August 03, 2019

The Day That Obsessed Adolf Hitler
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/GettyThis summer marked the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, on June 28, 1919. The treaty put a formal end to World War I, one of the deadliest military conflicts in history. Yet the anniversary went mostly unnoticed.That’s a shame because the treaty’s contents, and the reaction that they caused, were essential to paving the way for the ascent of Adolf Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe.World War I broke out in the late summer of 1914, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by Serbian separatist Gavrilo Princip. Their deaths triggered a set of byzantine military alliances across Europe and Russia that were the result of grievances that had been building throughout the 19th century. The main combatants at the beginning of the war were the Allied Powers (France, Great Britain, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). In 1917, the Russian Revolution forced Russia out of the war. That same year, the United States joined the conflict.When the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, after negotiations led by President Woodrow Wilson, the four empires that had dominated east and central Europe for centuries—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Czarist Russia, and the Ottomans—were all gone. Millions of people were displaced and without a country. States had collapsed and national borders had ceased to exist. Out of this chaos, the peace congress that convened in Paris needed to create order.How WWI Produced the HolocaustThe treaty that was signed on June 28, 1919 was considered a missed opportunity before the ink of the signatures had dried on the page. The negotiations that took place between Great Britain, France, the United States, and Italy (known as the Big Four) were without structure and with no list of priorities. Germany and Austria-Hungary were excluded from the negotiations, as was Russia, mainly because no one really knew what to make of its new Bolshevik government. None of the Big Four was happy with the outcome of the peace congress, and Germany was shocked by the terms of its defeat.This shock came to set the course for much of Germany’s domestic and foreign policies during the 1920s and 1930s. The German people were unprepared for the armistice deal when it was signed in November 1918. German war propaganda claimed they were winning the war right up to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the declaration of defeat by the government that took his place.According to historian Sally Marks, in order to handle their confusion, the Germans latched on to the use of the word “armistice,” which to them came to mean that the war had ended in a draw. When the Treaty of Versailles treated Germany as a defeated aggressor, there was a backlash. Or, as Marks puts it, “the real difficulty was not that the Treaty was exceptionally unfair, but that the Germans thought it was, and in time persuaded others that it was.”GettyThe unfair conditions of the treaty that Germany objected to, but in the end was forced to accept, included the demilitarization of the Rhineland, which is a border region with France; the re-creation of Poland as a self-governing state; the constraint of German forces to a certain size; and the transformation of German border regions into minority enclaves in newly created nation states, such as the Sudetenland, which became part of Czechoslovakia.The most crushing blow to Germany was the article of the treaty that made Germany and its allies responsible for the war. As a result, Germany was expected to pay reparations to France and Great Britain. They saw this as an opportunity to make Germany pay for all their war costs, rather than just paying damages.One of the people who took Germany’s defeat and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles particularly hard was Adolf Hitler. A failed artist without a direction in life, Hitler found a purpose in the German army during World War I. When Germany lost the war and signed the treaty, Hitler felt personally betrayed.In response to the humiliating nature of the treaty, Hitler had his political awakening. In his biography on Hitler’s formative years, Ian Kershaw shows that the Treaty of Versailles was at the forefront of Hitler’s rhetoric early on, and he blamed the Jews for Germany’s misfortunes. Major steps in Hitler’s domestic and foreign policy after the Nazis took power in 1933 were taken with the intention of removing “the shackles of Versailles.”Nazi Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, its annexation of the Sudetenland, the creation of the Luftwaffe and the conscript-based army are all examples of this policy, as was the invasion of Poland in 1939, which sparked World War II. The Germans saw Poland as a failed state that should be under German rule. The cease-fire agreement between France and Nazi Germany in 1940 was, in effect, a reversal of the armistice of 1918.A common conclusion whenever the two world wars are discussed in relation to each other is that World War I caused World War II to happen. This is only partially correct. With Hitler’s political career in mind, it is more accurate to say that World War II wouldn’t have happened without the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler’s intention from the beginning, says historian Alan Sharp, was to nullify the outcome of World War I and Versailles.GettyWhen Hitler deliberately violated the clauses of the treaty, he continued the work of the Social Democratic and Liberal governments of Germany’s interwar Weimar Republic. The difference between the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany is that the Republic used negotiation to achieve its goals; Hitler used force.In other words, had it not been for the Treaty of Versailles there would not have been a breeding ground for Nazi Germany to take shape. And without Nazi Germany there wouldn’t be a modern neo-Nazi movement glorifying Hitler’s actions. The problem with our selective amnesia regarding World War I is that by not commemorating the Treaty of Versailles we are disregarding a crucial moment in the creation of the modern world.Because even though one of the consequences of the treaty turned out to be a totalitarian ideology we are still forced to combat, in the treaty the Big Four also described the world they wanted to see in the future. In this world, women had the right to vote. People didn’t have to work more than eight hours a day, and they were given one day off per week. They were also allowed to join unions, earn a living wage, and men and women received equal pay for equal work. Before the end of the 1920s all of these points had come true. Except for one.
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