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Seeds of Disaster, Part 3
By David H. Lippman
November 2016

The story began with Part One and continued in Part Two.

Probably the most important portion of the immense Treaty of Versailles - whose text covers everything from armaments production to the elimination of German customs officials in Liberia - is Clause 231, drafted by a young American diplomat named John Foster Dulles. Germany, on behalf of its allies, must accept "responsibility…for causing all the loss and damage" sustained by the Allies. To the German public, that means Germany is to blame for the war. For the Generalstab, German politicians, and Obergefreiter Hitler, it means the Reich's future leaders have a tool by which they can whip up the public for the next war - to eliminate Germany's shame.

Worse, Germany's new democratic government, which must accede to and enforce these provisions, no longer commands the loyalty - if it did - of even its paid servants: judges, police officers, prosecutors, military men. From the corridors of the Reichstag to the gutters of Munich, the Weimar government and its leadership are seen as puppets of Versailles, doing Clemenceau's work. Many of Weimar's judges, officials, bureaucrats, police, and military men are the same men who held these offices under the Kaiser. They have little use for noisy and fractious democracy, particularly one that appears imposed by Ausländer.


The German Army returns home, 1919. Note the new uniforms and fresh shaves.

Before the Germans get to see the Treaty of Versailles on May 7, Herbert Hoover, a member of The Inquiry, receives one of the first copies. He reads it in dismay and heads out into Paris's streets in the dawn, where he meets up with South Africa's General Jan Christiaan Smuts and British economist John Maynard Keynes. All three agree that the treaty is, as Keynes calls it, "a rotten peace." Keynes is so angry, he resigns from the British team.

He's not the only person outraged by the treaty. Wilson, his vision worn down by fatigue and demands, can only take solace in knowing that the League of Nations is still there, and believes that this rational organization, led by Americans, will enforce the peace and revise some of the harsher demands. Wilson tells an aide, "If I were a German, I think I should never sign it."

The American Inquiry isn't too thrilled, either. William Bullitt, a future US Ambassador to Russia and France, says, "This isn't a treaty of peace. I can see at least 11 wars in it." Meeting with fellow American diplomats Adolf Berle, Christian Herter, and a young historian named Samuel Eliot Morison, Bullitt proposes that the young men on the US team resign in protest.

Of the 30 who discuss such a move, 12 actually do, including Bullitt, Berle, and Morison, who call the treaty a flagrant contradiction to "both the interests of the United States and the ideals and principles for the vindication of which the United States was supposed to be waging war." Morison, who is working on Russian issues, also objects to US support for the Whites in the Russian civil war.

Everyone is exhausted. The world's leaders cannot hang about Paris any more. In Paris, French troops are threatening mutiny. In the United States, an anarchist's bomb has just blown up the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. Felix Frankfurter writes later, "Paris was just like a session of Congress. The delegates would do any old thing to close up shop."

Lloyd George, no friend of Germany, also opposes the harsh terms, believing they will merely drive Germany into Bolshevism. "Our peace ought to be dictated by men who act in the spirit of judges sitting in a cause which does not personally engage their emotion or interests, and not in a spirit of a savage vendetta, which is not satisfied without mutilation and the infliction of pain and humiliation," he says.

Lloyd George opposes the reparations proposals and the occupation clauses. But Clemenceau icily retorts that the British are a "maritime people who have not known invasion." Lloyd George says he is seeking to create a peace for all time, not a mere 30 years. But Lloyd George is being optimistic. Foch, also no friend of Germany, is more accurate when he reportedly says, on seeing the terms, "This is no peace. This is an armistice for 20 years."

The fact that the victors themselves regard the treaty they are imposing as unfair has an unintended blowback. When Germany starts violating the treaty with armaments production and the occupation of the Rhineland, leading British and French politicians will allow these aggressive moves, saying that Versailles was unfair, and the Germans are merely regaining justice.

The Treaty of Versailles is a vast, unwieldy document - 75,000 words - and sections of it contradict each other. Even its authors do not believe in enforcing its draconian demands. The treaty slams Germany with an enormous reparations bill, and denies her the means with which to pay it. Germany must yield 10 percent of her population from one-eighth of her metropolitan area, 10 percent of her industry, and 15 percent of her arable land.

Yet despite these losses, Germany, whose lands have been unsullied by the war's bombs, shells, and poison gas, remains the strongest economic power in Europe. Germany's population of 70 million is growing, while France's population of 40 million remains static. France's northeastern industrial region is a war-scarred moonscape, her treasury bankrupt. So is Britain, which has lost an entire generation. Russia is racked by internal strife, Austria-Hungary chopped up, and the United States turning isolationist. Germany's enemies and rivals are all weakened. The treaty damages Germany immensely, but no one is eager to enforce its punitive provisions. As writer David Fromkin notes decades later, "It hurt Germany enough to provoke her to start another war, but not enough to keep her from winning it."

Also angered are some of those nations who hoped to gain from the Treaty. Belgium does not gain German East Africa, most of which goes to Britain. Portugal is similarly unrewarded.

Angriest of all may be a 25-year-old Vietnamese man living in Paris, Nguyen Ai Quoc, a former kitchen hand at the Carlton Hotel in London. He demands to see President Wilson and submit his paper, which seeks the "right of self-determination" for the Vietnamese. The French call the proposal "a bomb." Nguyen Ai Quoc's pals regard it as a "thunderbolt," seeking for Vietnam the rights Wilson is offering the world. Wilson refuses to view Nguyen Ai Quoc's ideas. The Vietnamese activist storms out in anger, and heads off, oddly enough, to live and work in the United States. Americans will know the angry young man 50 years later under the name he will give himself as Vietnam's leading revolutionary and their fiercest foe: Ho Chi Minh.

On May 7, shortly after Hoover, Smuts, and Keynes have their morning chat, German Foreign Minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau receives the Treaty of Versailles from the Allied powers. Among the newly-invited German delegation is a short, dapper, monocled general, Hans Von Seeckt, who has been named the new head of the German Reichswehr. He will be tasked with developing this force, and he will create the most professional army in Europe - in only a few years.

Brockdorff-Rantzau has just arrived in Paris, his train having been sent deliberately slowly through portions of France blasted by Krupp shells. He and his 160-man team cannot miss the ruined villages and desolate fields that are the war's great legacy. Once in Paris, the Germans are quartered in the unheated Hotel des Reservoirs behind barbed wire. Nor do they miss the irony: they are to sign the treaty that will humiliate the Reich in the gleaming Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where, in 1871, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire.

Brockdorff-Rantzau, in his striped pants, represents the link between the old Germany of plumed Kaisertreu aristocrats and generals and the new Germany, dominated by hopeful politicians and battle-hardened fanatics. Among Brockdorff-Rantzau's ancestors is a Marshal of France. Now, on a day of cloudless skies, at a luxury hotel in Versailles, this descendant of French constables faces France's Tiger. As a clock chimes 3 p.m., Clemenceau stands and presents the treaty. "You have asked us for peace. We are disposed to give it to you."

Clemenceau says no discussion is permitted. The Germans have 15 days to deliver their objections in writing. Too nervous to rise, Brockdorff-Rantzau presents his answer seated, which comes over to the Allied leaders as calculated insolence. Wilson snarls to Lloyd George, "Isn't it just like them?"

Brockdorff-Rantzau denounces the Allied blockade, and says, "It is demanded that we confess ourselves guilty. Such a confession in my mouth would be a lie." Then he heads to his hotel to read the 230-page treaty with its 440 articles and pass it on to Berlin.

Britain's Daily Mail snarls back, "After this no one will treat the Huns as civilized or repentant."

All Germany is stunned. "The unbelievable has happened," gasps Konstantin Fehrenbach, President of the National Assembly. "Our enemies have presented us with a treaty which surpasses the worst fears of our greatest pessimists." Ebert calls the treaty terms "unbearable." Brockdorff-Rantzau calls them intolerable. Throughout the Reich, Germans hold mass meetings to protest the treaty. Even theaters and dance halls, which have stayed open during the fighting, close in mourning.

In Paris, the Germans prepare their answer to Clemenceau. The German objections total 443 pages, twice the treaty's length. The deadline to sign the treaty is June 28, the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination that started the war, but the Germans turn in their response on May 29.  The Germans agree to their own disarmament, but demand the Allied powers do the same and abolish conscription themselves. The Germans also demand a plebiscite before yielding Alsace-Lorraine, a cut on reparations, and repudiation of "war guilt" pending a neutral inquiry into the question of responsibility for the war.

Lloyd George is not impressed. "I could not accept the German point of view without giving away the whole of our case for entering the war," he says. He points out that Germany and its allies invaded independent and neutral nations like Serbia and Belgium.

The Allied answer is firm: "Throughout the war, as before the war, the German people and their representatives supported the war, voted the credits, subscribed to the war loans, obeyed every order, however savage, of their government. They shared the responsibility for the policy of their government, for at any moment, had they willed it, they could have reversed it. Had that policy succeeded they would have acclaimed it with the same enthusiasm with which they welcomed the outbreak of the war. They cannot now pretend, having changed their rulers after the war was lost, that it is justice that they should escape the consequence of their deeds."

Meanwhile, the world reacts to the treaty. Walter Lippmann, writing in an issue of The New Republic headlined "This is Not Peace," warns that the treaty will lead to many wars. But the US must join the League of Nations. Lloyd George and Smuts worry about the treaty. It is so harsh, the Germans might refuse to sign, and Britain, having demobilized, would be in no position to resume hostilities. Wilson's peace commissioners tell the president they might not sign the treaty themselves. Wilson is too tired for further debate. The flaws will be sorted out by the League of Nations, he says. "The time to consider all these questions was when we were writing the treaty."

To be continued.

David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J.