First World War and Treaty of Versailles

Wilhelm II at the time of his exile in the Netherlands

According to the constitution of the German Empire, the Emperor only had a representative function. The Chancellor was responsible for political decisions, and the Parliament had to decide about the budget. Nonetheless, the Allies claimed Wilhelm II to be the main responsible for the war and wanted to take him to court, they themselves exercising the functions of public prosecutor and judge at the same time. Due to external and internal pressure (one of the USA’s conditions for peace was the Emperor’s abdication and some German politicians like the Chancellor Max von Baden thought it would made things easier), Wilhelm went into exile to the Netherlands after his abdication had been declared without his knowledge and after the socialist leader Philipp Scheidemann highhandedly had proclaimed a Republic. The new socialist government was forced to accept the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, i.e. also the main responsibility for the whole war. In 1922, Wilhelm published his memoirs in order to respond to the accusations (click on this link for the English translation; the German original is here: Ereignisse und Gestalten 1878-1918). They include some very interesting facts which are withheld normally. Among others:

  • In 1897, England, France and the USA had made a secret agreement, directed against Spain and Germany. It only was made public in 1918 by US-insider Prof. Roland Usher. The direct consequence of this agreement was the war against Spain in 1898 (the USA intruded with the ironclad USS Maine into the Spanish port La Habana; Spain was blamed for the explosion of the ship and lost her colonies in the following war). Wilhelm mentions a series of examples for the hostile politics towards Germany until the outbreak of the war in 1914, e.g. attempts to prevent Germany from pursuing free trade.
  • Often, the enlargement of the German navy is mentioned as the reason for the tensions with England. Actually, the German navy never was stronger than 20 % of the English navy, and it was smaller than the navy of many other countries. Thus, it is absurd to pretend that this enlargement was a threat to England. Nonetheless, this was an argument of English war propaganda and after the war.
  • Germany and Austria’s armies always were inferior to their opponents. Also, the position in central Europe with big powers (England, France, Russia) on both sides was considered precarious. According to Wilhelm, Germany had had nothing to win by a war and thus, since the foundation of the Empire in 1871, always had had the intention to keep peace. He writes that, besides, 1914 was a very bad year to start a war for Germany. If Germany had been interested in war, it would have started it in 1900 when England was at war with the Boers (Sout Africa) or in 1905 when Russia was at war with Japan.
  • Wilhelm enlists a series of proofs of early war preparations on the side of Russia, France and England. England, for example, had already stored winter coats for soldiers and bilingual strategic maps in Northern France and Belgium (officially a neutral country) in 1911. The depots were found by the German army in the first weeks of the war (summer 1914, when nobody needed winter coats; the maps had dates on them).

Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany (source: Dr. Albert Ströhle: Der Vertrag von Versailles und seine Wirkungen für unser deutsches Vaterland. Berlin: Zentral-Verlag, 1926.)

1) Territory and Population

  • Germany lost 13 % of her territory and 10 % of her population.
  • With the argument of giving autonomy to 3 Million non-Germans, 3.5 Million Germans lost their nation and had to live as a minority in other countries. Instead of promoting the “right of self-determination” for the different ethnic and cultural groups in Europe, new sources of conflicts were created.

2) Economic consequences

a) Germany lost

  • 15.5 % of her cattle,
  • 14.6 % of her acreage for wheat,
  • 17.7 % for rye,
  • 16.4 % for barley,
  • 17.2 % for potatoes,
  • 26 % of her coal mines,
  • 68 % of her tin mines,
  • 75 % of her iron mines.

b) Payments in money and in kind:

Germany had to pay/hand out

  • 132 Billion Goldmark, which corresponds to 552 Billion € (in 2010), taking into account that in 1925 Germany’s economic performance was only 5 % of what it is today.
  • The complete German foreign assets – public and private – were confiscated.
  • 90 % of the merchant fleet (530 million gross registered tons),
  • 25 % of the fishing fleet,
  • 20 % of the inland navigation fleet,
  • 700 breeding stallions,
  • 40 000 mares,
  • 4 000 bulls,
  • 140 000 cows,
  • 40 000 heifers,
  • 1 200 rams,
  • 120 000 sheep,
  • 10 000 goats,
  • 15 000 pigs,
  • 43 million tons of coal products.

3) Special conditions (among others):

  • The German Reichsbahn (German railways) had to be converted into a stock corporation. 9 of the 18 members of the supervisory board had to be foreigners.
  • The Government was not allowed to have control over the Reichsbank (German National Bank). At least 7 of the supervisory board’s 14 members had to be foreigners.
  • Germany lost control over her national waterways.

The German economy collapsed; more than one million civilians died of hunger; and, of course, Germany was not able to deliver the payments. A hyper-inflation followed. The number of unemployed workers raised from 250 000 in 1922 to more than 2 000 000 in 1926. Due to the many refugees from the annexed territories, there was a lack of housing. Still in 1930, 80 000 people had no home. Germany, once one of the leading economies in the world, had been converted in sort of an exploited colony.

War invalid, 1923.
“You shall toil for the next three generations.”
They carry the letters of the company – but who bears its spirit? Drawing by Thomas Theodore Heine for the satirical journal Simplicissimus
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