How did WWI and the Treaty of Versailles lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler and fascism? The First World War concluded in 1918 with the victory of the Allies over the Central Powers, including Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was drafted and signed, causing discontent within Germany that would later fuel the conflict that began the Second World War. The rise of Adolf Hitler and fascism was made possible by the Treaty of Versailles’ failure to solve the issues that arose during World War I.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed at the Palace of Versailles in a city near Paris, France on June 28, 1919. The peace conference was led by what is known as the “Council of Four,” including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. Orlando however spoke little English and left many significant decisions to be made by the “Big Three”: Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George (Brezina 26). Each leader set out to take revenge on Germany for its position as a maritime strength during the war. Disputes arose between them over war reparations of nearly $33 billion that they believed Germany ought to pay in compensation. Germany was also forced to relinquish 13 percent of its territory. France made demands for the Saar River valley, Alsace-Lorraine, and Rhineland, which would serve as a buffer zone between France and Germany. Belgium was given the areas of Moresnet, Eupen, and Malmedy, and Denmark received Schleswig (Brezina 33). Poland was established out of nearly 20,000 square miles of German land and other small provinces were given to Lithuania and the Czechoslovak Republic. Germany was also forced to relinquish its overseas colonies in Asia and Africa, including German East Africa, German South-West Africa, Kamerun and Togo (Brezina 35). Consequently Germany lost 75 percent of its iron ore deposits and 26 percent of coal and potash sources thus drastically changing its ability to acquire natural resources and its industrial processes, forcing it to look towards new areas of trade (The History Channel, Treaty of Versailles). The treaty also forced Germany to disarm its army and navy and its air force and U-boats were banned from use.
Though the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were aimed at debilitating Germany so that it could never rise again, it was the Guilt Clause, article 231 that created a growing resentment towards the treaty in the German population. The clause stated that Germany was to take full responsibility for beginning World War I, despite conflict really beginning when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip of the extremist group the Black Hand (The Guardian). Because the German government accepted this clause, many Germans began to feel betrayed by their own leaders.
As the Treaty of Versailles intended, Germany began to suffer dramatically due to the provisions of the treaty. A once prosperous nation with increasing industry, Germany began to face hyperinflation. In 1923 nearly one trillion German Marks equated to one U.S. dollar, and “a wheelbarrow full of money would not even buy a newspaper (Goodman).” Germany was also left with no colonies to supply natural resources for industry and trade, and in addition huge reparations were paid because of World War I.
The Weimar Republic is generally blamed for Germany’s loss in World War I and its failure to support the economy during Germany’s hyperinflation. It was a democratic government created by a new constitution drafted in the city of Weimar in 1919 for a new German Republic. A parliamentary government under the rule of a prime minister was established to give equal voting rights to both men and women (Goodman). However the Weimar Republic faced criticisms from soldiers who felt betrayed and rival political parties that weakened the government (Rooney). Many communists wanted reforms similar to that of the Russian Revolution in 1917 yet many conservatives feared this change and thought of the Republic as too liberal.
The German economy suffered greatly not just because of the Treaty of Versailles, but also because of the Weimar Republic which signed the treaty. To support German workers on strike in the French mines of the Ruhr Valley (which was given to France in the treaty), the government printed an excess amount of money which contributed to the already existing inflation of Germany’s economy (Rooney). Working-class families were ruined with prices that rose high enough that an item of 100 German marks in 1922 cost 944,000 marks in 1923 (Goodman). This however was not limited to Germany, as an economic depression was occurring worldwide. In October 1929, the stock market on Wall Street, in New York City crashed resulting in the Great Depression from 1929 and 1932. Globally there was rising unemployment, little demands for trade goods, and industry decreased by 88 percent while international trade fell by 65 percent (Garcia-Szekely). Because of this economic downturn during the 1920s and 1930s, citizens of countries in Europe began to turn towards radical and extremist groups as opposed to choosing democratic solutions that were prevalent in the U.S. Because of the Great Depression, many people lost faith in democracy, and new political groups gave them hope for a better future. This gave rise to the political ideology of fascism, which refers to any non-communist, authoritarian government. Fascist governments generally support single-party dictatorships, government control of the economy, unquestioning obedience to a single ruler, strict censorship and extreme forms of nationalism. The use of the military as methods of rule are accepted and these types of governments will create nations where the citizens receive few rights and freedoms and little expression. Because of its political efficiency however, fascism began to spread as people became desperate for economic revival (Britannica, fascism). The first fascist nation was Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, and it later diffused into Germany with Adolf Hitler, Spain with Francisco Franco, and Japan with Hideki Tojo.
Germany’s resentment towards the Treaty of Versailles was shared with Italy and Japan during the years following World War I. During the conference, Italian Prime Minister Orlando had very limited participation unless discussions involved the land promised to Italy by France, Great Britain and Russia in the 1915 Treaty of London. The country was promised territories such as Trentino, South Tyrol, the Istrian Peninsula, the port of Trieste and Dalmatia however Italy received no major land settlements along with Japan (Slavicek). This would lead to the rise of Benito Mussolini, who established Italy as this first fascist nation in history.
Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in 1922 and quickly built up his power through rallies and ceremonies that glorified the country. Because of the hardships Italy faced in the global depression and Mussolini’s fear of communism, his fascist beliefs became widely accepted and encouraged by the Italians (Simkin, Benito Mussolini). He referred to himself as “Il Duce” meaning “The Leader” in Italian and he became set on restoring Roman greatness in Italy, ending political corruption. He banned all other political parties and rejected democratic ideals. Mussolini even went so far as to censor the media, limit voting rights and rig elections. He placed industry and agriculture in the state’s hands, pushing workers into smaller jobs with lower wages and discouraging women from work (Britannica, Benito Mussolini). In 1940 he successfully invaded Egypt and the rest of North Africa with little opposition in a vengeful attack against the British who prevented Italy from receiving its desired land in the Treaty of Versailles (Simkin, Benito Mussolini). His success with fascism would greatly influence Adolf Hitler and set the blueprints for the Nazis of Germany.
The reasons Benito Mussolini was able to invade North Africa with ease falls back again to the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty not only served to take revenge on Germany for its role in World War I, but it also served to create the League of Nations (Trueman, League of Nations). The original idea was established by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points along with his beliefs in self-determination and freedom of the seas. However only his descriptions of the League of Nations were adapted into the Treaty of Versailles at the peace conference, as Great Britain and France disagreed with Wilson’s other ideas (Jones, The Fourteen Points). The main purpose of the league was to prevent conflicts like World War I from happening again. Based in Geneva, Switzerland because of the country’s neutrality during the First World War, the League of Nations used verbal, economic and physical sanctions if any conflict did arise in the future. However, it was nearly impossible for physical sanctions to be carried out as the league had no army or military of its own and it could not force any participating country to supply these forces (Trueman, League of Nations). As a result, the League of Nations remained powerless against Mussolini when he invaded North Africa and the Japanese when they invaded Manchuria in 1931 out of similar spite towards the Treaty of Versailles (Kim). Japan was not recognized for the territories it desired within China during the peace conference and took action when fascism began to influence its political ideologies.
At the same time, the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. This is because the U.S. Senate never ratified the Treaty of Versailles for fears of getting involved in European conflict, adhering to conservative warnings of George Washington in his Farewell Address (Early America). Without the support of the U.S., the strongest military power at the time, the League of Nations was even further weakened, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which supported the disarmament of nations, was nearly impossible to enforce (Trueman, League of Nations). Fascist leaders and dictators were left with little opposition.
As Mussolini was gaining support in Italy, a new totalitarian dictator was emerging out of the German ruins. Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria and grew up resenting both the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles as many Germans did. During a speech he gave in a 1923 Munich rally, he stated that “the Treaty was made in order to bring 20 million Germans to their deaths and to ruin the German nation (Slavicek).” This was just two years after he became leader of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, or Nazi Party (USHMM.) The rally’s failed attempt at a coup against the Weimar Republic landed Hitler in prison.
While in prison, Hitler began to compile all his beliefs and political ideologies into a book that he called Mein Kampf translating to “My Struggle” in German. The entire book outlined his goals for the Nazis, where he blames the corrupt political leaders of the Weimar Republic and the Jewish population for Germany’s loss in World War I and the subsequent signing and acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles. He also describes the ideas of Lebensraum, which was territory he believed to be necessary for a country’s natural development and certainly contributed to his belief in Nazi military expansion, which would be the key to Hitler’s success (The History Channel, Mein Kampf). In the book he also proclaims himself Der Fuhrer, which is the political leader for the Nazis and claimed that he wanted to create the Third Reich, or empire of German history.
The Nazi Party quickly gained success because of its promises for change and a better future in Germany. Hitler was able to gain a large following and appealed to many working-class citizens who remained unsettled by the humiliation Germany endured because of the Treaty of Versailles. Though losing the German election of 1932 with only 33 percent of the vote, on January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed head of the German government, or chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg and after two years succeeded Hindenburg upon his death (USHMM). His rise to power occurred so quickly, that many had little time to respond.
Hitler, like Mussolini, saw little opposition in his work to create a fascist dictatorship. On November 9, 1938 the Nazis began several programs to expel Jews from Germany through raiding and burning synagogues and Jewish-run businesses and homes. Today it is referred to as Kristallnacht meaning “Night of Broken Glass” and was justified by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German official, by Jewish citizen Herschel Grynszpan. Grynszpan’s parents had been driven from their home along with 17,000 other Polish Jews and the Nazis used his vengeful act to their advantage (USHMM). Kristallnacht was swiftly followed by the Nuremberg Laws, which were established to strip the Jews of their natural rights and exclude them from public life. They were robbed of their citizenship and were forbidden to marry with Germans who did hold citizenship (Koeller). Because of this, Hitler gained support among Anti-Semitists and other extremists who wanted to avenge their defeat in the Treaty of Versailles.
Hitler continued to move on and increase his hold over Eastern Europe. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell following the Treaty of Versailles, many Austrians wanted to form an alliance with Germany, but the treaty strictly forbade it. Austrian Chancellor Arthur Seyss-Inquart proclaimed a union with Hitler and the Nazi Party on March 13, 1938 and the formation of Anschluss and Ostmark had begun (Simkin, Anschluss). This union further encouraged Hitler’s role as a fascist dictator and Germany as a world power.
Soon after, Hitler made claims for Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Because of this the Munich Conference was held on September 29, 1938 where Hitler met with representatives Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, Edouard Daladier of France and Benito Mussolini. The Czechs were persuaded to relinquish their land to Hitler, and eventually Sudetenland became a part of Germany, as Hitler claimed that the German-speaking citizens were being abused (Toytown Germany). This act of appeasement simply contributed to the vast empire Hitler was creating. Nazi re-armament had begun in 1935 and was progressively making Germany one of the most powerful nations in the world and breaking the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler had ordered the construction of nearly 2,500 military planes and the assembly of an army of nearly 550,000 men (Trueman, German Re-Armament). This re-armament would lead to the power of Blitzkrieg in World War II, and further strengthening Hitler’s savior status. In 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed and acted as a non-aggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union. This pact shocked the world because Communism had long been the greater enemy of Hitler, however there are strategic reasons behind the signing. Both Hitler and Josef Stalin of Russia wanted military expansion during this time, but they wanted to ensure there was no opposition. The pact served so that Hitler need not worry about Stalin’s army preventing him from invading Poland (The History Channel, German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact). Germany was also given time to build up its army in Nazi re-armament. Hitler however never planned to keep the pact, and Stalin was betrayed when in 1941, the Nazis invaded Russia.
Although the Treaty of Versailles was aimed at destroying Germany so that it could never again rise in power, the provisions laid out in the treaty created conditions in Germany that allowed a dictator to take power and begin military expansion. Because the League of Nations established by the treaty had no formal military of its own, dictators like Hitler would be impossible to stop. The refusal to grant the land that Italy desired fueled the first fascist nation that would lay the blueprints for Hitler and Nazi Germany. The inevitable failure of the Treaty of Versailles helped lead to World War II since Hitler faced little opposition in expansion until he invaded Poland with Blitzkrieg, leaders like Neville Chamberlain were slow to realize the dangers he posed to society. Today, the United Nations does have the support and the ability to prevent wars like World War II from occurring again and to stop nations that are inspired by Social Darwinism from becoming too powerful.