Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty

Germany initiated the Locarno Conference to reduce the German debt, offering reassurances of security for France in exchange.

Locarno, Switzerland

Summary of Event

The Treaty of Versailles, Versailles, Treaty of (1919) which concluded World War I, World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Versailles treaty left Europe in an uneasy state. France and Great Britain had, with American backing, imposed on Germany an immense war indemnity. The German people felt grievously and unjustly persecuted, and the French dreaded Germany’s recovery and possible vengeance. [kw]Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty (Oct., 1925)
[kw]Versailles Treaty, Germany Attempts to Restructure the (Oct., 1925)
[kw]Treaty, Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles (Oct., 1925)
Locarno Treaties (1925)
Mutual Guarantee, Treaty of (1925)
Rhineland Security Pact (1925)
[g]Switzerland;Oct., 1925: Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty[06520]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct., 1925: Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty[06520]
[c]Economics;Oct., 1925: Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty[06520]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct., 1925: Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty[06520]
Stresemann, Gustav
Briand, Aristide
Dawes, Charles G.
Chamberlain, Austen

Representatives of European nations gather in London to sign the Locarno Treaties on December 1, 1925.

(Library of Congress)

This was the situation addressed when delegates from Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Belgium, Poland, and Czechoslovakia met in Locarno, Switzerland, on October 5, 1925. On October 16, seven treaties were signed. The principal document was the Treaty of Mutual Guarantee signed by France, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, and Germany. Also called the Rhineland Security Pact, it guaranteed that the fifty-kilometer zone in Germany east of the Rhine would remain demilitarized and that Germany would honor its Belgian and French frontiers. By two separate treaties, Germany pledged not to make war on Belgium or France except in legitimate defense or in a League of Nations action and to settle disputes by arbitration. In the east, however, German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann refused to pledge the same boundary guarantees as in the west. Rather, Germany signed treaties of arbitration with Poland and with Czechoslovakia. France also signed treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia against the possibility of German aggression. The treaties were formally signed in London on December 1, 1925, effective as soon as Germany entered the League of Nations (September 8, 1926). For the first time since World War I, Germany was treated as a friendly nation.

In order to appreciate fully the meaning of the Locarno Treaties of 1925, it is necessary to understand the events that led to World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];causes and the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. According to one interpretation, the major impetus to war was the aggressive posture of Germany, unified as a nation only in 1870 and impatient to gain respect and territory on a par with its well-established and prestigious neighbors, Great Britain and France. This interpretation, which became operative after the victory of Britain and France in World War I, is not by any means clear and unambiguous fact.

Animosities between England and Germany did play their part in establishing a general war mood. Eager to catch up, Germany embarked at the turn of the century on a program of rapid naval construction, including thirty-eight battleships. This was perceived in world opinion as a challenge to traditional British supremacy on the high seas, but in Germany it was seen as a security measure appropriate for a full-fledged nation.

Another area of Anglo-German rivalry was Germany’s expansion as a colonial power in Africa, the South Pacific, and especially the Middle East. The contract of the Deutsche Bank with the Turkish government (November 27, 1898) to construct a railroad from Istanbul to Baghdad was initially favored by Great Britain, which hoped to use Germany as a foil to Russian expansionism in Turkey. British public opinion discouraged British banks from accepting a German request to finance the project jointly. As the railway subsequently resulted in a nearly monopolistic German influence in the economic and political life of Turkey, Great Britain came to view it as a threat to its lifelines in Egypt and India.

Franco-German relations had long been strained. Since the humiliation of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French nationalist press had demanded a war of revenge. A spirit of resentment toward Germany persisted in France. At the same time, the French felt alarmed and threatened by Germany’s already superior numbers and the rapid growth of its naval power.

The June 28, 1914, assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the throne of Habsburg Austria, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Francis Ferdinand
[p]Francis Ferdinand;assassination and his wife, by a Serbian citizen, Gavrilo Princip, was only the trigger that set in motion a series of responses culminating in the war. Princip’s deed was the final event in a history of small Eastern European wars and of a dangerous animosity between Serbia and Austria.

The South Slavic peoples residing in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century had long agitated for independence, with moral support from czarist Russia. In 1867, Hungary had satisfied its nationalist aims through the creation of a new national entity, Austria-Hungary. Both Serbia and Montenegro achieved a landlocked independence from Turkey at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, but concurrently the South Slavs of Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed by Austria. Serbia claimed a right to rule these formerly Turkish provinces based on their ethnic relationship and, in anticipation of Russian support, gradually prepared for a possible war with Austria. In deference to a German demand, however, Russia officially, at least, ceased support of Serbia and recognized Austria’s possession of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1909.

The two Balkan Wars Balkan Wars (1912-1913) in 1912 and 1913 added fuel to Serbia’s animosity toward Austria-Hungary. Victorious in the second of these wars, Serbia gained parts of Macedonia, but Austria-Hungary fiercely opposed acquisition of lands bordering on the Adriatic that would allow Serbian access to the sea. That corridor was filled by Albania, newly created by the Great Powers by means of the 1913 Treaty of London.

Opinions differ about the rush of events after the assassination of the Habsburg heir. One question was whether Serbian leadership sponsored the assassination, or knew of it in advance. Austria demanded satisfaction, as if there had been official Serbian complicity. Although involvement of the Serbian leaders remains questionable, Serbia acceded to nearly all the Austrian demands. Austria rejected the Serbian response as unsatisfactory. Russia was committed to defense of Serbia. Germany, it was clear to all, would support fellow Germans in Austria.

Germany was thus, by some accounts, no more guilty as a cause of World War I than any other European state. Nevertheless, Article 231 of the Versailles treaty proclaimed that defeated Germany accepted guilt for the war. Other articles outlined the exorbitantly high indemnity that the new Weimar government of Germany acknowledged it must pay. Aggravating this not clearly deserved war debt, Germany was deprived of a nation’s normal means of generating revenue, natural energy resources and overseas possessions as markets and sources of raw materials. Germany had to cede the rich coal-producing Saar basin to France and return other disputed lands won by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Article 119 of the Versailles treaty took away all of Germany’s overseas possessions.

After the war, Emperor William II of Germany had fled to Holland. The Weimar regime’s acquiescence to the stipulations of the Versailles treaty exposed it to criticism. No doubt the new republican government anticipated actual reparations to be lenient, given that it had had no part in Germany’s role in the war. That was not the case, however. Much discussion has been devoted to the question of whether the Allies’ lack of consideration for the Weimar democracy promoted the German nationalism of the 1930’s.

In the years that followed the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies sensed the extent to which it had been excessively harsh and that the Germans must in time seek satisfaction. British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour announced in 1922 that if the United States, which had claimed no part of Germany’s reparations payments, would cancel European debts, then Great Britain would discontinue demanding German payments. The United States, however, viewed reparations and inter-Allied debts as entirely separate problems. Britain then offered a unilateral cessation of its claims. France, with a debt to Britain much less than its anticipated reparations from Germany, refused to grant a moratorium.

British goodwill toward Germany left the French government feeling increasingly isolated and insecure. The solution of French prime minister Raymond Poincaré Poincaré, Raymond was to maintain and even increase the obstacles to German growth. Thus in 1923 France occupied Germany’s mineral-rich Ruhr Ruhr Valley;French occupation basin on the pretext that Germany had become delinquent in deliveries of timber. The response of the Weimar government, now even more profoundly prevented from generating the wealth with which to make payment, was “passive resistance.” This took the form of issuing worthless paper marks for the purpose of making the requisite payments.

The French, British, and American governments, banks, and private speculators worsened the situation by purchasing German marks at current low exchange rates, planning to sell them back when the mark stabilized at its normal higher value. Instead, the resultant flood of marks into the money market led to the collapse of the German monetary system in 1923. By then, the mark was worth as little as 4.2 trillion to the dollar, less than the paper it was printed on. Hyperinflation, Germany
Germany;hyperinflation A disastrous general European inflation had set in, and a worldwide financial collapse seemed imminent.

The 1923-1925 period saw massive efforts to rectify matters. Stresemann designed a plan to convert old German marks into strongly backed Rentenmarks at a rate of a trillion to one. This was the major step in alleviating the world’s general inflation. In 1924, the Dawes Plan, Dawes Plan proposed by Charles G. Dawes, who subsequently became the U.S. vice president, provided for a large Allied loan to help stabilize the mark and regulate the amounts of reparations required. Finally, a British-sponsored Geneva Protocol attempted to define aggression and provide for peaceful settlement of international disputes. Although never implemented, it established a spirit for Locarno.

France sought to contain Germany by preponderant force while Britain worked at conciliation, removing the causes of German dissatisfaction. Britain constantly tried to keep France from provoking Germany. The French could charge that Germany’s resentment was the result of Britain destroying Germany as a world power, taking its colonies, dismantling its navy, and seizing its capital holdings abroad. It was unfair, said the French, of Britain to ask France, Poland, and other continental powers to make concessions while Britain made none.


In February, 1925, Stresemann had expressed to France his government’s desire to guarantee the Franco-German Rhine frontiers as established by the Versailles treaty. The Germans regarded as great sacrifices their acknowledgment of French possession of Alsace-Lorraine and their promise not to use force in Eastern Europe. Perhaps these sacrifices would alleviate France’s fear of its more populous neighbor, assure France of Germany’s peaceful stance, and thereby meet the French need for security. If successful, Germany could hope in return for a reduction of its war indemnity and possibly, in time, even a dismantling of other provisions of the Versailles treaty.

Locarno was regarded as marking the start of an era of goodwill and as the reconciliation of former enemies of World War I. The high hopes of the moment were reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aristide Briand of France, Austen Chamberlain of Great Britain, and Gustav Stresemann of Germany. Nobel Prize recipients;Aristide Briand[Briand]
Nobel Prize recipients;Austen Chamberlain[Chamberlain]
Nobel Prize recipients;Gustav Stresemann[Stresemann] One assessment regards Locarno as the true end of World War I.

What precisely did the Locarno Conference do, and how did it affect the sense of security of the peoples of Europe and the world? After a war that had surpassed all fears, and after an inflation that had destroyed the savings and economic security of countless middle-class families, the world was sorely in need of good news. The Locarno Treaties offered hope of a peaceful future.

The Locarno Treaties have also received a negative interpretation, which to some extent may reflect the true state of affairs. Such an interpretation came only after the treaties were known to have failed to bring permanent peace and after Stresemann’s private papers had been published. Was Locarno a screen behind which Stresemann actually supervised German rearmament? Did Stresemann’s trade and nonaggression pacts with the Soviet Union after Locarno prove Germany’s hypocrisy?

Disillusionment exists even regarding the motivations of the Allies. It is argued that Locarno reflected Great Britain’s desire to keep continental commitments at a minimum. Great Britain’s unwillingness to concern itself with Eastern Europe seemed to be a portent of its attitude in 1938, and was so assessed by Adolf Hitler. The West, through the Locarno Treaties, may simply have been protecting itself by turning German ambitions eastward against the Bolsheviks. The Soviet Union did in fact see the treaties as a hostile scheme against it, as Germany’s eastern frontiers were not guaranteed. Finally, in both Germany and France nationalists attacked the treaties.

For ten years, Locarno represented a ray of hope. Hope proved illusory, however, when Hitler violated the pacts in March, 1936. A week later, the other powers voted to condemn Germany but took no punitive action. Locarno Treaties (1925)
Mutual Guarantee, Treaty of (1925)
Rhineland Security Pact (1925)

Further Reading

  • Borsody, C. Stephen. The Triumph of Tyranny. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Argues that the Allied purpose at Locarno was to keep Germany and the Soviet Union apart and that, perceiving this, the Soviets viewed it as portentous of a new European war.
  • Eyck, Erich. A History of the Weimar Republic. 2 vols. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967. One of the best general histories of the Weimar period available. Volume 2 includes extensive and incisive detailed material on Locarno.
  • Jacobson, Jon. Locarno Diplomacy: Germany and the West, 1925-1929. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. Explores the personalities and diplomacy of the Locarno era and offers an interpretation by means of newly released American, British, and German state documents and contemporary private documents, including Stresemann’s private papers. Jacobson views Locarno as a sinister diplomatic duel between Briand and Stresemann. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • Marks, Sally. The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe, 1918-1933. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Views the period as extremely unstable and inevitably explosive because the Versailles treaty was so unfair to Germany. Provides a useful chronology of important events from 1915 to 1937.
  • Nicholls, A. J. Weimar and the Rise of Hitler. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Analysis of the failure of the Weimar government. Regarding Locarno, presents Stresemann’s argument that the eastern arrangements left Germany free to resort to war there. Stresemann believed Locarno would forestall a bilateral Anglo-French treaty and saw it as the beginning of the dismantling of the whole Versailles treaty. Includes chronological table, bibliography, and index.
  • Taylor, A. J. P. The Origins of the Second World War. 1961. Reprint. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Praises Stresemann and Briton Ramsay MacDonald for their peacekeeping roles between the wars. Stresemann’s posthumous papers prove that he wanted to destroy the Versailles treaty. It had to be revised, by peace or war; Stresemann sought peace.
  • Wolfers, Arnold. Britain and France Between Two Wars. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940. Good general introduction to the diplomacy of the period after World War I. Points up the high level of friction that developed between the two allies with reference to Germany.

League of Nations Is Established

Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Rapallo

France Occupies the Ruhr

Dawes Plan

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss