Europe’s Economies after the First World War

When the Allies met in Paris to negotiate the terms for peace after the First World War, their main goal was ostentatiously to create stability in Europe, but each representative came to the table with his own specific interests in mind. This led to major issues in the Treaty of Versailles, such as its questionable economic feasibility. In his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes discusses how the preoccupation of the Allies caused them to deal with economic issues using politics and without considering the future of Europe’s economies. While the Treaty of Versailles set many future events in motion, the economic turmoil it created was the most dramatic and disastrous effect it had on the European Continent.

As Mark Mazower writes in Dark Continent, “After the Great War, Europe’s economic life was in chaos.” He goes on to describe the hunger and rapidly falling prices that ensued in Europe following the war. (Mazower 104) Keynes elaborates on the same point, stating that, “In relation to other continents Europe is not self-sufficient; in particular it cannot feed itself.” The people of the industrialized cities of Europe need to obtain supplies like food from outside their cities if they are going to survive. When war breaks out, these supply lines are broken, and because of “… the interruption of the stream of supplies, a part of this population is deprived of its means of livelihood.”(Keynes) After the war, no agreement to eliminate economic tariffs is made, as was suggested by President Wilson in his Fourteen Points, causing even more economic stress in Europe.

A large part of the economic wrongdoing in the Treaty of Versailles was directed at Germany. Not only did Germany have to accept blame for the war, it also had to pay reparations to the Allies for the damage it caused. Germany was also stripped of its colonies, leaving it little economic prospect for paying the Allies.  In response to these terms in the treaty, Count Brockdorff-Rantzau identified that the terms of the peace treaty would literally and economically starve Germany, and that, “Those who sign this Treaty will sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women and children” (Keynes).

The Treaty of Versailles possessed many economic faults, and, writing in 1920, Keynes foreshadows many of the consequences that these faults will have on Europe. The treaty doesn’t help to restore Europe’s economic vitality or create stability in Central Europe, leaving Europe liable for depression and bloodshed.

Versailles Treaty

The Versailles Treaty ended the First World War and effectively left Germany in a state of disrepair. The allies viewed Germany as the aggressor, and thus required them to make full reparations for the damages that the war caused. From the allied perspective it is easy to understand why they came down so harshly on Germany for all the suffering that was caused, however the demands were unrealistic, prompting future conflict by creating an unsettled atmosphere that ultimately contributed to Hitler’s rise.

The treaty was especially harsh in terms of Germany and her territories. Articles 45, 51, 119, and 156 were meant to strip Germany down to a mere shell of its former self by forcing the cession of many territories. The coal mines in the Saar Basin were to be ceded to France as compensation for the destruction of coal mines in the north of France, frontiers from 1871 were restored, and claims to overseas possessions were renounced. Many of these land cessions were to the direct benefit of France because out of all of the Allied countries, France took the harshest blows from the war because a lot of the fighting took place on French soil. To this day there are still regions in France that are unlivable because large amounts of live munitions remain undiscovered.

It was also evident that the Treaty intended to prevent a future war with Germany by imposing severe limitations on the capabilities of its armed forces, which is demonstrated in Article 160. Although this may have seemed like a viable solution at the time, in hindsight it is apparent that such a policy was nearly impossible to enforce. This policy lead to a series of appeasements, which allowed Germany to slowly rebuilt its armed forces while under Allied watch, ultimately allowing them to accumulate a powerful arsenal that was at Hitler’s disposal.

After the Second World War the Allies approached the post-war rebuilding process far differently. Applying unfair and impossible demands to a defeated country leaves the political atmosphere ripe for radicalism. They learned from their mistakes and adopted a policy that was less harsh and more constructive.

Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was presented by the allied powers, and was clearly devastating for Germany.  Throughout World War I, Germany strove to be an authoritarian power, and France suffered as a result.  Following Germany’s loss, France was in the position of power over Germany, and fully took advantage of this opportunity by limiting their access to land and weakening their military.

Following World War I, France’s aim was primarily to weaken Germany’s power as much as possible.  Because Germany equated land with power, the Treaty prevented Germany from, “construct[ing] any fortifications either on the left bank of the Rhine, or on the right bank to the west of a line drawn 50 kilometres to the East of the Rhine,” and restored much of Germany’s land to France (Treaty of Versailles, Article 42).  Because Germany placed so much emphasis on acquiring land, the Treaty of Versailles certainly aimed to prevent them from having a future as a powerful nation.

The Treaty of Versailles also placed severe limitations on the German military.  The allied powers hoped that this would sever the power that Germany previously held, and force them to completely rebuild their armies.

The Treaty of Versailles was very harsh, and had the potential to take all the power away from Germany.  This was important to the allied powers, especially France.  In that sense, because Germany had taken so much from France during the war, the Treaty served as France’s revenge, and they were eager to take as much power away from Germany as possible.

Treaty of Versailles Post

What struck me when reading the selected articles of the Treaty of Versailles was how the Allied Powers used the treaty as an instrument of revenge. This feeling of anger had much to do with the rather aggressive nature that Germany took when the war began. They were quicker to mobilize than the other Western Powers, and they made the opening move in the war with their invasion of France through neutral Belgium. Germany’s decision to go through Belgium made sense tactically, but they did not realize the political ramifications that it would cause in the long run. As a result of this action the war was not seen by the Allies and neutral powers as one created by a series of tangled alliances, but it was seen as a war of German aggression. When it was time to draw up the armistice that ended the hostilities, Germany was not able to negotiate with the Allies in any way. They were at the mercy of the victors who decided to strip Germany bare of anything of value. In Articles 45,119,231,232 of the treaty the Allies are clearly taking anything of value from the German economy including coal mines and overseas colonies, and they also made the Germans pay restitution for all damages caused by the war. These harsh measures taken by the Allies destroyed the German economy and it was one of the many reasons behind the radicalization of the German populous after World War One.

France’s fears displayed in the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was an extremely punitive solution to officially end of WWI. The response of the Triple Entente at the end of the war is not surprising; these countries lost so many soldiers during the war that the true level of pain and suffering is difficult to understand today. France especially blamed Germany for the loss of almost an entire generation, literally and figuratively. The toll of war and the use of new and dangerous technologies ravaged farmland as they became battlefields. It is not surprising that these countries wanted retribution for all of the suffering they had already endured and would continue to endure. The other strong motivation behind the treaty was to ensure that Germany would be unable to start another war. France wanted Germany to pay for all of the suffering it had caused, but also wanted to ensure that she would not be subject to another German attack.

It is surprising, however, that the treaty punished Germany for the Franco-Prussian War. The war was fought and won in 1871—almost half a century before. The bitterness and fear of a German invasion into France pervaded any sense of fairness and justice. The treaty included articles that targeted Prussian actions at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, “The High Contracting Parties, recognizing the moral obligation to redress the wrong done by Germany in 1871 both to the rights of France and to the wishes of the population of Alsace and Lorraine, which were separated from their country in spite of the solemn protest of their representatives at the Assembly of Bordeaux” (Treaty of Versailles, Article 49). France had been invaded two times in less than 50 years by her neighbor to the east. These two wars had traumatized the French and, therefore, they wanted to see “justice” delivered.

It is interesting to note that this fear of German force did not ease in France with all of the Treaty’s stipulations about the size of the German Army. The French had an incredible sense of “puissance” at the end of the war because they had finally defeated their archrival after the humiliation of 1871. This “puissance” did not fully reassure the French and the government quickly worked to further secure the country. The Maginot Line was constructed to prevent another German invasion because, according to French thought, it was inevitable. Mazower points out in Chapter 2 of Dark Continent that this line of defense would prove to be completely ineffective at the start of WWII.

In attempting to protect themselves from the might and ambitions of Germany, the French pushed the international community to accept such a punitive treaty. Many historians have argued, however, that this treaty may have indirectly led to the success of Hitler’s propaganda and his rise to power, leading to France’s next defeat as a result of another German invasion.