The Triumph of the Will and The Treaty of Versailles

April 29, 2012 | | Comments Off on The Triumph of the Will and The Treaty of Versailles

 The Triumph of the Will

            In September of 1934, Leni Riefenstahl documented the annual Reich Party Congress. Her opening lines: “Twenty years after the outbreak of the World War, sixteen years after the start of German suffering, nineteen months after the start of Germany’s rebirth, Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremburg to hold a military display.”[1] Riefenstahl would go on to show the unity and power of the National Socialist Party presented during the convention. This display of political and military prowess was the calculated decision of the Nazi party, in an attempt to show the nation that Germany would be subservient to no one—especially the powers which aligned to craft the Treaty of Versailles some fifteen years earlier.

            The beginning of German suffering, which Riefenstahl refers to in the opening sequence of the film, was Germany’s defeat in 1918. To the Nazi’s, the concept of Germany’s suffering was made tangible on January 10, 1920, when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty itself consisted of four-hundred and forty articles, and several annexes, many of which were intended to suppress Germany’s ability to start another war. For many constituents in the Allied countries, the 440 articles of the treaty did not go far enough. Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George later recalled, “I was indeed at that time accused of breaking faith with the British electors by letting Germany off too lightly.”[2] For Germany, the full weight of the war’s cost would simply prove too much to bear.

            Section IV of Part III of the Treaty of Versailles (Articles 45-50 and the following Annex) stated that Germany would release control of the Saar Basin coal mines to France, “as part payment towards the total reparation due from Germany for the damage resulting from the war…”[3] Under this section, Germany agreed to surrender portions of the Saar to France for fifteen years. Afterwards, a referendum would be held in which the residents of the Saar would vote whether to remain with France or rejoin Germany. They voted to rejoin Germany on January 12, 1935. On March 1, the Saar became part of the German state once again.

            The desire for the return of the Saar is evident in Riefenstahl’s film. During the worker’s roll call—in which 52,000 Germans present themselves before Hitler—several of the workers state what part of Germany they are from (representing all of Germany). The last worker to speak is from the Saar. Later in the film, Hitler is speaking to a few thousand members of the Hitler Youth. In the seating at the back of the stadium the word “Saar” is clearly spelled out, demonstrating the desire to have the Saar completely returned to Nazi Germany.

            The Saar Basin was not the only territory in which Germany had to relinquish control. Article 119 very frankly stated, “Germany renounces in favor of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers all her rights and titles over her oversea possessions.”[4] Germany was to release all foreign colonies and assets in its control. President Woodrow Wilson asserted, “The German colonies were to be disposed of. They had not been governed; they had been exploited merely, without the thought of interest or even the ordinary human rights of their inhabitants.”[5] It was clear to the Allied Powers that Germany must not have its former colonies restored.

            If the colonies were restored, Germany would have a nearly limitless supply of soldiers to fill the ranks of their army. In a 1918 memorandum to the German Imperial Cabinet, Emil Zimmerman wrote of a German “Mittel-Afrika.” Lloyd George explains: “He looked forward to a German Africa empire containing a population of 50,000,000 blacks and 500,000 Germans out of which ‘it would be possible at any moment to mobilise an army of 1,000,000 men.’”[6] If Imperial Germany had sought to eventually graft 1,000,000 men into their army from their African colonies, then surely the Allied Powers would have to ensure that the post-imperial government was not able to do so. Germany, therefore, had to be stripped of all of its foreign holdings.

            The Nazi party held a much different view. They claimed that Germany was to be a haven for German speaking peoples everywhere. At one point in the film, the man introducing Fürher Hitler says, “Thanks to your leadership, Germany will reach its goal of being home… (he pauses to let the applause die down) of being home to all Germans throughout the world.”[7] Without its former colonies and territories around the world, Germany could not be home for all Germans. It would soon become necessary for Germany to expand beyond the treaty’s stipulated borders, in order to accommodate Germans all over the world.

            In order to expand its borders, Germany would need to field a significant fighting force. In order to field such a force, the Nazi leadership would need to accomplish two feats. First, the Nazi’s would have to restore the confidence of the people in Germany’s ability to wage a successful war against the surrounding nations. Second, Germany would have to do so without arousing mass opposition from the Allied Powers.

            Because they feared any possible return of Germany to military greatness, the Allied Powers implemented strict regulations against the size of power of the German military. Part V of the Treaty of Versailles contains fifty-four articles reducing and restricting Germany’s military to a purely defensive force. Additionally, there were other sections of the treaty (such as Articles 42-44) that inhibited Germany’s military as well.

            According to these terms, Germany was allowed to maintain a mere 96,000 soldiers and 4,000 officers in their army. The Navy was to be reduced to 15,000 personnel and 36 warships. Submarines were strictly forbidden. All military service was to be voluntary; compulsory service was a violation of the treaty. The German air force was to be completely dismantled, except for a contingent force dedicated to finding explosive ordinance in the water left over from the war. This force was to be kept at less than one hundred seaplanes.

Furthermore, according to Articles 42 and 43, Germany was not even allowed to build fortifications within certain regions of its own borders. An imaginary line was drawn fifty kilometers east of the Germany’s border with France along the Rhine River. Germany’s military was forbidden to build any fortifications, travel or house any munitions or soldiers within this area.

            The leaders of the Allied nations concluded the above mentioned stipulation by affirming very clearly:

In case Germany violates in any manner whatever the provisions of Articles 42 and 43, she shall be regarded as committing a hostile act against the powers signatory of the present Treaty and as calculated to disturb the peace of the world.[8]

The Allied Powers left no room for interpretation: in regards to the size and power of their military, any violation on the part of Germany would be regarded as an act of war. Based on the text of the treaty, if the Nazis moved too hastily to build a large military, their efforts would quickly be thwarted by a multitude of nations.

            In order to restore the confidence of Germany without blatantly violating the heavy-handed regulations of the Treaty, Hitler exercised a great deal of political clout. First, Nuremburg—where the Reich Party Congress is held—is well beyond the fifty kilometer line of demilitarization. At Nuremburg, Hitler was free to display all of Germany’s armed forces. Second, while his actual army was only allowed to contain 100,000 men, the Treaty of Versailles said nothing about his non-military forces, particularly the SS and SA. Third, nearly every scene in Triumph of the Will displays people in uniform. All 52,000 workers for the roll-call appear in perfect formation with their insignia-bearing shovels being held prominently in the air. Later the entire stadium, filled with uniformed Hitler Youth, stands at attention and salute Hitler as he passes by. Hitler himself is dressed in uniform, complete with medals, in every scene in which he appears.

Finally, towards the end of the film, a huge procession passes through the streets of Nuremburg. A motorcade leads the procession, with all of the civilians looking on, saluting and cheering wildly. A formation of Nazi soldiers with helmets and swords follow behind on foot. Following the soldiers are the workers from the roll-call, again armed with shovels, pickaxes and banners. The Nazi SS march after them with their black uniforms. Heinrich Himmler stands near Adolf Hitler as they pass by. The Army band and color guard comes next, flanked by more formations of soldiers.

The Triumph of the Will consistently paints this portrait of a strong, militaristic Germany, without violating the letter of the law laid down in the Treaty of Versailles. It is through this medium of propaganda, among others, that Hitler is able to win back the confidence of the German people to go to war.

Interestingly enough, both sides saw the inevitability of this war from a distance. After the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles—and subsequently refused to join the League of Nations—Woodrow Wilson remarked:

 “Germany is beaten, but we are still at war with her, and the old stage is reset for a repetition of the old plot. It is now ready for a resumption of the old offensive and defensive alliances which made settled peace impossible. It is now open again to every sort of intrigue.”[9]

Wilson predicted the war twenty-nine years before it officially began. Hitler also foresaw its coming, and stated as much in the last scene of the film:

Then our glorious army, the strong bearer of the people’s arms, will be joined by the equally traditional political leadership of the party. Together these two bodies will teach and consolidate the German people. And they will carry on their shoulders the German state and the Reich.[10]

While it isn’t so surprising that Hitler predicted the war that he would start, his prediction is evidence of the tensions that were clear to both sides. Wilson knew that without United States’ participation in the world-wide parole of Germany, Germany would eventually find a way to cast off its new-found burden and strike the hands that burdened her. Hitler knew that the heavy impositions laid on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles were abominable in the minds of his fellow Germans. He craftily played off these grievances to take supreme power in Germany, and then used this power to enact his plan to elevate the master race. Therefore, it was the heavy-handed nature of the Treaty of Versailles—along with a lack of military will to enforce it—that allowed the Nazis to rise to prominence and plunge Europe into a second world war.




Lloyd George, David. Memoirs of the Peace Conference. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939.

Wilson, Woodrow. The Politics of Woodrow Wilson: Selections from His Speeches and Writings. Edited by August Heckscher. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.

“Treaty of Versailles,” June 28, 1919

Triumph of the Will. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl. 1935.

[1]               Triumph of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1935).

[2]               David Lloyd George, Memoirs of the Peace Conference (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), 52.

[3]               “Treaty of Versailles,” June 28, 1919, Article 45.

[4]               Ibid., Article 119

[5]               Woodrow Wilson, The Politics of Woodrow Wilson: Selections from His Speeches and Writings, ed. August Heckscher (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), 363.

[6]               Lloyd George, Memoirs of the Peace Conference, 74.

[7]               Triumph of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1935).

[8]               “Treaty of Versailles,” Article 45.

[9]               Wilson, The Politics of Woodrow Wilson: Selections from His Speeches and Writings, 380

[10]             Triumph of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1935).


Original Content by Matt Rudderow


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