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The road to WW2: Was the Treaty of Versailles a catalyst for the Second World War?

Thursday 13 June, 2019

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 marked the official end of The Great War. It has been argued that, ironically, the peace treaty for the First World War was the catalyst for the Second 20 years later.

Negotiated in Paris in early 1919, the treaty was practically dictated by the Allied powers with almost no input from the Germans. As a result, Germany was stripped of all her colonies and its armed forces were drastically reduced to allow no more than 100,000 men. Germany was also held liable for reparations and responsible, together with the other Axis powers, for the losses experienced by the Allies.

There was an identified risk amongst the parties involved in the treaty that Germany would react badly if it were punished following the war. The German government signed the treaty under protest and many attacked it as a betrayal. Several politicians who were considered responsible for this ‘betrayal’ were assassinated by terrorist groups.

As the post-war years progressed, France and Britain were rigorous in their enforcement of the treaty. Conversely, the United States, although a signatory, was unsuccessful in gaining consent from the US Senate for the endorsement of the treaty and subsequently began negotiations with Germany for a separate agreement. This new treaty, formally known as the “Treaty between the United States and Germany Restoring Friendly Relations” was signed in Berlin on August 25, 1921.

Many Americans felt that the Treaty was unfair on Germany. More importantly, they felt that Britain and France were making themselves rich at Germany’s expense and that the USA should not be helping them to do this. Although not actually the case, many Americans believed it. Additionally, American politics were deeply divided at the time. President Wilson led the Democratic Party. However, his rivals in the Republican Party dominated the US Congress. They used the Treaty as an opportunity to criticise Wilson. Americans were also uneasy about Wilson’s scheme for a League of Nations. They were concerned that belonging to the League would drag the USA into international disputes that were not their concern. In the end, the Congress rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.

The treaty was weakened further when the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939 – also argued to be caused by the treaty due to the impact of Germany’s reparation costs and its effect on the European economy – forced Britain and France to scale down their efforts and even withdraw some of the conditions of the treaty, including the reparations agreed to by Germany.

Meanwhile, Germany was already violating the treaty’s disarmament provisions and in 1935 Adolf Hitler, the former soldier who had since risen to national leader, denounced the treaty altogether. His party, The National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis), defied the treaty by building up Germany’s armed forces to 1.5 million men.

In October 1936, Hitler started down the road to war by signing the Rome-Berlin Axis that solidified Italy and Germany as allies. Two months later he signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan – a pact against their mutual enemy Soviet Russia. Later that year Italy joined the pact creating the three-way alliance that would fight the Second World War together as the Axis powers.

Throughout 1938 and 1939 Hitler overturned the territorial provisions of the treaty by taking control of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Then in August 1939, in one of the most significant twists in modern history, Germany and Soviet Russia – two fierce opponents –signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to each remain neutral if the other party was at war. The pact was a result of Britain and France’s failure to respond to an alliance proposed by Russia, that was concerned about the growing power of Germany.

The following month, on September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland to alter that frontier and continue his quest to conquer eastern Europe. Britain and France had previously agreed to support Poland if it were attacked and so war was declared on Germany on 3 September 1939.

War soon spread from Europe to the Middle East and North Africa resulting in the involvement of British colonies, including Australia and Canada, to support the war effort. The United States entered the war in 1941 following Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbour in December. The world was now officially at war once again.

It continues to be debated whether the treaty was a catalyst for the Second World War. Some historians believe that the negotiators did the best job they could, given the difficult circumstances they were in.

Other historians believe the Treaty was a disastrous half measure. It damaged Germany enough to cause resentment while leaving it strong enough to seek revenge.

What is clear is that the burden of war guilt that was placed on Germany by the Allied powers and the harsh conditions placed on them helped to create an unstable Europe and the treaty failed to resolve the underlying issues that caused war to break out in 1914.
Percy, T. (2015). 50 things you should know about the Second World War. North Sydney, NSW: Books & Gifts Direct, pp.4-13.
Eldridge, J. (2015.). 50 things you should know about the First World War. North Sydney, NSW: Books & Gifts Direct, pp.70-71.


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