The Versailles Treaty of 1919 was one of the most outrageous and predatory treaties in history. It was a blatant act of plunder perpetrated by a gang of robbers against a helpless, prostrate and bleeding Germany. The proceedings at Versailles are highly enlightening because they reveal the inner workings of imperialist diplomacy, the crude reality of power politics and the material interests that lurk behind the flowery phrases about Liberty, Humanitarianism, Pacifism and Democracy.
90 years ago the representatives of the triumphant imperialist powers gathered in Paris to determine the fate of the entire world. The Treaty of Versailles formally ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers (also known as the Entente). It took six months of wrangling at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. It was finally signed on 28 June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The Versailles Treaty was one of the most outrageous and predatory treaties in history. It was a blatant act of plunder perpetrated by a gang of robbers against a helpless, prostrate and bleeding Germany. Among its numerous provisions, it required Germany and its allies to accept full responsibility for causing the war and, under the terms of articles 231–248, to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations to the Entente powers.
The proceedings at Versailles are highly enlightening because they reveal the inner workings of imperialist diplomacy, the crude reality of power politics and the material interests that lurk behind the flowery phrases about Liberty, Humanitarianism, Pacifism and Democracy. In the secrecy of the negotiating chamber, the leaders of the “civilized world” haggled like merchants in a medieval fair as to how to carve up Europe and divide the entire world into spheres of interest. This prepared the basis for later conflicts that led directly to the Second World War.
The German Revolution
The actual fighting had already ended with the armistice signed on 11 November 1918. What forced the German High Command to end the hostilities was the outbreak of the German Revolution. After four years of horrific slaughter, all along the Western Front, the war-weary German army began to dissolve. Discipline broke down, soldiers refused to obey their officers and desertion became epidemic.
The most serious mutiny took place among the sailors—traditionally the most militant and proletarian part of the armed forces. In November 1918 the German High Seas fleet mutinied because of a rumour that the ships, and their crews, were to be sacrificed in an all out battle with the combined British and American navies. The German seamen mutinied and went ashore to link up with the revolutionary workers in Kiel and other
In the moment of truth the mighty German Empire collapsed like a house of cards. The workers and sailors established the Kiel Workers’ Council—the equivalent of the Russian Soviets. By November 4th Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers who arrested the officers and disarmed them. Delegations of workers and sailors went to other ports: Hamburg, Wilhelshaven, Rostok, Luebeck, Brubsbuttel, Cuxhaven, Rundsberg, Bremerhaven, Warnenberg and Geeestemunde. No ship was allowed to enter harbour unless it was flying the red flag.
The officer caste was impotent, the state was hanging in mid air and power was lying in the street waiting for somebody to pick it up. The German ruling class immediately understood that resistance was impossible. Instead, they decided to ditch the Kaiser and lean on the Social Democratic leaders as the sole remaining bulwark of “Order”. The German General Staff staged a palace coup. The Kaiser was packed off in a train to Holland.
The German ruling class realized that the main danger was on the home front. A half-hearted attempt was made to hand power to Prince Max. However, the real power was in the hands of the Workers’ Councils. In order to prevent the workers from establishing a revolutionary government, the General Staff called on the services of the right wing Social Democrat, Gustav Noske, who went to Kiel in order to take control of the situation and divert the revolutionary workers and sailors into “safe” (that is bourgeois) channels. The imperialist robbers assembled in Paris were equally alarmed, since all history shows that revolution is contagious.
The Talks begin
Negotiations between the Allied powers started on 18 January 1919 in the luxurious surroundings of the Salle de l'Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry, on the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. To begin with there were no fewer than 70 delegates from 27 nations in the negotiations. All had their own agenda and all demanded a slice of the cake. However, there were two major absentees: the defeated powers, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. They were excluded from the negotiations.
In reality, the Conference was a sham. Most of the 70 delegates had absolutely no say in the proceedings, which were determined by a handful of Great Powers: Britain, France and the United states. The smaller nations behaved like the poor relatives who stand, cap in hand, at the door of a wealthy man, who they hope will give them something for their patience and good behaviour Until March 1919, the real business was conducted by the so-called Council of Ten composed of the five victor nations: the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan.
However, as even this body proved to be inconvenient for the manoeuvres of the big powers. The rising Asian power of Japanese imperialism already had its eyes set on further expansion in China, which brought it into direct conflict with the ambitions of the United States and Britain. The Japanese attempted to insert a clause proscribing discrimination on the basis of race or nationality, but this was rejected, in particular by Australia. Japan and others left the main meetings, so that only the Big Four remained.
Italy, the smallest and weakest, had entered the War late and played a very minor role. Now it was making a lot of noise over its territorial claims to Fiume. As usual, when a little dog makes too much noise and annoys the big dogs, the latter snarl and show their teeth and the former slinks away with its tail between its legs. When these claims were rejected, the Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Orlando indignantly walked out of the negotiations (only to return to sign in June).
The proceedings were completely dominated by the leaders of the "Big Three": of Britain France and the USA. David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and the American President Woodrow Wilson decided everything. The final conditions were determined by these men and the interests they represented. However, it was virtually impossible for them to decide on a common position because their war aims conflicted with one another. The result was a botched compromise that satisfied nobody and thus prepared the way for new explosions.
Consequences for Germany
On 29 April the German delegation under the leadership of the Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff–Rantzau arrived in Versailles. It seems that they naively expected to be invited into the Conference for some kind of negotiations. After all, after the defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars, the Frenchman Tallyrand was invited to participate in the Congress of Vienna, where he used his considerable skills to extract concessions for France. But this was not 1815!
The German representatives were systematically humiliated before being brought into the Hall, where they were confronted for the first time with the stony-faced victors. The terms of the Treaty were then read out to them. There was no discussion—not even questions were allowed. On 7 May when faced with the conditions dictated by the victors, including the so-called "War Guilt Clause", Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff–Rantzau replied to Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George: “We know the full brunt of hate that confronts us here. You demand from us to confess we were the only guilty party of war; such a confession in my mouth would be a lie”.
Such protests were of no avail. The Germans were forced to drink the cup of humiliation to the last dregs. Soon afterwards, they withdrew from the proceedings of the Treaty of Versailles—a despairing and futile gesture. In vain the German government issued a protest against what it considered to be unfair demands, and a "violation of honour". In a theatrical act, the newly elected Social Democratic Chancellor, Philipp Scheidemann refused to sign the treaty and resigned. In a passionate speech before the National Assembly on 12 March 1919, he called the treaty a "murderous plan" and exclaimed:
“Which hand, trying to put us in chains like these, would not wither? The treaty is unacceptable.”
But this was just so much empty rhetoric. Germany was effectively disarmed. The army had dissolved and the Allies were preparing to advance. It was an untenable situation. The National Assembly voted in favour of signing the treaty by 237 to 138, with 5 abstentions. The foreign minister Hermann Müller and Johannes Bell travelled to Versailles to sign the treaty on behalf of Germany. The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 and ratified by the National Assembly on 9 July 1919 by a vote of 209 to 116.
This is the origin of the black legend of the “stab-in-the-back”. Right wing nationalists and ex-military leaders began to blame the Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, and Jews for a supposed national betrayal of Germany. The November Criminals and the newly formed Weimar Republic were held to be responsible for the defeat. This was a theme that the Nazis and other right wing nationalists harped on continually in the next period, blaming foreigners, Jews and “traitors” for the miseries and sufferings of the German people.
France’s war aims
The most belligerent of the Big Three was France, which had lost more than Britain and the USA: some 1.5 million military personnel and an estimated 400,000 civilians. Much of the western front had been fought on French territory. Now the French ruling class wanted revenge. The press whipped up the public into a frenzy of anti-German chauvinism, and the Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was implacable.
Clemenceau was determined to cripple Germany militarily, politically, and economically so as never to be able to invade France again. He naturally wanted the return of the rich and industrial land of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been stripped from France by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. But the French General Staff wanted to go a lot further than this: they wanted France to have the Rhineland, which they had always regarded as France’s “natural” frontier with Germany.
Britain's war aims were different because her interests were not those of France. The wily British Prime Minister Lloyd George supported reparations but less than the French. He wanted to bleed Germany in the interests of British capitalism, and reduce its economic and military power. But he did not want to destroy Germany utterly. He was well aware that if France got its way, it could become the most powerful force on the continent, and the balance of power in Europe could be upset. This did not suit British imperialism, which wanted to play Germany off against France to keep them both in check.
Apart from these strategic considerations, there were also British economic interests. Before the war, Germany had been Britain's main competitor, but also its largest trading partner, and therefore the French proposal for the destruction of German industry did not suit the long-term interests of British capitalism. However, the prospect of plundering a defeated Germany was too tempting to resist. So Lloyd George managed to increase Britain's share of German reparations by demanding compensation for the huge number of widows, orphans, and men left unable to work through injury, due to the war.
Always the supreme political opportunist, Lloyd George supported the slogan "Hang the Kaiser" in order to make his people happy and gain votes at home. Lloyd George was irritated by Woodrow Wilson's so-called idealism. The French and British supported secret treaties and naval blockades, which Wilson opposed. In particular, the American President’s proposal for "self-determination" did not please Lloyd George. The British imperialists, like the French, wanted to preserve their empire. If the idea of self-determination was applicable in Europe (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia), why should it not be applicable to British and French colonies?
The leaders of Europe were not to be fooled by the likes of Wilson. They were sufficiently experienced to read between the lines and distinguish between fact and fiction. They could see that behind the gaseous screen of idealism there lay very solid interests. They knew that the rising power of America was flexing its muscles and would one day have to test its strength against theirs. The worldwide struggle for markets would bring them into conflict, just as it had with Germany.
Behind the fine words about self-determination lay a threat to break up the old European empires to the benefit of the United States. Now it was interfering for the first time in the internal affairs of Europe and was taking the side of Germany against Britain and France. But what did these Americans know about war? They had come in at the last minute and tipped the balance against Germany. But they had not sacrificed as the British and French had done. Their lands had not been invaded. Their cities had not been shelled and bombed. And they lecture us on justice and humanity! It is intolerable!
United States' war aims
The USA was becoming the most powerful nation on earth. It had already embarked on its career of imperialist expansion in its wars with Mexico, but the process experienced a qualitative leap with the war with Spain and the seizure of Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the 19th century. However, being a vast country with a huge internal market, one section of the American bourgeoisie, and a big section of the petty bourgeoisie, remained inclined to isolationism.
There was a powerful non-interventionist sentiment before and after the United States entered the war in April 1917. When the War ended, many Americans felt eager to extricate themselves from European affairs as rapidly as possible. The United States took a more conciliatory view toward the issue of German reparations, which brought them into collision with the British and particularly the French imperialists.
Amidst the bloody wreckage of Europe, many people looked to the transatlantic giant for some signs of hope. Woodrow Wilson’s woolly pacifist and democratic rhetoric struck a cord in the hearts and minds of millions of war-weary people in Europe, particularly in the defeated countries and in small nations struggling to assert themselves. So, in the beginning, Wilson was regarded as a hero— much the same as Barak Obama now.
The similarity between their speeches is striking: a combination of high-sounding phrases, idealism and populism that sounds very good and is completely empty of any real content. When he first arrived in Europe, Wilson was greeted by huge crowds of cheering people. But this enthusiasm did not last long. Behind the wonderful phrases the same old great power interests and sordid diplomatic wheeling and dealing continued as usual.
Even before the end of the War, Woodrow Wilson put forward his Fourteen Points which he now presented in a speech at the Paris Peace Conference. It is interesting to speculate to what extent Wilson believed in his own rhetoric. He seems to have been nothing more than a provincial academic with a narrow and formalistic mentality coloured with a large dose of sentimentality and Christian moralizing. His manner of speaking, which resembled that of a small town preacher, must have had the same effect on the ears of the hard-bitten Clemenceau and the smiling cynic Lloyd George as the sound of a dentist’s drill.
At first they listened in silence as he lectured them on the need for morality in world affairs, justice and humanity for defeated enemies and the right of self-determination for small nations. They did not know who Wilson was, but they knew that America was the country that held the fate of Europe in the palm of its hand, and therefore they swallowed their pride and contained their indignation, confining themselves to ironic comments in the corridors.
America wanted peace and stability in Europe in order to secure the success of future trading opportunities and hopefully collect some of the huge debts owed to it by the Europeans. Destroying the economic life of Germany did not enter into these plans. Most of the reparations would go to France, Britain and Belgium anyway. So America could afford to be magnanimous to the Germans. They did not have to rebuild their shattered towns and cities!
In the United States, disillusionment with the war caused a backlash against Wilson. The isolationists, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, launched an offensive against the treaty in the Senate, which voted against ratifying. An old, sick and embittered man, Wilson refused to support the treaty with any of the reservations imposed by the Senate. He died shortly afterwards. Wilson's successor Warren G. Harding continued American opposition to the League of Nations. His administration later collapsed in the midst of an unprecedented corruption scandal.
The terms of the Treaty were draconic indeed. Much of the rest of the Treaty set out the reparations that Germany would pay to the Allies. The total amount of war reparations demanded from Germany amounted to a staggering 226 billion Reichsmarks in gold. This was an impossible amount for Germany to pay, a fact that was later tacitly accepted by an Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. In 1921, it was reduced to 132 billion Reichsmarks (£4.99 billion). But even that figure was ruinous for Germany.
Reparations were paid in a variety of forms, including coal, steel, agricultural products, and even intellectual property (for example, the patent for aspirin) and, in no small part because currency reparations of that order of magnitude would lead to hyperinflation, as actually occurred in postwar Germany (see 1920s German inflation), thus decreasing the benefits to France and the United Kingdom. Germany has still not finished paying off her World War I reparations, which will occur in 2020.
The young John Maynard Keynes had been the principal representative of the British Treasury at the Paris Peace Conference. Angry that his suggestions about reparations had been ignored, he published a damning account of the Conference, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). In this famous book he referred to the Treaty of Versailles as a "Carthaginian peace". His argument was that the burden of reparations would ruin Germany and drag down the rest of Europe. From a capitalist point of view he was quite right.
The conditions of the treaty were so vicious that it was seen unanimously as unacceptable by all political parties. The Social Democrat Philip Scheidemann refused to sign and stepped down. But other Social Democrats accepted it. The main victims, as always, were the working people. The shattered German economy was so weak that only a small percentage of reparations were paid in hard currency. Even the payment of a small percentage of the original reparations still placed an intolerable burden on the German economy, and was the cause of the hyperinflation that subsequently plunged it into a bottomless pit.
An attempt was made to shift all responsibility for the sufferings of the war onto the shoulders of former German Emperor, Wilhelm II. The British and French ranted and raged. He was to be tried as a war criminal. However, in the end, nothing was done and the former Kaiser lived out his days in comfortable exile in Holland. But if Wilhelm escaped unscathed, the German people were not to be let off so lightly. Article 231 (the "War Guilt Clause") laid all responsibility for the war on Germany, which would be accountable for all the damage done to civilian population of the allies.
There were military restrictions. The preamble Part V of the treaty states: "In order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations, Germany undertakes strictly to observe the military, naval and air clauses which follow."
German armed forces were to number no more than 100,000 troops, and conscription was to be abolished. Enlisted men were to be retained for at least 12 years; officers to be retained for at least 25 years. German naval forces would be limited to 15,000 men, 6 battleships (no more than 10,000 tons displacement each), 6 cruisers (no more than 6,000 tons displacement each), 6 destroyers (no more than 800 tons displacement each) and 12 torpedo boats (no more than 200 tons displacement each). No submarines were to be included.
The manufacture, import, and export of weapons and poison gas was prohibited. Armed aircraft, tanks and armoured cars were prohibited. Blockades on ports were prohibited. These decisions would render Germany defenceless against external attack. Its territories were placed at the mercy of a vengeful France in the West and a thrusting newly independent Second Polish Republic in the East.
However, in view of the growing threat of Revolution in Germany, the Allies decided to allow the Reichswehr to retain 100,000 machine guns for use against the German working class. These weapons were used by the fascist Freikorps to suppress the revolutionary movement in Germany.
Then there were the territorial claims, mainly aimed at weakening Germany and strengthening France. In order to do this, an independent Poland was necessary. Clemenceau was convinced that Germany had "20 million people too much". So West Prussia was ceded to the Poles, thus giving Poland access to the Baltic Sea via the "Polish Corridor”. East Prussia was separated from mainland Germany. In addition, Germany was compelled to hand over all its colonies. Germany was also forbidden to unite with Austria to form a larger Nation to make up for the lost land
Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark following a plebiscite on 14 February 1920, while Central Schleswig opted to remain German in a separate referendum on 14 March 1920. Alsace-Lorraine was restored to French sovereignty without a plebiscite as from the date of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. But on the question of the Rhineland, Clemenceau suffered a defeat. The French General Staff made it clear that they expected the Rhineland to be handed over to France. But Lloyd George would have none of it. The Rhineland was to become a demilitarized zone administered by Great Britain and France jointly.
Most of the Prussian province of Posen (now Poznan) and of West Prussia, which Prussia had annexed in Partitions of Poland (1772–1795), were ceded to Poland. The Hlučínsko (Hultschin) area of Upper Silesia went to Czechoslovakia (area 316 or 333 km², 49,000 inhabitants) without a plebiscite. The eastern part of Upper Silesia also went to Poland. The area of the cities Eupen and Malmedy were given to Belgium, which also received the track bed of the Vennbahn railway.
The area of Soldau in East Prussia was given to Poland. The northern part of East Prussia, known as Memel Territory, was placed under the control of France, and later occupied by Lithuania. The province of Saarland was placed under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years, after that a plebiscite between France and Germany was to decide to which country it would belong. During this time, the coal produced in that region would be sent to France.
The port of Danzig with the delta of the Vistula River at the Baltic Sea was made the Free City of Danzig under the permanent governance of the League of Nations without a plebiscite. The German and Austrian governments had to acknowledge and strictly respect the independence of Austria. The unification of both countries was strictly forbidden, although a big majority of both populations were known to be in favour of it. There were other smaller “adjustments” at the expense of Germany and its allies.
The Bolsheviks and Versailles
Soviet Russia was naturally excluded from the Paris peace talks. The formal reason was because it had already negotiated a separate peace with Germany. In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) Germany had taken away a third of Russia's population, one half of Russia's industrial undertakings and nine-tenths of Russia's coalmines, coupled with an indemnity of six billion marks. But although physically absent, Russia’s presence made itself felt in all the deliberations at the Peace Conference.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks based themselves on the perspective of world revolution that would move westward, across Central Europe to Germany, France and the whole of Europe. Nowadays it is fashionable to portray this as a utopian idea, but the victors at Versailles took it very seriously. The Russian Revolution had a powerful effect on the German working class, which rose in revolution exactly twelve months after the October Revolution. We have already described the German Revolution of November 1918. This was followed by a revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. In Hungary and Bavaria Soviet Republics were proclaimed.
The real reason for the exclusion of Russia was that all the imperialist powers were the sworn enemies of Bolshevism, which they correctly saw as the most dangerous threat to their interests. Even while the Great Powers sat around the negotiating table, fighting over the map of the world like dogs fighting over a bone, the flames of revolution were spreading to Germany, a soviet republic had been declared in Hungary and also Bavaria, and Trotsky’s Red Army was beating back the counterrevolutionary White forces. British, American, Japanese and French forces were intervening actively on the side of the Whites in an anti-Bolshevik crusade.
This explains the haste with which the German ruling class capitulated to the Allies. However, they hoped that a reasonable deal could be reached. After all, the Kaiser was gone and Germany now had a democratic government. Moreover, the Germans, and especially the Social Democratic leaders had high hopes on the American President Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points.
In 1919 Lenin was still hoping that Soviet revolution in Vienna would support Soviet Hungary. All his hopes were placed on a revolution in Germany. In Left Wing Communism Lenin wrote:
“The Soviet revolution in Germany will strengthen the international Soviet movement, which is the strongest bulwark (and the only reliable, invincible and world-wide bulwark) against the Treaty of Versailles and against international imperialism in general.”
But he sharply castigated the German Left Communists for their idea of “No Compromise”—including the rejection of the Versailles Treaty and a so-called German People’s War against the Entente. Lenin placed his hopes firmly on revolution in Germany:
“To give absolute, categorical and immediate precedence to liberation from the Treaty of Versailles and to give it precedence over the question of liberating other countries oppressed by imperialism, from the yoke of imperialism, is philistine nationalism (worthy of the Kautskys, the Hilferdings, the Otto Bauers and Co.), not revolutionary internationalism. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie in any of the large European countries, including Germany, would be such a gain for the international revolution that, for its sake, one can, and if necessary should, tolerate a more prolonged existence of the Treaty of Versailles. If Russia, standing alone, could endure the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk for several months, to the advantage of the revolution, there is nothing impossible in a Soviet Germany, allied with Soviet Russia, enduring the existence of the Treaty of Versailles for a longer period, to the advantage of the revolution.
“The imperialists of France, Britain, etc., are trying to provoke and ensnare the German Communists: ‘Say that you will not sign the Treaty of Versailles!’ they urge. Like babes, the Left Communists fall into the trap laid for them, instead of skilfully manoeuvring against the crafty and, at present, stronger enemy, and instead of telling him, ‘We shall sign the Treaty of Versailles now.’ It is folly, not revolutionism, to deprive ourselves in advance of any freedom of action, openly to inform an enemy who is at present better armed than we are whether we shall fight him, and when. To accept battle at a time when it is obviously advantageous to the enemy, but not to us, is criminal; political leaders of the revolutionary class are absolutely useless if they are incapable of "changing tack, or offering conciliation and compromise" in order to take evasive action in a patently disadvantageous battle.”
It goes without saying that the Bolsheviks regarded it as an act of imperialist plunder, like the even more vicious Treaty of Brest Litovsk. But they understood that the imperialists (especially the French) were looking for an excuse to invade Germany, which would have been a setback for the revolution. By flirting with German nationalism, the German Left Communists were abandoning the policies of revolutionary proletarian internationalism in favour of “national Bolshevism”, which Lenin considered an abomination.
Whereas the right wing Social Democrats like Noske, Scheidemann and Ebert placed themselves on the side of the German ruling class and imperialism, and the Left Social Democrats (the Independents) took up a vacillating and ambiguous position, Lenin and Trotsky approached all questions from the standpoint of the international revolution. For Lenin the question was not for or against the Treaty of Versailles, but how to prepare the most favourable conditions for the German workers to come to power.
Lenin’s perspectives for Germany were confirmed in 1923, when Germany stopped paying the reparations “agreed” upon in the Treaty of Versailles. As a result, French and Belgium forces occupied the Ruhr, the heartland of German industry. German workers launched a campaign of passive resistance, refusing to work the factories while they remained in French hands.
The German currency was now useless: a wheelbarrow full of notes was necessary to buy a box of matches. The middle class was in a revolutionary mood and the Social Democrats were discredited. The Communist Party was growing by leaps and bounds and the question of power was posed. Even the fascists were saying: let the Communists take power first, then it will be our turn.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the German Communist Party vacillated and failed to take decisive action. They looked to Moscow for advice but Lenin was incapacitated by his final illness and Trotsky was also ill. The German leaders instead saw Stalin and Zinoviev, who advised them not to try to take power. And so an exceptionally favourable opportunity was lost. The masses were disappointed and turned away from the Communist Party.
The crisis was over and German capitalism began to recover, benefiting from the economic revival in Europe and aid from the USA. But fundamental contradictions were gnawing at the entrails of the Weimar Republic. The German bourgeoisie, alarmed at the growing strength of the Socialists and Communists, began to prepare for the final showdown with the working class. The end result was the rise of Hitler, the destruction of the mighty German labour movement and the Second World War.
The effects on France
The Treaty of Versailles was at the expense of the German people, but the people of Britain and France derived no benefit from it. At that time in the Resolution on the Versailles Treaty, which he wrote for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, November–December 1922, Trotsky made the following prophetic analysis:
“The appearance is that France, of all the countries, has grown most in power. But in reality the economic basis of France, with her small and steadily diminishing population, her enormous domestic and foreign debt, and her dependence on England, does not provide an adequate foundation for her greed for imperialist expansion. So far as her political power is concerned, she is thwarted by England’s mastery of all the important naval bases, and by the oil monopoly held by England and the United States. In the domain of economy, the enrichment of France with the iron mines given her by the Treaty of Versailles, loses its value inasmuch as the supplementary and indispensable coal mines of the Ruhr Basin remain in German hands. The hopes of restoring shattered French finances by means of German reparations have proved illusory. When the impracticability of the Treaty of Versailles becomes apparent, certain sections of French heavy industry will consciously bring on the depreciation of the franc in order to unload the costs of the war on the shoulders of the French proletariat.”
Despite all his stubbornness, Clemenceau had failed to achieve what he had promised. Field Marshal Foch did not hide his bitterness about the failure to get the Rhineland. He complained that Germany had been let off too lightly (!!) and declared, "This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” The French press stoked the feelings of resentfulness and disappointment and Clemenceau was voted out of office in the elections of January 1920.
Even at the Peace Conference differences emerged between Britain and France. As we have seen, it was not in Britain’s interests to bleed Germany white. The ruin of Germany had negative effects on the British economy, which experienced a slump, with mass unemployment and a sharpening of the class struggle. The same was true of France, which eventually led the French imperialists to seize the Ruhr in 1923. This did nothing to solve the problems of France but merely created the conditions for further explosions.
It is now a banal statement to say that the strangling of Germany prepared the way for the rise of Hitler. In fact, a new world war could have been prevented by revolution. But the leaders of the mass organizations, by preventing revolution, made a new war impossible. The policies pursued by both the Social Democrats and the Stalinists rendered the powerful German Labour Movement impotent and allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933.
From that point onwards, a new war was inevitable. The worst fears of the French ruling class were confirmed as Hitler launched a programme designed to rebuild Germany’s economic and military might. In 1934, five years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Trotsky declared in the theses, War and the Fourth International: “The collapse of the League of Nations is indissolubly bound up with the beginning of the collapse of French hegemony on the European continent. The demographic and economic power of France proved to be, as was to be expected, too narrow a base for the Versailles system.”
The national question and Zionism
It is a matter of speculation to what extent Woodrow Wilson actually believed in his idealistic plans. What is certain is that his demagogic appeals for self-determination were aimed at breaking up the old European empires, and that this was in the interest of American imperialism.
Every time the imperialists proclaim self-determination, the result is new injustices, new contradictions, new oppressions and new wars. This is a classical case. The Versailles Treaty signified the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of new states like Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. But the national question has always been used by imperialism for its own selfish ends. In the hands of the Great Powers the right of self-determination is just so much small change, to be bartered away.
The creation of new states in Europe was accompanied by new injustices, cruelty and national oppression. Millions of Germans in the Sudetenland and in Posen–West Prussia were placed under foreign rule in a hostile environment, where harassment and violation of rights by authorities are documented. Out of 1,058,000 Germans in Posen–West Prussia in 1921, 758,867 fled their homelands within five years due to Polish harassment. This later served as a pretext for Hitler's annexations of Czechoslovakia and parts of Poland.
Although the main sphere of operations was in Europe, this was indeed the First World War, and was fought on a global scale. There were serious repercussions in Asia. Article 156 of the treaty transferred German concessions in Shandong (which was part of China) to Japan instead of returning it to China. This outrage led to demonstrations and a cultural movement known as the May Fourth Movement, which was the starting point for an upsurge of the revolutionary movement in China.
Since Turkey had been an ally of Germany, it also suffered the loss of many of its old possessions. The former Ottoman Empire was divided among the victors, who had been watching its decay for a long time like hungry vultures waiting for a wounded animal to die. The British and French imperialists had their eye on the Middle East. They encouraged the Arabs to rise in revolt against their Turkish masters (this is the sordid reality behind the exploits of Laurence of Arabia), offering them independence in order to seize their lands after the War.
The World Zionist Congress attempted to influence the policy of the British and American governments toward the Ottoman Empire, and especially Palestine, in the interests of the Zionists. The result was the Balfour Declaration. With its habitual cynicism, British imperialism promised Palestine to the Jews —and to the Arabs. One can trace the bloody history of the struggle between the Palestinians and Jews to this piece of imperialist treachery, the consequences of which are still being felt today. This is the crude reality that lies behind the demagogy about self-determination.
Postscript: The Thieves’ kitchen
The Treaty of Versailles led to the creation of the League of Nations, an organization intended to arbitrate international disputes and thereby avoid future wars. This was mainly agreed to by Britain and France in order to placate President Wilson and pander to his pacifist prejudices. It also had the advantage of casting the victors of Versailles in a most favourable light before world public opinion. These predatory imperialists were presented to the public opinion of the world as “men of peace”, at the very time that they were plundering Germany and engaging in a bloody intervention against Soviet Russia.
The Covenant of the League of Nations was designed to produce the impression that this organization’s aim was to combat aggression, reduce armaments, and consolidate peace and security. The League's goals included upholding the new found Rights of Man disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation, diplomacy and improving global quality of life. Wilson claimed that he could "predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it." To begin with, as a result of the growing mood of isolationism, the United States did not join the League of Nations.
In practice, however its leaders shielded the aggressors, fostered the arms race and preparations for the Second World War. Lenin denounced the League of Nations as a “thieves’ kitchen.” The subsequent history of the League of Nations showed that Lenin was right. It did not prevent Mussolini’s invasion of Italy or Franco’s war against his own people. Nor did it do anything to halt Japanese aggression against China or Hitler’s expansionist plans in Europe.
The League of Nations accepted Mussolini's bullying of Greece and failed to stop him invading Abyssinia. The Italian fascist army used chemical weapons like mustard gas against undefended villages, poisoning water supplies and bombing Red Cross tents. When the League complained, Mussolini replied that, since the Ethiopians are not fully human, the human rights laws did not apply. The Italian dictator stated that, "The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out." These words admirably expressed the real situation.
Naturally, the existence of the League of Nations did nothing to stop the Second World War. In March 1935 Adolf Hitler introduced compulsory military conscription in Germany and rebuilt the armed forces in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In March 1936 he again violated the treaty by reoccupying the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland. He followed this by annexing Austria in the Anschluss in March 1938. These steps paved the way for the annexing of the Sudetenland and the occupation of Czechoslovakia, which led to the invasion of Poland and the World War II.
The League of Nations could serve as a forum for discussion as long as the interests of the major powers were not involved. But when serious matters were involved, it was utterly useless. The same is true of the UN today. Lenin aptly described the League of Nations as “a thieves’ kitchen.” The Soviet Union was not a member of the League, and for good reasons. To the question “Why does not the Soviet Union participate in the League of Nations?”—Stalin replied in 1927:
“The Soviet Union is not a member of the League of Nations and does not participate in its work, because the Soviet Union is not prepared to share the responsibility for the imperialist policy of the League of Nations, for the ‘mandates’ which are distributed by the League for the exploitation and oppression of the colonial countries, for the war preparations and military alliances which are covered and sanctified by the League, preparations which must inevitably lead to imperialist war. The Soviet Union does not participate in the work of the League because the Soviet Union is fighting with all its energy against all preparations for imperialist war. The Soviet Union is not prepared to become a part of that camouflage for imperialist machinations represented by the League of Nations. The League is the rendezvous of the imperialist leaders who settle their business there behind the scenes. The subjects about which the League speaks officially, are nothing but empty phrases intended to deceive the workers. The business carried on by the imperialist ring-leaders behind the scenes, that is the actual work of imperialism which the eloquent speakers of the League of Nations hypocritically cloak.” (“Questions and Answers, A Discussion with Foreign Delegates” by J. Stalin. Moscow. November 13, 1927.)
This answer is more or less correct and reflects the attitude of Lenin to the League. However, later on Stalin changed his mind. After the victory of Hitler he tried to get the support of the so-called European democracies and joined the League. It did him no good. Weak and indulgent in the face of German and Italian fascism and Japanese militarism, the League was brave enough to expel the Soviet Union in December 1939 after it invaded Finland. This was its last significant action. The Second World War signified the ignominious collapse of the League of Nations—and the even more ignominious dissolution of the Communist International.
Imperialist wars are fought over very concrete questions: the control of markets, colonies, raw materials and spheres of influence. Over the past century there have been many such wars, and two of them were world wars. The second one resulted in the deaths of 55 million people, the big majority of them civilians. Of course, the imperialists can never openly admit the true causes that motivate them. They possess a vast propaganda machine designed to convince public opinion that all their wars are just wars, for the defence of peace, civilization, democracy and culture. It is sufficient to remind ourselves that the First World War was presented as “the War to end all Wars”!
Ninety years after the Versailles Treaty there are valuable lessons to be drawn from a Marxist analysis of these events, which cuts through the fog of propaganda and lies and exposes the reality of the class interests that lie behind the slogans and the propaganda. Wars will continue to plague humanity until capitalism is overthrown. That was the position of Lenin, and it remains true today.
London, March 19, 2009