New Great War Episode: Franco-German Fight over Reparations - After The Treaty of Versailles

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s May 1921, and tensions between France, Britain, and Germany are rising over how much Germany should pay in war reparations. France is taking no chances, and so its troops march into the Reich:

More than two years had passed since the November 1918 armistice had brought an end to the fighting on French soil, but in 1921, France was a victorious Great Power facing enormous difficulties. It had been severely weakened by the war, and was not strong enough to impose its will on the peace. This meant compromise and conflict with the very allies upon which France’s future security was dependent – the now isolationist USA, and a Great Britain that sometimes took Germany’s side in matters the French saw as life or death. In this episode, we’ll take a closer look at the French perspective, and why its army once again marched into Germany in 1921 – and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.


France began the Great War in 1914 militarily, economically, and demographically weaker than its main enemy, Germany. Once the war was finally over, many French leaders felt that the four years of fighting had worsened the long-term strategic disadvantages for France. The human cost suffered by France was significantly greater than British or German losses. About 1.4 million Frenchmen were killed during the war, from a population of 40 million. Germany, on the other hand, lost 2 million dead from 65 million, and Britain 750,000 from 45 million. In addition, French society had to deal with more than 40,000 civilian deaths, 760,000 orphans, 600,000 widows and 1.2 million disabled veterans; plus 1.4 million of its own refugees. The war had also drained French finances, put the country in massive debt, and destroyed its mining and industrial regions. The massive pre-war French investments in Russia had also been wiped out by the Bolshevik Revolution. Germany’s industrial heartlands, on the other hand, were untouched by the fighting, and still had far more production potential than France even after the territorial losses imposed by the Versailles Peace Treaty. In the words of historian Sally Marks: “France remained, industrially devastated and psychologically drained, no longer truly a great power, but propped up by its empire.” (Marks 640)

The trauma of the war had a serious impact on French domestic politics. The famous Union Sacree, or sacred union of old political enemies to face the German threat during the war had weakened but was still present. The anti-clerical republicans and catholic nationalists still found some common ground, although there was also a vocal presence of the radical left. In January 1921, Aristide Briand became Prime Minister for the fourth time, and adopted a moderate policy of trying to bring together different political fractions in the conservative-dominated parliament.

The long-term fear of another conflict with Germany, which France was unlikely to win without help, also dominated France’s aims for the new order in Europe. Russia was now Bolshevik and no longer an ally of any kind, but Prime Minister Clemenceau went into the peace negotiations in 1919 hoping to preserve the alliance with Britain and the United States. He also wanted to extend France’s defence of its borders to the Rhine river inside Germany, and to limit German influence in Europe. This meant closely supporting the new states to Germany’s east, like Poland and Czechoslovakia.

But the British and Americans did not always see eye-to-eye with the French, and France was forced to abandon some of its demands, like an autonomous or independent German state in the Rhineland. To many French leaders, it seemed that France was struggling not only to contain its German rival, but to convince its own Allies of the dangers it faced.

This situation continued to bedevil French politicians after the Peace Treaty had come into force in 1920. Even though the treaty had been signed, implementing it was another matter. The Allies did now occupy the Rhineland, France had recovered Alsace and Lorraine, and Germany had lost territory in the east. But Britain felt safer once the German fleet was no longer a factor, and Franco-British disagreements flared up all over the map. They clashed over relations with the Bolsheviks, borders in the Middle East, the Greco-Turkish War, and new borders in Eastern Europe. The British also opposed France’s attempts to limit German power by supporting separatism in the Rhineland, and pro-Polish uprisings in Upper Silesia. The United States, which had also opposed some French proposals for the peace, had now refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations. And all this was happening while French troops bore the largest burden of Allied forces in Germany, Poland, the former Habsburg lands, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.

So France had paid a very heavy price for its victory in the war but seemed in danger of losing the peace, and possibly the future support of its allies. In early 1921, another contentious issue would see France clash with Britain at the negotiating table, and lead to French military action against Germany for the third time since the armistice.

The Versailles Treaty stipulated that Germany would have to pay war reparations to the Allied countries that had suffered from the war, much the same way that Germany had forced France to pay reparations after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. For France, this was the only way its leaders felt they could rebuild their shattered country and repay their debts to Britain and the US. But the amount of reparations was not specified in the Versailles Treaty, and was instead to be decided later, which simply delayed the problem. Discussions with the Germans had been bitter so far, and the British were hesitating. British economist John Maynard Keynes published an influential work which criticized what he saw as an unsustainable financial cycle – not only what Germany had to pay to the Allies, but also what Britain and France had to pay to the United States in loans as well: “The war will end with a heavy tribute payable from one ally to another. The total tribute is even likely to exceed the amount obtainable from the enemy and the war will have ended with the intolerable result of the allies paying indemnities to each other instead of receiving them from the enemy » (Rothermond)

In this tense climate, another Interallied Conference took place in Paris in January 1921. The Allies were asking for 226 billion gold marks, a figure the German government strongly opposed. Another conference was planned for February in London, but the French were already considering what they could do to force Germany to pay if Berlin refused. These included extending the occupation to include the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. General Edmond Buat summed up the discussions between the Briand cabinet and France’s top generals in his diary:

“[We talked about] what kind of sanctions we could apply to Germany in case, in London, they continue to refuse the Paris interallied agreement of January 29. Foch described the [four] types of sanctions: a major operation in Germany; an operation with a limited objective, like the Ruhr; a very small operation to control communication between the Ruhr and Bavaria; or finally implementing a customs regime at the limits of the area we presently occupy.” (Buat, 991)

The London Conference of late February brought changes to the numbers, but not results. The Allies now wanted Germany to pay not 226 billion marks, but 148 billion. The Germans gave a counter-proposal of 50 billion, which the British and French refused, so the German delegation left the conference on March 7. The Allies gave the German government an ultimatum, but Berlin ignored it. (Leonhard 1227)

The Allied reaction was immediate. With British and Belgian agreement, two French brigades, and later some Belgian troops, marched from their bases in the occupied zone of the Rhineland into the cities of Duesseldorf, Duisburg and Ruhrort. The last time the French had extended the occupation back in April 1920, French troops had opened fire during clashes with German crowds. This time there were also protests, especially in Duisburg, but things were more peaceful. Still, Buat confided his doubts about the plan to his diary:
“The occupation of the German cities […] has been executed without difficulties. The Germans in Berlin and the internationalists in all countries are shouting about it; but there’s no need, since I don’t this all this will result in much of anything for us.” (Buat 997)

The Commander of Allied forces in the Rhineland, General Degoutte, made French intentions clear to the inhabitants of the three cities on the day his units arrived:
“The representatives of the German government have presented proposals at the London Conference that show that the German government does not want to respect the obligations which it undertook in signing the peace treaties. In the face of this attitude, the Allied Powers have no choice but to enact sanctions. […] In the newly-occupied areas, Allied Command intends to oversee a system of liberty and order which will allow the prosperous development of the country.” (L'Excelsior, 9 mars 1921)

So the dispute over reparations had led to the Allies marching into three German cities of the Ruhr to exert even more pressure on Germany. For now, the Germans refused to budge, and the situation continued to escalate.

In France, some were calling for a full-scale occupation of the Ruhr industrial area to resolve the situation. In May, French troops began to mobilize in preparation for a potential large-scale operation, as public pressure grew. Many newspapers and politicians pressured the government to take aggressive action. Politician Gaston Le Provost de Launay was one of them: “If we do not occupy the Ruhr, our victory will evaporate. Germany dreams of and wants nothing but revenge. Without the Ruhr, she cannot wage war […] not occupying the Ruhr is putting our throats to the knife. What French government would dare to waste the opportunity that destiny has offered us yet again? We will enter the Ruhr to accomplish our European mission as saviours of the peace.” (La Mayenne, 15 mai 1921)

Not all voices in France, however, wanted a military solution. The communist newspaper L’Humanité called the mobilization a crime, and called for a general strike to protest the mobilization. Its editors firmly opposed the potential escalation: “Despite the opposition of America and England, and against the advice of all the Allies, the French government has dared to take sole responsibility for the invasion of the Ruhr. It has blindly taken a perilous and guilty path.” (L'Humanité, 3 mai 1921)

Most Germans would have agreed with the French Communists, and the country was plunged into a crisis over whether to accept the latest Allied demands. Part of the outrage was driven by the idea that the addition of interest payments to the reparations would result in generations of Germans being subject to a Zinsknechtschaft, or an “interest servitude.” The German government had already been relatively weak before the March occupation, and now, revolutionary groups rose up hoping to topple it. On March 23, the two main German Communist parties began the March Action, under the leadership of Max Hoelz. Some 200,000 German workers took to the streets in Central Germany and Hamburg, hoping that this time the bourgeois government would be swept away by a social revolution. The government declared a state of emergency, and police were able to suppress the workers by April 1. 145 workers and 353 police had been killed, and for now at least, Chancellor Constantin Fehrenbach’s government survived,

Up until now, successive German administrations had largely adopted a so-called “Katastrophenpolitik” of trying to give as little ground as possible on the payments question in the hopes the British and Americans would reign in the French and Belgians. But this had only brought conflict and now, more occupation. The strain of the crisis caused the fall of the government, and on May 4 Chancellor Fehrenbach resigned. The harsh realities of Germany’s inability to resist the Allies now led to a shift towards an “Erfuellungspolitik,” a grudging policy of fulfilling Allied demands while at the same time trying to show Germany could not meet them. The new government under Joseph Wirth reluctantly decided to follow this course.

On May 5, the Allies gave the new German government an ultimatum which went beyond reparations:

“The Allied Powers, taking note of the fact that in spite of successive concessions made by the allies since the signature of the treaty of Versailles […] the German government is still in default of the fulfillment of the obligations incumbent upon it […] as regards 1. Disarmament 2. The [reparations] payment due on May 1st 1921 […] 3. The trial of war criminals […] 4. Certain other important aspects [of the treaty]” (Reichstagsprotokolle 1920/24,29 Text of the London Ultimatum.

The ultimatum went on to say that if Germany did not accept the newest figure of 132 billion marks the Ruhr would be completely occupied starting May 12. Foreign Minister Walter Simons made his reaction to the ultimatum clear: „The list of our supposed violations of the Peace Treaty is all the more preposterous since the Entente is not in any way meeting its own obligations in Upper Silesia. [I] consider it necessary to point out to the Entente this contradiction between their demands and their own behaviour.” (Nr 247 Kabinettsitzung vom 6. Mai 1921)

Despite its objections, Berlin agreed, and London Schedule of Payments was adopted. The final figure for all Central Powers (not just Germany) to pay was 132 billion. This was a Belgian compromise proposal, which was more than the British wanted, and less than what the French and Italians had hoped for. Germany would not have to pay its share all at once, but over many years. It would also have to pay about 2 Billion per year in interest, and 26% of the value of its exports. It has been the subject of debate as to whether the Allies actually expected Germany to pay, or were hoping to gain political advantages in domestic politics by announcing such a substantial figure. Some historians maintain the 132 billion was not the real amount, but a manipulated figure used to impress Allied publics – the actual sum was closer to 50 billion (Marks 641). Recent research has also suggested that Germany could likely have paid, if the government had raised taxes or borrowed from citizens as France had done after the Franco-Prussian War. At the time, however, German authorities were clear: they officially accepted the terms but there was no way they could or would pay.

So the Germans had finally caved in to Allied pressure and accepted to pay a sum that they were convinced was unreasonable. The Allies had gotten their way, but it seemed none of them were satisfied with the situation either.

The conflict over war reparations was one of the many conflicts that were still destabilizing Europe, in 1921, more than two years after the end of the Great War. The French-led occupation of three cities in the Ruhr to force the Germans to accept the London Schedule of Payments was indeed a short-term success, since the Germans accepted the reduced demands. But France’s long-term strategic dilemma remained unresolved. Franco-British relations were further strained. German bitterness against France grew, and the French policy of peacefully penetrating the hearts and minds of Rhinelanders was undermined. The reparations question also strengthened the stab-in-the-back myth and its right-wing nationalist supporters, who were the most anti-French force in the country. Despite the London agreement, a frightened and isolated French government still felt driven to impose its will on its defeated, but more powerful enemy. And the frightened and isolated German government would do everything it could in the coming years to avoid paying. In these circumstances, it would not be long before reparations again took centre stage, and troops would again be on the march.

Bibliographies et sources :

  • Buat, Edmond. Général Edmont Buat, Journal 1914-1923 (Perrin, 2015)
  • Héran, François. Génération sacrifiée : le bilan démographique de la Grande Guerre, (Populations et sociétés 2014 (n°510)
  • Leonhard, Joern. Der Ueberforderte Friden. Versailles und die Welt 1918-1923.
  • Marks, Sally. “Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty, 1918–1921,” in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 85, No. 3 (September 2013), pp. 632-659
  • Soutou, Georges-Henri. La Grande Illusion, quand la France perdait la paix (Tallandier, 2015)
  • Newspaper articles from Retronews, Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Nr 247 Kabinettsitzung vom 6. Mai 1921 )
  • Rothermund, Dietmar: Post-war Economies , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2018-05-22
  • Christophe Bellon. Aristide Briand et l'Europe au Parlement des Années folles. Quand la délibéra-tion prend le pas sur la diplomatie (1919-1932) Dans Parlement[s], Revue d'histoire politique 2007/3 (n° HS 3), pages 41 à 53


1921 The Great War

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