Diktat 1919: The Versailles Treaty As Dictated Peace

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A hundred and five years ago, on June 28, 2014, a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Prinzip, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to precipitate the crisis that led a few weeks later to an unthinkable war. A hundred years ago this week, the Versailles Treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. That was some five years: a half-decade that was itself a kind of microcosm of the twentieth century.

The characterization of the Versailles Treaty as a “dictated peace,” a Diktat in the German usage, became the object of bitter debate in 1919 and, with crescendos and diminuendos, ever since. Lurking behind any discussion of the issue since the 1930s is the enormous role that the “dictated peace” played in Hitler’s political campaigns and eventually the Third Reich. In the twenties, he was just one more commentator in a country which almost unanimously rejected the treated as a Diktat—the only real debate in that context being whether Germany should have signed in order to survive, or whether a bitter end resistance against the Allies in 1919 would have provided the kind of destruction on which great futures have rarely been based. In the end, the new German government would accept the war guilt clause, a large reparation bill, territorial truncation, and Allied occupation.

Actually, many voices in both neutral countries and in the Allied countries decried the dictated nature of the Versailles Treaty almost immediately. A whole “revisionist” school of historians and political scientists analyzed the Treaty in the most negative terms from the outset. John Maynard Keynes, later one of the twentieth century’s most influential economists, was a delegate from the British Treasury at the Peace Conference, and he argued there against the harsh and non-negotiated nature of the Versailles Treaty. Indeed, within months of the signing of the Treaty he had written a book which would become the first classic writing about the Peace Conference: The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). In it, Keynes argued that the Treaty was a “Carthaginian Peace,” likening it to the utter destruction visited on Carthage by the Romans after their victory in the Third Punic War. Keynes wrote that there should have been no reparations, or at least very small ones, allowing the stage to be set for European recovery.

Naturally, the economic aspects of the Treaty loomed large for Keynes, and in some ways in the whole question of the “dictated peace.” One of the first treaty terms which the Germans—nearly powerless—tried to reject was the famous, or infamous, “war guilt clause,” as Article 231 came to be known. The article does not mention “guilt” at all, but it comes close enough:

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.

Some explanation is required. Significantly, this is one of clause of fifteen in the “Reparation” section (not “reparations”) of the Versailles. The term reparation was specifically used among the Entente peacemakers to avoid the older idea of “indemnity” in a treaty — meaning, more or less, financial punishment for losing. “Reparation,” as a kind of ethical-sounding noun (like “mandates”), fit the sensibilities of Woodrow Wilson much more closely than “indemnity.” In any case, since the major characteristic of the “new” warfare of week-long bombardments, million-shell bombardments, and shell “crises” mounted in costs to absolutely unthinkable amounts for all belligerents, war finance had been in the minds of most war leaders as the priority issue since 1914. Now that the war was over, as British Conservative and Liberal politicians said, Germany had to be made to pay.

So the Reparation section of the treaty outlined this process. Actually, very few Allied statesmen thought that Germany could pay for all the damages caused by the war, all the pensions of soldiers, and more. But an American with the peace commission at Paris (John Foster Dulles, later American Secretary of State under Eisenhower) suggested a flexible structure of the “Reparation” section that could be manipulated to achieve the maximum possible. First Article 231 made the Germans financially responsible for everything. The outlines of what was to be “repaired” was then delineated and limited somewhat in the following articles. The final reparation bill was left unspecified, to be negotiated later, and the whole process would eventually be tagged to international loans taken out by the Allies, and to other issues as well.

One point to make here is that the “war guilt” clause was a distinctly financial clause. In fact, “responsibility” is not necessarily “guilt.” But on the other hand, one has to ask: how could the Allies have thought that it would be acceptable to lay all the financial burden of the war on the Germans? Were the Germans the only sinners? Was autocratic Russia, with its outrageous official brutality as official policy right up the war and its highly questionable “partial mobilization” in 1914 guiltless, or “not responsible”? Indeed, every thinking person in a leadership position in Europe understood that every belligerent power had shared at least some responsibility for the coming of the war. The person who started the ball rolling was a Bosnian terrorist in the pay of Serbian intelligence, and yet Serbia turned out to be one of the biggest winners at the Peace Conference. Was none of these Allied countries in the least “responsible”?

But in a larger sense, the Allies found out quickly that the clause would become known to history as the “war guilt” clause because the Germans protested it almost immediately as such. And the protests were not limited to German nationalists and rightwing radicals, but emerged from all sections of the political spectrum in Germany.

Moreover, as will be discussed below, the new German government which was coming into being at Weimar a hundred years ago was in a technical sense the most democratic in the world (a point often made especially by German Social Democrats). It was the enemies of the Kaiser who now ran Germany. So why were they being punished?

This discussion has continued to the present. And today, many scholars of the peacemaking at Paris, perhaps most, will bridle at descriptions of the Treaty as dictated. Indeed, since the emergence of historiographical “revisionism” that began even before the Peace was concluded, many observers have periodically reassessed the Peace, usually to show that the Versailles Treaty was not as harsh as it seems, that the Allies were justified in the one-sided nature of this case of peacemaking, that the Germans really were guilty of the whole war. Many of these reassessments have been associated with the American opposition to Hitler’s regime and of course World War II itself. Hitler was after all a “revisionist” of a sort himself, meaning that he wanted to revise the Paris Peace settlement and indeed would eventually do so quite radically.

At the same time, two World Wars in which the United States and the British Empire fought Germany have left their mark: the wartime expressions of hatred for the Germans by politicians, soldiers, literary figures, clergymen, and many other kinds of people were not simply forgotten when Hitler was gone and West Germany became a close ally in the Cold War. The emerging knowledge of the Holocaust too contributed to thinking about Germany in the twentieth century. And finally, many historical studies, more or less free of bias, have supported the nature of the Treaty as being a beneficial advance in modern international relations, based on various theories of security, international cooperation, and so forth. Or, they have exposed bad behavior by leaders of the new German republic in 1919 in various attempts to circumvent the harsh Treaty.

Yet regardless how one evaluates the points of the Treaty, subsequent German acts, or the distant future of Nazi Germany, the Treaty negotiations were dictated.

In brief, here is how. The Allies met in Paris beginning in January 1919 to make the Treaty. Official Allied bodies and committees met continuously until the Treaty was signed at the beginning of July 1919, and indeed, beyond that, since they were working on the other treaties with the other former Central Powers as well.

Throughout this period of time, from January to the end of June 1919, the German delegation was permitted to come to Paris three times, each time for a limited period of a few days. The first time was to receive the Treaty terms. The second time was to hand over a “reply” to the Treaty terms. The third was to sign the Treaty.

Doing research in the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office many years ago, I ran across a document which was quite telling as to extent of the physical isolation of the Germans from Peace Conference. An influential German private individual had suggested to the Foreign Office that he had contacts which might help the Allied leaders see how much Upper Silesia was really an integral part of Germany, an important part of the existing European network of coal, steel, zinc, etc. This private individual wanted to travel to Paris to share his knowledge of the region with his contacts, who might, he thought, have influence in Allied circles. The German Foreign Office looked favorably on this proposal, but found almost immediately that France was not issuing visas or any other passes for German nationals. It appears that for the duration, all Germans (not just the diplomats) were kept out of France altogether.

So Germans could not contribute to negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference, since they were not allowed in France. Hence, in the period from January to April 1919, there was plenty of negotiation regarding the Versailles Treaty, but Germany was not involved in any of it.

If the Germans were not permitted to be anywhere near the negotiating table until time to “receive” the “conditions,” then the peace terms were in fact dictated by the other side. The phrase “dictated peace” is loaded with all kinds of connotations of political and moral import arising from both Allied policy at the time and the events of the subsequent decades. Yet it is undeniable that all negotiations were in one way or another Interallied negotiations.

Apart from Germany’s disarmament via the Armtistice conditions, and apart from the occupation of German territory during the Peace Conference, an indirect aspect was perhaps even more influential in effecting a “forced” or dictated peace on Germany. This factor was the Hunger Blockade, a British war measure begun in 1914 which aimed to restrict all supplies to Germany, including foodstuffs. The Blockade impacted the war in many ways. For the German population, it meant a sharp rise in the civilian death rate, due to the outright famine conditions it created. Including both starvation and the indirect effects in raising the mortality levels of most diseases, the postwar German estimate of nearly 800,000 deaths owing to the Blockade seems to have been close to correct. (Among many recent works, C. Paul Vincent’s 1985 work The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 is still the authoritative overall account.)

Again, at various moments in the last hundred years, many academic historians and journalists have tried to assert that the Hunger Blockade was a “myth” created by Germany to get sympathy after the war. Recent research has conclusively demonstrated that the various German scientific and official studies in the 1920s may even underestimate the effects of the starvation. The Hunger Blockade comes into the narrative of the Diktat in this way: the Allies continued to Blockade Germany after the Armistice, during a period when, in the view of several recent scholars, the death rates may have increased for a variety of reasons. And the Allies maintained the Blockade until July 12, exactly two weeks after the Germans signed the Versailles Treaty in the sumptuous Hall of Mirrors. If the technical aspects of the negotiations demonstrate the dictated nature of the peace, the Hunger Blockade provided a terrible background of starvation.

Apart from this background of hunger and deprivation, events in Germany itself at the end of the War are pivotal in understanding the full implications of the forced peace. Under the tremendous stress of the Allied Hundred Days advance beginning in the summer of 1918, the German High Command was sending urgent and by September nearly hysterical communications to the German cabinet, demanding that the government figure out how to make an armistice with the Allies. Civilian officials had been largely kept out of the decision-making loop since 1916. Yet if they were shocked when the dictatorial army leadership dumped this issue in their laps, they responded hastily.

Most German statesmen saw that the United States was the key to the problem of how to gain a cease-fire, or armistice, leading to peace negotiations. The United States, the richest country in the world, had only entered the war in 1917, and the German civilian decision-makers now calculated that America would be at least somewhat forgiving, the more so since Woodrow Wilson was the only Allied leader who had produced anything like a peace plan. This plan was the famous Fourteen Points. Hence, the United States occupied a central role in German thinking about how to stop the war before the Allies drove German armies back to Germany’s own borders.

With defeat looming, Wilson’s verbiage looked more like a lifeline than a noose. And what the Germans saw in the Fourteen Points was that Wilson proposed “open governments, openly arrived at,” “self-determination,” etc. Wilson was a political scientist who had thought a great deal about democracy. And indeed, from the standpoint of Germany’s largest party, the Social Democratic Party, Wilson’s scholarly comments from years before to the effect that “democracy IS socialism” seemed crystal clear.

Hence, in Berlin, September 1918 had produced an intensive discussion of how to create a reformed government with whom Wilson would deal and with which he would sympathize. The liberal heir to the throne of the German state of Baden, Prince Max, emerged as a compromise solution—heir to a throne but a personality with whom the Allies could work. Max was appointed Chancellor on October 3, 1918. He made his first peace overture to Wilson on October 5.

At the same time, liberal reform ideas from within the German tradition came to life. These ideas prompted a great deal of internal discussion about the form of a new German constitution, much of it aimed at ending the undemocratic structures of Imperial Germany’s constitution and those of the component federal states.

Meanwhile, in communication with Wilson during October, Prince Max realized that Wilson was insisting on the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II as a condition for an armistice. Many in Max’s government were quite willing for Wilhelm to abdicate in favor of his thirty-six year old son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, who had served as a general during the war.

Yet as things developed, neither Wilson nor the other Allied leaders saw much profit in negotiations on the basis of a new Germany. They had little inclination to welcome a new government of the German as liberal co-equals and pass up the distinct advantages they would have if Germany were in fact laid low. Security issues loomed large, of course, but so did financial issues, the future of trade, and other matters. Hence, in the Armistice negotiations begun in October at Spa, the Allied representatives remained unyielding, insisting that Germany disarm before any peace conference should start.

The situation was complicated immensely during the last days of October, however, when sailors at Kiel and other German naval bases began refusing to put to sea for a climactic, and pointless, sea battle with the British, a nearly suicidal gesture by German admirals. The mutiny broke out at Kiel in full force on November 3 and spread to other naval bases, then army bases, then to workers in all major German cities. The streets of Berlin and other cities filled both with militant workers and returning soldiers. Sides formed quickly–revolutionaries versus counterrevolutionaries–and street clashes broke out. Crowds in Berlin were enormous, demanding radical changes in the government.

Meanwhile, the Kaiser had resisted abdication, even when his closest advisors came to the conclusion that he must go. He abdicated at last, on November 9, and left Germany. Yet on the same day, in the face of chaos and near civil war, Prince Max resigned and handed power over to Philipp Scheidemann and Friedrich Ebert, the leaders of the moderate and majority branch of the SPD. The idea was that that only these politicians–moderate but distinctly social-democratic–with direct connections to the militant workers in the streets could master the situation. But in any case, with the Kaiser gone, the armistice talks moved ahead, and the cease-fire was set for November 11.

The two SPD leaders quickly formed a government of radical and moderate socialists, made deals with the military to help restore order, and called for a national constituent assembly (an assembly whose purpose would be to write a new constitution) to be elected in January. The issue of a continued monarchy disappeared when SPD leader Philipp Scheidemann decided to proclaim a German republic in the face of massive demonstrations and street violence in Berlin. After several weeks of clashes with the radical socialists in the cabinet (and the SPD’s organized opposition to the revolutionary forces in the streets), the USPD members left the cabinet, and Ebert and Scheidemann began making more overtures to the middle class parties and taking more direct measures to combat the violence of the radical revolutionaries in the streets. Indeed, the January 1919 a nationwide election for the Constituent Assembly returned an array of parliamentarians skewed somewhat to the left, but still representing the full political spectrum. A majority (based on the new coalition of moderate socialists, liberals, and the powerful and liberal Catholic Center Party) were clearly inclined not toward class revolution but rather liberal values and representative parliamentary government. The nationalists and the monarchists were marginalized, and the new Communist party and the hard left Independent Socialists likewise found themselves in a political wilderness.

The complexion of the German political system dealing with the Allies was therefore decidedly marked by liberal and pluralistic processes. A majority of voters supporting the “Weimar Coalition” parties probably favored some kind of democratic state, some of them modified welfare state. The Constitution they hammered together was finished at nearly the same moment as the Treaty. It featured a system of representation which its makers considered “the most democratic system in the world.” There was universal suffrage (far more “democratic” than Britain in this regard), proportional representation (much more politically responsive, one might argue, than the systems of any of the Allies), pure republic status (even in Wilson’s theory itself, better than Britain), etc. No class system shackled the political system. The first Chancellor of the German republic was the son of a saddle-maker. Some high officials of the Weimar Republic had been in jail for subversive political activity under the Kaiser. The constituent assembly, meeting in Weimar, were on the verge of voting for the new constitution as the German representatives were sent to Paris to sign the treaty. After delays, the new Constitution was adopted on August 11, 1919.

Much more might be said about the Weimar Republic here, but the point is that the Allies dictated the Treaty to a Germany run by individuals who were on the whole much more “democratic” and “liberal” than the regimes who ran the Entente countries. Outraged at the extent to which the Versailles Treaty treated the new German regime as the Kaiser’s Germany, the government of the moderate German parties found itself forced to sign the Treaty, though Germany sent a note recognizing the duress of the situation, calling it “injustice without example.”

My mentor, the fine historian of Europe, Hans A. Schmitt, used to say, “Philipp Scheidemann refused to be a part of the government which gave approval to the Treaty. He said, ‘The hand that signs this Treaty will shrivel.’ And he was right. The socialists, liberals, and democrats signed it, and their hand shriveled. Democratic Germany came to power with defeat riding on its back.” The creation of the conspiracy theory that Germany had lost the war as a result of being “stabbed in the back” by liberals and traitors was an easy step by the hyper-nationalist right wing.

The successful episodes of peacemaking in European history — Westphalia, Vienna, and even the disparate “peace” process that ended World War II — had in common extended multi-lateral negotiations and compromise. This lesson, driven home by the counter-lesson of the Versailles Treaty, should be chapter one in the handbook for those making decisions about international relations today.

[For more, see Prof. Tooley’s book The Great War: Western Front and Home Front.]

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