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Why was public opinion so outraged by the Treaty of Versailles? Essay

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The Allied imposed Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919. Significantly it must be noted that in comparison to the German imposed Treaty of Brest-Litovsk or the proposed settlement for the defeated Allies it was on the whole forgiving, however universally it rankled in the minds of the entire of the German population, be it the upper class conservative elites or the working population. To the extreme right the treaty was a Schmachfrieden or shameful peace whilst, through the propaganda of the rightist parties the working class viewed the settlement as part of the Dolchstosslegende, ‘the stab in the back myth’. Such uni-lateral widespread discontent lead to Scheidemann, who himself dramatically exclaimed ‘what hand must not wither which places these fetters on itself and on us?’, and his SPD-Centre Party-Democratic Party coalition government contemplating matching the Allies ultimatum and re-starting the war in a bid to denounce the treaty.

The settlement, which numbered 440 articles in total, had previously been accepting on 22 June apart from the ‘two shameful paragraphs’ from which so much bitter hatred spread, this related directly to territorial loss of the Polish corridor and the vast unworkable reparations bill which Germany was forced to compensate. Moreover the very manner of the treaty which was to be deemed a ‘diktat’ and a forced peace left much of the German population feeling betrayed by Allied promises which had previously been proposed in the form of Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918. In addition to this there were also a number of other factors which incensed the German population, although to a lesser extent.

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Following the conclusion of the war, on the whole, Germany had largely envisaged that after initial discussions between the victorious Allies, they would be allowed to voice their opinions on the settlement and thus be admitted into the peace conference. It subsequently became clear that this was not the case and more significantly it had become apparent that Germany would be forced to accept a dictated peace or a ‘diktat’. Appreciably Germany believed that not only would they have the right to participate in the negotiations at Versailles but moreover they also were under the impression that the settlement would be formulated in concordance with Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan. This proposal, which had only been voiced in 1918, suggested that the terms of the peace would be drawn up without ‘annexations or indemnities’ and therefore had alluded to the fact that no large sanctions would be placed upon Germany.

It is thus clear that on the most part Germany believed that they would not be punished harshly for their actions. This however proved no more than a myth and it was clear that the Allies were ardent on ensuring that Germany was to be punished accordingly to their actions. In the minds of the German population it was evident that they had felt bitterly betrayed by the Allies, who did not use Wilson’s plan as a blueprint for the settlement. In addition to this ‘betrayal’ the very manner of the settlement, which concluded in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace of Versailles where some forty years previously the coronation of the German Emperor had taken place, made a mockery out of the German state; on 7 May German delegates were presumptuously given three weeks to consider the treaty and subsequently sign it. The German population were not only incensed at the manner of the treaty but also maintained that they had been presented with a ‘diktat’, a very different situation from the one which they had previously been promised.

To add to matters the territorial settlement in the east also arose much anger and discontentment form the German population. The state of Prussia was effectively calved in two and was now split by a reconstituted Polish state which occupied a ‘corridor’ of land which had formally been in the possession of Germany. Much bitter resentment can be attributed to the fact that, in the minds of the German population, the principle of National Self Determination was ignored. The Allied powers had previously sought to empower the population of defeated countries by allowing them to decide their fate however this choice was effectively denied to the one million Germans who now found themselves under Polish control and thus the victorious Allies were accused of hypocrisy.

Furthermore Prussia was partitioned from the rest of Germany, with the futures of the provinces of Allenstein and Marienwerder being decided by a plebiciste, and the commercial port of Danzig was turned into a free city. Significantly it was the upper class and the landed Junkers who were forced to comply with Polish authority, this rankled in the minds of the conservative elites who viewed the Polish population as inferior Lausevolk or lice people and moreover they also lost vast tracks of their own estates and land to Poland. In addition Western Prussia had previously been the centre of the historic German Empire, the fact that it was transferred to Poland, a nation detested by much of the German population, caused much bitter resentment.

Substantially Germany was additionally forced to pay a vast and in the eyes of many an unworkable reparations bill to the Allies who claimed ‘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’. By May 1921 it had been determined that the German government would be required to pay an interim payment of twenty billion gold marks and in addition in 1919 the Allies had also indicated that not only compensation for structural damage but also war pensions would be included in the bill. Much of the German population declaimed the bill to be a ‘black cheque’ whilst many also suggested that the Allies merely desired to turn Germany into an ‘economic corpse’ which would be permanently in a position of penury and utter economic weakness. Furthermore it was also apparent that the victorious Allied powers wished to attach sole responsibility for the outbreak of the war to Germany.

Article 231 of the treaty subsequently became known as the ‘war guilt clause’ and was condemned by the entire of the population as unjust lie, lacking both legal and moral backing. Across the political spectrum, Germany maintained that they had fought a war of defence after being ‘encircled’ by the Allies and thus denied that they alone bore full responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict. The moral stigma of ‘war guilt’ infuriated the population who, spurred on by the extreme right, believed that it was no more than a hypocritical attempt by the Allies to seize the moral high ground and therefore substantiate their beliefs that the reparations bill was just. Ebert, the President at the time, declaimed that Allies had not fulfilled their promises of Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan and more significantly the entire of the German population was outraged that the Allies would justify the vast reparations bill by promiscuously suggesting that Germany should accept sole guilt for the First World War.

In addition, though to a lesser extent, the German population was also riled by the Colonial and Military losses which they were forced to comply with. Germany’s colonies were confiscated and were to be administered by the League of Nations in the form of mandates and the once mighty Army was drastically reduced to a mere hundred thousand soldiers with conscription being forbidden. It is noticeable that neither clauses were insufferable and in the most part they losses were to the disdain of the upper classes, who viewed the clauses as an indication that the Allied powers believed that German was simply not fit to be trusted in the possession of other countries or an army of its own. Additionally the region of the Saar, where vast tracks of coal were located, was to be transferred to France for fifteen years, its future then being determined by a plebiciste. Additionally the German population was left further impugned by the fact that the Allied powers ordered the extradition of a number of German ‘war criminals’, including the Kaiser, in order to face trial in an Allied court.

Furthermore it was also evident that Germany suffered further colonial losses. The region of Schleswig was, following a plebiciste, partitioned and transferred to Denmark however Germany was unable to voice their concerns after the population had chosen to fall under Danish rule. Additionally the Treaty of Versailles contained a preventative clause known as Anschluss which served to ensure that Germany would be unable unite with the region of Austria-Hungary and thus prevented the formation of a superpower. The German population again declaimed that this was hypocrisy as the Allied powers were again not abiding by their principles of National Self Determination which they had previously imposed to suit their own purposes. Furthermore the return of Alsace Lorraine to France and Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium also served as minor problems.

Therefore in conclusion it is evident that through the clauses relating to the reparations bill, which would have catastrophic consequences for Germany’s economy, and the cession of the Polish corridor, which deeply riled the German population who viewed the Polish race as inferior, and from the manner which the Treaty was passed, the German people argued the treaty was no more than a forced peace or a ‘diktat’, much bitter outrage was directed at the Allied powers who had ‘betrayed’ their promises of 1918. Significantly however Germany remained formidably strong, her industrial and economic power, which had in fact been strengthened during the war, remained intact and it was evident that Germany would be able to force of the shackles which had seemingly been imposed by the treaty without much effort.

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