Revelations regarding British attitudes to the Treaty of Versailles

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Last updated: November 15, 2019

On 18 January, 1919, the Paris Peace Conference opened at Versailles, just outside Paris, France. The war had ended on 11 November the previous year and the three major victorious powers – the USA, Great Britain and France (led by President Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau respectively) had high but conflicting ambitions at the conference. Lloyd George later spoke of the task which he had set himself for the treaty: “to restore where restoration is just, to organize reparations where damage and injury have been inflicted, and to establish guarantees and securities in so far as human foresight could do so, against the repetition of those crimes and horrors from which the world is just emerging”. After much discussion at Versailles, severe debate amongst Great Britain’s leading intellectuals was provoked.Economist John Maynard Keynes, writing on 26 May 1919, spoke of the “unjust” and “inexpedient” treatment of Germany (he threatened to retract his services if Lloyd George continued to “lead us all into a morass of destruction”), as well as the obvious inability of the smaller states, set up as a consequence of Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, to achieve economic stability.

He goes on to express his opinion that the peace cannot be kept, nor can the League of Nations live. Labeling the treaty a “tragic farce”, Keynes represents the belief, which many economists took, of the inadequacies arising from economic problems rather than sociological or political.Keynes’ sentiments are echoed in a letter written by Harold Nicholson merely two weeks later.

Calling for Lloyd George’s modification of the terms of the treaty imposed upon Germany, Nicholson describes the reparation chapter as “immoral and senseless”. “The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters” he concludes, suggesting a severe division according to age between the members of the conference – a reaction which can be explained by the youngsters overriding concern for the future rather than the present.Writing privately on 11 June 1919, H. A. L. Fisher seems at first to convey grave concerns for the outcome of the treaty. “The moral atmosphere..

.isn’t encouraging”, he begins, yet all is not as troubled as initial glances suggest. Commenting on passion still running too high at the present moment, Fisher comforts the position by bringing light to the possibility of readjustments and modifications to “give Europe a prospect of stability”. It is clear that he does not in fact share the hastiness of Keynes to approach the treaty as an irrevocable solution. Furthermore, Fisher observes the “cool temperance” bought to the treaty by the British contingent.On 28 June 1919, the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, and Germany, signed the Treaty of Versailles. The following day, Austen Chamberlain wrote to his sister contemplating the events of the previous months, and specifically the “dangerous temptation” of Germany to rage war on her Eastern frontier, due to her “hatred and contempt for the Poles”.

However, he goes on to say no democratic country “can or will make aggressive war its…business, though it may easily enough flare up in sudden passion”. How great a concern this was for Britain opens up a very important question – would commitments lie with the empire or the continent? Naturally, only time would tell, despite Chamberlain’s final reflection (“Think of Germany with its 60 or 70 millions of people and France with its dwindling 40! I shudder!”).

Despite all the criticism of the treaty, and the news that German children were starving on the streets, Prime Minister David Lloyd George maintained support for his decisions. Speaking on 21 July 1919 in the House of Commons he said “We have demonstrated…

to the world for ages that you cannot trample on national rights and liberties, that you cannot break solemn covenants with impunity”.Time would confirm Lloyd George’s mistakes, yet Keynes and two Prime Ministers to-be, Winston Churchill and Ramsay Macdonald, attempted to provide the argument which time would prove.The problem of reparations was the primary concern amongst the younger politicians. Churchill described them as “malignant and silly to an extent that made them obviously futile”.

Giving “expression to the anger of the victors”, the reparations were to be paid on a “fabulous scale”. The esteem in which this belief was held was so high that it lead to Keynes’ most damning reproach yet: “..

.The campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible”.The German concessions regarding reparations payments in the form of the 1924 Dawes plan therefore came as no great surprise. The “sincere desire to rectify mistakes as soon as mistakes are discovered” represented the progressive approach adopted by Ramsay MacDonald during his first term in office (1924-1927). His outlook was shared by the nation, and finally some of the grievances caused by the Treaty of Versailles could be put to rest. In the Prime Minister’s own words, “the time of national isolation is ended and that of exchange of views and reasonable dealing with experience has begun.”So was the view of Great Britain five years after the treaty had been signed. As Hitler rose to power, the treaty’s significance grew even further.

Consequently differences of opinion concerning the treaty became more apparent. J. L. Garvin, editor of The Observer, commented in 1933 as follows: “The mistake…was not to have crossed the Rhine in full massiveness in 1919. [Furthermore] the psychological infatuation of their hereditary militarism was not thoroughly broken”.

Duff Cooper, writing to The Times in 1939 reproduces Garvin’s attitude: “If German had been left stronger in 1919 she would sooner have been in a position to do what she is doing today”.It is easy to comment as such with hindsight though – Hitler’s actions must be considered as an exception to the events which Lloyd George’s “human foresight” could have prepared for. Yet even as late as 1937, British Ambassador in Berlin Sir Nevile Henderson wrote of “amend[ing].

..the injustices in the Versailles Treaty”.British attitudes to the Treaty of Versailles were, not surprisingly, unharmonious. However, views such as the harshness of reparations and requirement for adjustments to be made to the initial treaty prevailed within most schools of thought. The difficulty of establishing an effective treaty must not be underestimated under any circumstances though.

A treaty to please everyone simply does not exist.

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