; the Commission consigned all but 50 billion gold marks to never-never land.

As seen above, the story of the reparations part of the Treaty of Versailles ended on 3 October 2011, when Germany made its last payment.

In the end, the burden of paying for the damage done by the war had to be met by the victors. They had to pay for the reconstruction of devastated regions, the pensions of disabled veterans and war widows, and their own debts. Or as the American reparation expert Sally Marks concluded:

In addition to reinforcing German economic superiority, the history of reparations generated a vast bureaucracy, a mountain of arcane documents, much bitterness, endless propaganda [and] more than its share of historical myths, … It is evident that Germany could have paid a good deal more if she had chosen to do so, particularly since she paid little out of her own considerable resources. But Germany saw no reason to pay and from start to finish deemed reparations a gratuitous insult. Whether it was wise to seek reparations from Germany is arguable, although the consequences of not seeking them would have been far-reaching, as the failure to obtain them proved in time to be. Certainly it was unwise to inflict the insult without rigorous enforcement. In the last analysis, however, despite the fact that reparations claims were intended to transfer real economic wealth from Germany to the battered victors and despite the financial complexity of the problem, the reparations question was at heart a political issue, a struggle for dominance of the European continent and to maintain or reverse the military verdict of 1918. 26


1. Cited in Harold W. V. Temperley, A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, 1920, vol. 2, p. 276.

2. Op. cit., p. 230.

3. M.S. Anderson, Europe in the Eighteenth Century, 1713– 1783 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1966), p. 31.

4. Robert Boyce, The Great Interwar Crisis and the Collapse of Globalization, 2009, pp. 53– 55.

5. Wolfram Fischer, ‘Die Weimarer Republik unter den weltwirtschaftlichen Bedingungen der Zwischenkriegszeit’, in Hans Mommsen, Dietmar Petzina and Bernd Weisbrod Industrielles System und die politische Entwicklung in der Weimarer Republik (Droste, Düsseldorf, 1974), pp. 28– 31.

6. Temperley, A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, vol. 2, pp. 300– 01.

7. United Nations Whitaker Report; ‘Germany admits Namibia genocide,' BBC News, 14 August 2014. In 2004, the German government recognized and apologized for the event, but refused to pay financial compensation to the victims’ descendants.

8. Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, p. 67.

9. These were China, Siam (Thailand), Liberia, Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey.

10. Stephen A. Schuker" "The Rhineland Question: West European Security at the Paris Peace Conference," in Manfred Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds., The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after Seventy-five Years (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 275-312, p. 276.

11. MacMillan, Peacemakers, p. 186.

12. Richard J. Shuster, German Disarmament After World War I: the diplomacy of international arms inspection, 1920– 1931, 2006, pp. 111– 27.

13. Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, p. 491.

14. Shuster, German Disarmament After World War I, p. 116.

15. Harvey Leonard Dyck, Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, 1926– 1933: a study in diplomatic instability,1966, pp. 19– 22.

16. Shuster, German Disarmament After World War I, p. 79.

17. John W. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power: the German army in politics 1918– 1945, 1984, p. 98.

18. William R.  Keylor, 'Versailles and International Diplomacy,' in Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds., The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 469-505 p. 500.

19. Wolfgang J. Mommsen, ‘Max Weber and the Treaty of Versailles’, 1984 pp. 537– 38.

20. Harold W. V. Temperley, A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, vol. 2.,1921, pp. 308– 11.

21. Op. cit., p. 313.

22. Gordon Kent, The Spoils of War, 2006, p. 62.

23. Wolfram Fischer, Die Weimarer Republik unter den weltwirtschaftlichen Bedingungen der Zwischenkriegszeit. In: H. Mommsen, D. Petzina, B. Weisbrod (Hg.), Industrielles System und politische Entwicklung in der Weimarer Republik, Droste-Verlag, Düsseldorf 1974, S. 26-50., p. 32.

24. Niall Ferguson, ‘The Balance of Payments Questions: Versailles and after’, in Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years,1998, p. 415.

25. Temperley, A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, vol. 2, pp. 321– 22.

26. Sally Marks, The Myths of Reparations, Central European History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Sep., 1978), pp. 231-255.