The Treaty of Versailles is known today as the seed of WW2, and the focus of Nazi agitation. It’s often forgotten that socialists in Germany and around the world sought to resist it as well. Coll McCail recovers the forgotten history of socialist resistance to the post WW1 settlement.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the French palace’s Hall of Mirrors, in June 1919. More than a century earlier, in the final days of the Ancien Regime, the ornate building and grounds were besieged by the working women of Paris. Having marched 12 miles from the capital, the women demanded King Louis XVI’s gluttonous court bring an end to the hunger sweeping the city. It was in the same spirit of contempt, and with much of Europe in the throws of working class revolution, that Vladimir Lenin denounced the Treaty of Versailles – and the resulting League of Nations – as a “thieves’ kitchen.”
Students around the world are taught that the conditions imposed on post-war Germany by Britain, France and the USA were used by the Nazis as a ladder to power, paving the way for the outbreak of the Second World War. While doubtless the case, this focus obscures the political and imperial ambitions of the victorious allies and their motivations in conducting international class war.
A new international order was established at Versailles. The cost of reconstruction was passed onto the German working class, and the working class across Europe. The resulting League of Nations Mandate system legitimated the latest stage of colonisation. It was, as Lenin raged in 1920, “…a treaty of robbers and plunderers” that could never inaugurate a stable peace. Though a disaster, Versailles was no simple error, caused by over-zealous peacemakers.
The agreement held Germany accountable for all the allies’ wartime “losses and damages”. The fledgling Weimar Republic was ordered to pay reparations totalling more than $400bn in today’s money – a debt only settled in 2010. Britain and France lead the scramble for German colonial assets in the Middle East and Africa. Germany’s borders tightened too, as wealth-producing regions were ceded to rival powers. France occupied the resource-rich Saar district and much of the Rhineland with the assistance of up to 100,000 soldiers. Alsace-Lorraine, home to 75% of Germany’s iron ore for 1913, was also handed to President Clemenceau’s delegation. Germany was compelled to give France, Belgium and Italy approximately eight million tonnes of coal every year for a decade. The military was depleted to a point where it posed little international threat but, crucially, was left strong enough to resist internal insurrection by German workers, who had already launched insurrections in 1918 and 1919.
In an effort to force the Germans to swallow these conditions, the wartime British naval blockade was unrelenting in spite of the armistice. “The Germans are hungry, very hungry; that is, all except the super rich,” reported one soldier to the War Office in December 1918. It was a “policy of continued starvation,” as far as another British officer was concerned.
Peace brought no rest for the German working class. The Communists regarded the Treaty of Versailles as a continuation of the war. In the early days of 1919, the Spartacist uprising swept the country while Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht led workers in Berlin out on a general strike. Then German president for the Social Democrat government, Friedrich Ebert, unleashed some 3,000 soldiers from the Freikorps – demobilised German soldiers with proto-fascist leanings – on the workers. Despite the capture, torture and murder of the uprising’s leadership, Germany’s Communist Party continued to grow. Another British Officer observed that, “Germany at the present moment is on the brink of a volcano, which may burst forth at any moment… It would be folly to suppose that the ensuing disaster would be confined to Germany.”
John Maynard Keynes had similar fears. As a representative of the British Treasury, Keynes attended the peace negotiations and, in their immediate aftermath, penned ‘The Economic Consequences of the Peace’. The book condemned the Treaty of Versailles as a “Carthaginian peace”, drawing comparisons to the Romans’ erasure of that city. Keynes was not so concerned with the burden that would be placed on the working class, but with the stability of capitalism in Europe. “If the distribution of the European coal supplies is to be a scramble in which France is satisfied first… and everyone else takes their chance, the industrial future of Europe is black and the prospects of revolution very good,” he wrote.
Rampart Against Revolution
Versailles should be understood as part of the tradition of elite European meetings, convened in periods of rapid political change and crisis to restore order. The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 established a counter-revolutionary European order in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. For delegates at Versailles, the revolution in Russia, and the support it found across Europe and beyond, was never far from their minds. Allied troops were already attacking Russia, attempting to strangle the infant revolution.
Meanwhile, President Wilson preached the principle of ‘self-determination’ to his European allies in Paris. In his history of the German revolution, Pierre Broué argues that despite inter-imperialist competition the one thing that united the interests of Britain, France and the USA was the desire to make Germany, “a rampart against Bolshevism.”
The Bolsheviks were naturally excluded from the negotiations for the treaty. According to the Communist International in Moscow: “In social terms, they aim to secure bourgeois rule over the proletariat of their own country and also with regard to the victorious Russian proletariat through an alliance of the bourgeoisies of every country.”
Nevertheless, the allies had competing aims, shaped by the drive for power in the post-war era. France pressed for as harsh a settlement as possible. With an outstanding war debt of more than $4bn and an economy in tatters, the French were reliant upon reparation payments to stay afloat. The British were more moderate. Germany had been among Britain’s largest trading partners prior to 1914, and the severity of French demands would impede the re-emergence of this market. America, confirmed as a global power and increasingly aware of its influence, sought to stabilise global markets by insisting that the belligerent countries honoured their debts.
Imposing a uniform settlement was impossible. President Wilson highlighted this fact himself: “There were three dominating factors in international relations, international transportation, international communication and petroleum,” he noted to Admiral William Bullar from Paris. “The influence which a country exercised in international affairs would be largely dependent upon these three activities.”
Under the guise of peace, the allies fought like vultures over the juiciest bits of the carcass. Clemenceau had been advised by his ambassador in Washington that “who has oil has an empire.” Oil was “more precious than gold itself.” Britain and France split the Ottoman territory of Mesopotamia between them, locking out the Americans. In September 1919, British Banker Edgar Mackay wrote that “we hold in our hands, then, secure control of the world’s oil supply.”
According to a resolution of the Communist International in 1922: “The peace treaties, with the Versailles Treaty at their heart, represent an attempt to consolidate, politically and economically, the world domination of these four victorious powers, by subjecting the rest of the world to their colonial exploitation.”
Revolution and Counter-Revolution
Amid the chaos of a new international struggle for power, some German officers in the much-reduced army sought to bring down the new German Republic. They publicly complained that the new state could neither protect Germany’s interests, nor deal a decisive blow against a restive German working class. The Kapp Putsch of March 1920 inspired a general strike in opposition. The strike spread to the vital Ruhr industrial region, under the supervision of the British, where 50,000 workers armed themselves. Ad hoc alliances of Communists, Social Democrats and trade unionists established de facto control and resisted Freikorps and regular army troops.
The Ruhr workers were isolated from the wider working class, and although the putchists were defeated, the uprising was drowned in blood, with around 1000 workers massacred by German troops – a grim repeat of the failed 1919 rising.
The Ruhr came to symbolise the choice facing Germany. It had great symbolism for the radical left, as a centre of working class power and militancy. But its occupation by French troops from 1923 made it a rallying point for radical nationalists for whom it represented a decline of German power, sovereignty and prestige.
The occupation was a French response to German failures to make reparation payments, as demanded by Versailles. At first it was resisted by workers by strikes. But it also galvanised emerging fascist factions. It was the backdrop to the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 – Hitler’s first attempt to seize power. Freikorps officers and Nazi members infiltrated the region and engaged in resistance.
This shifting momentum to the far right reflected the decline of the European wave of working class revolt. German socialists had made clear they saw the German revolution as a response to this world situation. As Communist leader Paul Levi claimed: “This is not a German event. There are no longer ‘German events’ in the world revolution.”
Revolutionary opportunities came and went again in 1921 and 1923, each time suffering from a socialist movement unprepared for a final settling of accounts. The failure to manifest an effective response to the post-war situation paved the way for the continued rise of a deadly fascism.
Today, the grounds of Versailles house an exclusive hotel. One can live like a king – or 20th century imperial diplomat – for just £2,000 a night. It seems right that a location central to the development of capitalism, first in the 18th century then again in the 20th, should today be a luxury befitting the excesses of the ruling class. The settlement orchestrated by Britain, France and the USA did not create a sustained peace. Instead that prospect was sacrificed on the altar of imperial competition, and opposition to the democratic aspirations of the working class.