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The Myth of a Better Versailles Treaty

Friedrich Ebert, President of the Committee of Plenipotentiaries of the People, is welcomed back by the other members of Europe into an International Ball : this German delusion was inevitably to be broken by the peace terms of Versailles.

Friedrich Ebert, President of the Committee of Plenipotentiaries of the People, is welcomed back by the other members of Europe into an International Ball : this German delusion was inevitably to be broken by the peace terms of Versailles.

Myth: An easy peace could have been created on the basis of Wilson's 14 points, and resolved equitably the problems created by the war, just like the Congress of Vienna did.

Of all the myths, discord, and disputes related to the Treaty of Versailles, the tenth is one which the world would have been immeasurably better off if it was true. It is a tantalizing belief, and one which is easy to see the appeal of. If only the Allies had strictly enforced Wilson's 14 points, and proposed a fair and equitable peace where newly democratic Germany was welcomed back with equanimity among the other democracies.

Unfortunately, things were never so easy. Both the Allies and the Germans had terms which directly competed and which made it difficult to find a resolution for them. How could Polish majorities be brought self-determination when they brought alongside them large German minorities? How could Poland both be guaranteed access to the sea against a potentially hostile Germany, without cutting off East Prussia from the rest of the country? How could Germany both have a peace without reparations and victors imposed on it when reparations to repair Northern France and Belgium were needed? How could national disarmament proceed quickly when Germany already had an advantage in population and economic size over all of its neighbors?

1919 commentators were not unaware of the challenge that juggling the host of different national interests presented.

1919 commentators were not unaware of the challenge that juggling the host of different national interests presented.

These are but a fraction of the issues where Germany and the Allies collided. On all of these questions, the Germans hoped for greatly more favorable responses to them than any treaty could give : any treaty was bound to disappoint the Germans and inflame German opposition. No perfect treaty could have emerged from the fires of WW1. Versailles had flaws clearly visible in retrospect, but these were not made upon whims, but in responsible to deliberation and aching compromise. It might have been, if history had turned out differently, that Versailles might have provided for what would ultimately become a manageable settlement : the Interwar would be no cradle, despite its hopes, for its pacific settlement. Instead of placing our blame purely upon Versailles, let us also look at the years following, for peace does not come merely with the signing of treaties.

Ultimately, the order that came from Versailles did fail, and another war resulted. This one would be solved by harsher treaties than Versailles, when in 1945 all of Germany was occupied, reparations were forcibly extracted, the German leadership was put on trial for war crimes, Germany was divided, much of Eastern Germany - this time entirely ethnically Germany - was ethnically cleansed and given to Poland - the German military was disbanded, guilt for the war was unflinchingly put on Germany's shoulders, and actual plans were mooted to permanently cripple Germany for eternity. Versailles was a very lenient peace to the Carthaginian peace settlement that followed WW2. Fair and lenient peaces do not always end war.

So therefor, what should have been done instead?

So therefor, if there was little possibility of an easy settlement arising from WW1 in 1914, what might have been a peace treaty which would have better guaranteed the peace? To start with, any such counterfactual peace treaty must always be treated as simply the starting point : how to deal with it in the living framework of time would be far more important than the terms of treaty itself. Its goals would be to ensure that a livable settlement was arrived at, which would prevent another war, would ensure the most "just" peace settlement within this framework as possible, and promote a flexible treaty which could be altered to respond to a changing world condition throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It would both promote French security against German revanchism, while incentivizing German cooperation with the treaty.

Cosmetic and Public Relations

At Versailles, a variety of mistakes were made in how the treaty was phrased and relayed to the Germans, that while in no way effecting the actual terms of the treaty, meant that the Germans were more insulted and petulant concerning it than needed to be the case. Instead of excluding the Germans from negotiations at Versailles itself, they should have been included, so that even if they were ignored and made no contribution to the conference, it would be harder for the Germans to present the treaty as a "diktat". This would hurt the allies little, while improving German reception of the treaty. Although perhaps harder to achieve, Article 231 - viewed by the Germans as assigning them blame for the war - could have been something left out without causing any real material deterioration of Allied fortunes. Instead, reparations could simply be assigned in a fixed indemnity, without the need to base moral judgements in the treaty itself. The Allies could rest themselves believing that the Germans caused the war, but there would be no need for the Germans to be so painfully affronted immediately with this. The League of Nations could hardly be expected to have Germany immediately join, but a mechanism would be provided for, which would supply conditions that Germany would fulfill in exchange for joining : cooperation with reparations and the broader terms of the treaty would be critical among them. Occupation of a larger amount of German territory, which will be discussed later on, would help to diffuse the German myth that Germany was stabbed in the back, instead of defeated in the field.



Originally, only the Rhineland in Germany was occupied. This must be viewed as a mistake, as it enabled the German incubation of the "stabbed in the back" myth, and as it provided the Allies with insufficient bargaining power over Germany. More of Western Germany should have been placed under occupation, but with clear timelines set and available for withdrawal. Although sounding extremely harsh and vindictive, an Allied military parade in Berlin might have been enough to shock the Germans out of their delusions that they hadn't lost the war, and prepared Germany for a loser's peace.

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Reparations were both necessary for rebuilding France and Belgium, given the lack of an American willingness to deal with this, and politically required. The reparations settlement might have been altered in different ways, such as by the Seydoux plan whereby the German government provided paper marks to claimants to buy products from German industry. But the basics of the reparations, the need for Germany to make real payments in some sort, are a necessity for any politically feasible treaty. Anglo-Saxon participation in providing funding for European reconstruction was in the terms of 1919, politically infeasible, and thus some sort of workable reparations settlement had to be reached. It was the battle over this reparations settlement which consumed much of the early 1920s, due to a German unwillingness to pay. Reparation payments should have been fixed, at the French or American level instead of the higher British level, which is a politically difficult but hopefully not impossible change. Reparation payments should have been linked to tangible improvements in German conditions, such as ending of the occupation of certain regions (this did occur in the Rhineland, but the Rhineland was ultimately too small of a region to make a large enough bonus on Germany as compared to the huge occupations in the France in 1871 : a larger occupation zone would do more to encourage cooperation), and removing of certain disarmament conditions : in contrast, German refusal to pay should have had clearly written punishments, such as the occupation of additional territories, extraction of German resources by the Allies themselves, and Allied political control over German finances as was later with the Dawes plan. Allied troops occupying German soil would have their occupation costs entirely paid by the German government, encouraging the German government to pay as rapidly as possible both to remove troops, and to improve its own financial situation. A combination of the carrot and the stick might better encourage German payment.


Territorially, most of the claims advanced against Germany were just, or at the least were politically necessary. Eupen-Malmedy and Memel are the only ones which might be best avoided, although Memel would require some form of agreement to be reached to enable Lithuanian commerce to the sea. Although Tanzania might have made sense to be left as a singular German colony, given that the Germans were still fighting there, this was in all probability politically impossible. Significantly, Danzig might have been better off it was included that in the event of good German behavior - remaining a democracy, paying reparations, and not exceeding army terms - that it could be returned in a set period of time, such as 25 years, by plebiscite. In the event of German violations, Danzig's plebiscite would have a mechanism to extend it, as a punishment.


In the long term, the French recognized that the Germans could not be constrained by military limitations alone. Instead, military limitations should have been treated as both a way to constrain Germany initially, while in the long term being used as a bargaining tool for German engagement with the Western allies. The Foch proposal for 200,000 conscript troops would both provide Germany with seemingly more comfort, while making their army less offensively capable, but ultimately the army is not that important : Germany will exceed it and break the regulations. Instead, the treaty would included clauses gradually loosening military restrictions on Germany, in regards to its army, navy, and air force, as reparations were paid, German cooperation proceeded, and German democracy was solidified. Germany would be incentivized to act with civil nature towards the Allies in exchange for the promise that good behavior would eventually net benefits. Preferably France would still receive a Treaty of Guarantees promising a mutual security agreement from England and the United States, but if the treaty fell through the American senate, as it did historically, this could hardly be counted on.

In the end, hopefully incentivizing German participation would produce a treaty where the Germans would cooperate with. Any such counter-factual reasoning however, is inherently risky. As much as attention is concentrated so heavily on Versailles, perhaps in looking back on history we should choose to instead focus our gaze upon gradual history, rather than momentous single events where proclamations of the fate of nations are issued. It is the lived history of nations and peoples which defines the fate of humanity, not merely the stroke of pens.

Suggested Reading

Eugene, N. White Making the French pay: The costs and consequences of the Napoleonic Reparations

Hantke, Max, and Spoerer, Mark, "The imposed git of Versailles: the fiscal effects of restricting the size of Germany's armed forces, 1924-9," Economic History Review 63, no. 4 (2010) 849-864) doi:

Marks, Sally, "Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty," 1918-1921, The Journal of Modern History 83, no. 3 (September 2013) 632-659. doi: 10.1086/670825

Trachtenberg, Marc "Reparations at the Paris Peace Conference," The Journal of Modern History 51, no. 1 (March 1979) 24-55.

Trachtenberg, Marc, "Versailles Revisited", Security Studies, 9, no. 3 (2000), 191-205, DOI: 10.1080/09636410008429409

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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