European vs. American opinions on peace at the end of WWI (project paper)

May 1, 2012 | | Comments Off on European vs. American opinions on peace at the end of WWI (project paper)

The end of WWI resulted in very different attitudes towards peace negations from the allied powers involved. The European powers believed that the Central Powers (namely Germany) should be made to pay for the cost of the war. The war had largely decimated the economies of all major European powers. Both sides had lost significant amounts of manpower, and resources. Countries such as Russia and Germany had even been pushed to the brink of revolution. The only major economic power to survive the war with relatively little harm was the United States, and that only had to due with the limited amount of time that America was involved in the war. Because of this simple fact, the Allied European nations felt that Germany must be made to pay for what had happened. They felt that Germany must be made to suffer economically, militarily, and strategically. This point of view can be seen both through the negations involved in the Treaty of Versailles, and in the actual text of the document itself. The sections of the document were all meant to punish Germany in some way. There were three major ways that the document punished Germany: 1. taking away territory won in the war. 2. reducing the size and military capacity of the German military, and 3. making Germany pay war reparations, which would burden Germany’s already struggling economy due to the effects of the war. All of these provisions were intended to exact some form of revenge on Germany, and the other Central Powers. Germany responded to this long list of demands with a list of complaints that would later go on to be (for the most part) totally ignored. This refusal to listen to diplomacy further demonstrates the post-World War I European belief in the need for reprisals.  The American side represented a more moderate view. The Americans were less concerned with the effects of the war on their economy, and more concerned with simply ensuring a lasting peace. This had to do with the fact that the war simply had not been as devastating to the Americans as it had to some of the other Allied powers. Because of these differences in objectives, American and European goals for peace were markedly contrasting with one another, and represented the effects that the war had on each of the powers involved.

The first way in which the European powers aimed to punish Germany was through taking away territory that Germany had won during the war. Some estimates place the total amount of land lost by Germany at the end of the war at 13.5% of their total land.[1] They would also go on to lose important regions, such as Alsace and Lorraine (which was a major German speaking region, and one of Germany’s major objectives for the war). Germany would also go on to lose all of their overseas colonies. “Germany renounces in favour of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers all her rights and titles over her oversea possessions.”[2] These colonies would then go on to be divided up among the Allied Powers (except the United States). Germany would also go on to lose other significant sections of European land. Among these losses were: the strategically important port city of Danzig, West Prussia, the Saarland, and many other European territories. This loss of land would end up having a severe impact on the German economy, as regions such as Alsace and Lorraine, the Saarland, and the colonies, were major centers for German production. These articles also barred several native German speaking lands from becoming part of Germany. Among these lands were the country of Austria, and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.  The articles relating to loss of German land were just one of the ways that the allies intended to damage the German economy, and prevent Germany from being able to wage war on them ever again. Without these major industrial centers, the German economy took longer to rebuild then it might have if they had not been lost.

The second way that the European Allies intended to punish Germany was through limiting the maximum size of their military. They would end up limiting the military almost to the point where Germany became indefensible. The German army was limited to one hundred thousand men. Even then, these men were not allowed to go to war with any external power. This force was only allowed to maintain order in Germany. There were numerous other restrictions on the German military machine. Germany was not allowed to have an airforce. Germany was not allowed to have a navy greater then six battleships, and they were not allowed to produce submarines. Germany was also forced to accept a French occupation of the Rhineland. Allied forces were also stationed in the Rhineland in order to defend it from any possible future German attack. These provisions were intended to damage Germany by rendering her virtually defenseless. These provisions were directly meant to prevent Germany from being able to wage another war ever again.  Had Germany decided to go to war, the country would have been quickly over run. Downgrading the combat ability meant that Germany would not be able to put up an effective resistance to Allied attack. The occupation of the Rhineland meant that Allied troops would be able to invade Germany very quickly.

The final (and most controversial) way that the European Allies attempted to take revenge on the German people was through war reparations. These provisions were the only provisions that were directly intended to damage the German economy. War reparations were hardly a new concept, and Germany expected to pay them at the end of the war. However, Germany had expected to pay for civilian damages. But the Allied forces deemed that damages to soldiers were just as important. Therefore, they forced Germany to pay reparations concerning soldiers by making Germany acknowledge responsibility for the actions that it took during the war. Article 231 states that, “The Allied and Associated governments…aggression of Germany and her allies.”[3]

These punishments contrasted starkly with the attitude that most Americans took towards the end of the war. One example of this fact can be found in the Washington Post article, “The Torturous Path to Peace.” This article was published on May 1, 1919, one month before the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.  Rather than taking the viewpoint that Germany must be punished, the article states that the only goal that is of significant importance is an end to the war itself. “The Allies and the United States must reach an agreement. The world demands a settlement with the enemy.”[4]  This viewpoint reflects the fact that it was commonly believed in the United States that what was needed was an end to the war, not further German punishment. “The greatest danger just now threatening the world is a rupture among the five great powers that defeated Germany.”[5] This article was founded on the basis that peace with Germany was tenuous at best. The German army had signed an armistice that had officially ended the fighting as of November 11. However, this fact did not prevent them from ending the armistice. Should the provisions of the treaty not meet with German demands, they would simply ignore the armistice, and the fighting would resume. The author of the article believed that peace with Germany was fragile, and could be ended if one gave the Germans the chance. “If the internal situation in Germany should favor such a move, the German delegates will not hesitate to refuse to sign the Treaty. Their refusal might win them greater popularity at home, and inspire the Huns with hope that delay and confusion would split the Allies and bring about a softer peace.”[6] America was also more open to considering being lenient towards Germany. This had to do with the fact that America had not suffered economically as much as the other nations had.

These two belief systems towards the peace negotiations contrasted with one another. On the one hand, were the Europeans. The Europeans believed that, if peace was to be maintained, it must be through making Germany unable to ever wage war again.   On the other side, were the Americans. The Americans were willing to accept peace, as long as it meant that they could bring the troops home. They were even willing to accept toleration towards Germany, if it meant protecting the peace for the future.

-Chris Macko

[1] Primary Documents- Treaty of Versailles:

[2] Treaty of Versailles Article 119:

[3] Bonhomme, Brian, Boivin, Catherine, Milestone Documents in World History Vol 3. Pg. 1217 Schlager Group, 2010

[4] “The Torturous Path to Peace,” The Washington Post¸ May 1, 1919

[5] “The Torturous Path to Peace,” The Washington Post¸ May 1, 1919

[6] “The Torturous Path to Peace,” The Washington Post¸ May 1, 1919


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