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Seeds of Disaster, Part 4
By David H. Lippman
November 2016

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

The Germans have the greatest objections to the treaty. On June 19, the German cabinet resigns rather than sign it. On June 21, the German High Seas Fleet, interned in Scapa Flow, scuttles itself rather than be divided up in accordance with the treaty provisions. Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter hoists "Paragraph 11, confirm" from his flagship, the light cruiser Emden, and 74 German warships ranging from mighty battleships to torpedo boats send themselves to the bottom of the British harbor. Scottish schoolchildren on the tug Flying Kestrel, enjoying a harbor cruise, are stunned to see vast dreadnoughts blow off steam and turn turtle in front of them. Among the German officers who scuttles his destroyer is Sub-Lt. Friedrich Ruge, who manages to keep his guitar and later become an admiral on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's staff in 1944 and a conspirator against Hitler.


The High Seas Fleet is scuttled. The British are not amused.

In Versailles, everyone learns of the mass scuttling just as Brockdorff-Rantzau gives the Reich's answer: Germany will sign the treaty with the exception of the "war guilt" clause. The Allies are enraged by the double defiance. They give the Germans 24 hours to sign the treaty as is, take it or leave it. The Germans ask for 48 hours. Lloyd George calls the German fleet's scuttling "a breach of faith." Request refused.

In Berlin, the caretaker government and President Friedrich Ebert face the telegrams by summoning Hindenburg and Quartermaster-General Wilhelm Groener. Can the Army fight, if war resumes? Hindenburg, unable to admit defeat, leaves the room and Groener tells Ebert the situation in the west is "hopeless." On June 22, Social Democrat Gustav Bauer forms a new government with Matthias Erzberger as Vice-Chancellor and Gustav Noske as Minister of Defense. The wily Noske ponders launching a military coup and refusing to sign the treaty. But at the last minute, the National Assembly votes overwhelmingly to sign, hoping it will end the civil warfare and starvation stalking the Reich.

With four hours remaining to the Allied deadline, the German government agrees to sign the Treaty of Versailles. At 3 p.m. on June 28, 1919, the fifth anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination that started World War I, the 27 "Principal Allied and Associated Powers" sign the 230-page Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. In that chamber, Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire in 1871. Now it is signed away at a horseshoe-shaped table in that same glittering hall.

The Principal Allied Powers are the United States (although she considers herself a Principal Associated Power) the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan. The Associated Powers are Belgium, Portugal, Rumania, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, the Hedjaz, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Yugoslavia, Siam, Czechoslovakia, and Uruguay. The Chinese do not sign, protesting the treaty's territorial awards to Japan.

The German signers, Dr. Hermann Mueller and Dr. Johannes Bell, are led past mutilated Allied soldiers to sign the treaty. To American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, they look as if "called upon to sign their own death warrants." The Germans sign the paper at 3:50 p.m. Immediately French artillery batteries around Versailles open up in a thunder of blanks and smoke to salute the peace. That in turn sets church bells ringing across France. Cannon boom out the news in London, and King George V tells the Empire, "I join you in thanking God." At 4 p.m., Clemenceau brings the proceedings to a close. The Big Four walk out onto a terrace to watch the fountains and are swamped by celebrating crowds who break through the lines of police and soldiers.

To American Peace Commissioner Tasker Bliss, the treaty is a "wretched mess." To Lloyd George, it is all "a great pity. We shall have to do the same thing all over again (fight a world war) in 25 years at three times the cost." The growing Allied sense of guilt will make it impossible for their statesmen to enforce the treaty's provisions when Hitler and his gang start to defy them.


Unlike 116,516 doughboys, Woodrow Wilson returned home in style.

Wilson heads straight to the railroad station, and by 9:30 his private train is en route to Brest and America. Now he has to convince the recalcitrant Senate to ratify the treaty. The Americans left behind in Paris are told to stay out of the future treaty negotiations - those with Turkey and Austria - until Versailles is ratified. Wilson takes his case first on July 10 to the Senate, all 264 pages of the Treaty of Versailles. "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" Wilson asks the lawmakers.

Unfortunately for Wilson, the treaty has many opponents on both sides. German-Americans hate its punitive provisions to Germany. Irish-Americans dislike its concessions to Britain - Britain and her dominions have six votes in the League to America's one. Anglophobes suggest that if the British Empire has six votes, shouldn't the United States get 48? Italian-Americans resent the treaty's failure to give Fiume to Italy. Liberals and progressives oppose the treaty for its concessions. Conservatives oppose it for placing American foreign policy subject to international veto. And Senator Hiram Johnson of California blasts the whole war for the secret treaties that expand the British and French Empires. All America has gained, he says, is influenza and Prohibition.

Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demands changes and amendments, his "Fourteen Reservations." Wilson refuses. The situation is deadlocked. During the summer of 1919, the Senate holds hearings on the treaty, and 60 witnesses testify for or against the League, providing stenographers with 1,297 pages of written testimony. All are American, which leads to absurdities, like a man who speaks no Swedish representing Sweden - a wartime neutral - and a woman with an Irish name who attacks Italy to support Yugoslavia's claims to Fiume. Despite these bizarre scenes, public opinion starts to turn against the Treaty.

While the Americans debate the Treaty, the British focus on civil war breaking out in Ireland, where Sinn Fein members are refusing to take seats in Westminster, forming their own parliament, the Dail Eireann, in Dublin, instead, and Wimbledon and Henley. The Illustrated London News calls the latter "not quite itself this year."

But the French celebrate the Third Republic's finest hour. By 3 a.m. on the morning of July 13, 1919, more than 100,000 people have jammed the Champs-Elysees to watch the Victory Parade on Bastille Day. French troops stand guard over a temporary cenotaph beneath the Arc de Triomphe - the nameless occupant who will symbolize France's war dead will receive his vaulted tomb and eternal flame later. France's Via Triumphalis is guarded with the flags of the Allied nations.

On Quatorze Juillet, Clemenceau, followed by his serious and pasty-faced aide, Georges Mandel, strides up the official stand at 7:45 a.m. Joined by Joffre and Foch, President Poincaré places a wreath at the Cenotaph, then take their position in the reviewing stand. At 9 a.m., the order "Avancez" is given, and the Victory Parade begins. The first men to march are almost unable to. The grands mutiles, the worst wounded, lead the parade, lacking eyes and limbs, shuffling along with canes or in wheelchairs. Many of them are covered with bandages from ghastly head wounds, or are still green from gas. Among them is Army Sergeant turned Assemblyman Andre Maginot, who lost his arm at Verdun. Their condition draws gasps and tears. Their condition matches that of France. The Third Republic has sacrificed 1.3 million men to stop the Kaiser's troops, 27 percent of all Frenchmen aged 18 to 27, a higher mortality rate than Germany or Russia.

France has also taken an economic beating - spending 25 percent of her national fortune to fight a war that blasted seven percent of her territory, including most of her industrial regions. 12,000 square miles of soil have been ravaged, 3,500 miles of railways torn up, 30,000 miles of roads destroyed. Coal production is down 37 percent from 1914, steel by 60 percent, the trade deficit from 1.5 million to 17.5 million francs. To pay for the war, France has issued paper money, which has led to massive inflation: 51 Francs to the Pound Sterling. France estimates her war damages at 209,000 million gold Francs.

The grands mutiles shuffling past Poincaré and Clemenceau are not the only burden facing France's political leaders. A generation of troops returning from the trenches are demanding jobs and blaming the political leadership for the four years of ceaseless slaughter. And the leadership isn't able to answer the cries. Poincaré, Foch, Clemenceau, are all exhausted figures from the past. The latter two will both die in 1929. Those in power are exhausted. Those who would normally provide the youth and energy to take power are lying dead at Verdun or among the grands mutiles marching past. Soon French government will fall into an endless game of musical chairs, revolving prime ministers, and unstable governments, who will have one common thread - the determination to make Germany pay for the war.

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.