Why were the reparations imposed on Germany the worst provision of the Treaty of Versailles?
When the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, it marked the official end of World War I. The various provisions of the treaty were mainly negotiated by the statesmen commonly referred to as the Big Three: David Lloyd George of Britain, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, and Georges Clemenceau of France. The absence of Germany from the negotiations as well as disagreements among the three powers as to the purpose and provisions of the treaty created months of arguments and eventual egregious terms for Germany. The most controversial issue involved German payment of reparations.
Great Britain's David Lloyd George had contradictory viewpoints about how Germany should be treated. On the one hand, to satisfy the British public as a politician he had to appear to be tough on Germany. On the other hand, he saw Germany as an important buffer zone against the encroachment of Russian communism. France's Clemenceau wanted Germany to be crushed and dismembered so that it could never again wage war against France. America's public leaned towards isolation, and Wilson was mainly concerned with establishing a League of Nations.
The final treaty was a compromise between the three powers. Germany lost portions of its territory to France, Belgium, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The size and weaponry of its army was severely restricted. The provision that was most difficult to accept, however, was the War Guilt Clause and the reparations that went with it. Germany had to admit complete responsibility for starting the war and for the damages caused by the war. As a result of this admitted responsibility, Germany had to pay reparations so that the countries affected, in particular France and Belgium, could rebuild. Although the exact amount was not established at the time but was fixed later, it turned out to be far more than Germany would ever be able to pay.
This was the worst provision of the treaty because it caused great animosity among the German people. They resented that they had not been consulted about the treaty terms and only signed because they were without choice in the matter. It left a lingering attitude of anger and resentment in the German people, who felt that the responsibility lay with the government at the start of the war, not the millions of people who suffered economically as a result of the treaty. This anger and resentment lingered and broke out openly when the Nazis came into power.
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Which provision of the Treaty of Versailles was the worst is a matter of opinion. Some might argue that stripping Germany of several territories, including the coal-rich Saar Valley, for example, or even the limits placed on the German military (but not on those of France) were the worst provisions. The reparations imposed on Germany after the war certainly encapsulated the spirit of the Treaty, which was extremely punitive on Germany, which, by signing the treaty, accepted full blame for the war. The reparations were economically ruinous. While an exact amount was not stipulated in the Treaty, the payments imposed on Germany totaled more than 20 billion dollars in today's money, a sum the war-ravaged nation could not possibly pay. Attempts to meet the reparations' demands caused the value of the German Reichsmark to spiral downward rapidly, creating severe inflation. Germany's failure to pay reparations on schedule poisoned the postwar environment, as France occupied German territory in the early 1920s. While American bankers fostered a renegotiation of the terms of the reparations following the crisis, the existence of reparations remained a thorny issue between the two nations.
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