How the Treaty of Versailles Contributed to Hitler's Rise

Its provisions left Germany in ruins, fertile ground for the Nazis

Hitler In Crowd
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1919, a defeated Germany was presented with peace terms by the victorious powers of World War I. Germany wasn’t invited to negotiate and was given a stark choice: sign or be invaded. Perhaps inevitably, given the years of mass bloodshed German leaders had caused, the result was the Treaty of Versailles. But from the start, the terms of the treaty caused anger, hate, and revulsion across German society. Versailles was called a diktat, a dictated peace. The German Empire from 1914 was split up, the military carved to the bone, and huge reparations demanded. The treaty caused turmoil in the new, highly troubled Weimar Republic, but, although Weimar survived into the 1930s, it can be argued that key provisions of the Treaty contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The Treaty of Versailles was criticized at the time by some voices among the victors, including economists such as John Maynard Keynes. Some claimed the treaty would simply delay a resumption of war for a few decades, and when Hitler rose to power in the 1930s and started a second world war, these predictions seemed prescient. In the years after World War II, many commentators pointed to the treaty as being a key enabling factor. Others, however, praised the Treaty of Versailles and said the connection between the treaty and the Nazis was minor. Yet Gustav Stresemann, the best-regarded politician of the Weimar era, was constantly trying to counter the terms of the treaty and restore German power.

The 'Stabbed in the Back' Myth

At the end of World War I, the Germans offered an armistice to their enemies, hoping negotiations could take place under the "Fourteen Points" of Woodrow Wilson. However, when the treaty was presented to the German delegation, with no chance to negotiate, they had to accept a peace that many in Germany saw as arbitrary and unfair. The signatories and the Weimar government that had sent them were seen by many as the "November Criminals."

Some Germans believed this outcome had been planned. In the later years of the war, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had been in command of Germany. Ludendorff called for a peace deal but, desperate to shift the blame for defeat away from the military, he handed power to the new government to sign the treaty while the military stood back, claiming it hadn’t been defeated but had been betrayed by the new leaders. In the years after the war, Hindenburg claimed the army had been "stabbed in the back." Thus the military escaped blame.

When Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, he repeated the claim that the military had been stabbed in the back and that surrender terms had been dictated. Can the Treaty of Versailles be blamed for Hitler's rise to power? The terms of the treaty, such as Germany's acceptance of blame for the war, allowed myths to flourish. Hitler was obsessed with the belief that Marxists and Jews had been behind the failure in World War I and had to be removed to prevent failure in World War II.

The Collapse of the German Economy

It can be argued that Hitler may not have taken power without the massive economic depression that struck the world, including Germany, in the late 1920s. Hitler promised a way out, and a disaffected populace turned to him. It can also be argued Germany’s economic troubles at this time were due—at least in part—to the Treaty of Versailles.

The victors in World War I had spent a colossal sum of money, which had to be paid back. The ruined continental landscape and economy had to be rebuilt. France and Britain were facing huge bills, and the answer for many was to make Germany pay. The amount to be repaid in reparations was huge, set at $63 billion at the time, later reduced to $33 billion and finally $28 billion.

But just as Britain's effort to make American colonists pay for the French and Indian War backfired, so did reparations. It wasn’t the cost that proved the problem since reparations had been all but neutralized after the 1932 Lausanne Conference, but the way the German economy became massively dependent on American investment and loans. This was fine when the American economy was surging, but when it collapsed during the Great Depression Germany’s economy was ruined as well. Soon six million people were unemployed, and the populace became drawn to right-wing nationalists. It’s been argued that the economy was liable to collapse even if America’s had stayed strong because of Germany's problems with foreign finance.

It also has been argued that leaving pockets of Germans in other nations via the territorial settlement in the Treaty of Versailles was always going to lead to conflict when Germany tried to reunite everyone. While Hitler used this as an excuse to attack and invade, his goals of conquest in Eastern Europe went far beyond anything that can be attributed to the Treaty of Versailles.

Hitler's Rise to Power

The Treaty of Versailles created a small army full of monarchist officers, a state within a state that remained hostile to the democratic Weimar Republic and that succeeding German governments didn’t engage with. This helped create a power vacuum, which the army tried to fill with Kurt von Schleicher before backing Hitler. The small army left many ex-soldiers unemployed and ready to join the warring on the street.

The Treaty of Versailles contributed greatly to the alienation many Germans felt about their civilian, democratic government. Combined with the actions of the military, this provided rich material Hitler used to gain support on the right. The treaty also triggered a process by which the German economy was rebuilt based on U.S. loans to satisfy a key point of Versailles, making the nation especially vulnerable when the Great Depression hit. Hitler exploited this, too, but these were just two elements in Hitler’s rise. The requirement for reparations, the political turmoil over dealing with them, and the rise and fall of governments, as a result, helped keep the wounds open and gave right-wing nationalists fertile ground to prosper.