Last night, I sank deeply into the cups and found myself in an interesting conversation with some colleagues about the rise of fascism in Germany. Inevitably, the Treaty of Versailles came up along with a well oiled explanation that goes something like this:
“There is a near-total consensus among historians that the Versailles Treaty helped to create the trough of national humiliation and grievance in which the fungus of Nazism could grow”.
The above is a direct quote from Johan Hari’s (rather silly) book review of Nick Cohen’s ‘What’s Left’ that I read some years ago. Discounting the laziness of not including said historians, although apparently Pat Buchanan toes this line, I’ve never found this argument particularly convincing.
I accept that after the Weimar Republic signed the treaty, Germans were understandably upset and felt humiliated. That it was a national humiliation needs to be demonstrated and consistently established as a point of rectification that led to the rise of the Nazi party. What was more likely is that certain political movements promoted the idea that Germany’s leaders had betrayed Germany by accepting the treaty as it was. Keep in mind that Germany had just established itself as a republican democracy, overthrowing the imperial empire, which naturally created enemies of the green-eared Weimar government. What I question was how universal this humiliation was, whether it was accepted by the country, and that it was a central tenet in German society from 1919 to 1933.
Of more immediate concern was the state of the country’s economy after the Great War, especially when hyperinflation hit in 1923. While politicians might have spoken about a national humiliation, ordinary Germans were being pressed with grave concerns like feeding themselves, much less lamenting their situation. As I mentioned last night, France suffered a similarly devastating military defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870, losing territory and having to pay unfair reparations. There were narratives amongst political leaders saying that France had been humiliated, but the French instead decided to take over Paris in the famous Paris Commune of 1871, instead of lamenting their humiliating defeat. What’s more, nobody blamed France for starting WWI.
In any case, once the United States stepped in and offered the Dawes Plan to Germany in 1924, leading them on the path to economic recovery, any feelings of humiliation must have subsided considerably. The latter part of the 1920s in Germany were known as Goldene Zwanziger, the Golden Era, not only because of its vigorous return as an economic power, but the flourishing German culture that emerged from such success. During this period, cinema, cabaret, jazz, and the establishment of Bauhaus architecture returned Germany back to being a significant cultural presence in Europe. Hardly the fungus Nazism grew from. In the 1928 German federal election, the Nazi party fielded less than 3% of the vote, capturing only 12 of the 491 seats in the Reichstag. They were little more than an extreme right-wing fringe party that wielded little influence and zero clout.
However, in 1929, the New York Stock Market crashed. The United States could no longer provide loans to Germany, devastating their economy a second time, and far worse than before. Mass unemployment led to a loss in the faith of democratic politics (a relatively new idea in German society, barely 10 years old) In the 1930 election, the Nazi party went from 12 to 107 seats, based on a platform that fed off of the fears and prejudices of a desperate and hungry people.
The quote I cited at the top of this post was actually part of the Nazi myth that Hitler used to rile Germany up. In 1933, Hitler exploited the history of the treaty and the democratic government that signed it in order to discredit democracy. As part of his fiery rhetoric, he blamed the depression on the Jews and the Bolsheviks, and used propaganda to stir up hatred for Versailles, despite the fact that Germany had enjoyed a healthy and prosperous period of cultural and economic growth prior to the Depression.
Although the Treaty of Versailles posed problems for German democracy, it did not bring forth Nazism as a necessary response. This realization has very high stakes. Foreign policy discourse uses the term “the Versailles Effect” to describe a situation whereby sanctions, punishments and punitive measures are seen as laying the seeds of future authoritarian regimes imbued with a revenge psychology. Therefore when states commit acts of aggression or human rights violations, the international community is expected to restrain themselves, and slap some wrists. However, the Versailles Effect is ahistorical in itself, let alone applicable to other historical conflicts, and is a detriment to actual humanitarian intervention. I have yet to be convinced that there is a cause and effect relationship. If it wasn’t the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler would have used another example in his propaganda machinery to energize the public.