The armistice of 11 November 1918, made it impossible for the German Reich to restart the battle and was tantamount to an unconditional surrender. In terms of international law it was questionable, since it contained conditions of a political nature – the annulment of the Eastern peace treaties – and because it permitted the continuation of the British blockade until peace was finally concluded. Since a blockade constituted a combat operation, it should have been suspended as soon as the armistice began. In addition, the Allies continued their stance of refusing peace talks with the enemies even after 11 November. They negotiated the peace treaty only among themselves. The main features were defined during a British-French-Italian pre-conference that took place in London in December 1918. They also decided to put Emperor Wilhelm II. on trial. President Wilson was unhappy with the result of the pre-conference and told his delegation that he demanded a just peace. He threatened that if Lloyd George and Clemenceau were not to ease up on their demands, he would depart and conclude a separate peace with Germany. However, he did not follow through with this threat because he feared for the League of Nations that he endorsed.
During the peace conference formally opened in Paris on 18 January 1919 consultations on all important issues were conducted within the close circle made up of the leading politicians from the US, Great Britain, France, Italy, and initially, also Japan. There were numerous commissions, but due to a lack of time, the politicians were not able to thoroughly deliberate upon their submissions. Due to Clemenceau’s hard line, talks were temporarily very controversial. Lloyd George realised that Clemenceau strove to attain excessive goals. In a comprehensive memorandum issued in late March, he urged that the conditions imposed on Germany be more moderate so that the peace treaty should not be a reason for embitterment.
Clemenceau rejected this memorandum outright and successfully insisted on his hard-line approach. When the German delegation arrived in Versailles on 29 April, the treaty was not yet concluded. So they were detained in hotels for the time being. On the morning of 7 May, only a few hours before the hand-over, it was finally ready in printed form; up to that moment, no-one had been able to read and evaluate it in its entirety. The German delegation considered it unacceptable and developed several counter-propositions by the end of May, but nearly all of them were rejected. The German government then recommended that the National Assembly in Weimar accept the treaty which it did on 22 June, with the exception of articles 227 – 231. These were concerned about bringing the German Emperor to trial and convicting war criminals. Article 231 made Germany and its allies liable for all the loss and damage they had caused by foisting this war upon Europe. The victorious powers did not accept this. Instead they gave an ultimatum to sign the treaty and the National Assembly complied. The formal signing took place on 28 June in the Hall or Mirrors of Versailles Castle, where King Wilhelm I of Prussia had accepted the German Emperorship on 18 January 1871.
For the two German delegates, this act was demeaning. The young British diplomat Harold Nicolson found it abominable. On the day of the second vote in the National Assembly, on 23 June, Quartermaster General Groener said in the Supreme Army Command, that not to accept it would result in bringing on a war of total annihilation by France against Germany. In that case, the Allies would have restarted their advance – so Weimar knew from American sources – and separated Southern Germany from the North, given separate peace treaties to the southern states and also detached the Rhineland from Germany. Clemenceau wanted to form an independent state on the left banks of the Rhine which was to constitute an economic and military system together with Belgium, Luxemburg and France.
The Treaty of Versailles was very tough. Germany lost nearly one seventh of its territory and one tenth of its population. Half the iron ore and one quarter of the coal production as well as one seventh of agricultural production were taken from her. German colonies and all foreign possessions of the Reich were lost. Most of the commercial fleet had to be handed over and long-term economic discrimination accepted. The army and navy had to decrease their size quite considerably. The Rhineland was de-militarised, split in three zones and occupied by Allied forces for five to fifteen years. The Saarland was put under the mandate of the League of Nations. The coal mines went to France and Gdansk with its surrounding area was turned into a Free City of Poland with special rights. The independence of Austria, whose National Assembly had voted to accept the connection to the German Reich, was to be guaranteed in perpetuity. The amount of reparations was to be determined at a later time. That the sum to be compiled would be very high, and paying it would take several decades, was beyond doubt. In the line of European peace treaties concluded since the 17th century, the Treaty of Versailles was nearly unique in that there was no negotiation with the conquered party. Only one peace treaty was comparable: the one Napoleon imposed upon Prussia in Tilsit in 1807.
Before the signing of the treaty, President Wilson said that if he were a German, he would not sign it. His foreign minister Lansing considered the conditions imposed on Germany as unutterably hard and abasing, many of them impossible to comply with. His adviser, Mandell House wrote in his diary on 29 June that the treaty was bad and should never have been concluded; its execution would bring no end of difficulties over Europe. And Delcassé, who had done a great deal for the onset of war and who in 1914 wanted to shatter Bismarck’s achievements, voted against the treaty’s ratification in the French chamber. He told a journalist that one could not urge a nation of 60 million people to pay a toll to another for 44 years. This would be nearly like forcing this nation to start a new war. As a matter of fact, regulating the issue of reparations had fatal consequences indeed. In early 1921, the total amount claimed from Germany was determined to be 226 billion gold Marks, a few months later, after Germany had protested, this was reduced to 132 billion. France used a small arrear in the delivering of commodities that Germany had to come up with to occupy the Ruhr, Germany’s most important industrial district. In doing so, France hoped to be able to sever the Rhineland from Germany and to be able to moreover loosen the cohesion of the Reich.
The occupation of the Ruhr constituted a clear breach of the Treaty of Versailles. In Germany, it caused strong national emotions, but it also caused Great Britain to step out of the restraint it so far had shown towards France and get it to the negotiation table. Thus came about the Dawes plan in 1924, which set up an interim regulation regarding the reparations, a guarantee of the German-French border in 1925, and the admission of Germany into the League of Nations in 1926. The final fixing of the reparation burden was brought about by the Hague Conference in January 1930, whose main content had become known as early as mid- 1929.
According to this co-called Young Plan, the Reich would have to pay a total of 116 billion Marks over 58 years, i.e. until 1988. The first annual rate amounted to 1.8 billion Marks, which constituted 26% of the national budget of the Reich in 1928, a very high amount. A petition initiated by the German National People’s Party, by “Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten” [literally: “steel helmet, alliance of front-line soldiers”] and by the National Socialists, made a referendum possible. This was not successful, but the NSDAP unremittingly continued its fight against what it called the “tribute madness”, receiving very widespread positive reactions. At the Reichstag election in May 1928, it had only been a splinter party getting a mere 2.6% of valid votes, but during the new elections in September 1930 it received 18.3% of the votes; it thus increased its result seven times. The party leadership attributed this acceptance by 6.5 million voters to a very large part to their decisive stance against the Young Plan. With this successful election, the Party had laid a solid base for its further growth. That the party leader, Hitler, would finally be empowered to claim the position of Reich Chancellor for himself was also connected to the Treaty of Versailles.
In order to be able to have access to the national socialist storm troops in case of potential violent actions by Poland against the Eastern parts of Germany, which could not be excluded, and thus to be able to strengthen the all too weak Reichswehr, Reich President Hindenburg wanted to shift further to the right, and had Papen promise the NSDAP his agreement on new general elections in return for tolerating the new government he had just appointed. These elections in late July of 1932 brought in 37.4% of the votes for the NSDAP. Within only a few months, this resulted in the situation which saw Hitler become Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933, being able to build up his dictatorship thereafter. Six years later, the issue of Gdansk and the so called Polish corridor which, according to the Treaty of Versailles, separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, constituted the starting point of the German-Polish conflict which led up to the Second World War. Thus came true what Lloyd George had feared back in March 1919, namely that accommodating Poland too much would sooner or later result in another war in Eastern Europe.
As mentioned in the introductory passage, Swiss citizen Ernst Sauerbeck accused the Entente in 1919 of having unleashed the war without need, of without need having prolonged it, and of again without need having ended it by means of a calamitous peace. This judgement proved to be correct. If, at the turn of the year 1917/18, the Allied forces had agreed on the German peace offer, or if they had accepted, like the German Reich, the mediation offer by Wilson, the war would surely have been ended by a treaty that both sides would have been able to live with. And if in 1919 the statesmen of the two Anglo-Saxon powers had prevented that a Clemenceau peace was imposed upon Germany, Europe would also have been spared much harm.