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Assess The Short-term Significance of the Treaty of Versailles Essay Sample

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Assess The Short-term Significance of the Treaty of Versailles Essay Sample

Signed in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles remains a focal point in modern European history. When regarding Germany however, the Treaty retains even more significance. The Treaty affected Germany in more than one way. It had an effect politically, economically, socially and diplomatically and much of the transformation of Germany between 1919 and 1939 can be attributed to consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.

This is highlighted through the Occupation of the Ruhr by France and Belgium in 1922 in which, as a result of Germany not being able to pay another instalment in their reparation payments, France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr, Germany’s economic hub

In accordance with article 231 of the treaty of Versailles, the Guilt clause, Germany acknowledged that they started World War one. Thus resulting in a payment of compensation to the Entente Powers. The payment of £6.600mill in reparations is what is argued to have financially weakened Germany’s economy. As the payments had to be made in hard currency, they could not be made by using the already devaluated papiermark. Therefore the Weimar government mass printed bank notes, buying foreign currency to pay the reparations. As the mark value dropped in international markets, the amount of marks needed to buy foreign currency increased.

Despite international reparation conferences being held, no solution was reached, leading Germany into hyperinflation and ultimately rendering the mark useless as the exchange rate stood at 8000 marks to 1$. The worthlessness of the paper mark currency is shown in source 1 in which a man is using bank notes as wallpaper. This image presents how, under the Weimar republic, the currency has been made invaluable. It can also been interpreted to illustrate an increase in the cost of living as the price of wallpaper rose to such a high price that it was more efficient to use bank notes. However, the photograph can also be interpreted to

Firstly, the amount Germany had to pay in reparations was far beyond their financial capacity. For example; in 1922 Germany could not pay another instalment so France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr, the industrial heart of the German economy. This brought production to a halt. Consequently, this caused one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in history. The actual exchange rate stood at 4,200,000,000,000[1] Marks to $1 rendering money ultimately worthless.. It could be inferred that due to the rapid increase in the price of wood, money was of more relative value as a method of fuel than that of an instrument of buying and selling. The image may have been used simply for informative, journalistic purposes or it may have used as a method of propaganda to illustrate the ineffectiveness of the Weimar Republic.

Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, leader of the German delegation to Versailles, predicted a more severe effect three years earlier. He said, ‘Those who sign this Treaty, will sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women and children[2]’.. Referring to the harsh economic terms of the Treaty and making his stance on Versailles known to an unhappy German people, Brockdorff-Rantzau almost predicted the rapid decline in living standards and probability of death in Germany. However we must question his judgment and thus the reliability of this source as he would have had to be arguing for Germany to get the best possible deal or least harsh terms for Germany coming out of the negotiations

Reparations as part of the Treaty of Versailles had another economic effect on Germany as they caused a massive increase in unemployment. Because of Germany’s inability to pay the reparations outlined in the Treaty of Versailles, she accepted loans from the USA to help repay them. These, also known as the Dawes Plan of 1923, would give Germany money to help repay France and Britain. However, when the Wall Street Crash devastated the global economy in October of 1929, USA had to withdraw these loans in order to service their own economy. As American money seeped out of Germany, unemployment soared. By 1932, ‘30 per cent of the German workforce was unemployed’[3]. This was around 5,000,000 people, out of work and thus finding it very hard to survive in an already difficult society. Additionally, because fewer people were working, the government collected less in taxes meaning the Weimar government could do even less to counteract the effects of the depression.

We can see the extent of the unemployment in Source 2[4], a photograph taken in Hanover in 1930. We can infer from the queue that these people were waiting for either food or work. This shows the effect of unemployment on the working class. Because they had no income they could not afford to buy food and so had to queue for free supplies. There is also a pro-Hitler piece of graffiti on the wall behind the queue. We can infer that this would have been an attempt to gain support from the unsatisfied and irate unemployed, of which there were many. This however, implies that the image could be a piece of Nazi propaganda which could imply that the photograph was artificially created to skew people’s view of German society. The unemployment, as a consequence of reparations had other effects. The working class, already deeply troubled by the hyperinflation of the 1920s were now even worse off. However, the middle class, who were relatively comfortable before the Crash, lost their savings as the banks collapsed. Consequently, a new larger lower working class was created, one perfect for Hitler to corrupt. Combine these two factors, as a result of the economic clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and the document becomes very significant.

Versailles also had a very important political consequence. The poor economic conditions caused by Versailles amounted in large amount of opposition to the Weimar government. This was magnified in the light of the fact that Germans already felt contempt towards their government for signing the Treaty of Versailles. The majority of Germans believed that the signing of the Treaty of Versailles was a ‘stab in the back’. Many Germans were angered by the acceptance of the War Guilt Clause. ‘This was a moral judgment which an entire nation felt entitled to resent.’[5] This is outlined in Source 3[6], a piece of anti-Weimar propaganda cartoon. In the image we can see what appears to be Philipp Scheidemann attempting to stab a German World War One soldier in the back.

From this we can infer that the signing of the Treaty and the acceptance of its terms was treated as a betrayal, especially to German troops. Ordinary Germans generally believed they should have won the war and that accepting defeat and all that came with it was a clear disregard of the war effort not only on the battlefield but domestically also. It was probably intended to inform Germans that the Weimar government was traitorous and to persuade them to support an alternative, although the creator of this piece of propaganda is unknown. The text, which translates to ‘Germany Remembers!’, indicates the resentment felt by Germany and perhaps the idea that they will seek to right the perceived wrongs of Versailles. Given that this ‘correction’ would come in the form of Hitler and the Nazi party, the Treaty of Versailles can be seen as very significant, especially politically.

The effects of the Treaty of Versailles can be seen to have another political impact. Although it did cause resentment and anger towards the Weimar government, due to its economic effects, it also caused the shift in political support. The unemployed, who had become disenchanted by the mainstream political parties began to back the extremist parties like that of the Nazis and Communists. Peter Stachura mentions that ‘Laid-off blue-collar workers strongly favoured the KPD, while unemployed white-collar workers clearly preferred the NSDAP over the KPD’[7]. People believed that Hitler and Nazis or the Communist party (KDP) held the solution to their problems. They would see the Nazis as a party for the people; a party that could get Germany back to the power that it was prior to the Treaty of Versailles. This would be key to Hitler’s election in 1933 and thus, the Treaty of Versailles; its economic effects in particular, were a direct cause of Hitler’s rise to power and legitimate election.

Many of the articles of the Treaty of Versailles were territorial. For example, Alsace-Lorraine was given to France. West Prussia and Upper Silesia were given to Poland while the Saar, Danzig and Memel under the control of the League of Nations. Germany was also forbidden to unite and ally with Austria and was excluded from joining the newly created League of Nations. This left Germany, divided, severed and isolated in Europe. Land had been stripped from them and given to the nations Germany had been fighting against. This was humiliating for many Germans who believed they should have been the victors coming out of World War One. Additionally, it made Germany poorer as a nation as West Prussia (given to Poland) was a crucial agricultural area and the Saar (put under League of Nations supervision) was a huge industrial part of Germany’s economy.

Equally, being excluded from the League of Nations left Germany unrepresented in European affairs and isolated in continental Europe. This would be treated as an insult to German people and they would thoroughly resent the Treaty and all that it entailed. ‘The disgraceful Treaty is being signed today. Don’t forget it! We will never stop until we win back what we deserve.[8]’ These words were printed in a German newspaper in 1919 to illustrate the unhappiness and bitterness of Germans towards the Treaty. It may however, as it is a newspaper, it may have just adopted the opinion of the masses to increase sales, thus hiding the beliefs and views of the written media in Germany, making it less reliable as a source.

Regardless, it shows the German people’s desire to get back what was taken from them in the Treaty of Versailles. ‘60 million German hearts and minds are on fire with anger and shame. They will cry out ‘We want war!’’[9]. This goes some way in explaining Germany’s capacity to back Hitler as they saw it him and the Nazis as the only way they could they could reclaim their losses. It also may explain Germany’s course of action before the outbreak of war in 1939. Much of the land occupied by the Nazis shortly before World War Two was land that had been taken from Germany as part of Versailles. Therefore, the territorial effects of the Treaty and the effect that had on German people as well as Nazi foreign policy approaching World War Two make it very significant.

The Treaty of Versailles also contained clauses on Germany’s armed forces. Germany was only allowed an army of 100,000 men. The armed forces could posses no tanks and she was not allowed an air force. The navy was limited to a few ships and no submarines and the Rhineland was to become a demilitarized zone. This was also humiliating for Germans as they were such a military force before and during World War One. They had been a major player in the naval race and had boasted a huge army in World War One. Nevertheless, all this was stripped by Versailles and became a relatively defenceless state.

This might help to explain the lack of resistance to the Franco – Belgian invasion of the Ruhr. It may also help to explain the rapid increase in Germany’s armed forces following Hitler’s rise to power. Germany would once again establish a sizable army, a devastating air force (the Luftwaffe) and a strong naval force including the deadly U-Boats. An armed force of this size was not necessary for Germany’s survival as they were not under military pressure from enemy nations. It may however have been a response to the military limits set by Versailles. In other words, Hitler and Germany only built up a huge armed force in protest to Versailles. They only did it because Versailles stated that they could not. Similarly, the Treaty of Versailles could then be behind the Anschluss. The only reason perhaps Hitler annexed Austria was because what was agreed in 1919 said he was not allowed. Given that these two factors are crucial to the outbreak of war in 1939 and that the Treaty of Versailles was possibly behind both, it remains extremely significant.

The Treaty, while just a document, had a tremendous effect on Germany in many aspects. It affected Germany economically, crippling the economy through hyperinflation and unemployment. It politically affected Germany, causing resentment and hatred for the Weimar government while shifting support to extremist parties, culminating in the election of Hitler in 1933. Lastly, it territorially affected Germany, stripping her of land and stripping her people of pride in the process. Ultimately what was agreed at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles would shape the next twenty years of German, European and World history.


1. Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, 1924

2. Deutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, 28 June 1919

3. Reconstruction of Western Europe 1945-51 / Alan S. Milward.

4. Great Depression in Europe, 1929-1939 / Patricia Clavin.

5. Mainsprings of the German revival / by Henry C. Wallich.

6. German economy in the twentieth century : the German Reich and the Federal Republic / by H.J. Braun.

7. Unemployment and the Great Depression in Weimar Germany / edited by Peter D. Stachura.

8. Treaty of Versailles and after / George Allardice Riddell.

9. German recovery and the Marshall Plan, 1948-1952, by Herbert C. Mayer.

10. Marshall Plan and Germany : West German development within the framework of the European Recovery Programme /edited by Charles S. Maier with the assistance of GuÌnter Bischof.

11. Germany between East and West / by Wolfgang F. Stolper.

12. German reunification : a reference guide and commentary. Harlow : Longman, 1992.

13. Germany 1866-1945’ Gordon Craig – Oxford University Press, New York 1978

14. Germany 1845-1991, Derrick Murphy, Terry Morris, Mary Fulbrook, Collins

15. The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany, Jeffrey Kopstein (1997), University North Carolina Press

16. Revealed: Tragic victims of the Berlin Wall, Tony Paterson, The Independent, 2006

17. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/Treaty_of_versailles.htm

18. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERunemployment.htm

19. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/weimar_depression_1929.htm


[1] ‘Germany 1866-1945’ Gordon Craig – Oxford University Press, New York 1978

[2] Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, (15 May 1919)

[3] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERunemployment.htm

[4] See Appendix 2

[5] The Mighty Continent, John Terrain, 1976

[6] See Appendix 3

[7] ‘Unemployment and the Great Depression in Weimar Germany’, Edited by Peter Stachura, Macmillan Press (1986).

[8] From Deutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, 28 June 1919

[9] Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, 1924

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