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WWII Turning Points: Treaty of Versailles

“It is much easier to make war than peace” — Georges Clemenceau (French ambassador at the Paris Peace Conference) 

When the Great War, WWI, had ended, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th, 1919 by the victorious Allied Powers and the defeated Germans, it set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the greatest catastrophe in world history, WWII. 

The Kaiser’s army had been quite different from that of the Nazi’s. Yes they had been ruthless, yes they had committed atrocities, but so did many other armies at the time. What made the Kaiser’s forces so much different from Hitler’s was ideology. The Kaiser viewed all Germans, including Jews, as his subjects. In fact, many German-Jews took up arms in the name of the Kaiser and had even served as officers in the war. This is not to say restrictions were not in place; Jews could not join the ranks of the nobility, which in German meant receiving the noble particle “von” before the surname, unless they renounced Judaism and converted to Christianity. This meant they could only rise so high within the ranks of the military, which was not uncommon throughout Europe, as many countries slighted minority groups during the age, be they religious or ethnic, but many Jews served in the Kaiser’s court, and had long established themselves as a well-assimilated, and appreciated community within German society. German-Jews, under the Kaiser, were, for the most part, very proud of their country, culture, and nationality, and thought of themselves as nothing but German. Ashkenazi Jews were actually very closely linked to Germany at the time, and adopted many aspects of German culture into Judaism. Yiddish, for example, was a dialect of German that was widely spoken by many Jews worldwide before the rise of Hitler. 

When Germany surrendered at the end of WWI, one must realize that the Allies didn’t even possess a single square-inch of German soil. For the most part, the British naval blockade, and the protracted nature of trench warfare, was what defeated the German army and the German people’s morale. At the time the armistice was signed, German troops actually occupied French and Belgian territory. Many of the German troops who were told they had to surrender, Pvt. Adolf Hitler included, could not understand why, since it was they, and not the Allies, who occupied their enemy’s countries. They had already technically won the war on the Eastern Front, after signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Russians in 1918, and had come close to winning the war in the West as well, on a number of occasions, even coming to within 30 miles of Paris at one point in the war. What these soldiers could not see, due to the fact it was intentionally being hidden from them by their government, was the fact that the German empire was running out of food, resources, and money, and morale had dwindled so low at home, and in some divisions, that the Kaiser had been deposed and many of his beloved divisions had begun to surrender their positions to the Allies wholesale. The German war machine had essentially been choked out, rather than smashed altogether, and German defeat was more of a matter of circumstance rather than fact. Most parties, such as the British, were simply happy to end the war, given the fact it had been the most costliest in human history up to that point. The French, however, having suffered German invasions for centuries, advocated a march on Berlin that would disable German war capabilities once and for all. The Allies undoubtedly had the upper hand at the time, but the Germans wouldn’t have stood by quietly had the Allies pursued such a strategy. It would’ve cost far more lives and could’ve extended the war for years on end… and, as is always the case in war, there was no guarantee of success either. 

Without being directly exposed to conditions on the home-front, bitter WWI vets, like Adolf Hitler, could not fathom how they had lost the war. From their bunkers and foxholes, all they could see were German boots on French and Belgian soil, yet they were being told that they had lost the war. Various conspiracy theories quickly started to spread amongst the soldier’s ranks, one of which was the Dolchstoßlegende, which translates in English as the “Stab-in-the-Back Legend”. The Dolchstoßlegende was a belief that gained widespread popularity in post-war Germany that claimed communist Jews, who were not believed to be “true Germans at heart”, had sabotaged the war effort both at home and in the field, causing the German war effort to fail. Only reinforcing the people’s belief in this conspiracy, two prominent German-Jewish bankers, Max Warburg and Carl Melchior, were sent to Paris as part of the delegation to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and procure the “best possible financial terms” for Germany. When the Versailles Treaty turned out to be as harsh as it was, the two bankers were pointed to as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy that was trying to destroy Germany (Max Warburg’s role in financing the Bolshevik movement in Russia didn’t help things either). Jewish bankers and businessmen were accused of profiteering off of Germany’s defeat and the German-Jews as a people were viewed as an alien-element within Germany by much of the population from that point forward; making the people all the more susceptible to Hitler’s anti-Semitic message. The Weimar Republic was also thought to be responsible for the terms of the treaty, due to their ineptitude and corruption. This created a very hostile climate within the country against the government, which led to various coup attempts throughout the Weimar regime’s short reign. 

An astute statesmen, whose name I cannot recall (thought it was Woodrow Wilson but it doesn’t appear to be) said, “If you treat the Germans like enemies, they will not disappoint”. The exceedingly harsh conditions laid out in the Versailles Treaty, designed to break Germany for several generations, were obviously not very well received in the Fatherland. What really bothered many Germans, more so than the loss of territory/colonies, military reduction, or the reparations, was the forced admission of war guilt on the part of country. In the eyes of many, Germans and neutral parties alike, the Allies were at least partly to blame for backing Serbia after Serbian agents assassinated the crown prince of the Austrian Empire, the archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Allies believed that Kaiser Wilhelm simply used the archduke’s assassination as a pretext for war, and that he had been craving new territory for some time. There was no denying that Kaiser Wilhelm was a militarist-expansionist, and that he had a particular distaste for both France and Russia, but claiming that Germany would’ve declared war on the Allies even if Franz Ferdinand had not been shot is pure speculation. The German people begrudged this condition of the treaty so much because they felt it was the source of all the other terms, such as the territorial loss and reparations. Had Germany’s cause for war been declared legitimate, the Allies would’ve had no justification in sticking it to Germany in the fashion that they did. 

These perceived injustices, combined with the ineffectiveness of the democratically elected Weimar Republic, caused widespread resentment in Germany towards the West (i.e. France, Britain, USA, etc..). Democracy, capitalism, materialism, civil rights, etc… were disdained by many, and a rash of anti-Semitism spread like wildfire. Post-WWI, the German people essentially split into two camps, neither of which were democratic; Marxists and National Socialists. Various communist coup attempts took place throughout the reign of the Weimar Republic, which partly led to a rise in ultra-nationalism. In response to these Marxist agents, many of which were Jewish, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party began to make headway on the political scene. It wasn’t long after that that Marxists and Nazis were openly killing each other in the streets. Promising to save the wealthy businessmen in Germany from communism, Hitler gained the support of many capitalists, even though he had no more love for capitalism than the communists did. 

The chaotic political conditions mixed with the miserable economic conditions in Germany set the stage for a demagogic, savior-like figure to rise to the forefront of the political scene. The Germans believed they had been unfairly treated by the Allied powers and believed communist Russia was covertly attacking them, in an effort to dismantle their sovereignty and subjugate them to Soviet rule. When Adolf Hitler promised to put the people back to work, rearm the nation, recover lost territory, and rid the country of foreign/communist/Jewish influence, it resonated with many of the people. Although the Nazi Party never gained a majority in the Reichstag by the vote of the people, they did become the most powerful political party in the country by the late ’20s, and their popularity only grew when Hitler started delivering on his promises (i.e. economic revival, rearmament, territorial reclamation, etc..). 

Had the Allied Powers not alienated, punished, and isolated Germany at the end of the war like they did, they would not have fanned the flames of ultra-nationalism within the country and soured the German people’s taste for democracy. On the other hand, had the Allies not totally destroyed the Kaiser’s system and replaced it with a corrupt faux-democracy, there would’ve been no need for a demagogue to create a new system of his own. On the other side of the spectrum, had the Allies, at the very least, driven the Germans out of France and Belgium, there would’ve been no need on the part of the German soldier to reach for conspiracy theories as to why their government had told them to surrender. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but one can make a pretty good case that the Versailles Treaty was to Hitler as Dr. Frankenstein was to the Frankenstein monster.

In the opinion of most all historians, the first turning point of WWII came decades before Hitler came to power; decades before the second worldwide conflagration was ignited. Had the Allies either dealt with Germany more leniently, or pressed their advantage all the way to Berlin, the course of world history would’ve unquestionably played out much, much differently. 

“I don’t know whether war is an interlude during peace, or peace an interlude during war” — Georges Clemenceau 

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles may have been WWII’s first turning point, but it was by no means its last. I will further elaborate on WWII turning points in upcoming posts.