The Peace Treaty which formally brought the First World War to an end was signed in Versailles, France on June 28th, 1919. The terms forced Germany to give up territories, recognize her war guilt & pay compensation to the Allies.
Germany had to surrender fifteen percent of its territory & ten percent of its population. Allied troops also occupied the Rhineland & the Saar region, two of the country’s coal producing regions, limiting the output of iron & steel; many armament factories were also closed down. Alsace & Lorraine, the provinces taken from France following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, were also returned. Germany also handed over territory to Belgium & Denmark. Large tracts of the country’s eastern territories were given to Poland. Many of Germany’s overseas colonies were also divided up between the Allies.
New countries were established on Germany’s borders. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary & Lithuania were created, while Austrian independence was assured; Danzig was also made into a free city. Many German-speaking areas would now be administered by new governments.
The German armed services were also severely restricted. The army was reduced to 100,000 men, conscription was abolished, tanks & heavy artillery were banned. The navy was limited to a small number of capital ships, & there were to be no U-Boats. Germany was not allowed to have a military air force.
The treaty was held in contempt by political parties & individuals across Germany. Political slogans called it the ‘Versailles Diktat.’ In December, 1918 an English reporter writing in the Zew Zurich newspaper noted that ‘as far as the German Army is concerned the general view is summarized in these words: it was stabbed in the back by the civil population.’
Nationalists & anti-Semites blamed the ‘stab in the back’ on traitors, black marketeers, Communists, Social Democrats & the Jewish community. The idea of betrayal appealed to soldiers returning from the trenches because many had marched home with their units to find their homeland in disarray. The German generals also wanted to believe that they had been defeated by forces beyond their control.
A Reichstag investigation later concluded that the morale of the German Army had been undermined by many internal & external factors. Although morale had fallen after the spring 1918 offensives, defeatists, pacifists, revolutionaries & corruption in Germany had reduced it further. The investigation concluded that the ‘stab in the back’ was a myth but it was a myth that the National Socialists exploited.
The League Of Nations
Towards the end of the war, plans were underway to prevent future conflicts. President Woodrow Wilson advocated the League, a group of nations formed to guarantee political independence & territorial integrity for all states, as part of his Fourteen Points of Peace. Although the formation of the League was approved at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, Wilson could not get the US to join. He was; however, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping establish it. On June 28th, 1919, 44 countries signed up to the League & on January 16th, 1920 the first meeting was held. By the mid-1920s its role expanded beyond its original remit & the number of members increased.
The Weimar Republic
Germany needed a new government & the first National Constituent Assembly planned to draw up a new constitution in Berlin in February 1919. Battles between communists & parliamentary units forced the assembly to relocate to Weimar, 150 miles to the south-west, where it drew up the constitution in the city’s National Theater. The system of government in Germany between 1919 & 1933 become known as the Weimar Republic.
The constitution provided for an elected president in place of the Kaiser, who would serve for seven years. There was a bicameral legislature, involving two debating chambers, the national Reichstag & Reichrats representing the states. The system allowed proportional representation &, for the first time, women had the vote. Delegates were returned by percentage of votes, making it difficult for a single party to gain full control. The system favored minority parties & this resulted in many unstable coalition governments. There would be twenty cabinets between February 1919 & 1933.
The system curbed the powers of the states, particularly the largest state, Prussia, which had used its size to block many decisions. The Reichrat could veto Reichstag bills. In turn the Reichstag could overrule a veto if it had a two-thirds majority, an unlikely occurrence in the multi-party politics of the era.
Although the constitution was one of the most advanced & democratic in the world at that time, it had been written to both appease the Allies & serve the Germans; in trying to do both it did neither. It had serious weaknesses, including the fact that the President could use Article 25 to dissolve the Reichstag while Article 48 gave him the right to define & declare a national emergency. He could then suspend civil rights, rule by decrees (temporary laws) & use the army to restore order. The clause was intended to protect Germany if there was an internal revolution but it was also open to exploitation.