The Lessons of the Versailles Treaty

The Lessons of the Versailles Treaty, by Victor Davis Hanson.

In comparison to other treaties of the times, the Versailles accord was actually mild — especially by past German standards.

After the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war, a newly unified and victorious Germany occupied France, forced the French to pay reparations and annexed the rich Alsace-Lorraine borderlands.

Berlin’s harsh 1914 plans for Western Europe at the onset of World War I — the so-called Septemberprogramm — called for the annexation of the northern French coast. The Germans planned to absorb all of Belgium and demand payment of billions of marks to pay off the entire German war debt.

In 1918, just months before the end of the war, Germany imposed on a defeated Russia a draconian settlement. The Germans seized 50 times more Russian territory and 10 times greater the population than it would later lose at Versailles.

So, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the winning democracies were far more lenient with Germany than Germany itself had been with most of its defeated enemies.

No one denied that Germany had started the war by invading Belgium and France. Germany never met the Versailles requirements of paying fully for its damage in France and Belgium. It either defaulted or inflated its currency to pay reparations in increasingly worthless currency.

Versailles certainly failed to keep the peace. Yet the problem was not because the treaty was too harsh, but because it was flawed from the start and never adequately enforced.

The Versailles Treaty was signed months after the armistice of November 1918, rather than after an utter collapse of the German Imperial Army. The exhausted Allies made the mistake of not demanding the unconditional surrender of the defeated German aggressor. …

WWII:

After the Treaty of Versailles, the victorious Allies of 1945 did not repeat the mistakes of 1919. They demanded an unconditional surrender from the defeated Nazi regime.

The Western Allies then occupied, divided and imposed democracy upon Germany. Troops stayed, helped to rebuild the country and then made it an ally.

In terms of harshness, the Yalta and Potsdam accords of 1945 were far tougher on the Germans than Versailles — and far more successful in keeping the peace.