14/5/1919 Germany mulls the Allies’ unsavoury peace terms

The Allies have presented their peace terms to the German delegation at Versailles. They have in turn communicated the terms back to their government in Berlin, where their perceived harshness causes consternation. The loss of territory, the crippling reparations and the identifying of Germany as being responsible for starting the war all being very upsetting. True, the peace terms are much less harsh than those the Germans imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk or Romania at the Treaty of Bucharest. However, those treaties were the diktats of authoritarian Germany; since then Germany has undergone a democratic transformation and its leaders had believed President Wilson‘s promises that the peace would be guided by his liberal principles, only now apparently to have their faith shattered.

Scheidemann, Germany’s Chancellor, denounces the peace terms. There is talk of rejecting them, but doing so would mean having to restart the war. The German army was on the brink of collapse when the armistice was signed in November 1918 and its situation is worse now, after its demobilisation and the transfer of heavy equipment required by the armistice. But some think nevertheless that honour requires that Germany reject the peace and launch a desperate battle for national survival.

Brockdorff-Rantzau, the foreign minister, is one of the leading proponents of rejection, even if it means that Germany will be invaded. The advocates of resistance believe that they will be able to hold out in eastern Germany even if the west of the country comes under foreign occupation. It falls to Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to dismiss such fantasies. He makes clear to Ebert and Scheidemann that the German army would be unable to mount effective resistance to the Allies. Any attempt to renew the war would lead to Germany’s occupation, dismemberment, and ultimately “the total capitulation of the German people”. The Germans may not like the peace terms, but they will have to go along with them.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia: Ebert–Groener pact)

7/5/1919 Enter the Germans: the Allies present the peace terms to the German delegation


A German delegation has arrived in Versailles to receive the peace terms the Allies have prepared for them. The Germans are headed by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, formerly a career diplomat and now Germany’s foreign minister. For the last few days the Germans have been waiting in the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles, their hotel surrounded by a stockade, allegedly for their own protection (leading to complaints from the Germans that they are being treated “like the inhabitants of a Negro village at an exposition”).

Today the Germans are summoned to Versailles’ Trianon Palace Hotel to formally receive the terms. Clemenceau outlines what defeated Germany will have to accept. Germany is to lose all its colonies. Alsace and Lorraine will be returned to France. The Allies will continue their occupation of the Rhineland for at least fifteen years, after which the region will be permanently demilitarised. Belgium will gain territory at Germany’s expense. Danzig will become a free city. Poland will also gain territory at German expense, including a corridor to the sea that cuts off East Prussia from the rest of the country.

The terms also oblige Germany to maintain only a small, volunteer army, intended only to assist with the maintenance of internal order and lacking heavy artillery, tanks, aircraft and other modern weapons. Germany will also lose its fleet and is prohibited from building new battleships or submarines. Moreover, the Germans will have to pay enormous sums in reparation to the Allies, to compensate them for the injuries they have suffered in the war. The peace terms specifically state that Germany was responsible for starting the war, with this guilt being the basis on which the Allies are demanding reparations.

In his reply, Brockdorff-Rantzau is defiant. He argues that the treaty effectively eliminates German sovereignty and warns that this kind of dictated peace can only sow the seeds of future conflict. His tone and his aristocratic bearing unfortunately create an extremely bad impression on the Allies.

The Germans then retire to their hotel to study the peace terms in detail. They have two weeks in which to furnish their reply.

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Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau (Wikipedia)

6/5/1919 The Paris Conference agrees the German peace terms

Negotiations between the leading Allies have been difficult but now at last they have agreed the German peace terms. Today a plenary session of the conference is summoned to hear and agree them. The terms are a compromise between the French desire to crush Germany and the British and American desire to avoid a harshness that will awaken in the Germans a desire for vengeance. Some of the French still fear that the terms are too generous, with President Poincaré and Marshal Foch both concerned that they leave France vulnerable to a resurgent Germany. But Clemenceau has convinced his cabinet that Germany has been sufficiently weakened that, with the security guarantees offered by the British and Americans, it will no longer pose a threat.

There is still some dissatisfaction with the peace terms. The Chinese delegation complains again about Shantung (awarded to Japan in return for its dropping the League of Nations racial equality proposal) and the Portuguese grumble about how they will not be receiving any reparations from Germany. After walking out of the conference, Orlando and the Italian delegation have now slunk back, taking the opportunity to complain about how much has been decided in their absence. Like Banquo at the feast, Foch pops up again to argue for French annexation of the Rhineland. But the conference agrees the terms. All that remains now is to summon the German delegates and tell them where to sign.

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The conference in session (C.T. Evans History Page: Eddie Jackson)

13/4/1919 Allied agreement on Germany’s western frontiers

In Paris the leading Allies have finally managed to reach an agreement among themselves regarding Germany’s western frontiers. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost in 1870, will be formally returned to French rule (they have been under French occupation since the armistice and their return to France was taken for granted). Foch‘s proposal to turn the Rhineland into a buffer state or a French protectorate has failed to gain traction, but the Allies have agreed that they will occupy it for 15 years, after which it will be permanently demilitarised.

The coal-rich Saar region on the French frontier was the subject of much fraught discussion, with the French demanding its annexation but the British and Americans being more wary. A compromise here has been reached, with the Allies agreeing that the coal mines will be under French control but the region as a whole administered by the League of Nations. After 15 years a plebiscite will be held to decide whether the region becomes part of Germany or France or else becomes an independent state.

Progress on peace terms is now so advanced that Germany’s representatives can be summoned. There is no intention however that the Germans will be able to negotiate with the Allies: they will simply be presented with the terms and told that if Germany does not accept them then the Allies will renew the war.

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The Saar (in green) and the Rhineland occupation zone (Wikipedia: Occupation of the Rhineland)

7/3/1919 Germany continues to go hungry

The British naval blockade of Germany played a major part in its defeat, creating a food crisis in the country by preventing it from importing grain and other foodstuffs from overseas. Germany’s food situation has not improved since the armistice; if anything it has got worse. The British are still preventing Germany’s importation of food, pending a final peace settlement, and they are now also blocking German fishing boats from operating in the Baltic. As a result great suffering continues in Germany. Today Plumer, the commander of British occupation forces in western Germany, reports to Lloyd George that his men are increasingly shocked by the sight of malnourished children begging for food and combing the soldiers’ rubbish for edible scraps; many of his soldiers are sharing their rations with the children, thereby going hungry themselves.

Plumer fears that the food shortages in Germany are driving the country into the hands of the Spartacists. Plumer’s fears are shared by Herbert Hoover, the head of the American Relief Administration, an organisation tasked with providing food aid to Europe. Hoover sees the Allied blockade as the main obstacle to ensuring that Germans are adequately fed and is not afraid to say so. However, the French in particular object to the blockade being lifted before peace is concluded, fearing that Germany may build up its food stocks and then renew the war if food becomes available. For now at least the Germans will continue to go hungry.

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Deutschlands Kindern Hungern (Germany’s Children Are Starving), by Kathe Kollwitz (Wikiart)

29/1/1919 Stating Poland’s case

Poland disappeared from the map of Europe in the late 18th century, when it was partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia. Now it has popped back into being, but its borders are uncertain, with the forces of Józef Piłsudski in Warsaw engaged in messy wars along the uncharted frontiers with Germany, Czechoslovakia and Ukraine. Poland is also divided between the supporters of Piłsudski, who presents himself as something of a cosmopolitan liberal despite his military background, and those supporting Roman Dmowski, who is less tolerant of Poland’s religious and ethnic minorities.

Some fear that Poland will descend into civil war, but the Poles manage to patch up their differences. The country has recently held parliamentary elections and Piłsudski has agreed to appoint Dmowski as representative to the Paris Conference, together with Paderewski, the newly appointed prime minister. Today Dmowski addresses the conference, arguing that both justice and pragmatism require the establishment of a large and powerful Poland. The Allies, particularly the French, are broadly sympathetic to the Poles, seeing Poland as vital for the containment of both Germany and Bolshevik Russia. But Dmowski rather overstates Poland’s case, arguing for a giant Poland that would swallow up all of Lithuania (as well as much of eastern Prussia). The Allies are concerned that Poland is getting ideas above its station, with the border clashes with Czechoslovakia over the town of Teschen particularly disconcerting. But for now they are not in a position to intervene decisively in eastern Europe, so the Poles are free to do what they will.

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Józef Piłsudski (Wikipedia)

Roman Dmowski (Wikipedia)

Dmowski’s proposed Polish borders (the red line) (Wikipedia)

27/1/1919 Dividing up Germany’s colonies

The Paris Conference is looking at how to dispose of Germany’s colonial possessions, with the leaders of different countries calling for their share of the spoils. Prime Minister Botha and General Smuts have proposed that South Africa should have South West Africa, conquered by them in 1915. Billy Hughes of Australia claims New Guinea and nearby islands as being vital for his country’s future security. New Zealand’s Massey seeks formerly German Samoa for his country, affirming the high regard in which New Zealanders are held by the Samoans (who are in fact petitioning to be ruled by Britain or the United States or indeed any country other than New Zealand, whose maladministration of the islands has seen a fifth of their inhabitants die of influenza). And Japan’s Makino is looking for the German islands in the Pacific his country’s armed forces occupied in 1914, as well as Tsingtao and the surrounding Shantung peninsula (which disturbs the Americans, who are sympathetic to Chinese demands that the peninsula be returned to them). The French meanwhile are looking for Togoland and Cameroon (known to the Germans as Kamerun) and the British for German East Africa.

In the old days victorious powers in wars were able to simply annex territories and possessions captured from their enemies, but President Wilson of the United States wishes to consign such vulgar ways to the dustbin of history. Instead of taking on conquered territories as new colonies, he is insisting that Germany’s former colonies are divided out among the Allies as mandates, with the mandated authorities charged with preparing the territories for self-government and independence. It is taken for granted that it will be some time before the native peoples are ready to rule themselves, but Wilson is insistent that the mandates are not to be thought of as simply additions to the victors’ empires. The Allied leaders may have other ideas, but for now they are willing to humour the American President.