If the victors wanted peace, why did they issue a blueprint for war?
Wilson got the Germans to the bargaining table with his Fourteen Points, but then he stood by when France and Britain refused to let them sit down at Versailles. The Entente had neglected to demand an unconditional surrender from the German Army and the Prussian Junker militarists, and so they were going to try to compensate for that by demanding abject submission from the rest of the country.
The notions of Dolchstoss and the “November criminals” were nonsense, but Clemenceau’s crusade for a Carthaginian Peace did school the criminal element among the German survivors of the war and the “peace” in the strategy and tactics they would need, to justify and commit genocide a generation later.
My ancestors were from France and Poland, so I empathize with the French who wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, and with the Poles whose whole country had gone missing for more than a hundred years, and who now had a chance to put it back together. But I also have sympathy for the German people who suffered under the terms of the treaty.
Here’s another question: If their intention was to punish the guilty, why did they let the perpetrators get away?
Granted, the old Austrian emperor who went to war with Serbia (despite his having detested his nephew and niece-in-law) was already dead. But the Kaiser painlessly abdicated, and then checked in to a resort in the Netherlands for a 23-year-long rest cure.
A finicky delicacy about prosecuting royalty, and Willie’s having been one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons might conceivably have made the British squeamish about actually hanging the Kaiser (as so many strident voices demanded), but there was no excuse for letting him enjoy what my World Book Encyclopedia calls a “comfortable exile,” while his erstwhile subjects suffered as his whipping-boys. If, as rumor has it, one of his pastimes was chopping down trees (despite his brachial nerve injury incurred by sloppy obstetrics at his birth), then he and his sons should have been put to breaking rocks, to rebuild French roads.
Furthermore, while the Entente industriously chopped up the little bad guys to create unstable Balkan and Baltic states, the Prussian Junkers laid low, and General Ludendorff refugeed to Sweden. The stringency of the treaty easily distracted those who carped about “letting the Hun off,” because when the time came for war crime trials, nobody noticed that the question was left for Junker judges to settle, who whitewashed the prosecuted, which allowed Ludendorff to return as a hero, and later to connive with Hitler.
Finally: If the balance of power was so important – meaning that despite having spent nearly five years fighting alongside the French, Britain still distrusted France enough to preserve a weak but functionally symbolic Germany in central Europe – why didn’t the Entente just divide and conquer?
Germany had been “unified” only since 1871, and despite a strong tradition of deference to central control, there was still no love lost between southern Germans and Prussians. Bavaria wanted to make a separate peace, and because it was the second largest German state, the other south German kingdoms surely would have followed suit. Perhaps the tiny principalities and Hanseatic Free Cities might have been emboldened to break away, too.
Prussia constituted 2/3 of Germany, and it was the more highly industrialized part, but losing Alsace-Lorraine and part of Silesia wasn’t enough to humble the Junkers. Had the Allies permitted Anschluss between southern Germany, the German remnant of Austria, and the “Sudeten” Germans, along with a revival of the Customs Union that included the principalities and free cities, plus more lenient treaty terms, southern Germany could have been developed as a foil to Prussia. Then the garden-variety Prussians who were taking the rap for the militarists might have been inclined to lay the blame for their penury, and the loss of their husbands, fathers and sons, where it was due.
The Kaiser, who wanted to have his own war so badly, he could taste it, manipulated Austria-Hungary into becoming the first belligerent, and then he tried to manipulate the diplomacy to make it look as if he had nothing to do with it, and was “forced” to “defend” Deutschland. The person of whom Willie should have demanded demobilization was not his cousin, Tsar Nicky, but his ally, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary.
The war guilt clause was justified, because the Kaiser could have stopped the war, but he wouldn’t, and because otherwise honest, hard-working Germans had fallen into the habit of letting Prussian militarists do their thinking for them. But Germany didn’t deserve the unjust and unworkable demands that were made in the Versailles Treaty.