The Treaty of Versailles (ToV) was signed in 1919, marking a monumental shift in both society and politics against the backdrop of intense public dissatisfaction, something which all the contempory sources agree on, despite disagreeing on the degree to which society was affected.
The ToV initially united society in its rejection and protest of the treaty. This can be seen in a photo taken in 1919, showing this unity through the sheer volume of people and class, as the bowler hats of the upper class and flat caps of the lower freely mix, highlighting how this issue erased ingrained social boundaries. As a primary source photo, we can rely on it to give an accurate and unbiased view, however that view is limited to that particular moment in time.
It was published in a British newspaper and from this we can infer its purpose; to inform the British public of the German sentiment and to show the treaty was harsh on Germany, although its author is unknown, given the British sentiment at the time, we can assume this was published in a liberal newspaper and aimed at those who sympathised with Germany. It is also partially supported by the other sources which show how the treaty affected German people, and even opposing views agreed on the effect on Germans. This source gains credibility as it’s supported by Feuchtwanger who states “The defeat of 1918 hit the German public with brutal suddenness”1. We can infer from this that the brutal suddenness would cause the people to become aware of all proceedings and be immensely interested in the progress of the treaty, as can be seen in the picture.
The first major split was the communist uprising in 1919, which ended in a massacre. This can be seen in the communist publication by an unknown author, showing the working class of Germany left destitute by the treaty mourning over a figure that represents the people’s freedom under communism. The source calls the people of Germany “the Living Dead”, a reference to the brutality of the Freikorps and the dangerous state of affairs, which is supported by the source showing freikorps violence. This cartoon is in a communist paper, however given they would be aware of the situation, it’s more likely its purpose was to shock Germans as part of propaganda to sympathise with them and thus gain support through this highly emotive cartoon.
But it does make an interesting point as the people represented are communists, all of whom are destitute; a key theme in communist propaganda, whereas right wing articles feature power, showing the different support bases, in particular how the right had powerful allies, whereas the left didn’t. This source has blatant left-wing bias, but can be relied upon to show the fears of the left and infer there was something to be feared from the right and that it was only a matter of time before something terrible happened. This is confirmed by Andelman who shows how “unarmed civilians had become the enemy”2, and is supported by Williamson who states “The government was shocked by the Brutality of the Freikorps”3 and as such ensures this source is indeed reliable in that respect. Williamson raises a good point in that he shows that the Freikorps acted with the blessing of the Government, showing that the communist uprising wasn’t as peaceful as suggested, as the government had to use the right to quell them and prevent anarchy. As a result, we can rely upon some aspects of the source, but not others due to the nature of its message.
The Freikrops was composed of disillusioned ex-soldiers. They had few problems; enjoying full governmental and military support, so much so, the head of the army said, “there can be no talk of making Reichswehr fight Reichswehr”, showing how much support they had and due to their experiences in the war had little scruples in killing communists as shown in the source; a photo from the revolution, in which it is clear these men are not Reichswehr due to their uniform, but rather Freikorps quelling communists, showing their free rein. They suffered one major problem. They lacked support from ordinary Germans, and this is seen in the parties voted for in the 1919 elections, all of which favoured democracy, a fatal weakness in 1920 during the Kapp Putsch that failed due to this lack of support because of a general strike as “they simply wanted no more trouble in their capital after experiencing the Communist rebellion in 1919.”4 The reaction of Berliners showed the centrist belief within society and how extremists would not be tolerated after suffering so much at their hands. Thus, the Freikorps ceased to exist, not due to any governmental action, but due to the actions of society. However it is important to consider that by the very nature of this source, it can only show one particular moment in time, from one specific angle, and so we are limited in what we can learn from the source apart from learning the freikorps were ex-soldiers who were fighting the communists.
The extreme factions caused major disturbances within Germany, however the silent majority had a more centrist ideology forming an SPD government, albeit a highly unpopular one overshadowed during 1919 by various revolutions. Popular ideology came to centre stage in 1920 during the Kapp Putsch as the middle, concerned about more day-to-day issues such as food, money and jobs had enough. This is clearly shown in source D, a cartoon from a centrist magazine aimed at the masses which shows the concerns of the normal German. We can see its emphasis on reparations and survival, as a mother (Germany) is saying to her starving child (the people) “when we have paid 300bn marks, then I can give you something to eat”, shows the huge debts of Germany and how the treaty impacted upon German society and that people were starving.
This source can be relied upon as it does accurately portray the situation of the average German, from the feral looking child dressed in rags, to the emancipated child, attributes seen in those pictured in the communist cartoon. We can also see that on the table there are only 3 beans, which shows how most Germans barely had anything to live off. This is further reinforced by the meagre surroundings which are clearly desperately poor and bare, thus inferring the quality of life the Germans had. However this source is from a German perspective and so will try to exaggerate the situation in order to gain sympathy as suggested in the previous source. Other sources suggest that perhaps the plight of the ordinary German was not as bad as shown and that it was all a show. The British cartoon, published in 1920 which shows a man crying for help as he is drowning, when in actual fact he is on his knees and could simply stand up. The drowning man is Germany, the water, which represents the reparations payments/debt, is coming up to his neck, but if standing would be no higher than his knees, suggesting that the Germans were greatly exaggerating the problem to the allies.
From this we can infer that the allies believed the German plight was not so bad and that they should take responsibility and fend for themselves as to do so would solve many of their “supposed” problems. This is supported by both German and British Historians such as Weinberg who takes the view that the treaty was actually generous to Germany, and Barnett who uses the treaty of Brest-Litvosk to show how lenient Versailles was in comparison, however Lentin disagrees as he claims Versailles was not supposed to be a treaty of victory but rather “The ToV should have made the victors either to conciliate the enemy or destroy them. It did neither. It did not pacify Germany, still less permanently weaken her, appearances notwithstanding, but left here scourged, humiliated and resentful.”5 Whilst Lentin outwardly disagrees with Weinberg and Barnett, he does agree that Germany was weakened and could still rise. Thus showing that whilst the source depicting German distitution can be relied upon to show how German life was, we cannot completely rely upon it to be honest as historians show life was not as bad as was made out.
As such, the ToV had a huge impact upon Germany and split society down ideological lines with the extreme factions causing much destruction and suffering in the short time they existed. However it is clear that in 1919-1920, society as a whole suffered greatly and there was great discontent.
However its most significant impact was not the destruction or poverty it caused, but the resentment and hatred for the treaty, which became the catalyst for WWII.
1 Dr. E J Feuchtwanger- New perspective, Vol. 1 No. 1…September 1995
2 David Andelman- A shattered Peace, Wiley and Sons, 2007
3 Gordon Williamson, The SS, Hitler’s instrument of Terror, Zenith Press, 1994
5 A. Lentin, Guilt at Versailles, Methuen, 1985