The Treaty of Versailles

As the warring armies of Europe neared complete exhaustion, President Woodrow Wilson, on January 1918, enunciated what was called the doctrine of the Fourteen Points. These were 14 statements upon which the world after the war should be constructed.

Britain and France, which had done most of the fighting and a great deal of the bleeding, resented Wilson’s proposal. They needed the United States — who had joined the Allies in fighting the Central Powers on April 6, 1917 — realizing that they could not win the war without fresh American troops. But they resented that Wilson had the audacity to present a treaty without their consultation. They also resented many of the Fourteen Points themselves.

Abolition of Colonialism

For instance, one of the Fourteen Points had to do, in effect, with the abolition of colonialism. Even though, idealistically, it sounds marvelous to end all empires, realistically it was deeply resented by the colonial powers. One of the things that the war was about was the struggle for empire. England was not about to dismantle the British Empire; and neither was France about to give up its colonies.

What they understood by the abolition of colonies was the abolition of German colonies; that those colonies should become British and French (which is what happened). However, Wilson meant no colonial empires at all.

Despite opposition, the Fourteen Points struck a responsive chord among the masses in colonial lands worldwide. They suddenly had hopes that they were now going to get their independence. When the post-war world would prove unable and unwilling to grant its wishes revolutions broke out, the repercussions of which are still echoing today.

Another of the Fourteen Points, the one that the Jewish people were most interested in, was a reference to the fact that ethnic minorities would have a right to independence and self-government. The Jews read it as an endorsement of the Balfour Declaration, which promised a Jewish national home in Palestine. Although a less-than-resounding endorsement, this was one of the reasons that Jews were nevertheless strong backers of the Fourteen Points.

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

Wilson had publicized his Fourteen Points during the war, and the Germans would have been well advised to accept them. However, they did not. They were bringing their army from the eastern front to the western one to mount a last ditch final offensive. There were Germans who felt the war could still be won.

After the offensive failed in October 1918, the Kaiser abdicated and the German government that took over sent a message to President Woodrow Wilson that they accepted the Fourteen Points, and wanted an armistice based on them. They intentionally directed their message to Wilson, not the leadership in France and England. Wilson wrote back to Germany that he would propose the matter to the Allies. He did so, but they never answered Wilson; they felt it was an affront.

Finally, as the war turned very severely against the German army the Germans proposed — directly to the French — an armistice. When this armistice came to be on November 11, 1918 – “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” — written into the agreement was a vague statement that the Fourteen Points would govern the peace treaty that would later be signed. But it was a document subject to many interpretations and it certainly was not binding. However, the German army was in no condition to hold out and demand more than just this vague reference.

The hostilities ceased and a meeting was convened in January 1919 for the peace treaty. However, the Allies met by themselves without Germany present.

This peace conference took place in the magnificent French palace at Versailles, which is why it would be called the Versailles Treaty. The main negotiators of the treaty were Wilson, on behalf of the United States, Orlando on behalf of Italy, Clemenceau for France (also known as “the Little Tiger”), and David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister. Wilson would suffer a stroke while at Versailles, from which he would never recover.

His stroke had a fateful effect upon world history, because he was not able to campaign for his ideas or impose his will. In the end, the United States withdrew from the matter and entered a period of isolation from Europe. In the retrospect of history, the United States could have made the difference — economically, militarily and diplomatically – in restoring a stable Europe. Instead they left Europe to its own devices – which turned in World War Two after a break of two decades.

The British Mandate

The Treaty of Versailles established of the League of Nations, which was the precursor of the United Nations. Basically, it was meant to be a Parliament of all the sovereign nations of the world. They would get together and settle all matters by debate, arbitration, etc.

It was a marvelous idea, but it turned into a symbol of the futility of the world instead of a symbol of the hope of the world.

Despite that, the League of Nations played an important part in Jewish history in that it was given control over what were called “mandates.” There was a mandating committee whose purpose was to take away colonies from the defeated powers – Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire – and distribute them among the conquering powers – England, France, Belgium, Italy and to a certain extent the United States.

In order not to violate Wilson’s principle against colonialism it could not just be given away. Rather the League of Nations said that Palestine was not ready for independence. Therefore, it was given to England as a mandate, which was like a guardianship of a temporary nature. The goal was to eventually give the colony independence.

The most important thing, as far as the Jewish people were concerned, was that the mandate was given to England. If the mandate would have been given to France they could have completely ignored it. However, by giving it to England it raised the hopes of the Zionists and hopes of the Jewish people generally to soaring heights. There was never greater optimism among the Jewish people for the formation of the Jewish state by peaceful means as that existed from about 1920 to 1925.

Creating the Potential for WWII

Another major point about the Versailles Treaty was German reparations. A commission was established to set the amount to be paid, how it was going to be paid and who was going to get it.

The war had destroyed Germany’s economy. It had financed a war that was far beyond its ability to maintain. They had over $100 billion in debt by the end of the war independent of any reparations. The Versailles Treaty would force them to pay $22 billion, which by itself might have been manageable. However, when added to the $100 billion of debt incurred from war spending there was no way they could pay it.

The result was raging inflation in which the German currency and economy completed collapsed. In many respects that helped spell the doom of its post-war democratic government, the Weimar Republic, and allowed the likes of Hitler to fill the vacuum.

On top of the material suffering, Russia exported communism to Germany, and gained a very large and serious following. When we discuss the rise of the Nazis we will see that in the eyes of many the choice was between communism and Hitler. When Hitler came to power he killed or put into concentration camps all the communists he could. Those who survived either fled or turned into fascists. The same people who had marched for the red flag marched now for the swastika. The German needed to be subservient to something. In this case, they transferred their loyalties to a dictator rather than an idea.

Included in the reparations was that Germany had to relinquish great tracts of valuable territory. The fertile, soil-rich provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were given back to France. Germany had taken them away in 1871. Germany also had to give up the Saar Basin, which one of the largest coal producing areas in Europe. It was governed by the League of Nations, not France, but France got the coal.

Germany had to give up a large portion of Silesia to Poland, including what later came to be called the Polish Corridor, which was a strip of land that gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea. One of the promises Wilson had made was that an independent Poland would not be land-locked. The port they chose to give it was a German port, Danzig. Even though the majority of the corridor was Polish, Danzig was almost an entirely German city. Danzig was declared an international city – a city that belonged to no one and was governed by the League of Nations. In effect, this gave Poland access to its port. When Hitler came to power he made it a bone of contention.

The Versailles Treaty also stipulated that the eastern side of the Rhine up to a depth of 50 kilometers – the Rhineland – would be demilitarized. Germany could not maintain any forts, trenches, conduct military maneuvers or even station armed forces there. The demilitarization of the Rhineland was meant to guarantee that Germany could not mount another offensive against France. We will see that Hitler abrogated that for his cause as well.

A lot of Unhappy Customers

The Treaty of Versailles essentially made everyone angry and satisfied no one. The Germans were angry because they felt it was a deviation from the Fourteen Points and unfairly penalized them for the whole war. Even moderate Germans, such as those who represented the democratic Weimar Republic, resented it. It became a stigma. Those who signed it were marked for death – and many of them were assassinated by right-wing army officers. In post-war Germany, any political party had as the first and most important plank in its platform some statement that it would abrogate the Treaty of Versailles.

England and France felt the opposite. They thought it was too lenient; it let the Germans off too easily. Instead of collecting $200 billion they settled for $38 billion, which was reduced to $22 billion. They should have taken more territory away. They should have brought Germany to its knees.

Clemenceau was a war hero and ran for President of France. His election should have been like Eisenhower’s, who later ran for the president of the United States and easily won. But Clemenceau lost the election because the French considered the treaty too lenient.

The same was true in England, where Lloyd George fell from power eventually. People resented it. And it is understandable, because when you are talking about 20 million war casualties, where every family felt it, people were out for revenge.

In short, the Treaty of Versailles not only failed to solve the problems that caused the war but ensured their perpetuation, and even created new problems.

As for the Jews, the result of the war was a tremendous uprooting and destabilization of communities, but the part of the treaty that created a mandate for the British to govern Palestine raised hopes as they had never risen before. Rabbi Kook characterized the First World War by saying, “The result of the war is that God is going to give Palestine back to the Jews.”


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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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