Today ninety years ago, the Versailles Treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Ninety-five years ago today, a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Prinzip, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to precipitate the crisis that led a few weeks later to the unthinkable war whose settlement was supposed to be provided by the Paris Peace. That was some five years! A half-decade that was itself a kind of microcosm of the twentieth century. So I take today as an auspicious time to start considering the "dictated peace."
The characterization of the Versailles Treaty as a "dictated peace," a Diktat in the German usage, was the object of bitter pronouncement and debate in 1919 and, with crescendos and diminuendos, ever since. Lurking behind any discussion of the issue since the 1930s is enormous role that the "dictated peace" played in Hitler's political and social campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s. In the twenties, of course, he was just one more commentator in a country which almost unanimously rejected the treated as a Diktat—the only real debate 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 mass martyrdom upon which great futures are founded.
Actually, of course, voices in both neutral places and in the Allied countries decried the dictated nature of the Versailles Treaty almost immediately. 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, with lightning speed, within months 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 argued instead that there should be no reparations, or at least very small ones, to set the stage for European recovery.
Of course the whole economic aspect of the reparations loomed large for him, and in some ways in the whole question of the "dictated peace." As we saw in the last blog post, 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.
Now, 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 preferences of Wilson much more closely. In any case, since the major characteristic of the "new" warfare of weeklong 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 the priority issue. Now that the war was done, as British Conservative politicians said, Germany had to be made to pay.
So the Reparation section of the treaty outlined this process. Actually, no one thought that Germany could pay for all the damages caused by the war, all the pensions of soldiers, etc. But an American with the peace commission at Paris (John Foster Dulles, later American Secretary of State under Eisenhower) suggested the structure of the "Reparation" section: first, in Article 231, make the Germans financially responsible for everything. Then limit this a bit in the following articles. In fact, this was the way it laid out. Except that the bill is left unspecified, the whole thing is tagged to international loans taken out by the Allies, and other problems we will examine later.
So one point to make here is that the "war guilt" clause was actually a 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 should we say "not responsible." Indeed, every thinking person in a leadership position in Europe understood that every power was responsible in some part 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 countries in the least "responsible"?
But in a larger sense, the Allies had to figure out quickly that the clause would become known to history as the "war guilt" clause because the Germans protested it almost immediately as such. It was simply unacceptable to a mass public.
Moreover, the new German government which was coming into being at Weimar was the most democratic in the world. It was the enemies of the Kaiser who now ran Germany. So why were they being punished? What allowed this situation to arise?
Well, in effect, it was the dicated nature of the peace. So since I have come full circle, I will end this post in mid-air.
Was the Peace a Diktat? In the second part, I will finish answering that question with some specific points of evidence.