USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Paris 1919 I: Punishing Germany

The Paris peace meetings stretched over most of the year in 1919. Representatives from around the world were there. The real power, however, lay at the top—and with the three heads of state of France, England, and the United States. The head of state of Italy (Vittorio Orlando) was also in the negotiating room but held considerably less power. When it came to the German question, the most important player was the one which had suffered the most from the German invasion: France. The French wanted two outcomes in Paris. They wanted to eliminate forever the threat of German military aggression on their eastern border. And they wanted to be compensated for the damages the war had inflicted on its people and territory during the four long years of trench warfare, which left northeastern France devastated. It is important to remember here that the negotiated settlement was not with the German representatives—and certainly not with those Germans who were responsible for entering the war or executing it. The Germans had been forced to dissolve the empire and send to Paris representatives of a newly formed democratic republic, the Weimar Republic. This demand was based on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s notion that old-fashioned authoritarianism and autocracy was partly responsible for the bloodshed.

The French pushed the British and the Americans toward a punitive peace for Germany. The "punitive" nature of the peace was justified by a determination of German responsibility for the war, codified in Article 231 of the treaty, the so-called War-Guilt Clause. The following steps were taken by the victorious powers to weaken and punish Germany. The German Rhineland (the borderlands with France) would be demilitarized. The French would occupy the heavily industrialized area of the Ruhr valley. The German army would be limited to a defensive force of 100,000 men, a number totally insufficient to fight a modern war. Germany would be prohibited from producing war materials—tanks, aircraft, and offensive artillery. In addition, a strong alliance between France, Britain and the United States would guarantee mutual security against any future German attack. For Germany’s deeply militarized society, this would be seen as a severe blow.

Even more severe, however, was the economic punishment the treaty inflicted on Germany. The combination of years of total war, which completely exhausted Germany’s productive capacity, the loss of a whole generation of productive workers in the war itself, and the imposition of massive reparation payments to the entente powers (first and foremost to France) crushed the German economy and led to the hyperinflation of the early 1920s, an economic context that wiped out middle class savings and traumatized the German populace, thus undermining faith in the newly constituted democratic government. 

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