What if the Treaty of Versailles Had Been a Just Negotiated Peace?
If the Treaty had been less harsh and had actually implemented Wilson's Fourteen Points, Hitler and the Nazis could never have come to power and World War Two and the Holocaust would have been averted
World War One was to be “the war to end all wars” and “the war to make the world safe for democracy” as moral crusader President Woodrow Wilson stated. Instead, the victory that the Allies had won at the cost of millions of soldiers’ lives was largely lost at the Treaty of Versailles. This is due in large part to the fact that the provisions of the Treaty divided Germany in two with the so-called Polish Corridor, sowing the seeds of a future war. At the time the Treaty was signed in June 1919, British Prime Minister Lloyd George despaired that the treaty would lead to a future war worse than the last within twenty-five years due to its harshness and injustices towards the defeated Germans. Unlike the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, in which the Germans granted much more generous peace terms to France following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War with France losing only 2.2% of its European territory and none of its colonies following which it built up a larger army than Germany, the Treaty of Versailles was much more punitive resulting in Germany’s loss of over 86% of its territory including its colonies. Thankfully, it was not a Carthaginian peace such as the Allies imposed on Germany in 1945 when they dismembered and largely destroyed Germany.
There is no other instance in modern recorded history where a nation surrendered conditionally where the victors tried to keep the defeated nation permanently disarmed and defenseless to foreign invasion and occupation while at the same time attempting to keep it economically prostrate as well with financial, trade, economic, industrial restrictions and reparations so crushing that it took Germany ninety-one years to pay them in full. Not surprisingly, the Treaty of Versailles had the effect of transforming Imperial Germany, which had been a satisfied power supportive of the global order with no territorial ambitions, into a revanchist state seething at the humiliation of defeat followed by an unjust peace hoping that one day it would be justly revised to reunite Germany and restore many of its lost territories, most importantly the Polish Corridor which divided Germany in two.
Thanks in large part to a book written by British economist John Maynard Keynes, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” Allied leaders in the U.S., Britain and France came to believe that they had gone too far to punish Germany and largely agreed upon a policy of revising the Treaty and reversing its most unjust provisions in order to accommodate Germany and thus avoid the outbreak of a Second World War between Germany and the Western Powers. This strategically sensible, yet accomodationist policy, was subsequently vilified by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as one of ‘appeasement,’ but in fact the strategy was sound and would have in all likelihood produced the exact national security outcomes its proponents sought had it been logically followed through to include the return of Danzig and an elevated rail/road corridor connecting East Prussia with the rest of Germany by ensuring that Germany turned any aggressive intentions it may have had eastward towards the Soviet Union, which we now know was Adolph Hitler’s plan all along.
Also, unlike 1945 when Germany surrendered unconditionally only after being completely overrun by Allied troops, their armies remained largely undefeated occupying areas of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Baltics, Western Russia and Ukraine. They had won the war in the East against Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed earlier that year. Russia and Allied troops had captured no German territory other than a small slice of Alsace-Lorraine. The reason for surrender was due to the Bolshevik-led and mutinies of their sailors and soldiers, which in turn were caused by the successful Anglo-American starvation blockade which served to greatly demoralized them, without which they might have fought the war in the West to a draw.
Historians are in general agreement that it was the unusually punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that served as the primary catalyst that enabled the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to power, which in turn produced World War II and the Jewish Holocaust costing the lives of an estimated fifty million people. But what if President Woodrow Wilson had succeeded in prevailing upon the victorious Allied powers to grant the defeated Germans a negotiated compromise peace agreement which might have provided a just and lasting peace not only for the victorious Allies but also to the vanquished Germans? After all, unlike the case at the end of World War II, in November 1918, Germany surrendered conditionally to the Allies based upon Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ mistakenly believing that they would be treated fairly.
What if Germany had not allowed their armies to melt away as in actual history but rather had only withdrawn them from Belgium and most of northern France as they had offered to do from August 1916-September 1917 following an armistice period while negotiating the final terms of their surrender from a position of military strength rather than abject weakness? What if reason had prevailed upon the Americans and British to veto French demands for a more punitive peace treaty in favor of negotiating one based upon the right of self-determination for the defeated Germans and Austrians instead? What then would such a compromise peace have looked like?
Immediate End to the Illegal Anglo-American Starvation Blockade
In actual history, the Allies continued the starvation blockade, which was illegal under international law, in place for over seven and a half months after the signing of the Armistice in order to help force them to sign the punitive Treaty of Versailles. This starvation blockade resulted in an estimated one million deaths of innocent German civilians and the starvations of hundreds of thousands more in Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. However, if the peace agreement was a negotiated settlement, then there would be no need for such a stark measure designed to blackmail German leaders into capitulating and accepting unacceptably harsh treaty terms forced on them with a threat of an immediate invasion of all of Germany by the Allies.
No ‘War Guilt’ Clause
Article 231, the so-called ‘War Guilt’ clause, of the Treaty of Versailles was seen by the victorious Allies as logical and necessary to justify the exorbitant level of reparations of 132 billion gold marks in the Treaty. However, most historians have rightly concluded that Germany having to admit to total guilt in starting World War I was an unnecessary humiliation which added insult to injury. It was also not entirely factually accurate. It was Austria-Hungary, not Germany, more than any other country, which was principally responsible for starting the war, which resulted in the breakup and dismemberment of their empire as well as the breakup and dismemberment of Germany herself via the Polish Corridor.
French guilt for the outbreak of war was also much greater than most people realize given that French President Poincaré gave the Russians a blank cheque of unlimited French military support if they mobilized their army against Germany, which in turn caused Germany to mobilize its army and invade France, Belgium and Luxembourg upon fear of encirclement by the Allies. Furthermore, according to the excellent book, “The Failure to Prevent World War I”, there is evidence that French military intelligence may have supported Serbian military intelligence in its assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that led to the outbreak of the First World War, to prevent him from making good on his plans to reinstate the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia and Germany which would have undermined the Franco-Russian alliance which France viewed as the cornerstone of French security. Archduke Ferdinand also met with the Kaiser in 1911 and 1914 to discuss his proposal to make his son Maximillian the Grand Duke of Alsace-Lorraine with the Kaiser granting it full autonomy within the German Empire, whose return by peace or war was the utmost concern of French foreign policy so the French had many reasons to want him dead. The ‘War Guilt’ clause along with the massive amount of reparations the Allies levied on Germany, which conservative German leaders railed against the most during the period of the Weimar Republic, provided considerable rhetorical ammunition and impetus to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Moderate, Not Heavy Reparations
The Treaty provision for exacting crushing reparations upon Germany, even more than the starvation blockade, was totally despised by the German people and led to a total collapse of the German economy due to hyperinflation by 1923 paving the way for Hitler and the Nazis to take power a little over a decade later. The Versailles Treaty left the level of German reparations as unlimited but in 1921 the Allies set them at 132 billion gold marks which Germany did not pay off in full until over ninety years later. The British, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, were supportive of moderate reparations but the French insisted they be maximized to the greatest possible extent.
However, had they set reparations at a more reasonable amount such as 10 billion gold marks, to be paid in full by 1923, after crediting the value of Germany’s surrendered colonies and eighteen surrendered dreadnaught battleships and battlecruisers towards its obligations to lessen the blow of their loss and help retain German honor. If the Allies had credited the value of Germany’s surrendered dreadnaughts to reparations, then Germany would not have scuttled her surrendered fleet at Scapa Flow, knowing that if it did it would have to pay several billion more in reparations if it did. This amount was within Germany’s ability to pay, and if it was required for them to pay it off within four years, it would have been much less of a sore point with the German people, making them much less likely to support a national socialist revolutionary like Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party. That level of reparations would be similar to the five billion francs reparations figure that Germany levied against France following the War of 1871, which itself was based on the level of reparations that Napoleon had levied upon Prussia in 1807. A just treaty might have allowed for a temporary French occupation of the Rhineland until Germany had paid its reparations in full by 1923 just as the Prussian occupation of northern France had only lasted four years.
At most, the Allies could have imposed a total of up to 20 billion gold marks to be paid off within ten years, which is what Germany paid up to 1929 in actual history, again with a French military withdrawal from Rhineland tied to payment in full. This would have incentivized the Germans to pay off the total sum years earlier to free the Rhineland from Allied occupation. Assessing the Germans any higher reparations would have only served to help ensure the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to power just as it did in actual history. Many historians now agree that it was the Young Plan Referendum in 1929 that was viewed by many if not most Germans as a capitulation to continue to honor the terms of the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty, most notably reparations payments, that catapulted Adolf Hitler from total obscurity to a mainstream political figure that was speaking alongside much venerated World War I heroes. It was in large part due to this five month political campaign against the Young Plan Referendum that enabled the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party to increase its share of the vote from 2.6% in the 1928 election to 18 in 1930 and 37% in 1932 making the Nazi Party the largest political party in the Reichstag. Had reparations payments, along with the French occupation of the Rhineland, ended in 1923, Hitler likely would have remained a forever obscure figure and conservatives would have remained aligned with the more moderate right-wing parties instead consigning Hitler and the Nazis to an asterisk of German history. It is no exaggeration to say that if the Allies had ended reparations by 1929 instead of merely reducing them with the Young Plan, Hitler and the Nazis never would have come to power.
Finally and even more importantly than lowering the total amount of reparations payments, under a just negotiated peace agreement, the Allies would not have not have imposed harsh economic, financial, trade or industrial restrictions and controls on Germany designed to cripple her ability to recover economically and pay reparations for nearly a decade. The Allies even forced Germany to surrender her entire merchant fleet which had no military value whatsoever and which was absolutely critical to her near-term economic recovery. A just treaty would have allowed Germany to keep its entire merchant fleet, which was the second largest in the world and would have allowed it to trade with other countries so it could sell its manufactured goods to other countries and earn the foreign currency to pay off all of its reparations within four years. Without such harsh restrictions, Germany would likely have been able to pay twice or even three times as much reparations as it did in actual history within the same period of time without serious disruption to its economy.
Shorten Allied Occupation of the Rhineland
The Treaty of Versailles mandated that the Rhineland along with three bridgeheads on the left bank of the Rhine River be occupied by French troops for a period of sixteen years until 1935 after which it would become a permanently demilitarized zone thus allowing the Western Allies to re-occupy western Germany at their whim whenever they thought it was necessary to enforce the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles to ensure Germany remained unilaterally disarmed, prostrate and unable to determine its own destiny. This, of course, is exactly what the French and Belgians did in 1923 when they invaded the Ruhr industrial region killing a number of German civilians who engaged in non-violent resistance, collapsing the German economy leading to hyperinflation and its currency to become worthless.
U.S. and British leaders were so offended by this unprovoked Franco-Belgian aggression against Germany that they withdrew their troops from the Rhineland and Britain broke off its military alliance with France for sixteen years. When Hitler moved to re-occupy the Rhineland in 1936, some of the most Germanophobic Allied leaders such as Winston Churchill, who had previously expressed admiration for Hitler, denounced it as an invasion and an act of aggression though it would seem hard to credibly argue that occupying one’s own territory could in any way be painted as an invasion. Strangely, liberal historians continue to paint this move to enforce Germany’s national sovereignty as a military aggression--against whom exactly they cannot say.
Rather than have the French occupy the Rhineland and three bridgeheads on the left bank of the Rhine River until 1935, a just treaty would have mandated a briefer French occupation of the Rhineland alone until 1923, allowing Germany to fortify the left bank of the Rhine against potential French aggression as soon as the war ended. In exchange for a shorter Allied occupation, Germany would agree to leave the Rhineland demilitarized until 1935 at which point its armed forces could return and construct defensive fortifications along their new post-war border with France to protect against another potential French invasion, providing it remained in full compliance with the Treaty. In addition, a just treaty would not have allowed France to turn the Saarland region of western Germany into a French colony to be exploited for its ample resources of coal for sixteen years.
No provision for Kaiser Wilhelm II to be tried for war crimes
The Treaty of Versailles requirement that nine-hundred German political and military leaders including Kaiser Wilhelm II would be tried for war crimes, was unjust as, arguably, the only ‘war crimes’ he was accused of was invading France, Belgium and Luxembourg and authorizing unrestricted submarine warfare during part of the war. However, the truth was that the Kaiser had gone to some lengths to avoid a breakout of war including asking Austria to accept a temporary occupation of the Serbian capital of Belgrade supported by the Allied powers as punishment for the Serb assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and pleading for the Russians not to mobilize their Army. The Kaiser also ordered the German Army Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke not to invade France or Belgium but to attack Russia instead after Britain’s Foreign Minister offered Britain’s guarantee that both France and Britain would remain neutral in the event of an Austro-German war with the Russian Empire. Unfortunately, for Germany, von Moltke deliberately disobeyed the Kaiser’s orders and invaded Belgium and Luxembourg anyway, provoking the Kaiser to exclaim, “Your uncle would have given me a different answer!” thus ensuring British entry into the war and dooming Germany to virtually guaranteed defeat at Allied hands due to the illegal starvation blockade.
A treaty provision which merely barred the old Kaiser from ever resuming his previous role as Germany’s constitutional monarch in recognition of his limited role in initiating the conflict would have been more reasonable, but not to try him for presumed ‘war crimes.’ Arguably, the only significant war crime committed during the war, aside from the brief practice of ‘unrestricted warfare’ by German U-boats, was the illegal (under international law) Anglo-American starvation blockade which, as previously noted, killed an estimated one million innocent German civilians alone from 1914-1919, not counting other Central Powers civilians. This was later recognized by the victorious Allies in the Nuremberg Trials following World War II when it was decided that Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz would not be prosecuted for the war crime of unrestricted submarine warfare due to the fact that the Allies had again employed an illegal starvation naval blockade against Germany.
Ultimately, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated all claim for himself and his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, to the German throne in November 2018. The Kaiser was succeeded by Social Democrat Party leader and Chancellor Friedrich Ebert as Germany made its transition to the Weimar Republic and constitutional republican governance. Had Germany remained a monarchy, the German Army’s oath of allegiance to the Kaiser would have made it all but impossible for Hitler (or anyone else) to become dictator of Germany or to take personal control of the German armed forces, even if he had still managed to be appointed as Germany’s Chancellor.
Germany to withdraw from all occupied territories
Just as in actual history, Germany would be required to withdraw all of its troops from northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Poland. If the new German eastern frontier with Poland had been resolved based on the results of plebiscites (i.e. a vote of the people residing in those territories) rather than by Polish military conquest, the chances of good relations between the two countries following World War I would have been increased significantly. In fact, the Poles might have even requested German military assistance when it appeared they were losing the Polish Soviet war in 1920, before they succeeded in turning the tables at the Battle of Warsaw, leading to improved German-Polish relations that would have likely enabled them to avoid future military conflicts and perhaps even ally together again in defense against inevitable future Soviet aggression.
Germany to surrender many of the same territories to the Allies that it lost in actual history
Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost over 86% of its territory including its colonial empire and 13.5% of its territory and 12.5% of its population in Europe. Under a just negotiated treaty, France would still have annexed Alsace-Lorraine which was German speaking but which was French controlled from the time of Napoleon to 1871, but would grant it autonomy and guarantee the rights of the German speaking population. Denmark would still have annexed northern Schleswig, but perhaps Belgium would not have annexed the Eupen-Malmedy district to which it had no historical claim.
Germany, having not united until 1871, joined the colonial game late and had comparatively few colonies compared to the vast colonial empires of France and the United Kingdom. Accordingly, its loss of its colonies, with the possible exceptions of Kameroon, German Southwest Africa and Kaiser Wilhelmsland that she had only possessed for 30-40 years would not likely have had a major negative impact to its national pride providing that Germany was credited for the loss of her colonies and her fleet for their full value against the reparations demanded by the Allies. France, Britain, Japan and Australia ended up divvying up Germany’s colonies between them after the war. However, in the case of Japan, those colonies were subsequently used as jumping off points for future aggression during the Pacific War.
Relocate ‘the Polish Corridor’ to the Baltic Sea so it didn’t divide Germany
One of Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ was guaranteed Polish access to the Baltic Sea. A just treaty would have permitted Poland to annex some of the same territories she annexed from Germany in actual history. However, any peace treaty based on the ‘Fourteen Points,’ which included the right of self-determination, should have mandated plebiscites in Posen and West Prussia (which united East Prussia with the rest of Germany) and honor the one in Silesia to let them decide whether to remain German or not, which the Allies didn’t in actual history. This was likely due to the fact that in all three plebiscites that they did allow (two in East Prussia and one in Upper Silesia), the residents of the territories polled voted to remain part of Germany and they likely feared Posen and West Prussia, which were captured by the Poles in the months after the war, would likely have voted to remain German as well. In the Locarno treaties of 1925 between Germany and the Allied powers, Germany gave up all claims to lost western territories, most notably Alsace-Lorraine. However, the Allies deliberately left open the possibility that Germany would be permitted an adjustment to its borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia, seeming to acknowledge the injustice of forcing Germans to live under foreign rule and perhaps more importantly the importance of returning the Polish Corridor to Germany to avoid another potential world war. Ultimately, the principle of self-determination should have been honored and if Posen and West Prussia had voted to remain with Germany, they should have been allowed to do so.
Rather than dividing Germany in two with the Polish Corridor and thus guaranteeing the outbreak of a Second World War fought to reunite Germany with East Prussia, a negotiated peace agreement might have mandated that the German port city of Memel would become a free city (similar to Danzig in actual history) or a condominium jointly administered by Poland and Lithuania. The territory north of the port of Memel would be annexed by Lithuania while the territory south of Memel would remain German. Poland would conclude a customs union with Lithuania permanently guaranteeing the Poles access to the sea via Memel with a rail corridor to Poland if necessary. This would forgo the need for the creation of the Polish Corridor which divided Germany and which along with the 95% ethnic German city of Danzig was the principal, if not only, reason for the outbreak of World War II between Germany and the Western Powers. In actual history, Marshal Josef Pilsudski, the first head of the newly reconstituted Polish state, was keen to recreate the historic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and a mandatory customs union guaranteeing Poland access to Lithuanian ports along the Baltic Sea is something he likely would have appreciated as a meaningful first step towards that objective. If Lithuania had refused, which it would not likely have done, then the next step would have been the restoration of some kind of Polish-Lithuanian Confederation, which Lithuania, fearful of potential Polish dominance, would likely want to avert.
Yet another possibility, proposed in a Foreign Affairs article, entitled, “A New Polish Corridor”, dated October 1933, soon after Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler of Germany, would have been for Germany to have ceded a twenty-five kilometer wide corridor to the Baltic Sea along the border of East Prussia with Lithuania, requiring the construction of a new Baltic port, in exchange for the return of Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Had they done so, even in the unlikely event Hitler had come to power, the Germans would never have had no cause to fight another war to regain lost territory and reunite their country which was artificially divided in two by the Polish Corridor in actual history. Lastly, the Treaty could have simply called for the creation of an international railway between Warsaw and Danzig guaranteeing Polish access to the Baltic Sea as President Wilson originally proposed.
Compensate Germany for its Territorial Losses with a deferred Anschluss with Austria in 1938
As previously stated, under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost over 86% of its territory including its colonial empire and 12.5% of its European population. However, the sting of these territorial losses particularly pf its most capital regions such as Prussia could have been much lessoned if not overcome entirely had the Allies been willing to compensate Germany with a deferred Anschluss with Austria including what came to be known as the Sudetenland as President Woodrow Wilson had advocated. It is a little known fact that the ethically German Republic of German Austria voted for an Anschluss with its larger German neighbor in November 1918 shortly after Austria-Hungary’s surrender to the Allies. Under the principle of self-determination which was one of Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points,’ both Austria and the Sudetenland, should have been allowed to join in some kind of political and economic union with Germany since that represented the desire of the vast majority of their citizens.
What many people do not realize is that many of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s initial territorial claims were viewed as legitimate by a number of British and French leaders due to the fact that the Allies had violated President Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to self-determination and placed several million ethnic Germans under Polish and Czech rule against their will. This of course is why both British and French leaders were willing to ‘appease’ Hitler with German-populated territories in Austria and the Sudetenland in the Munich Pact of 1938 since the German citizens of those territories were extremely supportive of uniting with Germany.
The Allies were in such a vengeful mood after the First World War that any proposal to allow self-determination for the Austrian Germans aside from a customs union, would have been guaranteed to be rejected by the Allies even as part of a negotiated peace settlement and would likely have to be revisited many years later as in actual history. A good compromise between the American and the Franco-British position on this issue might have that Germany would be allowed to form a customs union and sign a mutual defense treaty with Austria after the treaty was signed but would be prohibited from forming an Anschluss with Austria until 1938 at which time a plebiscite would be held in Austria, so long as Germany remained in strict compliance with the terms of the peace treaty on whether it still wished to unify with Germany or not.
In addition, rather than force 3-3.5 million Sudeten Germans to live under Czech rule, the Sudetenland would be divided between Germany and Austria with each country annexing the portion of it that was contiguous to its own territory in accordance with the Wilsonian principle of self-determination. Furthermore, Austria would be allowed to keep all of the contiguous ethnic German areas of Austria-Hungary that it claimed as the Republic of German Austria in accordance with the map above including the South Tyrol but excepting the portion of the Sudetenland that bordered on Germany. The hope of unifying with Austria would likely have ensured German leaders remained in strict compliance with the terms of the peace settlement while removing any reason for future German military aggression, making Germany a satisfied rather than a revanchist power, thus helping to ensure a lasting peace between the great powers excluding the Soviet Union.
Restrict the Size of the German Army to a More Reasonable Size
The Treaty of Versailles was designed to unilaterally disarm the German armed forces of its ability to defend Germany against foreign aggression and perpetuate a permanent state of German military inferiority not only in terms of quantitative forces but in terms of quality of arguments as well. Hitler was elected in large part on the basis that he was calling for equality of armaments for Germany either proposing that Britain, France and the Soviet Union disarm of their heavy tanks, heavy artillery, airships and poison gas or that Germany be permitted to re-arm to their levels. In furtherance of this objective, the treaty limited the size of the German Army to a ridiculously low level of 100,000 active-duty volunteers and banned them from possessing tanks, armored cars, combat aircraft, airships, heavy artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery (which are entirely defensive weapons), battleships, battlecruisers, aircraft carriers, heavy cruisers, submarines and chemical weapons. These unilateral disarmament provisions banning them from doing so were unprecedented in modern history and were never forced upon any other defeated power including most notably Napoleonic France which had terrorized Europe for nearly a quarter century of continuous warfare but at the Treaty of Paris lost no territory and was even allowed to keep some of its ill-gotten territorial gains during the conflict. Similarly, following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, under the Treaty of Frankfurt ending the war, the Germans imposed a lenient peace upon the defeated French that did not limit the size or armaments of the French military in any way, in which they only lost their provinces of Alsace and part of Lorraine which comprised a little more than 2% of their territory and got to keep their entire colonial empire. In fact, from 1875 onward when all German troops were withdrawn from French territory, the Treaty of Frankfurt did not restrict France in any way other than to require them to continue to grant Most Favored Nation trade status to Germany.
The picture above is an advanced German tank design circa 1918 for a new 21-ton medium tank of a type that would have been allowed under a revised Treaty of Versailles which banned only heavy tanks weighing over 25 tons.
Instead of disarming Germany far below its needs for self-defense, the Allies should have simply banned conscription while limiting the size of the German Army to no more than 345,000 active-duty volunteers with three-year minimum periods of enlistment to limit the number of its reserve troops to a more reasonable number. This is the exact same limitation on the maximum size of the German Army which was imposed by the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany in 1990 and would constitute a force over two and a half times smaller than the size of the standing French Army before World War II.
A negotiated peace treaty might have only banned Germany from building airships, armored cars (except for internal policing purposes), heavy tanks (over 25 tons) , heavy (four engine) bombers, artillery larger than 155mm in caliber and poison gas. This would still allow Germany to build light and medium tanks, fighters, attack aircraft, medium bombers, light and medium artillery, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft weapons. Limiting the size of the German Army would have likely caused the Germans to focus on developing a more mobile army with more modern equipment to compensate for their quantitative disadvantage. They might have modernized their smaller army into one which was fully motorized and perhaps even mostly mechanized (consisting of tanks and half-tracks) including better armed and armored tanks than actual history with up to a half of their army consisting of Panzer and Panzer Grenadier divisions.
After the war ended, the German Army melted away as Germany was wracked with mutinies and Communist revolutions after the November 11, 1918 armistice. The meltdown of the once mighty Imperial German Army, which had defeated the mighty Russian Empire and held the Allies at bay at the Western front for over four years, was so pronounced that it could not even defend its own territory against the fledgling Polish forces in the east. Due to the fact that the Allies banned Germany’s small army from defending itself against international aggression by the French, the Belgians and the Poles, the newly organized Polish Army managed to single-handedly conquer West Prussia and Posen in the seven and a half months between when the Armistice was concluded and the Versailles Treaty was signed on June 28, 1919 long before the restrictions of the Treaty on the size of the German Army had been finalized.
In actual history, the Allies demanded the Germans surrender 30,000 machine guns and 30,000 artillery pieces right after the Armistice is signed while it was forced to destroy all of its aircraft, airships, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, heavy artillery and what few tanks it had in its possession, consisting of mostly captured Allied models. Rather than mandate the surrender of the vast majority of its machine guns and artillery, a negotiated peace agreement might have merely mandated Germany to surrender all heavy artillery and siege guns to the Allies since unlike machine guns and field artillery which were primarily defensive in nature, heavy artillery and siege guns (defined as all artillery and mortars with calibers larger than 155mm) were viewed as offensive weapons designed to create gaps in enemy frontlines which could be exploited. A further potential benefit to the Allies of allowing Germany to keep most of its World War One arsenal would be that in any future conflict, many if not most of its weapons would likely be obsolescent as was the case of the French Army in 1940 in actual history as they would not have felt the need to build many new ones. The exception might have been tanks of which they essentially had none due to the foolish decisions of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff in discounting their value, viewing them as overly vulnerable to artillery fire, as well as the fact that the British naval blockade meant that Germany lacked sufficient industrial materials to build them in large numbers.
Limit the Size of the German Navy to 35% of the Royal Navy
Much like its limitations on the size of the German Army, the Treaty of Versailles limited the German Navy to a ridiculous extent. Only six pre-dreadnaught battleships (which had already been rendered obsolete and retired from service before the war’s end) plus two more in reserve, six light cruisers of no more than 10,000-ton displacement, twelve destroyers and twelve torpedo boats were permitted for the new Reichsmarine. Yet, as Great Britain herself ended up conceding beginning with the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, only comparative tonnage on dreadnaught-class battleships and later aircraft carriers was of real significance. In actual history, the British ordered sixteen of the Imperial Germany Navy’s twenty-four battleships and battlecruisers to sail to the Royal Navy Home Fleet naval base of Scapa Flow in November 1918 where the Germans proceeded to scuttle all sixteen in June 1919 rather than allow them to end up in enemy hands. Germany’s eight remaining dreadnaughts, which did not end up being scuttled, were then seized as war prizes and largely used for target practice as in the case of the SMS Ostfriesland which was sunk by U.S. Army Brigadier General Jimmy Mitchell in 1921 in the first case of a bomber sinking a capitol ship in history.
SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, last of the Konig class battleships (Official Royal Navy Photographer - Imperial War Museum)
A negotiated peace settlement might have forced the German Navy to surrender all but but six of its dreadnaught battleships, which would have equated to a 75% reduction in the size of its dreadnaught fleet, leaving it with a total capital ship tonnage equivalent to less than one-seventh that of the Royal Navy whose order of battle then included thirty-two ‘dreadnaught’ and ‘super-dreadnaught’ battleships, twelve battlecruisers and one aircraft carrier. Rather than prohibiting Germany from possessing submarines, it could have merely limited the size of its U-boat fleet to no more than 50-60 coastal defense submarines of no more than 550 tons in displacement while allowing them to keep all of their remaining cruisers and destroyers. Obtaining an interim 7 to 1 advantage over the German Navy and confiscating all but three of her overseas colonies, should have entirely allayed British concerns that Germany would ever again seek to challenge the naval supremacy of the Royal Navy.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 would have been a just basis to limit the size of any future rebuilt German Navy to 35% of that of the total tonnage of the British in terms of battleships—which would have limited the size of their battleship fleet to the same size as the French and Italian fleets under the Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1922 at no more than 175,000 when the Royal Navy was at its smallest that it had been in decades. It would also have ensured British naval supremacy over the Germans. Once Germany, had paid its reparations in full in 1923, Germany should have been allowed to build new capital ships up to 31,000 tons in displacement with main guns up to 15 inches while staying within the six battleship limit. That tonnage limit would force them to sacrifice either armor or speed and keeping their design inferior to newer British and American battleships and battlecruisers, thus ensuring British naval supremacy both in quantiative and qualitative terms over German battleships. The Germans would have been forced to build only battlecruisers rather than well-armored battleships. But given the sorry state of the German economy particularly during the envisioned reparations payment period from 1919-1923 and during the Great Depression from 1929-1933, there would likely be little funding or political will to rebuild her naval forces for many years at least. Nevertheless, within 25 years of the treaty being signed, Germany might have built a fleet of up to three fleet aircraft carriers and several light 10,000-ton aircraft carriers, which history proved of greater importance to serve alongside up to a half dozen battleships.
A just, negotiated peace agreement would have allowed Germany to keep all of its merchant fleet, which like its navy was the second largest in the world at the time, and removed all of the financial, trade economic, and industrial controls and limitations imposed by the Allies which caused its economy to crash in 1923 and its currency to become worthless leading to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. British Prime Minister Lloyd George sought to lessen these restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles to allow its economy to recover quickly to allow it to pay off all of its reparations to the Allies as swiftly as possible, however, the French and the Belgians demanded crushing reparations while at the same time crippling Germany’s economy and its ability to pay them.
Welcome Defeated Germany Back into the Fellowship of Nations
In actual history, Germany was denied the right to join the League of Nations until 1926. Under a more just treaty, Germany would be allowed to become a founding member of the League of Nations and to join its Executive Council alongside the other great powers once its reparations payments had been paid in full as early as 1923. At that time, a four-power Concert of Europe consisting of Britain, France, Germany and Italy would be re-organized to negotiate all future international disputes through peaceful diplomatic means. Friendly trade relations between the warring powers would resume immediately after the signing of the Treaty in order to ensure a more rapid economic recovery for the war-torn nations of Europe.
Given these more reasonable terms it would have been highly likely that the terms of a more just Treaty of Versailles would have been honored by the Germans at least until they were called upon to fight a defensive war and even then, they likely would have abided by the terms limiting the size of their navy indefinitely in order to remain in Britain’s good graces. Such a compromise peace would have likely satisfied all of the victorious Allies but the French who would have loudly protested the failure of the treaty to fully disarm Germany while the Czechs and to a lesser extent the Poles would have been less satisfied with their failure to annex additional ethnically German territories as they did in actual history. However, banning the Germans from utilizing conscription to train a large force of reserves capable of being mobilized in two-weeks’ notice in the event of war should have satisfied French concerns that the German armed forces would remain small and ensure French quantitative superiority over them at the outset of any potential future war while incentivizing the Germans to focus on peaceful economic, trade and industrial rather than military, pursuits. France could likely have allayed such fears by concluding some sort of mutual defense agreement with both the Poles and with the Soviets as in actual history. However, as in actual history any mutual defense agreement, the French concluded with the Soviets would have proven hollow particularly if the Soviets, not the Germans, were the ones engaging in unprovoked aggressions in Europe in the years to come.
So now that we have outlined a just peace with a defeated Germany to replace the unjust Treaty of Versailles, other than averting the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Jewish Holocaust and German aggression leading to the outbreak of World War Two, how exactly would this more just alternate history timeline have played out? You can read this article to find out.
© David T. Pyne 2022
David T. Pyne, Esq. is a former U.S. Army combat arms and H.Q. staff officer with an M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University. He currently serves as Deputy Director of National Operations for the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security and is a contributor to Dr. Peter Pry’s new book Blackout Warfare. He also serves as the host of the Defend America Radio Show on KTALK AM 1640 and as Editor of “The Real War” newsletter at dpyne.substack.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org