Why the Treaty of Versailles was not Responsible for the Outbreak of World War 2

“One day, President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.”

-Winston Churchill

There is probably no other peace treaty in history that has been as vilified as the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended World War 1. While the great political thinker Machiavelli suggested that defeated “people should either be caressed or crushed” the Versailles Treaty seemingly got the worst of both worlds by humiliating Germany but not weakening her enough that she could not rebuild and seek revenge. Certainly a case can be made that the treaty itself had considerable flaws and helped build resentment and anger that contributed to events and policies that led to World War 2, but that does not mean it was directly responsible for, or even mostly responsible, for the outbreak of war in 1939. Between 1919 and 1939 were twenty tumultuous years that saw disastrous events, flawed policies and miscalculations by nations, missed opportunities and countless other factors which ultimately resulted in a Second World War breaking out in 1939. Hitler’s rise to power was not inevitable, Britain, France, America and Russia made mistakes, and had many opportunities to prevent Germany from developing a strong military, and countless decisions and events from 1919 and 1939 influenced the unlikely outbreak of hostilities in 1939 which Winston Churchill referred to as “The Unnecessary War.” The Versailles Treaty led to circumstances that helped lead to war in 1939, but by itself was not among one of the major reasons that started World War 2.

With hindsight it is generally believed that the Treaty of Versailles was unnecessarily harsh to Germany but this is debatable depending if one accepts the view that World War 1 was mostly due to German aggression. There is question as to whether or not Germany deliberately took advantage of the July Crisis in 1914 to launch a preemptive war against France and Russia due to her real or imagined fears of being encircled by hostile powers; or if she stumbled into war due to miscalculations and carelessly promising unconditional support to Austria-Hungary, which started the countdown to war by being inflexible towards Serbia. What is not debatable is that as the war continued German war aims became increasingly grandiose, aggressive and ultimately sought nothing less than the de facto domination of Europe. As was seen by the terms the Germans had in mind for Belgium and France, (reducing the former to a vassal state and effectively neutering the latter), along with the exceedingly harsh treaty she inflicted upon Russia in 1918 there can be no question that a potential German victory in the war would have seen a far less generous settlement for the Entente Powers.

Whereas the Versailles Treaty in 1919 spared German independence and allowed her to keep most of her industry, territory and resources (losing only 25,000 square miles, 7 million people and none of the vital Ruhr industrial region) the German treaty inflicted upon Russia (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918) stripped the latter of over 1 million square miles including Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, part of Belorussia, the Ukraine, and even much of the Caucasus. This territory included over 55 million people (roughly 1/3rd of the Russian Empire’s population) as well as the majority of Russia’s industry, one third of her arable land, the vast majority of her coal fields and 1/4 of her railroads. Thus, unlike the Treaty of Versailles that weakened Germany but allowed her to remain a great power, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk temporarily reduced Russia to a third rate power. The treaty shocked and humiliated the Russians, but Lenin decided to accept the treaty because of how weak Russian forces were and calculated, correctly, that the Western Entente Powers would win the war against Germany ultimately.

While critics of the Versailles Treaty either downplay or ignore the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk imposed on Russia by Germany, arguable because it was much worse than the former treaty and undermines the narrative that Germany was not overly aggressive and ambitious in her war aims, they usually know next to nothing about the harsh peace treaty Germany inflicted upon France in the aftermath of the “Franco-Prussian War” in 1871. This treaty was no less humiliating and in some ways harsher than the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It annexed Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, forced the French to pay 5 Billion Francs in war reparations (or 350 billion dollars in 2011 rates) and occupied perhaps a third of France’s territory (including Paris) until the French paid up. By contrast in 1919 France merely regained the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, only a few towns along the Rhine were occupied by Entente forces and the huge sum that the Germans were suppose to pay after Versailles, initially set at 269 billion gold marks was reduced to 112 billion by 1929 and Germany suspended paying the reparations in 1931 after having paid little of the overall sum over the past decade. In fact Britain and America gave more money in loans to Germany by 50% in the interwar years compared to what money Germany paid in reparations during this period. By contrast the French managed to repay the whole sum of her reparations by 1873!

Adding another insult to France the Prussian King William I was crowned the German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles in occupied France in 1871 as well.

However, regardless of Germany’s harsh peace treaties towards France in 1871 and Russia in 1918, or German ambition and aggression in both conflicts, it is necessary to judge the 1919 Treaty against Germany on its own merits. Previous German imposed treaties on enemies did not necessarily justify an exceedingly harsh treaty being inflicted upon Germany, and if the treaty failed to guarantee peace in the long run then it certainly would deserve some censure at least.

Remembering Machiavelli’s quote above it would arguably have made more sense (in hindsight especially) for the major Entente Powers (Britain, France and America) to have either crushed German power decisively or been lenient and hoped a post Kaiser Germany could be convinced to rejoin the international community. Instead they settled upon a far from perfect middle course for various reasons. France, unsurprisingly after having suffered the most of the three powers with 6 million casualties (1/4 of them dead) wanted to severely curb German power. Meanwhile America, which had joined the war late, suffered little, was motivated by the well meaning (though arguably naive) Wilson’s 14 points which suggested to be lenient on Germany as well as producing a more peaceful, liberal and fair post war world. Britain adopted a mid position between both extremes wanting to restrain German power but arguably did not want to cripple it given that it would upset the balance of power in Europe (perhaps cynically assuming it would grant too much power to her traditional enemy France) as well as hurting German finance and trade which the British probably hoped would help rebuild the British and international economics and finance in the postwar era.

Ultimately the peace terms did not secure France against future German power and aggression, usher in Wilson’s unlikely utopian World, or help the German economy rebuild to help world finance and economics. With hindsight a treaty that would have allowed Germany to save face, rebuild her economy but also purge her militarism would have preferable but given the anger and pain felt by the Entente Powers in 1919, as well as their different interests, this was not likely to have occurred.

What of the actual peace terms? Besides the return of Alsace-Lorraine back to France, a limited amount of German territory, with a roughly equivalent portion of population, was given to countries such as Poland, Belgium, and oddly enough Denmark which had been neutral in the war. While such losses were not beneficial to Germany they were not disproportionate and did little to hurt Germany’s population, industry or power over all. Perhaps the most galling aspect for the Germans was the creation of Poland, which was partially carved out of German territory which separated Germany proper from East Prussia and also placed Danzig (a city with a majority German population) under international control. Thus, like the treaty in general, the territorial revisions did not significantly hurt German power, but angered the German people.

Other terms of the treaty included Germany losing her colonies, the aforementioned harsh reparations, as well as military restrictions that dictated Germany could not have tanks, submarines, warplanes or an army above 100,000 soldiers. Regarding the colonies there was generally little anger considering they gave little benefit to Germany and the majority of Germans did not care about them. The military restrictions obviously angered the military establishment in Germany (which had effectively dominated Germany since Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over in 1916) and much of the German population in a society that was heavily militaristic and regimented. While it was understandable from the Entente point of view to disarm Germany which had nearly beaten a considerably numerical and material superior alliance it is obvious with hindsight that declawing Germany completely would not be realistic unless the nation was also divided up and crushed.

However, by far the most insulting term from the German point of view was the war guilt clause which put the responsibility for the war squarely on Germany. Whatever one thinks about German ambition, aggression and war crimes in World War 1 this was not completely accurate, gave no real benefit (besides propaganda value) to the Entente and more than anything else alienated and angered the Germans. Besides attempting to exorcise wounded pride and being vindictive it is hard to see what the Entente Powers hoped to gain from this.

Either way, these were the terms the German delegation was given (or dictated to) when they came to Versailles in 1919: Significant but not ruinous territorial and population losses, a limited occupation of a few cities in the Rhineland, harsh war reparations (though no worse than what they had given to Russia or France), the loss of pointless colonies the Germans did not care about, but admittedly harsh military restrictions and an insulting clause blaming the whole war on Germany. The German delegation was shocked by the terms and wanted to consult with their government in Berlin and hoped to water down some of the terms. This was generally dismissed by the Entente Powers and in a notable verbal protest one of them said “What will history say?” The response by Georges Clemenceau (arguably France’s best leader in the war) was harsh and to the point: “They won’t say Belgium invaded Germany.”

Thereupon the German delegates signed the treaty, its clauses went into effect (though many would later be revised or quashed in Germany’s favor) and according to many historians, armchair generals, and commentators the outbreak of World War 2 was now inevitable. But how realistic is such a line of reasoning? Of course good arguments can be made that the Versailles Treaty had many flaws, and was PARTIALLY responsible for the outbreak of World War 2, but the idea that it made the later war inevitable is absurd. It assumes that the conduct of nations and politicians, their policies and decisions, events, and unseen circumstances had no bearing between 1919 and 1939 on influencing the path to war. The idea that one treaty alone could pull history and humanity by the hair screaming without the latter having any say or chance to influence events is illogical to say the least.

To take a few examples, that would be like suggesting the Franco-Prussian War led to World War 1 simply because of French resentment over the treaty in 1871 whereas in fact arms races, alliances, realpolitik, war plans, ambitious politicians, miscalculations, and a tragic event like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand between 1871-1914 produced what was hardly an inevitable war. Or what if Rome had not taken Sardinia and Corsica after the First Punic War, had not backed Saguntum unconditionally against Hannibal, or the Carthargian military and council been more conciliatory to Rome so as to avoid the Second Punic War? Or look at the Cold War. How many times did it seem as though the Soviets and Americans would start World War 3, and an entire generation assumed they would eventually be nuked, but so many decisions, circumstances and leaders used their initiative to forego such an outcome? As the respected historian Robert Citano once said regarding war and history “What happened happened is not to say what happened had to happen.”

Small acts and quick decisions can have disproportionate effects in history! The ransacking of a French pastry shop in Mexico contributed to the French invasion of that country in the 1838, the search for an AWOL Japanese soldier near the Marco Polo Bridge was the catalyst to the start of World War 2 in Asia. Hezbollah never would have imagined that the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in the summer of 2006 would lead to a major war against Israel and the massive bombing of Lebanon. A Kuwaiti delegation member to Iraq in the summer of 1990 would never have guessed that his insinuation that Iraqi women were like prostitutes would anger Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait.

High officials and statesmen can also make quick and/or stupid decisions that lead to war no matter how much they would have preferred to avoid it. General MacArthur ignored clear warnings in the summer of 1950 not to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea by the Chinese while his political superior Harry Truman failed to reign him in. The new Sultan of the Zanzibar Sultanate dismissed a British ultimatum recklessly in 1896 without much thought considering his island was vulnerable to overwhelming British naval power and his country’s surrender after a mere 38 minutes made the war the quickest in history. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s declaration of a blockade of the Straits of Tiran in 1967 was made more as a sop to his people and Arab opponents than to antagonize Israel, but the latter saw it as an act of war and this led to the Six Day War which dramatically changed the Middle East.

The point being that no matter how seemingly important and far ranging certain things in history appear to be that nothing in history and human events is preordained or inevitable. The time period between 1919 and 1939 was no exception. Would any rational person or seasoned historian in 1919 have believed that a bitter, poor, mediocre Austrian artist, and former corporal named Adolf Hitler would come to control Germany and lead his nation to dominate Europe from the English Channel to the Volga? Would they believe that this relatively inexperienced uneducated upstart was capable of fooling the supposedly cultured and brilliant statesmen in Paris, London, and Washington D.C. or could out maneuver such a cynical and weathered politician like Stalin?

Keeping this in mind we should look at the events, decisions and mishaps between 1919 and 1939 with more scrutiny instead of being intellectually lazy by merely suggesting Versailles produced an unalterable timeline to World War 2. Between these two dates there was the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, the Munich Conference, the Spanish Civil War, conflicts in Manchuria, Ethiopia, and China, policies to appease Germany, American commitment to isolationism, the rise of Communism in Russia, and Stalin’s opportunist foreign policy. There were treaties and agreements after 1919 that revised certain harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, internal and foreign distractions for countries that could have confronted Hitler, countless missed opportunities to check German rearmament and prevent German expansion, and unique personalities such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Chamberlain all of which influenced the march to war.

Regarding events, there were plenty of far ranging, momentous, and decisive moments in history between 1919 and 1939 that did just as much to provoke WW2, if not more so, than the Versailles Treaty. The Great Depression is among the top of the list considering in the decade after Versailles many of its more harsh terms were watered down, Germany was recovering, and things were seemingly pointing towards peace. Yet the Great Depression crushed economies across the world, ruined millions of lives, and led to a rise in political movements and politicians that advocated often drastic methods and ideas such as Fascism, military expansion, racial hatred, etc. While some historians like to point a simple line from Versailles to Hitler his party was marginal and relatively unpopular until the Great Depression hit Germany hard and then suddenly his harsh rhetoric and revolutionary ideals had more appeal. For example, in the 1928 German election the Nazi party won 800,000 votes but in 1930 after the start of the Great Depression it won six and a half million votes in another election! And what if Hitler had been killed in his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, or executed or imprisoned for decades instead of surviving and serving a short term. What if Hindenburg, who beat Hitler for the presidency of Germany in 1932, had not agreed to the political machinations in 1932-1933 that led to Hitler becoming Chancellor? Or what if Hindenburg had not died suddenly in 1934, allowing Hitler to consolidate power, but instead lived a few more years and kept Hitler mostly in check?

What if Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China, Italian aggression in Abyssinia, as well as the proxy war in the Spanish Civil War had not influenced the League of Nations and western powers like England and France to be distracted from the rise of the Nazis, German rearmament or fostered an increasingly hostile world environment that encouraged Hitler to be more aggressive? What if the French Army had called Hitler’s bluff when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 (German forces had orders to retreat if the French Army attacked)?

What if instead of giving Hitler the Sudetenland during the Munich Conference in 1938 the French and British had backed Czechoslovakia unconditionally in the case of war? The Czech Army was strong, her defenses on the German border were said to be nearly as strong as the Maginot line, the German Army was much less effective in 1938, and Stalin was leaning towards backing the Czechs and Western powers over Germany. There was also the potential of a military coup being organized against Hitler by high officials such as General Halder who feared war at this point and some German representatives of this faction even contacted the French and British. Even had war broken out and Hitler had not backed down, the French, British, Czechoslovakia, and possibly even Russia would have had a much better chance of winning and limiting a conflict to part of Europe instead of the global conflagration that started in 1939.

What about the conduct of the great powers who could have opposed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, German rearmament, and challenged him anytime from the occupation of the Rhineland to the invasion of Poland? Britain, France, America, and Russia missed many chances to avert war, or at least fighting one against Germany under favorable conditions that would have almost certainly resulted in the latter being defeated much easier than what actually occurred.

Even when war actually came in 1939 the British and French had most of the advantages against Germany such and manpower, troop, tank and artillery levels, more industry and resources, American lend lease, etc. As German rearmament and power peaked between Munich and the invasion of Poland this was the time the Germans had the best chance of starting and winning a war. However, it need not have come to this.

Regarding France, she is usually the most scapegoated for failing to stand up to German aggression due to her proximity to Germany, her supposedly first rate Army when World War 2 began, as well as her quick collapse in 1940. But this is extremely unfair. Soon after 1918 America retreated into isolationism, Russia succumbed to revolution, civil war, and the excesses of Stalinism, while Britain disarmed and focused on her empire. France had suffered the most casualties proportionately among these major powers, had much less population and industry than Germany, and after seeing her former allies lose interest in containing Germany the French were left to carry the bag. The fact that by 1939 the French had more artillery and more and better tanks than Germany, and the impressive Maginot Line is impressive given the population and industrial advantages Germany held.

Despite this, France made her share of mistakes (many mentioned above) which led to war. Relying on unreliable allies and the League of Nations to protect her or stop aggression are mistakes in hindsight, as was France’s missed opportunities to confronted Hitler in 1936 over the Rhineland or in 1938 over the Sudetenland. Meanwhile although the French were more likely to confront Hitler than the British in this period they still went along with appeasement even though the French Premier at the time of Munich questioned the wisdom of it famously saying after the agreement “the fools if only they knew what they are cheering.” On the other hand France deserves more credit than the other major powers because she rearmed most effectively in the late 1930s to confront Germany, and tried to form alliances to contain her, more often than Britain, America, and Russia.

Most of Britain’s mistakes overlap with France’s although the former has less excuses because she had more money, a bigger empire, did less to confront the Germans in the postwar period and did more to appease Germany. Foremost was to abandon France to confronting Germany more or less alone early on after 1918. Britain had by 1918 the biggest Airforce and Navy, and the most effective (if not biggest) Army among the Entente Powers so to leave France alone in this period was selfish and tragic. Besides appeasement which ranks high on the list, Britain also dropped the ball by refusing to close the Suez Canal to Italian supplies and reinforcements during Mussolini’s war against Abyssinia. At the least this would have crippled the war effort, and at the most signaled to Hitler that Britain could potentially oppose his aggression. Another mistake was the British-German naval agreement of 1935 (without consulting France) where the British allowed the Germans to build up to 35% of the Royal Navy’s tonnage. On one hand it seems lopsided in Britain’s favor but on the other it allowed the Germans to build far more naval forces than under the Versailles Treaty, obviously disheartened the French, and allowed Hitler to build submarines and capital ships that did a lot of damage to Britain in WW2.

America did next to nothing between 1919 and 1939 to stop World War 2. After rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and the death of Woodrow Wilson America retreated into isolationism until Pearl Harbor. On one hand history and world opinion is unfair to America because she is either condemned for being neutral or entering wars too late (WW1, WW2, Rwanda, Syria, etc.) while on the other she is accused of aggression and warmongering (rightly or wrongly) in other cases such as Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, etc. Yet objectively, if with hindsight, America’s withdrawal from European affairs, and retreat into isolationism after World War 1 had tragic consequences. If Britain and France made mistakes in Europe between both wars America decided not to get involved at all. American foreign policy showed no real influence or importance in this period regarding treaties, appeasement, actions, policies, etc. This was also the case in Asia where America did nothing after Japan took Manchuria, invaded China in 1937 or bombed the USS Panay.

Again, those who criticize modern day American intervention and supposed militarism should think twice before condemning her anti-war and isolationism in an earlier period, but given that America, even after the Great Depression, was the world’s foremost financial and industrial power and had suffered little in WW1, it is regrettable that she did not back France’s efforts against Germany or chime in regarding Hitler’s successive aggression. It can, to America’s credit, be said that America allowed lend-lease to France and Britain after 1939, and did her best to prop up Britain when she stood alone against Germany from 1940 afterwards, but this was nearly too little too late.

What of Russia? Given her terrible losses during World War 1, the subsequent Russian Civil War, as well as Stalin’s brutal rule which included famine, collectivization, and terror campaigns against the Soviet people it would be an understatement to suggest that Russia was too busy dealing with internal matters to focus on restraining Germany in the inter-war period. This was not helped by the initial foreign backing of the White Russian forces in the Russian Civil war which saw British troops in North West Russia and American and Japanese troops in Siberia fighting Communist forces. This and the subsequent behavior of western states that treated the new Soviet state as a rogue regime unsurprisingly led Stalin to be more wary of Britain and France than a weakened Germany for most of the inter-war era. This resulted in some collaboration between Stalin and the Weimar Republic including German tank commanders and pilots training at Soviet sites such as in Kazan to circumvent German disarmament after the Versailles Treaty.

However, the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, along with their racist and anti-communist rhetoric and actions that were pointed at the Soviet Union (and stated openly in Mein Kampf), should have alerted Stalin to the growing danger of Germany. As Mein Kampf clearly advocated aggression against Russia, and as Hitler began dismissing the Versailles Treaty, and rearming Germany’s armed forces it was clearly in Stalin’s interests to oppose Germany. Stalin did in fact do some measures in the mid to late 1930s in such regards by backing the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, telling communist parties across Europe to oppose fascism, and debating backing France and Britain at the time of the Sudetenland crisis had they decided to confront instead of appeasing Hitler.

Yet in the end Stalin did nothing effective to deter or oppose Hitler and changed his focus in the late 1930s to reach an accommodation with him. With the purging of much of his military officers around this time Stalin’s armed forces were not in a great state and as Hitler rearmed, and annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia Stalin foresaw the outbreak of War between Germany and France and Britain over Poland. Thus he responded favorable to Hitler’s overtures in August 1939 and signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which made Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany de facto allies from late 1939 to mid 1941. Stalin gambled that the Western allies and Germany would bleed each other in a long war which Russia could then exploit to overrun Europe. In reality it allowed Hitler to secure his eastern flank after the defeat of Poland (and Russia’s cynical absorption of Eastern Poland) and aided Germany by Russia supplying crucial resources such as oil and wheat which kept Germany’s war effort alive from 1939-1941. Stalin’s folly was clearly seen after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 which led to the initial destruction of most of the Red Army, the deaths of 27 million Soviet people, the overrunning of most of European Russia, and the most destructive and inhumane front of World War 2.

Therefore, rather than using smart policies to prevent German rearmament, or to contain or confront Hitler, the Great powers failed to collaborate with each other and did not act decisively on their own in such regards either. France refused to use her military when it was still vastly superior to Germany’s during crucial episodes of German aggression. Britain relied on appeasement and did not rearm sufficiently in the inter-war era. America remained committed to isolationism and played no notable role in Europe for twenty years. Russia eventually sided with Hitler only to be backstabbed in 1941. It was a combination of caution, miscalculations, selfishness, and opportunism by policy makers in Paris, London, Washington and Moscow that led to all of this more so than a treaty in 1919 that was subsequently watered down and eventually ignored.

Finally, whatever the flaws of the Versailles Treaty what if it had been enforced? What if instead of watering down terms which allowed Germany to not pay the war reparations and rearm the former Entente Powers stood firm regarding the treaty’s terms? What if Britain and France had threatened or even invaded Germany at the first sign that Germany was breaking the Treaty? What if Europe united in the instance of any clause being breached and instituted a blockade, or trade embargo, that would quickly wreck a German economy that was reliant on imports? It is far easier to strangle aggression in the cradle and the major powers could have easily thwarted German aggression at its earliest manifestation, and could have even avoided a full scale war as late as 1938. In the end it was the discarding of the Treaty of Versailles, rather than the observance of it, that led to war.

The Treaty of Versailles helped create some of the conditions which led to World War 2, but was in no way decisive regarding the outbreak of war in 1939. Hitler was not predestined to come to power and be allowed to flaunt the Treaty at will. Britain, France, America, and Russia could have followed better polices, made smarter decisions, confronted or contained Germany, and exploited several opportunities to stop a major war from starting or at least starting one on terms much more favorable for them. Unforeseen events and trends such as the Great Depression, several wars between 1919 and 1939, and the rise of Fascism created an international atmosphere that was unpredictable, dangerous, and likely to lead to major conflict. The Treaty of Versailles itself was not ideal but many of its terms were later watered down or quashed, Germany was not forced to repay much of the supposedly ruinous war reparations and in the end the treaty was never enforced to any effective degree but abandoned by the former Entente Powers and ignored by Hitler. Perhaps the last word should be given to Margaret MacMillan who authored one of the best books on the Versailles Treaty, Paris 1919, in which she wrote it would be folly “to ignore the actions of everyone – political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters – for twenty years between 1919 and 1939” and that “when war came in 1939, it was the result of twenty years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919.” History is not predestined by a few flaps of butterfly wings but the result of countless decisions and factors which combine for the good or ill of humanity.


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