Treaty of Versailles and the Nazis

It has long been debated whether or not the conditions under which the Treaty of Versailles was finalized gave rise to the Nazi party.1 Some thought that the “guilt clause,” under which the blame for the World War was placed squarely on the shoulders of Germany, was purely vindictive, as well as superbly unrealistic.2

However, although some say that the man in charge of the final word, President Woodrow Wilson, was imprudent to impugn Germany so distinctly for being responsible for World War I, others say that even if he had been more lenient, Germany would have begun the Third Reich anyway, either because they were not mollified by other terms of the treaty or because they saw the leniency as a weakness that invited rebellion.3

This student personally believes that, although Germany was without a doubt wounded both emotionally and economically by World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was not the seed that planted the Third Reich. Based on Germany’s poor conditions, the Nazi Party would have risen to the level that it had anyway, the Treaty being a mere harbinger of disaster, not the source of the destruction itself.4

The goals of the creation of the Treaty were to prevent future wars, redraw land boundaries, and to establish the League of Nations in order to instigate those changes.5 The Treaty itself demanded reparations, which Germany begrudgingly yet thoroughly paid. These included: Germany could not import, export, or manufacture weaponry; Germany could not join the League of Nations; caps were put on the number of soldiers Germany was allowed and conscription was outlawed; Germany’s navy was reduced to six ships and was no longer allowed to have/use submarines; and, Germany had to pay the equivalent of about $3 billion in reparations.6

Germany’s military needed to be weakened for all time, not just temporarily. If those who had drawn up the Treaty had been more forgiving, it would have become the old adage of “giving an inch and taking a mile.” Germany would have gone from requesting some to demanding more. However, Germany was allowed to keep 100,000 men in its military and was still allowed to trade abroad.7 The fact that Germany accepted these terms at all and stuck to them so quickly is a sure sign that the Treaty was not unfair. If they had thought that it was too unfair, they may have started World War II in the nineteen-teens instead of decades later.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson came prepared with what he called his Fourteen Points.8 These outlined his vision for a safer world. Wilson called for an end to secret diplomacy, a reduction of armaments, and freedom of the seas. He claimed that reductions to trade barriers, fair adjustment of colonies, and respect for national self-determination would reduce economic and nationalist sentiments that lead to war.9 Finally, Wilson proposed an international organization comprising representatives of all the world’s nations that would serve as a forum against allowing any conflict to escalate, the League of Nations.

This student believes that, although Wilson’s intentions were noble, they were at the same time unbelievably unrealistic, so it is no surprise at all that the three other key players at the conference—Georges Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Lloyd George of England—rejected each point one by one.10 Wilson’s points were also naïve.11 For example, how could he have asked for there to be no more secrets between nations? If it were known that covert diplomacy was going on, it would not be a secret. The freedom of the seas seems downright unachievable, because the only fair and logical way in which to do that would be to first evacuate the seas. And, even if the seas were successfully evacuated, would that not invite other states to flock back over to them as soon as they were empty, trying to be the first to stake their claim as ruler of the world’s naval military?12

This does not mean, however, that Wilson wanted Germany to be completely crippled by the reparations the Treaty demanded. Wilson wanted to weaken Germany’s military potential for all times, but he had nothing against a democratic Germany becoming a major economic power again and felt strongly about leaving it unified. He feared that an all too weak Germany might inspire France to strive for domination on the European continent. The British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that the political and economic prosperity of Europe depended upon a German recovery.13 The problem was that the United States was not prepared to assume the new responsibilities it faced as a world power. As the main creditor of the Entente, it had only a short-term interest in European stability and in French and British wealth.14

Many believe that the Second World War could have been prevented had the United States joined the League of Nations prior to its outbreak. Both internationally and domestically, this was difficult for Wilson to do. Not only was he unable to convince the European powers to accept his Fourteen Point plan, but his own Senate overrode his decision to join the League.15

On top of that, ethnic groups in the United States also helped to defeat Wilson’s proposal.16 German-Americans felt their fatherland was being treated too harshly. Italian-Americans felt that more territory should have been awarded to Italy. Irish-Americans criticized the treaty for failing to address the issue of Irish independence. Diehard American isolationists worried about a permanent global involvement.17

Article X (Ten) of the Treaty was of particular notoriety.18 This required the United States to respect the territorial integrity of member states. Although there was no requirement compelling an American declaration of war, the United States might be bound to impose an economic embargo or to sever diplomatic relations. Republican Senator and opponent of the Treaty, Henry Cabot Lodge, viewed the League as a supranational government that would limit the power of the American government from determining its own affairs.

However, long before Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, and even before the Treaty of Versailles had been signed in 1919, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, eventually to be called the Nazi Party, had been officiated. The organization’s goals then were not much different from pre-Treaty than they were from post-Treaty: promote nationalism, reject communism, and eradicate Jews and other non-Aryan creeds.

Not all of Germany’s economic damage was courtesy of World War I; the U.S.’s Great Depression had an effect on Germany as well. Drastic cutbacks had to be made, and that included foreign trade. Germans were laid-off, starving, angry, and desperate for change no matter what the cost, and Hitler was the one to offer it.19.

Some go as far as to suggest that the connection between the Treaty of Versailles and the outbreak of World War II, although not completely unmitigated, was not always the plan of the Nazis. Ernst Nolte, in his Die Epoch des Faschismus, writes that Hitler had undoubtedly in principle wanted war, “but hardly that war at that time,” referring to the beginning of WWII in 1939. Koch surmises that Hitler had been planning to instigate war between the European powers that had condemned them to the contingencies of the Treaty, France and Britain (excluding Italy, which had become Germany’s fascist ally), but instead risked invading Poland when he realized that, due to circumstances out of his control, it was either go through Poland or don’t wage war at all.20

Koch also asks, how can any one of us even accurately guess whether or not any other ruler would have done the same things Hitler did under the same circumstances? Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of Nazi propaganda, was no less a Nazi than Hitler and had

impressive professional credentials and skills to match Hitler’s. Others Germans like the two of them were also anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, and fascist. Who is to say that

Germany would not have looked to any one of them or a team of them as their savior had Hitler not been in the picture? Before the Treaty was signed, the Nazis probably had at least some idea of where they were headed, if not who was going to lead them there.21

Nobody, domestically or internationally, had the power with which to prevent the rise of the Nazis. Some German natives were already fleeing their homeland in order to escape what they thought was inevitable. The League of Nations, as they had done many times in the past, produced much talk but little action in a time of crisis. There was not even a monarch who could have stopped them.

Some say that Germany became a monster because it had no other reputation to live up to. Most treaties are meant to be a compromise, but the Treaty of Versailles reached almost to the point of extortion. Germany was treated at the Conference less than an equal and more like a criminal awaiting his punishment.21

To those, it can be said that even though Germany had its military significantly downsized by the Treaty, it still found a way to retrieve the weaponry needed to ignite a war. Hence, not taking it away in 1919 would have only made things worse.

Let’s not be quick to forget that the events of signing the Treaty and the Nazis’ takeover were neither simultaneous nor instantaneous.22 The Germans had plenty of situations between those two times in which they violated the terms of the Treaty that the League of Nations could have intervened in but instead turned a blind eye to. These included: The Treaty of Rapallo (1922); the German government’s refusal to continue paying reparations (1933); the reintroduction of military conscription, Army, Luftwaffe, and Navy being re-established (1935); the remilitarization of the Rhineland (1936); the annexation of Sudetenland, a.k.a. Czechoslovakia (1938); and the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia (1939). 23

This list of instances led up to what was arguably (as opposed to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria) the beginning of World War II, the invasion of Poland.24 However, it may be said that the precursor to that was England foolishly believing that then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain co-signing a piece of paper with Hitler stating that he would not invade anywhere but the Sudetenland, in the hopes of appeasing his appetite for destruction, would prevent just that. Naturally, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later. Some say that the audacity of Hitler doing something that he had promised not to do so shortly before is baffling, but it may be seen as equally if not more baffling that neither England nor any other European country took any preparations. It rings of how some people think that a restraining order is a joke; the stalker only has to kill you once and you’re dead, even if they are found and arrested afterwards. Likewise, the League had insufficient follow-through.25

No matter who inflicted what punishments on whom—including Britain, France, Italy, and the United States’ reparations forced onto Germany—what matters is that nobody took precaution to prevent war, and instead used their valuable time thinking of how to fix it once it had already begun. If any of the superpowers had taken more precaution than just a simple document co-signed by Hitler and Chamberlain, Poland would have been safe and World War II might have been prevented.

Scholar Anton Drexler believed that, Treaty or no, the prevalence of the Nazi Party was inevitable because anti-Semitism was linked with anti-capitalism and anti-communism; that the Nazis had an ideology that work and race are inextricably connected.26 Likewise, William Brustein believes that “The individuals who joined the Nazi Party calculated that the benefits of joining would exceed the costs.” This notion that people’s economic concerns make up their basic rule of thumb when making political decisions has been a consistent finding long before and long after Hitler’s reign27.

However, that is not to say that the view of the economy was at the core of the Nazi’s agenda. The key to Hitler’s success was his unification, not his economic policies.28. He hardly spoke of reshaping the economy in any of his rousing speeches because he thought it was a divisive topic. Even if the economy had been great immediately following the Great World War, that would have only served his purposes, creating a front for change in other areas. Hitler achieved everything he wanted before firing a single shot.

Germany was not the only state that lost from the Treaty. It only acted as though it were. Of the Big Three, Wilson never had his Fourteen Points ratified, and the U.S., France, and England were all economically devastated and suffered great casualty losses. Yet, none of them began a rebellion in an attempt to take over Europe and eventually the world.29

Not only did all of these nations suffer from these devastations, but all had a political image to upkeep. Lloyd George had just recently been elected England’s prime minister, and a Treaty that was “fair,” i.e. one that punished the Germans “’til the pips squeak,” by the standards of his people, would have been no less than career suicide.30 However, Wilson could not overlook what the Germans had done and, at the risk of his own reputation, called for a treaty that was “fair,” which, from his point of view, meant no winners or losers, just compromises. It just goes to prove the old adage that what is fair is not always right and what is right is not always fair.31

World War I was not even Germany’s first offense in Europe. Otto von Bismarck had given Germany a taste of power that whetted its appetite for more.31 All of the land that was taken away from Germany by the Treaty was land that Germany had stolen anyway from past conquests, no more.32

Some agree that it was not Germany’s enemy countries who inspired their role in World War II, but the country with which it had most in common: Italy.33 Beginning in 1914, before the Treaty was signed as well as before WWII began, Italy became overrun by the fascist ideals of Benito Mussolini.34 Mussolini and Hitler inspired each other, so much so that they both became members of the Axis powers in WWII.35

In sum, although there are those who hold the belief that the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh to reconcile Germany with its former war enemies and to integrate it into a lasting peaceful post-war order, it was also too mild to weaken Germany so as to make it impossible for it to ever again become a great power.36 The Nazi party would therefore have risen even if the Treaty of Versailles had not been signed.37

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