(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
Churchill’s warnings during the 1930s concerning the threat a rearmed and expansionist Germany posed are well known. Less well known are his warnings concerning Germany in the aftermath of World War I.
At the Paris Peace Conference which followed the November 1918 armistice, there were many who wanted a war settlement that would identify Germany as solely responsible for the war; and punish her severely through loss of territory, restrictions on the size and types of her military forces, and very large financial reparations.
France’s Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, was their most influential leader. In June 1919 he told conference delegates they would “be false to those who have given their all to save the freedom of the world if they consent to treat this war on any other basis than as a crime against humanity.”
Clemenceau demanded Germany “ make reparation to the very uttermost of her power.”
Churchill believed a harsh peace would leave Germany economically weak, politically unstable, and eager to throw off the terms of a treaty it viewed as a diktat.
On May 20, 1919, he wrote to Prime Minister Lloyd George who was then attending the conference:
In my opinion it is of profound importance to reach a settlement with the present German Government, and to reach it as speedily as possible. …During the 1920s Churchill worked to moderate some of the terms of the Versailles Treaty. He later saw his worst fears concerning an unstable and resentful Germany fulfilled as Hitler and the Nazis took advantage of those circumstances to seize power and implement their horrific policies and practices.
The newspapers and public opinion at home, so far as it is vocal, claims the enforcement of the most extreme terms upon the vanquished enemy. …
Disaster of the most terrible kind lies on that road, and I solemnly warn the Government of the peril of proceeding along it. …
Now is the time, and it may be the only time, to reap the fruits of victory. “Agree with thine adversary whilst thou art in the way with him”
Everything shows that the present German Government is sincerely desirous of making a beaten peace and preserving an orderly community which will carry out its agreement.
It seems to me quite natural that they should put forward a series of counter propositions, and we ought to take these up … with patience and goodwill and endeavour to split the outstanding differences.
In this way we shall get a genuine German acceptance of a defeated peace and not be dawn into new dangers measureless in their character.
Now to the weekend. I hope yours are good, safe and warm.
Clemenceau’s speech can be found here. (scroll down about a third of the way)
Excerpts from Churchill’s letter and the circumstances in which he wrote it can be found in Martin Gilbert’s Winston S. Churchill: The Stricken World. (pgs. 895-897)