The Versailles Connection – The Aftermath of WWI as a Catalyst of the Second World War

by Henryk Jaronowski

Mr. Serra

Ms. Walter

Spring 1998

Period 11

World War Two was a terrible and destructive war. Although many dynamics led to the advent of World War Two, the catalyst of the Second World War was actually the aftermath of the First World War. The First World War’s aftermath set the stage for the rise of Hitler.

On Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice was signed by the German commanders in the railcar of the French commander, Ferdinand Foch, ending the actual combat of World War One. The debacle of the First World War, which killed between 10 to 13 million people, demanded retribution. The Allies needed to draw up a treaty which formally ended hostilities between the Allies and the Central Powers. This treaty, which was called the Treaty of Versailles, was signed on June 28, 1919 and came into effect January 10, 1920. The treaty, while providing a formal peace between the Central Powers and most of the Allies (China and America), was not well liked by the Germans. They were made to agree to it under the treat of invasion by the Allies. They called it a Diktat, or slave-treaty. The treaty was very harsh towards the Germans. The treaty affected borders, hurt Germany, and created international institutions.

The Treaty of Versailles changed many borders and created new countries. Out of parts of the former German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires, Poland was formed. Out of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, a multitude of smaller nations were formed. Germany’s size was decreased, while the sizes of France and Italy were increased. The Poles were given a “corridor” to the sea, cutting the remainder of East Prussia off from the main part of the German state. Danzig, a city in the Corridor, was not put under German or Polish control, but under a Leagues of Nations administered republic nominally independent of Poland and Germany. These new borders, in the end, contributed to the genesis of the Second World War.

The Treaty of Versailles was detrimental to Germany in the extreme. The Germans were required to accept responsibility for the start of World War One. The Germans had to pay substantial war reparations to the victorious Allies for the damage caused by World War One. These reparations, if they had ever been paid in full, would have burdened the German economy until the year 1988 under the plan Germany adopted. These reparations angered the German people and broke the German economy. The German government didn’t have enough money to pay the reparations, so they had to print more. The German mark became almost worthless. In 3 months in 1923, the exchange rate of the German mark to the dollar went from 4.6 million marks to the dollars to 4.2 trillion marks to the dollar. Instead of the strong monarchy that Germany had known before the war, the Treaty of Versailles set up a weak republic in Germany. This republic, called the Weimar republic because it’s capital was Weimar, was generally not well liked by the German people. The Germans had to drastically reduce the size of their army and eliminate their navy and air force entirely. The Treaty of Versailles was very harsh on the Germans and soured the German outlook on the rest of Europe and on the world in general.

The Treaty of Versailles created many new international organizations. Two of these were the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of International Justice. The Permanent Court of International Justice was a court where grievances of nations and by nations could be aired and adjudicated. The League of Nations was the forerunner of the United Nations but it did not have nearly as much power as that international organization. Only a few nations ever joined the League of Nations, and the United States of America was never a member. The USSR joined in 1934, but was discharged in 1939. In the end, these new international organizations could not stop initiation of the Second World War.

The First World War had many effects other then those directly attributable to the Treaty of Versailles. 10 to 13 million people were killed, one third of them civilians. In some parts of France, 1 out of 4 young men were lost in action due to the war. After the war, the Allies owed $10 billion for the voluminous financial aid given them. The Germans were hard-pressed to pay the considerable war-reparations forced on them and because of these debts, the world was in financial trouble. The governments who had to pay these debts just printed more money and it was because of this that inflation ran rampant. The world, after going through the carnage of the First World War, lost its optimism and became very pessimistic.

Adolf Hitler, a soldier in the German army who ended the war with the rank of corporal, was very bitter about the German defeat in the First World War. He shared the popular belief that the Germans had not been defeated in the field but had been “stabbed in the back” by traitors at home. He thought that the Jews had been among those traitors. He was extremely anti-Semitic. In the autumn of 1919 he joined the German Worker’s Party. He eventually came to control it and rename it the NSDAP (German acronym for “National Socialist German Workers’ Party” or Nazi Party). In 1923 he, along with the then small Nazi Party, tried to stage a revolt in the form of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch (German for revolt), which failed. After the Putsch failed, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison, of which he only served 9 months. He used these nine months well. During the time he was is prison, he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a book which outlined the brutal policies which he so coldly put into motion after he took power. He thought that democracy was evil and it only led to the advent of Communism as a form of government.

During the middle to late 1920′s, Germany was beginning to recover economically. This hurt the NSDAP, which was preaching a solid Nazi party line of hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, blaming others for the ills of society, and intolerance. Luckily for the Nazis, the Great Depression started, triggered by the Great Crash of 1929. This threw Germany’s fragile economy into a fit of depression and cleared the way for the Nazis to come to power. The Great Depression gave the Nazis the chance to tone down the bigotry and to say that they were going to help Germany out of the Depression. The German workingman still hated the Treaty of Versailles and the Allied victory and wanted to believe that Germany had been stabbed in the back by people from within. The Nazis promised revenge for the Diktat of Versailles. They promised to “throw off the shackles of Versailles” and punish those who were “responsible” for Germany’s defeat and those who had “stabbed Germany in the back”.

Hitler promised to clear Germany of Communists and other “enemies of the people”. Most German people of the time didn’t want Hitler as chancellor, because they knew he’d turn himself into a dictator. But the often too influential “screaming minority” and many people including notable German industrialists and Oskar von Hindenburg (the German chancellor’s son) wanted Hitler as chancellor. A deal was worked out by January 30, 1933 in which Hitler would become chancellor of Germany but the Nazis would only get two seats in the Cabinet. On February 27, 1933 a fire was started that destroyed the Reichstag building which housed the German Parliament. The Nazis quickly blamed the Communists and elections for a new Reichstag were held on March 5, 1933. Even after using terror to influence voters, the Nazis only got 43.9 percent of the vote. On the day that the new Reichstag convened, the Communist delegates were locked out. This gave the Nazis a majority and this majority declared Hitler dictator via the Enabling Act, a law which in essence suspended basic human and civil rights for 4 years. The Gestapo (secret police) hunted down enemies of the Nazis and shot them. By the time von Hindenburg died in August 1934, the Hitler ruled Germany completely. He gave himself the title Fuhrer und Reichskanzler (leader and empire chancellor).

Soon after Hitler had taken power, he started disobeying the Treaty of Versailles. In 1933 he started preparing Germany for war in violation of the treaty. In 1936 he sent German troops into the Rhineland, a flagrant violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In March of 1938 he annexed Austria. He annexed Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Neville Chamberlain, then British Prime Minister, and other world leaders made no move to prevent Hitler’s deplorable imperialism. Hitler then wanted Poland. But on March 30, 1939 France and the United Kingdom issued guarantees of Polish independence. This guarantee alienated the Soviet Union, which swallowed up the eastern half of Poland in cooperation with Nazi Germany. Hitler wanted war and invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. This caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany soon after. “It was in virtue of this that we went to war.” said William Strang, British Foreign Office Official and later Permanent Under-Secretaty regarding the guarantee France and Britain made of Polish independence on Mar. 30, 1939. A few days after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 Britain and France made formal declarations of war on Germany.

The aftermath of World War One was the real catalyst of the Second World War. The Treaty of Versailles left many loose threads and didn’t completely satisfy any party involved. Hitler and Germany as a whole were bitter about Germany’s defeat and Hitler capitalized on that bitterness to take the reins of power in Germany. Hitler then started annexing countries and expanding Germany’s territories as an expression of his defiance of the Treaty of Versailles and desire for a return to German empire. Perhaps no better example of Hitler’s bitterness exists than his making the French surrender in the same railcar where the Germans signed the armistice that ended the real combat of World War One. Although many dynamics instigated the Second World War, the real catalyst of the Second World War was the occurrence of the first.

Bibliography:

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