Lessons From History: The Treaty of Versailles

One of the most elaborate and influential international accords in history was the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Not only did it bring an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, but it set into motion a series of events that would lead to, among other things, World War II, the United Nations, the European Union, the Cold War and the current state of international politics.

Unlike World War II, World War I didn’t really have a clear Good Guy and Bad Guy. We sort of paint the Germans as the bad guy, because 1) they were the Bad Guy in World War II 2) they were on the other side and 3) they lost.

In fact, one of the key provisions of the Treaty of Versailles was that Germany take responsibility publicly for the war, in addition to paying the equivalent of nearly half a trillion dollars in today’s money in reparations.

One thing you might not know about the negotiations is that they were influenced heavily by a member of the American delegation named Samuel Hiss. Hiss, the grandfather of future Soviet spy Alger Hiss, was an economist from Georgetown University who had been sent to France for the negotiations with the team from the State Department. The original draft of the treaty featured reparations of only 40 billion marks, roughly a third of the final total. But Hiss argued that while the original package would hamper the German economy for years, it would still allow them to remain industrialized and possibly reacquire their imperialistic ambitions.

Hiss called for more draconian economic sanctions, recommending to Nigel Killeen, the British foreign ministry’s head negotiator, that the Germans be crushed into economic dust. Killeen agreed and eventually worked out the final treaty. Of course, the reparations helped send Germany into an economic depression the likes of which the industrialized world had never seen, eventually paving the way for the Nazi party to take power, rebuild the country militarily and economically, and start World War II.

By making the argument that no reparations clause could be too expensive, Hiss, in his call to Killeen, set the stage for the rise to power of the Nazi party.

Which is where this comes back to baseball, and the lesson the Phillies can take from history, in colloquial language:

Even though the big peace was extremely expensive, it doesn’t justify Hiss hitting Killeen up.

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  1. Brian

    September 18, 2012 01:21 PM

    No words. None.

  2. LM

    September 18, 2012 01:26 PM


  3. AntsinIN

    September 18, 2012 01:34 PM

    This is a worse atrocity than WWI itself.

  4. Max

    September 18, 2012 01:58 PM

    I knew this would be one of those posts where I’d only need to read the last line to get it. Epic. I want to take some obscure class from you, like World History and Its Effect on Modern Paronomasia or whatever.

  5. Ann Marie

    September 18, 2012 03:16 PM

    I agree with your conclusions.

    I disagree with your premise that regarding the Germans in WWI. Please Google the Schlieffen Plan.

    I also think that Alger Hiss was framed.

  6. Every Human Being

    September 18, 2012 03:36 PM

    I hate Michael Martinez.

  7. GregBull

    September 18, 2012 03:43 PM

    Ohmigod, that’s freaking funny. Will you marry me?

  8. LTG

    September 18, 2012 05:01 PM

    Ann Marie,

    What is the premise about Germany to which you object? Is it that Germany was not a ‘bad guy’ except for the fact that they were part of the other alliance? Or that Germany was not especially responsible for the cost of the war (as opposed to many of the other nations including those in the winning alliance)?

    If the former, then the Schlieffen Plan is no support for your objection. The plan is precisely what a responsible national army should have when it exists in a geographical position sandwiched between two allied enemies. Germany was not especially at fault for the destructive state of international affairs at the time.

    If the latter, then perhaps the Schlieffen Plan makes Germany more responsible for the length and destructiveness of WWI. But see above for a justification for their having the plan in the first place. Should they not have made plans to win an impending war?

    So, care to elaborate on your objection?

  9. Ann Marie

    September 18, 2012 05:16 PM

    You mean the Schlieffen Plan was meant to be defensive? My bad. Germany as a ‘nation’ existed for about three minutes before WWI and that plan was meant to further aggregate power and territory. Nobody really thinks that Archduke Ferdinand was the reason that war became the Great War. Like the conflicts we western nations continue to get caught up in say, the middle east, it was orchestrated. All that was needed was a pretext.

    I will say it is calming to think of things like this rather than where our loveable Phils will be in the wildcard standings this time next week.

  10. soundofphilly

    September 18, 2012 05:37 PM

    Reading this made me wish I majored in history. Or at least had more time to read history books.

  11. The Reddgie

    September 18, 2012 05:59 PM

    I don’t understand the comparison in the last line, can someone help an unedgemacated fool out?

  12. RR

    September 18, 2012 06:13 PM

    Imperial Germany was “the bad guy,” in that it represented the greatest and most ambitious threat to the Anglo-American way of political and economic life. If we value the latter and put our interests ahead of theirs, then those guys had to be checked. At any rate, a showdown with the UK and France, along with Russia, was coming, whether precipitated by a minor political assassination or not. World War II only finished the job begun by World War I, but included the added benefit of taking down the the Japanese militarists for good measure.

  13. LTG

    September 18, 2012 10:10 PM

    Anne Marie,

    I agree with everything you say (except perhaps the 3 minutes exaggeration). I didn’t mean to suggest the Plan was merely defensive. Rather, of course it was offensive, but this does not make Germany especially at fault. Why? Because Germany was not the only European nation with imperialist designs, and the plan was designed knowing that whenever a war began to the victor would go the spoils. They lost and got spoiled.


    I’m not sure Imperial Germany posed much of a threat to either England or the US prior to the rise of the Nazis. The Schlieffen Plan said nothing of invading Britain, let alone the US. I doubt Germany aimed to take away either England or the US’s political self-determination. And the Anglo-American and European ways of life are really not that much different, at least if you ignore the irrational nationalism on both sides. The biggest difference between them is one is ours and the other is theirs.

    Of course, Nazi Germany is a different story entirely. So, nothing I’ve said should be construed as even an opinion about, let alone a defense of, Nazism.

  14. Billy

    September 19, 2012 02:34 AM

    I don’t understand how the Schlieffen Plan had to do with Germany being an aggressor. Germany thought of it as their best way to win a war where they had enemies to the east and the west. The Plan itself was conceived of over a decade before the war began.

    It was an offensive plan in that Germany wanted to win a war, not necessarily be an aggressor. To the German High Command, the way to win that war was to dispatch France quickly and then ship troops east to fight Russia.

    The real issue here is that the inflation caused by the Treaty of Versaille was mostly dealt with in the early 20’s, and Germany was beginning to deal with it more effectively when the world economy fell apart in 1929. Joblessness skyrocketed and the Nazis, before then a relatively minor political power, came to power. Versaille set the stage, but the economic crisis of 1929 was the key opportunity for Hitler.

  15. pedro3131

    September 19, 2012 03:31 AM

    Oh goody, for once I can stop sounding like an idiot on this site because I didn’t study statistics, and can finally put all those IR classes to good use.

    The “threat” to England and the US wasn’t that they faced immediate danger but rather a strengthened Germany would upset the delicate power balance in the multi polar system. The goal of the allied powers wasn’t to crush Germany, but rather to prevent her preponderance, and maintain their current status within the multipolar system. Britain, in particular, fashioned herself as the hegemon (or balancer) of the system and saw the upstart Germany as a threat to her role as such.

    As to the Schliefen plan, Germany was surrounded by potential enemies. Her one real advantage was her ability to quickly mobilize and materialize her power relative to the allies, especially relative to Russia. The idea behind it was to quickly defeat France so that Germany could shift her forces eastword and confront Russia (who only having recently abolished serfdom and embraced industrialization, would take longer to mobilize) and thus wouldn’t have to face a 2 front war. The plan wasn’t so much about capturing France, but from preventing Germany from facing a 2 front war. Germany really viewed the entire thing as a preemptive affair, as she felt surrounded and threatened, recognizing some of the logical fallacies embedded within the Westphalian system.

    It is also important to note that it is the job of general staffs to develop such plans for every contingency. I can guarantee you that they have a plan in the Pentagon for invading every nation, including our allies, because it’s their job to develop strategies to ensure our national identity. It’s easier for me to conceptualize this within the confines of the prisoners dilemma. The idea here is that you and your fellow prisoner (or fellow nation states) are trapped in separate holding cells and the police tell you that you can make a plea deal if you rat out your fellow prisoner, further that the same deal is being offered to your fellow prisoner. Are you going to trust that the bonds of your criminal friendship will prevent him from taking the deal (you can study the identity perspective of IR if you want to learn more about this) or are you going to look out for yourself? It’s easy to see then, from a realist perspective why the Germans developed and eventually implemented the Schleiffen plan.

    …. And now back to trying to understand how the Ryan Howard deal

  16. Western Dave

    September 20, 2012 08:47 PM

    You want to know why Germany was the bad guy in World War I? Let’s see. First, violating neutral rights with the Schliefen plan, thus breaking their own treaty guarantees. Second, when it became clear that they would lose, they tried to use poison gas to scare their enemies out of the war, the Anglo-French alliance resisted using poison gas for months after the Germans started using it, only caving to domestic political pressure. Third, unrestricted submarine warfare including against neutral civilian ships. In one and three, the brought nations into the war who happily would have stayed out of it (the UK and the US) and in two they made an already awful war much, much worse. And all of it backfired because the Versailles treaty and eventually WWII meant Germany got more fucked than they would have been if they hadn’t of done any of those three moves.

    All you game theorists and realists have proved is that IR folks should under no circumstances be allowed to make foreign policy. But having study history in actual history departments, I already knew that.

  17. pedro3131

    September 21, 2012 05:10 PM

    The British declared war on the Germans 3 days after the French so I’m not sure where you get the notion that the British had to be buoyed into the war.

    The French and Germans both deployed chemical agents in 1914, so I’m not sure where you’re getting the “Germans only starting using it when they knew they were about to loose”. The first large scale successful use of chlorine gas wasn’t until 1915, and both the Russians and British immediately began to develop countermeasures and their own stockpiles. It had nothing to do with a moral highground, or caving to public pressure. They merely lacked the capacity to actually deploy lethal chemical agents.

    I’ll agree with your point on game theorists. It’s pretty much the same kind of calculus neocons have used to justify their policies.

  18. Western Dave

    September 22, 2012 11:33 AM

    @Pedro. Britain made it clear via communiques to both France and Germany that they would not enter the war unless Belgian neutrality were violated. And that’s what they did. With the failure of the Schliefen plan, Germany was doomed and they knew it.

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