On humiliation in international conflicts and the Treaty of Versailles
A stereotyped understanding of the impact of the Treaty of Versailles on humiliation dynamics in Weimar Germany is still widespread. An overview of historiographic debates on this phase of European history offers useful context about an often-quoted precedent
This is the first piece in a planned series of posts on humiliation dynamics and international conflict, and how insights from the relevant academic literature can feed into analysis and thinking on policy decisions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
References to the need not to “humiliate Russia” by French president Macron in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have predictably drawn criticism.1 In the following months, preoccupation about the risk of humiliating Russia have all but disappeared from the public conversation about the war in Ukraine. Yet, there are some aspects of the debate on humiliation that are worth of consideration when thinking about what led to this war, what can (and what cannot) plausibly lead to its end, as well as the challenges of peace, whatever form it will take.
In this post, I will briefly discuss the main historical precedent that presumably president Macron had in mind when making those comments, i.e. the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that marked the end of the first World War. It is such a textbook example on the negative impact of humiliation dynamics on peace that Evelin Lindner unquestioningly refers to it repeatedly in her seminal book on humiliation in international conflict: “It is common wisdom that World War II was triggered, at least partly, by the humiliation the Treaty of Versailles inflicted on Germany after World War I."2 According to this oversimplified narrative, the victors of the first World War learned their lesson: when Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, the Allies did not demand punitive reparations but instead offered dignified support: “the humiliation entailed in the Treaty of Versailles led to war, while the respect entailed in the Marshall Plan led to peace."3
However, humiliation dynamics do not lend themselves to such straightforward interpretations. Indeed, as I will suggest in the following paragraphs, a different characterisation of the context before and after the Treaty of Versailles can lead to surprisingly different conclusions, and perhaps different lessons to be learned – or at least, a different set of questions to be asked – that are perhaps more pertinent to the present situation.
Concerns about the effectiveness of the Treaty in preventing a new European war was widespread among participants to the peace conference in Paris. The economist John Maynard Keynes, who was part of the British delegation in Paris, was among the most articulated early critics of the conditions imposed on the German by the Treaty. In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace,4 which became an instant best seller, he outlined the detrimental effects that the punitive economic terms of the Treaty would have on Germany, the European economy, and peace on the continent. According to this popular line of analysis, the excessively punitive and humiliating conditions imposed by the Treaty were poised to breed new wars; in other words, the seeds for the raise of Nazism and a new World War are to be found in the vindictive peace imposed on Germany in Versailles.
With the benefit of time and full access to archives, in recent decades historians have convincingly argued for a less critical reading of those events,5 yet for a combination of reasons “the original indictment has remained firmly set in the public consciousness."6 At issue is not the idea that a widespread humiliation narrative was instrumental in creating fertile ground for revanchist forces in Germany; instead, the more pertinent question here is what contributed to make that feeling of resentment, humiliation and injustice so pervasive. Was it really the unbearably harsh conditions of the “Carthaginian peace” imposed by victors in the Treaty of Versailles? Or were there other, more important contextual elements that provided fertile ground for “humiliation entrepreneurs” in Germany at the time?
The Armistice of November 1918 is testament to the complete military defeat of the German Reich. However, when the Armistice was signed, the main front lines were still located in France and Belgium: Germany’s territory “remained virtually uninvaded and unscathed, providing no ‘ocular proof’ of defeat to the citizenry."7 Domestic war propaganda insisted until the very end that German troops were “on the brink of victory”: news of the Armistice signalling defeat came as a shock to Germans. The Allied armies did not occupy Germany or march through the Brandenburg Gates; on the contrary, when German troops returned to Berlin, the Chancellor could meet them claiming they “returned unconquered from the field of battle."8 In brief, as historian Sally Marks argues, “the failure of the victors to bring defeat home to the German people was at least as important as anything in the Versailles treaty in generating the bitter resentment and determination to destroy the treaty that marked the Weimar Republic."9 Commenting on these events, historian Antony Lentin asks “What more could the Allies have done in 1918 to bring home to Germany the reality of defeat?"10, but struggles to find a convincing reply given the difficult context of the time. Advancing on the territory of an enemy that had effectively surrendered made little practical sense, and obviously the Allies were looking forward to demobilise their army. The Treaty did even include a specific “guilt clause” that attributed full responsibility for the war to Germany,11 and it stirred much debate: further insisting on the defeat within the Treaty itself made little sense.
Either way, the fact that the German population did not experience defeat was a key element that enabled the success of the Dolchstoßlegende – the stab-in-the-back myth – a conspiracy theory further popularised under Nazism that insisted that the German Army was not actually defeated in first World War. Since the war barely reached German soil, the German population felt their army was not defeated and did not experience defeat themselves, the terms of the Versailles treaty felt outrageously unjust and unacceptable. Large part of France’s industrial and productive capability was destroyed during the war,12 French cities laid in ruins, a quarter of its male population between the age of 18 and 27 died during the war,13 but it was still Germany – whose cities were still standing unaffected – which felt humiliated and had resentment spread among its population.
Germany had indeed to pay substantial reparations, but in practice there is broad consensus that their burden “was by no means impossible to bear” for the Germany economy.14 For Allied governments it was important that the reparations looked big on paper to satisfy their domestic audience, but in practice they had to be realistic, also considering that their armies had demobilized, there was no occupying army in Germany and no appetite for a new war: enforcing excessive payments would have been impossible.15 Besides, the Treaty of Versailles included other clauses that were perceived politically humiliating, but were fiscally beneficial for Germany: by limiting the size of Germany’s armed forces and by restricting the purchase of military technology, the “net economic burden of the Treaty of Versailles was much less heavy than has been hitherto thought”.16 In other words, by virtue of being forced not to spend on the military, Weimar’s Germany found itself with a substantial “peace dividend” in its state budget that effectively offset the costs of reparations.
This is not to deny that the German economy was in turmoil and went through disastrous crises in the post-war years, as it obviously did: what it is argued is that the Treaty of Versailles and reparations are scarcely to blame for Germany’s economic woes through the 1920s and early 1930s.17
Old debates, new debates
There are endless historiographic debates about the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles and to what extent it is to blame for the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. In this brief overview, I outlined some of the issues that have emerged in decades of research in order to provide additional context on aspects that shape the humiliation dynamics of an important historical precedent that implicitly or explicitly emerges constantly in public debates on peace agreements and reparations (and even sanctions).
It is difficult and probably not very useful to draw a direct parallelism with the present circumstances, but the Treaty of Versailles is such a stereotypical point of reference for debates on humiliation and conflict in Europe that it is bound to emerge again and again in policy debates related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the circumstances that may develop when the war will eventually end. For example, Valery Dzutsati points at some of the similarities, suggesting that even “after a (hypothetical) defeat in Ukraine, Russia would be unlikely to be occupied by foreign powers or lose territories, although it would be expected to pay reparations for damages to Ukraine."18 He is sceptic that in such circumstances “the notion of collective guilt or a lasting political liberalization might take hold in the country”, and suggests that even if Russia is militarily defeated “resentment and revisionism will sweep the Russian elites and influence the Kremlin’s foreign policy in the future”.
There is indeed little reason for optimism in the current circumstances but the future is not pre-ordained, and there are surely alternatives to a revanchist defeated Russia, or an even more imperialist militarily victorious Russia. Debates on post-war developments may well seem premature when the war is still raging: inevitably, it is only when the end of this war will be in sight and the contours of plausible peace agreements will start to emerge that the conversation may shift on how to win the peace. In the meantime, increased awareness about which aspects of the end of the war in 1918 prepared fertile ground for humiliation entrepreneurs in Germany and which features of the peace treaties created opportunities for peace dividends may contribute to have more informed debates when their time will finally come.
Dzutsati, Valery. ‘ Ending Russian Imperialism'. ISPI, 7 September 2022.
Gerwarth, Robert. November 1918: The German Revolution. The Making of the Modern World. Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Hantke, Max, and Mark Spoerer. ‘The Imposed Gift of Versailles: The Fiscal Effects of Restricting the Size of Germany’s Armed Forces, 1924–9’. The Economic History Review 63, no. 4 (2010): 849–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0289.2009.00512.x.
Keylor, William R. ‘Versailles and International Diplomacy’. In The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years, edited by Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Gläser, 469–505. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Washington, D.C.: Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: German Historical Institute; Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920. http://archive.org/details/economicconseque00keyn.
Lentin, Antony. ‘A Comment’. In The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years, edited by Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Gläser. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Washington, D.C.: Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: German Historical Institute; Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Lindner, Evelin. Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict. Contemporary Psychology. Westport, Conn: Praeger Security International, 2006.
MacMillan, Margaret. ‘ Keynes and the Cost of Peace'. New Statesman, 31 October 2018.
Marks, Sally. ‘Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty, 1918–1921’. The Journal of Modern History 85, no. 3 (September 2013): 632–59. https://doi.org/10.1086/670825.
Ritschl, Albrecht O. ‘Reparations, Deﬁcits, and Debt Default: The Great Depression in Germany’. In The Great Depression of the 1930s: Lessons for Today, edited by N. F. R. Crafts and Peter Fearon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Sandford, Alasdair. ‘ What Has Macron Said about the Need Not to “Humiliate Russia”?’ Euronews.com, 6 June 2022.
Schuker, Stephen A. American ‘Reparations’ to Germany, 1919-33: Implications for the Third-World Debt Crisis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.
See e.g. Alasdair Sandford, ‘ What Has Macron Said about the Need Not to “Humiliate Russia”?', Euronews.com, 6 June 2022. ↩︎
Evelin Lindner, Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict, Contemporary Psychology (Westport, Conn: Praeger Security International, 2006), p. 170. ↩︎
Lindner, p. 88. There is, of course, much to be debated about this characterisation. ↩︎
For an accessible and succinct explanation of the increasing popular interpretation of events, see Margaret MacMillan, ‘ Keynes and the Cost of Peace', New Statesman, 31 October 2018. For a longer version of these arguments enriched by aboundant references, see in particular Sally Marks, ‘Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty, 1918–1921’, The Journal of Modern History 85, no. 3 (September 2013): p. 632–59, https://doi.org/10.1086/670825. ↩︎
William R. Keylor, ‘Versailles and International Diplomacy’, in The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years, ed. Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Gläser, Publications of the German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C.: Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: German Historical Institute; Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 471. ::: ↩︎
Marks, ‘Mistakes and Myths’, p. 634. ↩︎
Marks, p. 634; See also Antony Lentin, ‘A Comment’, in The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years, ed. Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Gläser, Publications of the German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C.: Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: German Historical Institute; Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 237. ↩︎
Marks, ‘Mistakes and Myths’, p. 635; See also Marks, p. 650. ↩︎
Lentin, ‘A Comment’, p. 237. ↩︎
For context on how the so-called ‘guilt close’ was introduced in the Treaty, and why it may be inappropriate to call it such, see Keylor, ‘Versailles and International Diplomacy’, p. 500–501; p. 504. ↩︎
As Keylor put it, ‘Defeated Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr, the Rhineland, and Westphalia had survived the war unscathed, while the industrial centers of victorious France in the northeastern departements lay in ruins.’ See Keylor, p. 498. ↩︎
Robert Gerwarth, November 1918: The German Revolution, The Making of the Modern World (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 185. ↩︎
Albrecht O. Ritschl, ‘Reparations, Deﬁcits, and Debt Default: The Great Depression in Germany’, in The Great Depression of the 1930s: Lessons for Today, ed. N. F. R. Crafts and Peter Fearon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 114; See also Keylor, ‘Versailles and International Diplomacy’, p. 502; Stephen A. Schuker, American ‘Reparations’ to Germany, 1919-33: Implications for the Third-World Debt Crisis (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988). ↩︎
See Marks, ‘Mistakes and Myths’, p. 645. ↩︎
Max Hantke and Mark Spoerer, ‘The Imposed Gift of Versailles: The Fiscal Effects of Restricting the Size of Germany’s Armed Forces, 1924–9’, The Economic History Review 63, no. 4 (2010): 849–64, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0289.2009.00512.x. ↩︎
Marks, ‘Mistakes and Myths’, p. 645, note 66. ↩︎