Question: Why did the Treaty of Versailles fail?
World War I had brought about unprecedented human suffering in European history. Whole societies of nearly every nation in the continent were either directly or indirectly affected by the war. Of the 60 million European soldiers who were mobilized from 1914 – 1918, 8 million were killed, 7 million were permanently disabled, and 15 million were seriously injured. 1 Germany lost 15.1% of its active male population, Austria-Hungry lost 17.1%, France lost 10.5%, and Britain lost 5.1%. 2 Not only were soldiers affected by the tragedies of the war, but civilians were affected also. It is estimated that approximately 5 million civilians died due to war-induced causes. The birth rate sharply declined during the war period as well. 3
Finally, on 11 November 1918, after four years of war, an armistice based on United States’ President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” was agreed to by Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, however, sharply differed from Wilson’s points, and Germany, who felt betrayed, denounced the treaty as “morally invalid.” 4 What made the post-war peace so difficult to attain, was not simply the terms themselves or the lack of enforcement.
The political environment also has to be looked at as playing an important role in the inability of the Allies to forge a lasting peace. Henig argues that “the peace conference was held at a time of unprecedented political, social, economic and ideological upheaval. Any peace settlement would have to operate within highly unstable international and domestic environments… [and] this international instability made the attainment of a lasting peace so difficult.” 5
The goal following World War I was to restore European stability and maintain everlasting peace. However, these goals were recognized by all of the leaders as not easily achievable. French Prime Minister Clemenceau commented on the day the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, “We have won the war: now we have to win the peace, and it may be more difficult.” 6 The French politician Marshal Foch, as the Versailles Treaty was being signed, stated rather prophetically, “This is not peace; it is an armistice for 20 years.” 7
Indeed, Foch was absolutely correct. The Versailles Treaty did little to shape any sort of long-term peace from the results of World War I. Instead, the treaty, hastily put together, was vague, exposed the Allies’ inability to cooperate toward an agreement, and fueled German nationalism from resentment over her treatment by the Allies in the treaty.
Hobsbawm argues that “the Versailles settlement could not possibly be the basis of a stable peace. It was doomed from the start, and another war was practically certain.” 8 The principle reasons for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles to establish a long-term peace include the following: 1) the Allies disagreed on how best to treat Germany; 2) Germany refused to accept the terms of reparations; and 3) Germany’s refusal to accept the “war-guilt” clause, Article 231, led to growing German resentment and nationalism.
The Versailles Peace Conference exposed the ideological rift growing between the Allies. Throughout Versailles and After, Henig argues that Britain and France had “contradictory viewpoints” 9 regarding the treatment of Germany. While public opinions of both nations were strongly in favor of seeing Germany pay to the fullest extent, only France saw Germany as a potential threat to the future security of European stability.
Thus, while Britain saw Germany as a “barrier-fortress against the Russians” 10 and an economically strong nation with which to engage in international trade, the French viewed Germany as a threat to French security. France feared that not levying harsh enough penalties upon Germany would only make her stronger and she would eventually rise up against France in revenge. So while the British felt that the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh on Germany, France felt as though it were not harsh enough.
One aspect to deal with was German disarmament. Kitchen explains that “there was general agreement that Germany should be disarmed but considerable differences about how this should best be achieved.” 11 Eventually, the Allies came to an agreement regarding the new state of the German military. The German navy was to be limited to 15,000 officers and men, six battleships, six light cruisers, twelve destroyers, and twelve torpedo boats; meanwhile, the army was to be restricted to 100,000 men who would be obliged to enlist for twelve years. 12
The preamble of the military section of the treaty with Germany suggests that Germany was to be disarmed “in order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations.” 13 This is all well and good, except the Germans never abided by this part of the treaty. One of the most crucial omissions of this section was the absence of time limits, which undoubtedly worked in Germany’s favor. 14
No one could possibly expect Germany to be disarmed forever. The treaty, however, offered no hint as to how long the disarmament should last. This, therefore, was one of the parts of the treaty that Germany continually abused and disobeyed out of bitterness.
As it appeared that Germany would not abide by the disarmament policy for good, France began to worry, and for good reason. They had been unable to secure an alliance with Britain or the United States. Britain’s military budget had taken severe cuts and her government was more interested in securing her extra-European overseas colonies than in aiding her intra-European allies, such as France. Britain, unlike France, never seriously expected Germany to become a threat to the peace effort. 15 But there was the looming threat: “the Treaty of Versailles had left [Germany] largely intact, with a population almost double that of France, and with no powerful east European neighbours