How Treaty of Versailles Contributed to Hitler's Rise

Hitler In Crowd
1933: Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945), chancellor of Germany, is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1919, a defeated Germany was presented with the peace terms by the victorious powers of World War 1. Germany hadn’t been invited to negotiate them, and was presented with a stark choice: sign, or be invaded. Perhaps inevitably given the previous years of mass bloodshed German leaders did, and the result was the Treaty of Versailles. But from the very start, the terms of Versailles caused anger, even hate, sometimes revulsion in parts of German society. Versailles was called a ‘diktat’, a dictated peace. The map of German Empire from 1914 was split up, the military carved to the bone, and huge reparations had to be paid. It was a treaty which caused turmoil in the new and highly troubled German republic. But born of the German Revolution, Weimar survived and lasted into the thirties.

Versailles was criticized at the time by voices from among the victors, including economists like Keynes. Some claimed all Versailles did was delay a resumption of the war for a couple of decades, and when Hitler rose to power in the thirties and started a second World War, these predictions seemed prescient. Indeed, in the years after the war, many historians and commentators pointed to the Treaty of Versailles as making war, if not inevitable, then being the key enabling factor. Versailles was damned. Later generations have revised this, and it’s possible to find Versailles being praised, and the connection between the treaty and the Nazis being reduced, even largely severed. Yet Stresemann, the best-regarded politician of the Weimar era, was constantly trying to counter the terms of the treaty and restore German power. There are key areas connected with the Treaty which can be argued contributed to the rise of Hitler.

The Stab in the Back Myth

The Germans who offered an armistice to their enemies were hoping negotiations could take place under the ‘Fourteen Points’ of Woodrow Wilson. However, when the Treaty was presented to the German delegation, the latter found something very different. With no chance to negotiate, even though they tried, they had to accept the peace given, a peace which many in Germany saw as no settlement at all: to them it seemed arbitrary and unfair. But they had to sign, and sign they did. Unfortunately, the signatories, and the entire government of the new Weimar Republic who’d sent them, became damned in many eyes as the ‘November Criminals’.

This wasn’t a surprise for some Germans. In fact they’d planned it. For the later years of the war Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been in command of Germany, and the latter has been called a virtual dictator (although this is overstating.) It was Ludendorff whose morale and mind collapsed in 1918 enough to make him call for a peace deal, but Ludendorff recovered to do something else. He was desperate to turn the blame for the defeat away from the military, and the scapegoat was to be the civilian government that was now created. Ludendorff’s actions, handing power over to a new government so they could sign the treaty, allowed the military to stand back, claim they hadn’t been defeated, claim they were betrayed by the new socialist leaders. This was underlined in the years after the war, when Hindenburg said the army had been ‘stabbed in the back’, and when people aiming to repudiate Versailles’ War Guilt clause (in which Germany had to accept full responsibility for the conflict) dug into the archives, they built a claim that Germany had only been defending itself.

Whether right or wrong, the military and even establishment escaped blame and passed the guilt on to the people who had capitulated and signed Versailles.

Basically, the terms of the treaty and the actions of people inside Germany created a set of myths feeding off one another. When Hitler was rising in the 1920s and 30s he used a confused set of ideas presented forcefully, and chief among them was his use of ‘stab in the back’ and ‘diktat’. It can be argued that the bulk of Weimar wasn’t attracted to these ideas anymore, but the military and the right wing certainly were, and their support helped Hitler at crucial moments. Can Versailles be blamed for this? The terms of the Treaty, such as war guilt, were food for the myths and allowed them to flourish. Hitler was obsessed that Marxists and Jews had been behind the failure in World War One, and had to be removed to prevent a failure in World War 2.

The Collapse of the German Economy

It can be argued that Hitler would never have taken power without the massive economic depression which struck the world, and Germany, in the late 20s / early 30s. Hitler promised a way out, and a disaffected populace turned in large part to him. It can also be argued Germany’s economic troubles at this time were due to Versailles.

The victorious powers in World War One had spent a colossal sum of money, and this had to be paid back. The ruined continental landscape and economy also had to be rebuilt, also costing money. The result was France and Britain in particular facing huge bills, while the German economic heartlands had escaped, and the answer for many politicians was to have Germany pay. Versailles laid down this would happen in reparations payments, of a sum to be assessed later on. When this liability was published it was huge: 132,000 million gold marks. It was a sum which caused desperation in Germany, a wrangle over what should be paid, a French occupation of German economic land, hyperinflation, and eventually a deal which would allow everyone to survive. The Dawes Plan of 1924, led by an American economist, rationalised reparations: Germany would pay their new debts to the allies, who would pay the US for their debts, and US investors would send money to Germany for the rebuilding of the nation, allowing more repayments.

Hyperinflation had already undermined Weimar, creating a cynicism which never went, a belief the law was unfair, the system flawed.​

But just as Britain trying to make the American colonists pay for war backfired, so did reparations. It wasn’t the cost of the sums going out of Germany which proved the problem, and reparations had been all but neutralised after Lausanne in 1932, but the way the German economy became massively dependant on American investment and loans. This was fine when the American economy was surging along, but when it collapsed into depression in 1929 and the Wall Street Crash Germany’s economy was ruined as well. Soon there were six million unemployed and a populace willing to turn to right wingers. It’s been argued that the economy was liable to collapse even if America’s had stayed strong because of the problems of foreign finance.

The Desire to Expand

It has also been argued that leaving pockets of Germans in other nations, achieved via the territorial settlement in Versailles, was always going to lead to conflict when Germany tried to reunite everyone (although that would leave pockets of other nationalities in Germany), but while Hitler used this as an excuse to attack, his goals in Eastern Europe (the complete conquest and extermination of the population) went far beyond anything that can be attributed to Versailles.

Limits on the Army

On the other hand, the treaty created a small army full of monarchist officers, which easily became a state within a state and remained hostile to the democratic Weimar republic, and which a succession of governments didn’t engage with. This contributed to the rise of Hitler by aiding the creation of a power vacuum, and the army half trying to fill it with Schleicher, and then supporting Hitler. The small army also left many bitter ex-soldiers unemployed and ready to join the warring on the street. This didn’t just help the SA, but in the vast mix of groups made political violence normal. 

Did the Treaty of Versailles contribute to Hitler’s Rise to Power?

The Treaty of Versailles contributed greatly to the alienation many Germans felt about their civilian, democratic government, and when these combined with the actions of the military, it provided a rich material for Hitler to use to gain the support of those on the right. The Treaty also triggered a process where the German economy was rebuilt based around US loans, in order to satisfy a key point of Versailles, which made the nation especially vulnerable when a depression came. Hitler used this too, but it’s important to stress these were just two elements in Hitler’s rise, which was a multi-faceted event. However, the sheer presence of reparations, the political turmoil over dealing with them, and the rise and fall of governments as a result help keep the wounds open and gave the right an issue fertile to strident opposition.