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Old 04-14-2021, 02:44 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Chapter I: A Storm is Coming…

The Treaty of Versailles - Reparations or Revenge?

You’ll find a lot of argument in historical and academic circles as to what was or were the main causes for World War II, and I wouldn’t square up against any of them, being the most amateur of students of history. However, when you look back at Hitler’s rise to power, it’s pretty clear that one of the things that drove German nationalist fervour and allowed them to be pushed into a state of war was the far from satisfactory conclusion of World War I, and the heavy price imposed upon the defeated nation by the Treaty of Versailles. And while nobody in their right mind is going to excuse the Nazis, you can see why they were able to use this as a springboard that launched them to power, and eventually into a war against most of the rest of the world.

It could not by any measure you care to use be termed a fair treaty. For one thing, Germany wasn’t even allowed attend negotiations as the details were worked out. For another, they were forced to sign it on pain of resumption of the war, and for a third, it basically set out to bankrupt the former power that had wrought so much destruction across the world, under the guise of ensuring Germany was so crippled and weakened that it would never rise again, at least, not on to any sort of military footing by which it would be able to threaten the peace.

A lot of this rings hollow. Are we supposed to believe that the British, Germans, Americans and Italians (and the Japanese) were all going to live in joyful harmony and peace once the big bad bogeyman was defeated? Or that each power didn’t intend to look after their own interests, taking land here, colonies there, industries and shoring up their own economies, battered by the cost of fighting the four-year war, with the proceeds of the reparations? And honestly, while it’s easy to be smart with hindsight, did they not see this coming? Of course Germany needed to be beaten down, but you put too much energy, too much effort, too much violence into such a beating and you’re in danger of your victim deciding he has nothing left to lose and fighting back with everything he has.

So before we begin our history, let’s look into the famous and hated (by Germany anyway) Treaty of Versailles.

In terms of territory, Germany would shrink by about 65,000 miles and lose about seven million of its citizens, as areas like Alsace-Lorraine were to be returned to France, Morsenet and Eupen-Malmady to Belgium and Germany would be forced to recognise the independence of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Not surprisingly, these two countries, previously under the control of Germany and Austria respectively, were the first Hitler set his sights on twenty years later. Their colonies in Africa, too, were divided up among the victorious powers.

The German Army was permitted a maximum of 100,000 men, the German Navy a tenth of that number, only allowed retain in total thirty-six vessels and forbidden from manufacturing or importing chemical weapons, armoured vehicles, tanks or aircraft. Conscription into the armed forces was scrapped, and Germany was banned from having an air force. The Rhineland, where Germany had built many forts and outposts, was to be demilitarised and the emplacements destroyed, their rebuilding forbidden. Allied forces would occupy the Rhineland for fifteen years, but if Germany had not engaged in any hostile action there would be staged withdrawals after five, ten and finally fifteen years.

And that’s not all. Money money money, not too funny when you lose a war. Oh yes, to the victors, literally, go the spoils, and Germany had to hand over 20 billion gold Marks - about 100 billion US Dollars today - though by 1921 this had risen to a staggering 132 billion Marks, so in or around 600 billion dollars. However this was a figure levied on all the “Central Powers” (the Axis of World War I) and as the Allies knew that the other countries could not be expected to pay, the figure was actually 50 billion, directed at Germany.

It’s pretty obvious from reading about it that the French were the ones looking for the biggest slice of revenge, and therefore the ones pushing the harshest reparations, while Britain, after centuries of war with France, mistrusted their intentions and did not want them gaining a foothold in Europe to become the strongest power there. There wasn’t much in the treaty for Italy, which would lead to the rise of another dictator, who would in fact side with Hitler when he came to power. Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s claim that “At last the world knows that America is the saviour of the world” the Treaty was never ratified in the US, there being many objections, both by Catholic Irish Democrats and German Americans to the power it gave their hated enemy the British and the worry over the influence of the League of Nations, formed within the articles of the Treaty.

Nevertheless, the Treaty was signed, though under huge protest and with no alternative by the Germans, and as a result the German economy collapsed as hyper-inflation took hold of the country. That it was able to not only get back on its feet but become the major power in Western Europe in ten short years is nothing short of remarkable; Germany had already begun to find ways around its prohibition to arm by using factories in other countries, especially Russia, and was slowly building back up its military strength as early as 1921.

Stabbed in the back?

A popular accusation levelled at the German Weimar government, which took power from the military dictatorship of Paul Hindenberg and Erich Ludendorff in the German Revolution of 1918-1919 was the story that they had surrendered Germany without a fight in the end. This myth was seemingly begun by Ludendorff and later perpetuated by Hitler, who falsely claimed that Germany could have won World War I, but that a conspiracy of Jews, Communists, Marxists and other “enemies of the people” set about arranging strikes at arms factories so as to deprive the German army of its munitions, plotting with the enemy to surrender, and handing victory to the Allies. As German propaganda had been careful to put only the best spin on the war, this story was believed by most Germans, who felt their new socialist government had betrayed them.

These people became known in Germany as “the November Criminals”, and were held to account when Hitler rose to power. As one French diplomat prophetically remarked: “New borders will lead to new problems”.

(Justice?) League of Nations

A new idea tried out by the Allies after the end of World War I was the League of Nations, which would later give birth to the United Nations. This was the first time a multi-national organisation has ever been set up which would promote world peace and stability, and mediate if necessary in national or global conflicts. The League would also concern itself with human rights, arms trading, labour disputes, equality and human and drug trafficking, among other aims. Established January 10 1920, it consisted of originally 42 member nations, though at its height counted 58. Among them were of course the victors of the war, the Allies France (Free France during the Second World War), Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia (as the USSR), Turkey, Finland, Poland, India, Argentina and many others across the world.

The League had no army of its own and so relied on a pre-NATO agreement that every member state would provide, if needed, armed forces to implement and enforce its mandates, resolutions and if necessary embargoes. Like the UN after it though, the League was fairly toothless most of the time, as it depended on the member nations agreeing and often they would, for various reasons, not do that. Also, some joined and left, left and joined, and there never seems to have been any real sense of cohesion about the whole organisation. Its attempt to disarm the world met with abject failure, which historically was just as well, as the Germans were arming up for World War II at the time, and the last thing any nation wanted to be doing in the shadow of that threat was reducing its armaments. The League watched wordlessly and helplessly, and ultimately impotently as Hitler prepared Germany for war, and eventually disbanded in 1945.

One of the major stumbling blocks for the League of Nations was the refusal of the USA to join; being at the time one of the rising powers in the world, there wasn’t a lot could get done without the cooperation of the United States, and when it resisted or refused to support some stance or other taken by the League, there wasn’t much they could do about it. Then, as now, the world more or less revolved around America. Mind you, historian Samuel Flagg Bemis sees it another way, though it must be remembered he was an American. He claimed The League of Nations has been a disappointing failure.... It has been a failure, not because the United States did not join it; but because the great powers have been unwilling to apply sanctions except where it suited their individual national interests to do so, and because Democracy, on which the original concepts of the League rested for support, has collapsed over half the world

It’s certainly true that most nations were not prepared to go to war without a just cause or reason - that applied to them, rather than as part of the League. Such moves could be very detrimental to their own relationships with other countries, within and without the League of Nations - after the crisis had been dealt with. Much shuffling of feet and looking down at the ground when called upon, it seems, as Stanley Baldwin noted about the League’s efforts to prevent Italy invading Abyssinia: he noted that[I]"collective security had failed ultimately because of the reluctance of nearly all the nations in Europe to proceed to what I might call military sanctions ... The real reason, or the main reason, was that we discovered in the process of weeks that there was no country except the aggressor country which was ready for war ... f collective action is to be a reality and not merely a thing to be talked about, it means not only that every country is to be ready for war; but must be ready to go to war at once. That is a terrible thing, but it is an essential part of collective security.”

Personal spats led to certain counties withdrawing from the League - Japan in 1933 after the League voiced opposition to its occupation of Manchuria, Italy in 1937 after they had invaded Ethiopia - and others being kicked out, such as Russia when they invaded Finland, Spain two years later after the Spanish Civil War, and of course Germany in 1933, though in this case it was Hitler who withdrew. By the time the Second World War began in 1939 it was obvious that the League had failed in its main objective, which was to bring about a lasting peace in Europe and the world, and it was disbanded on April 18 1946. Robert Cecil, one of the architects of the League and one of its greatest supporters, gave this speech at its closure:

Let us boldly state that aggression wherever it occurs and however it may be defended, is an international crime, that it is the duty of every peace-loving state to resent it and employ whatever force is necessary to crush it, that the machinery of the Charter, no less than the machinery of the Covenant, is sufficient for this purpose if properly used, and that every well-disposed citizen of every state should be ready to undergo any sacrifice in order to maintain peace ... I venture to impress upon my hearers that the great work of peace is resting not only on the narrow interests of our own nations, but even more on those great principles of right and wrong which nations, like individuals, depend.

The League is dead. Long live the United Nations.
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