This essay aims to discuss the point that the problems that the Treaty of Versailles tried to deal with were near impossible to solve. The problems that the treaty attempted to deal with were in existence beyond the period of study for this course, and the modern continuance would be the annual summits of global powers, an example being the G8 summit, where major industrialised nations discuss major global issues but usually fail to make any changes due to the scale of the issues.
A comparison could be drawn to the Versailles treaty then, as the sheer size of the treaty was one of its downfalls. The treaty started with a ‘council of ten’ which met seventy-two times, which failed to reach agreement. Although there were twenty-seven countries represented, the four main states involved in the treaty were Italy, Britain, France and the United States of America. They formed the second council, known as the ‘council of four’ who met a further two hundred times and did reach agreement, eventually! The scale of the ‘Great War’ and indeed the Treaty of Versailles was apparent to those involved, Lloyd George, the then British Prime Minister was quoted as saying “it is not one continent that is engaged- every continent is affected”1 It must be asked then, if every continent was engaged why was it left up to the states of Italy, Britain, France and the United States to control this treaty which was to affect the future of Europe, change the political situation of the world and arguably lead to another world war years later?
Having looked at that however, it must be noted that all wars previous to this were on a far smaller scale, I.E the main previous loss being Napoleon leading a then unparalleled half a million men to their death in Russia, and that most previous wars in the 20th Century involved armies of two hundred thousand at most. The Great War in comparison had millions of men battling on many fronts, with confrontations not taking days but months, an example being the ‘Battle’ of Verdun, which had more resemblance to a siege than any battle, and was seen as a victory for the French, although they suffered more or less the same number of casualties as the Germans.
In Joll’s book ‘Europe Since 1870: An International History’ the war, especially on the western front, is portrayed as a ‘deadlock’ with ‘trenches stretching continuously from the English Channel to the Swiss Frontier’2. The scale of this is hard to imagine in any context, especially if the context is thousands dying for little or nothing, with ‘no more than a few hundred yards of shell-pitted muddy ground to show for it’2 .
The war changed very quickly with the realisation that this was to become a long war and not the short bound to victory predicted by both sides. This can be argued is one of the main problems of the Versailles Treaty, the sheer scale of the war, economic and domestic disruption and the massive losses faced. It should be asked how any treaty agreement can compensate for millions of deaths, France alone losing almost 1/4 of her males aged eighteen to thirty and having her economy almost destroyed by German occupation. From this viewpoint, with several countries suffering similar losses, this particular set of problems could be argued to be unsolvable.
Further problems, ones that can only be described as unforeseeable in 1914 also packed the Versailles Treaty’s many meetings, as claims were presented by new governments, examples being Polish and Serbo-Croat governments. Germany was, at the same time, presenting its own formula with the limited access presented to her delegates at the conference, one of peace without retribution, unsurprisingly enough challenging the vengeance that the countries who had been attacked and invaded were seeking. One reason many historians believe that the allies largely ignored and sidelined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson was that most of both sides military operation was propped up with propaganda3, portraying the enemies as ‘evil’.
So from this standpoint no country could fully accept the terms of the treaty, as both ‘sides’ had the view that they were dealing with pure unadulterated evil, so Governments of the time felt they could not ‘lose face’ by dealing with or even worse compromising with this force of ‘sheer evil’. It is interesting to note that this problem was faced by both the Allied and Central powers, in most of the countries represented at the treaty of Versailles. Thus the negative impact of propaganda could be seen to create an unsolvable problem, especially for the more politicised representatives amongst the treaty nations, how do you justify to the public ‘back home’ dealing with and compromises made to ‘the evil enemy’?
An interesting point to note would be the location of the conference itself. The location seems to have more to do with French designs on punishing Germany and her associates, the location could possibly be seen as taking a ‘dig’ at Germany, as it was at the hall of mirrors in April 1871 King William I was declared German Emperor. Also the timing, with the war only having ended a few weeks previous to the start of proceedings could be seen as insulting towards Germany, a county still ‘licking her wounds’ where the loss of the war might not have been fully admitted or indeed accepted by many ordinary Germans. The ensuing chaos was documented by Sally Marks:
“Statesmen who needed to contemplate the problems ahead were instead coping with a ceaseless flow of querulous complaints about room allocations, dispatch boxes, and all the administrative trivia essential to the functioning of so large a conference. The confusion in Paris before and during the deliberations was almost indescribable and contributed considerably to the erratic course of events”4 From this perspective, the conditions surrounding the treaty created an atmosphere of bitterness and cynicism. Instead of creating agreement and a successful compromise between every country involved in the treaty the countries were left with a ‘bitter aftertaste’.
In Germany’s case it was the ‘bitter aftertaste’ of ultra-nationalism, creating an alienated and unforgiving nation, which would be seized upon by Hitler in his ascent to power. Clemenceau, the French Premier was quoted as saying “This is not a peace just a twenty year armistice”. Given the advent of the Second World War this was terrifyingly accurate. In relation to the question asked in this essay, the location could be seen as a definite factor in the inability to resolve several issues at Versailles, if the many delegates could not operate to their maximum then we are presented with a picture of the Versailles treaty moving further and further away from solving anything, let alone the unprecedented issues of global concern presented by World War One!
The final point this essay intends to address is the lack of any full solution at the treaty, with all the issues presented at the treaty ultimately making. Many historians see the issues created by Germany and the democratic rights that Germany still obtained in a democratic society as the single main reason as to why the Versailles treaty was unsolvable. It could be argued that no country received ‘justice’ or what they viewed as accurate compensation for their suffering.
For the French it appeared as if there was no amount of land you could take from Germany and for Germany it seemed as if nothing short of full restoration of Germany’s old borders with no restrictions, disarmament or war guilt clauses would satisfy Germany. Obviously neither of these was even remotely obtainable, so compromise was the only solution, but it is easy to see that no country entered the Hall of Mirrors with any kind of compromise in mind, with the possible exception of Britain, who did not want to impose to heavily on Germany. This was out of self interest apparently, the British view being that a broken Germany was of no ‘use’ to anyone, let alone Britain!
In conclusion the treaty of Versailles was dealing with problems that were unprecedented, faced with losses to economy and life far greater than any war before. Another factor was the scale of the problem presented to the various committees, with many governments facing revolution, and Clemenceau as a direct result of his ‘failure’ at the treaty of Versailles losing his Presidency. Also Versailles attempted to create a compromise which the ‘victors’ felt was unnecessary, as they were indeed the ‘victors’, and the ‘losers’ feeling it to be unjust. The terms ‘victor’ and ‘loser’ are relative, as no one can really be seen to benefit with thirteen million dead. The best conclusion this essay can offer on the unsolvable problems presented to the committees and meetings of the Versailles Treaty would be the words of Clemenceau: “This is not a peace just a twenty year armistice”
1Lloyd George to House of Commons,16 April 1919, in James Joll, ‘Europe since 1870: An International History’,(Penguin Books,4th Edition 1990) 272
2 James Joll ‘Europe since 1870: An International History’,(Penguin Books,4th Edition 1990) Chapter Eight, ‘The European Crisis,1914-18’ 196
3 An interesting look at propaganda used by Britain can be found in Michael Sanders book, British Propaganda during the First World War (London, 1982)
4 Quote from internet. Originally from International Relations in Europe, 1918-1933 (New York, 1976), p. 4.
To what extent did the Treaty of Versailles dealt with ‘unsolvable problems’
Fraser O’Donnell History Essay Group 6(Wed12-1)