A Greek Versailles?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Chandeliers at the Versailles Palace. [Tammy Lo/Flickr]

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis denounced the July bailout agreed between prime minister Alexis Tsipras and the eurozone leaders as a “new Versailles Treaty”. Quincy Cloet asks if this is a fair comparison. 

Quincy Cloet is a historian affiliated with the College of Europe Natolin Campus, Warsaw.

Varoufakis already used the reference to the peace treaty back in 2010, but this time it was easily picked up on social media by a ragtag group of critics and disgruntled Europeans to denounce the U-turn made by the Greek government. Invoking Versailles for the deal is certainly provocative, but does the analogy hold up to historical analysis?

The Versailles Peace Treaty signed on 28 June 1919 has always been a controversial agreement, its punitive provisions sometimes even described as one of the causes for the rise of the Nazis and the ensuing Second World War. Such conclusions are rather far-fetched, if one considers the historical context of the First World War and its immediate aftermath. When the Central Powers signed the armistice on 11 November 1918 it was immediately clear that comprehensive peace agreements would have to be negotiated in the following months. These peace treaties determined how the costs of the war would be financed and borders be redrafted to capture the changed political situation on the continent.

Dealing with the losses and damages of the war was never going to be a straightforward task, and it took significantly longer than expected to reach agreement among 70 delegates from 27 nations (though in practice the leaders of the “Big Three” Entente powers: Great Britain, France and the United States) on a suitable retribution for the Reich’s expansionist ambitions. Germany did not partake in the negotiations and was forced to accept the Treaty provisions, including the disarmament of the Reichswehr, territorial concessions and payment reparations to the Entente Powers – the exact amount to be determined by a Reparation Commission. Shortly after, the Reich was officially buried and replaced by the Weimar constitution, establishing a democratic republic that was forced to deal with the heavy war burden.

Versailles has many times been criticised for the harsh and excessive punishment of Germany, most famously by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He concluded that the provisions imposed on Germany required strong sacrifices which could only create future instability. Nevertheless, historians have started to challenge the ‘Carthaginian’ nature of the peace treaty, stressing that the Versailles provisions were actually not that harsh in comparison to older treaties, and those concluded at the same time. Austria and Hungary were comparatively worse off, with significant territorial losses leaving little room for economic recovery. Equally, Germany had imposed far worse conditions on Russia during the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The Versailles Treaty was a victor’s peace but it did not destroy Germany’s productive capacity and its industrial potential, nor was it prevented from becoming a great power again. As the eminent historian Zara Steiner writes in The Lights That Failed, “Reparations did not cripple Germany, despite the sometimes hysterical debates that ensued; the terms in the treaty were less onerous than the Germans proclaimed.” In fact, recent research has generally showed constraint and sensitivity on the side of the victors. So why do some still regard Versailles as the symbol of excessive revenge?

In major part, the symbolism of a brutal punishment goes back to the initial reception of the peace treaty in Germany. A significant part of the German population and its political establishment found it unimaginable how the empire could have lost the Great War. At the time of the 11 November Armistice, German soldiers were still fighting outside of the 1914 territories, fueling the (inaccurate) conviction that the Reich still had the upper hand and could eventually negotiate a better deal. It was the German Revolution of November 1918 and the collapse of the imperial government, which led the political representatives of the future Weimar Republic to conclude a hasty and formal defeat for Germany. For those Germans who failed to acknowledge the loss of the war, the newly-born republic would never be accepted as a legitimate successor to the Reich.

Yes, Versailles was in many ways a flawed treaty, as it failed to resolve a number of important questions regarding payments and territorial concessions, which would only find their answer in the Locarno Treaties and American-backed reparation plans. All of this, however, falls short of condemning Versailles to an image of a punitive peace settlement that created irreparable mayhem and led to dictatorship in Germany. It is rather ironic that Yanis Varoufakis resorts to a historical symbol that was chiefly used and abused by radical political politicians and paramilitary forces in Germany after 1918. Perhaps it is better to avoid invoking these historical analogies for the sake of political games.

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