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The Trial of the Kaiser$

William A. Schabas

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198833857

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198833857.001.0001

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Finalising the Treaty of Versailles

Finalising the Treaty of Versailles

(p.198) 13 Finalising the Treaty of Versailles
The Trial of the Kaiser

William A. Schabas

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Wilson’s text was polished by the Drafting Committee and then altered, upon the request of Lloyd George, so as to remove any suggestion that it did not provide for a proper criminal trial. The draft treaty was then submitted to the Germans for comment. A committee of German experts that included the famous sociologist Max Weber wrote a reply contesting the clauses about trial and punishment of Kaiser Wilhelm. For Germany, this was one of the few provisions in the Treaty of Versailles that were intolerable. But the Allies refused to budge and Germany found itself forced to sign.

Keywords:   Treaty of Versailles, Max Weber, Germany, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George

Wilson’s ‘Outline’ provided the guidance, but it was the task of the Drafting Committee of the Conference to transpose his words into treaty language. The Drafting Committee was made up of James Brown Scott for the United States, Cecil B. Hurst for Britain, Henri Fromageot for France, Arturo Ricci-Busatti for Italy, and Harukazu Nagaoka for Japan. It reformulated the two-paragraph text of the Council of Five into four articles. The second paragraph of the Outline, concerning trial of the Kaiser, emerged as a four-paragraph provision:

The Allied and Associated Powers publicly arraign William II of Hohenzollern, formerly German Emperor, not for an offence against criminal law, but for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.

A special tribunal will be constituted to try the accused, thereby assuring him the guarantees essential to the right of defence. It will be composed of four judges, one appointed by each of the following five powers: namely, the United States of America, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan.

In its decision the tribunal will be guided by the highest principles of international policy, with a view to vindicating the solemn obligations of international undertakings and the validity of international morality. It will be its duty to fix the punishment which it considers should be imposed.

The Allied and Associated Powers will address a request to the Government of the Netherlands for the surrender to them of the ex-Emperor in order that he may be put on trial.1

The only substantive difference with the text formulated by Wilson and signed by the other four leaders was the addition of the reference to assuring to the Kaiser ‘the guarantees essential to the right of defence’. The Drafting Committee delivered the text on 26 April. It was placed on the agenda of the (p.199) fifth plenary session of the Paris Peace Conference, set to meet during the afternoon of 28 April 1919. The draft clauses were published in the French and English press,2 and a day later the Department of State released them in the United States. This was not the proper way to proceed because the draft clauses needed to be confirmed first by the Council of Five as a faithful expression of its instructions.

The British Empire delegation convened on the morning of 28 April 1919. There was a note of urgency because of the scheduled Plenary session, where it was expected that the draft articles would be discussed. George Barnes, a senior member of the British Government delegation and a Member of Parliament, said the draft provisions on penalties required further discussion by the British Empire delegation. He was in favour of punishing the Kaiser, but it was ‘a strong order to ask Germany to give up without specification a large number of her nationals to the mercy of the Allies’. General Louis Botha, the South African Prime Minister, expressed regret that the matter had been left so long without being discussed. Botha may well have felt aggrieved because of his government’s experience with the British in the aftermath of the Boer War. The other South African delegate, General Jan Christian Smuts, turned to the clauses concerning the Kaiser, describing them as ‘embarrassing’. He pointed out their incompatibility with the recommendation of the Commission on Responsibilities, which had opposed trial of the Kaiser. Smuts was mistaken, because the Commission had supported trial of the former Emperor for violations of the laws and customs of war. ‘The members of the Commission were eminent jurists and it would make the Conference ridiculous to publish their report and at the same time to approve measures directly contrary to their opinion’, said Smuts.

William Massey told the British Empire delegation meeting that ‘in view of certain differences among the members, the whole matter had been referred, with their report, to the Council of Four, who had sought to adjust the differences by the measures indicated in the proposed articles’. He said he felt strongly that the Kaiser should be punished. He was afraid that ‘the proposed articles in effect meant letting the ex-Emperor off’. The Australian Prime Minister, William M. Hughes, said he objected to the words ‘not for an offence against criminal law’. He also criticised the draft articles for vagueness and inconsistency. ‘They started out to vindicate “international morality” and then dropped to “international policy” ’, he charged. ‘We would never get a conviction under them. They would make us ridiculous and cover us with confusion.’3

(p.200) Robert Borden, the Canadian Prime Minister who presided over the British Empire delegation meeting of 28 April, later communicated the mood of discontent to Lloyd George, who had not attended. Borden insisted it would be extremely undesirable for the question of responsibilities to be discussed at the Plenary Conference, despite being on the agenda. Lloyd George explained that the item had been put there without his knowledge. Borden then made the same point to Wilson and Clemenceau, who agreed with Lloyd George that the issue should not be considered at the meeting that afternoon.4

Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Pichon met with Wilson on 1 May to consider the text prepared by the Drafting Committee. With respect to Article 1, concerning the Kaiser, Lloyd George said attention had been drawn to the words ‘not for an offence against criminal law but …’. He said it had been pointed out that the draft might be construed as an admission by the Allied and Associated Powers that the German Emperor had not committed offences against criminal law. He proposed the omission of the phrase. Wilson promptly agreed. Maurice Hankey was instructed to communicate the modification to the Secretary-General for the information of the Drafting Committee.5

One of Wilson’s biographers noted that in agreeing with Lloyd George, the American President ‘violated all the principles for which he had earlier fought so long and hard and that he gave away the victory that he had won in the protocol on responsibilities that the Council of Four had approved on April 9, 1919’. The writer thought it possible that ‘Wilson was in a daze and did not know what was going on at this meeting’.6

Writing much later about the drafting of Article 227, James Brown Scott claimed ‘the American commission rendered a service to the world at large in standing as a rock against the trial of the Kaiser for a legal offence’.7 Scott wrote that charging the Kaiser solely with an offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties, and declaring that the judgment would be guided by the highest motives of international policy, amounted to ‘an admission that law, in the legal sense of the word, did not exist for either offence, or that its violation was not a crime in the sense of criminal law’.8 But Scott’s contention stumbles upon Wilson’s agreement to drop the reference to criminal law. Some rock!

Besides removing the phrase about criminal law, there were two other slight changes to the draft. The Drafting Committee text had referred to four judges, not five. Lloyd George pointed out that this was mere inadvertence (p.201) because the five powers were named.9 In the third paragraph, the word ‘principles’ was replaced with ‘motives’.

The Allied and Associated Powers publicly arraign William II of Hohenzollern, formerly German Emperor for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.

A special tribunal will be constituted to try the accused, thereby assuring him the guarantees essential to the right of defence. It will be composed of five judges, one appointed by each of the following five powers: namely, the United States of America, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan.

In its decision the tribunal will be guided by the highest motives of international policy, with a view to vindicating the solemn obligations of international undertakings and the validity of international morality. It will be its duty to fix the punishment which it considers should be imposed.

The Allied and Associated Powers will address a request to the Government of the Netherlands for the surrender to them of the ex-Emperor in order that he may be put on trial.10

This was the final text of Article 227.

The trial of the Kaiser returned to the agenda of the Plenary of the Peace Conference on 6 May 1919. The Conference met in Plenary session on only eight occasions. The work of this body, which all of the ‘smaller’ countries attended, was often quite perfunctory because the main decisions were taken elsewhere, in the intimacy of the Council of Four. Robert Lansing described the Plenary as a ‘farce’, where the delegates were ‘called together to listen, not to criticise or object … It was medieval rather than modern; despotic rather than democratic.’11

There was great anticipation because the German delegation was expected in Paris the following day. The delegate for Honduras, Policarpo Bonilla, was the only person to ask to speak on the penalty provisions of the draft treaty. His short intervention consisted of drawing the attention of the participants to a declaration, labelled a voeu or ‘wish’, issued by his government on 23 April on the issue of the punishment of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Written legislation of all civilised countries confirms the uncontested principle of natural law that no person shall be judged or punished other than for an offence that has previously been defined expressly and made punishable by law.

The delegation of the country that I have the honour to represent considers the judgment of Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern, former Emperor of Germany, charged pursuant to article 1 of the draft under discussion, as inoperative. There is really no law or international precedent that permits this. A Head of State is only accountable before his own people, who may only (p.202) judge and convict him pursuant to legislation that has been duly adopted. In the present case, it would be more logical to judge and convict the German people who followed, joined and tolerated the acts of their rulers, but such conviction can only be effective in accordance with the form that the conference has chosen to follow: imposing upon the German people an indemnity or reparation for all harm caused by an unjust war that it allowed itself to participate in.

Consequently, we believe that there is also no right to demand that the Government of the Netherlands extradite the former German Emperor; and, knowing that there does not exist an applicable extradition treaty between one or several of the Allied and Associated Powers, we consider that the Netherlands cannot perform what is being asked of it without breaching its own laws.12

The declaration also criticised the draft provisions aimed at trials of German nationals for violations of the laws and customs of war. It said they were flawed, and that the proper course would be to insert clauses in the treaty requiring Germany to judge its own nationals. Somewhat provocatively, but justifiably, the declaration of Honduras also said that if the purpose was to ‘guarantee the rights of humanity and pay homage to absolutely justice’, a ‘stunning precedent’ would be created by including within the treaty a clause of reciprocity, ‘stipulating the obligation for the Allied and Associated Governments to bring to justice and punish offences against the laws and customs of war and the laws of their own countries, however few these might be, that were perpetrated by their own nationals’. This is one of the very rare occasions during the entire post-war period when the victors considered whether they too might have perpetrated crimes under international law. Bonilla concluded by acknowledging that his remarks might not please everyone, but that he was confident his view would prevail when spirits became calmer and that in any event it would be welcomed by ‘the impartial historian who is to judge the events of today in the future’.13

It is not impossible that Robert Lansing and James Brown Scott had a hand in Bonilla’s attack on the provisions governing the trial of the Kaiser. Prior to presenting the statement, the Honduran diplomat had sent a copy to the head of the Latin American Desk at the US State Department for his ‘esteemed opinion’.14 That Honduras would solicit the blessing of the US Government for such a statement is unsurprising, given its subservient relationship with Washington at the time. But this is the only evidence of any collusion.

(p.203) ‘Tense and Concentrated Hatred’

In mid-April, the German Government was invited to send a delegation to Paris. The Germans were instructed to appear at Versailles on the evening of 25 April in order to receive the text of the preliminaries of the treaty, as drawn up by the Allied and Associated Powers, which was a summary or précis of the provisions. On 21 April, Germany responded positively to the invitation. However, its delegation only left Berlin for Paris on 28 April, arriving the following evening. The Germans were lodged at the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles. Now a government building, in its heyday the hotel had hosted Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, and other eminent personalities. The German delegation was headed by Count Ulrich Brockdorff-Rantzau, a seasoned diplomat. Among his achievements was organising the sealed train by which Vladimir Lenin returned to revolutionary Russia from exile in Switzerland in April 1917. Brockdorff-Rantzau was the first Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic.

On 7 May, at the Plenary Session of the Conference, ‘in an atmosphere of tense and concentrated hatred’,15 Clemenceau presented the draft peace treaty accompanied by the official summary to the German delegation. Brockdorff-Rantzau chose to remain seated while Clemenceau spoke, the first but certainly not the last German to manifest bitterness about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Speaking to the Conference, Brockdorff-Rantzau admitted a degree of German responsibility for the war, but said: ‘We energetically deny that Germany and its people, who were convinced that they fought a war of defence, were alone guilty.’ As for wrongs committed during the conduct of the war, ‘Germany is not the only guilty one. Every European nation knows of deeds and of people whom their own countrymen remember only with regret.’ Brockdorff-Rantzau turned to the terrible suffering within Germany since the armistice, a consequence of Allied interdiction of imports of food and other essentials. He spoke of ‘hundreds of thousands of non-combatants who have perished since the 11th of November by reason of the blockade’, saying they had been ‘killed with cold deliberation after our adversaries had conquered and victory had been assured them. Think of that when you speak of guilt and of punishment.’ He concluded that ‘guilt of all participants can be fixed only by an impartial inquiry, by a neutral commission before whom all the leading actors of the tragedy may be heard, and to whom all archives will be opened’.16

(p.204) The Germans were instructed to provide their reply within fifteen days, although the deadline was extended subsequently. On 13 May 1919, Brockdorff-Rantzau wrote to the Conference declaring that the German delegates did not share the view about the origin of the war. They did not consider that the former German Government was the party which was solely or chiefly to blame for the war.17 He asked to be provided with a copy of the report of the Commission on Responsibilities. The request was considered in a joint session of the Commission on Responsibilities and the Commission on Reparations.18 A draft reply was prepared.19 The Council of Four decided, on 20 May 1919, that Clemenceau should inform the Germans that the Commission’s report was a ‘document of an internal character’ that could not be transmitted to ‘an outsider’.20 That the Commission was divided on the issues was quite notorious. This had been reported in the press. The report of the Commission had apparently been published in an American newspaper.21 But the Report would not have been of much assistance to the Germans because the relationship between the provisions in the treaty, especially Article 227, was tenuous at best.

Count Brockdorff-Rantzau replied to Clemenceau on 24 May 1919. He started by conceding German responsibility for the invasion of Belgium, ‘as the German armies had only reached the French territories by the violation of Belgium’s neutrality. It was for this aggression that the German Government admitted Germany to be responsible: it did not admit Germany’s alleged responsibility for the origin of the war or for the merely incidental fact that the formal declaration of war had emanated from Germany’. He protested the refusal to provide the German delegation with a copy of the report of the Commission on Responsibilities: ‘The German nation never having assumed the responsibility for the origin of the war, has a right to demand that it be informed by its opponents for what reason and on what evidence these conditions of Peace are based on Germany being to blame for all damages and all sufferings of this war. It cannot therefore consent to be put off with the remark that the data on the question of responsibility collected by the Allied and Associated Governments through a special Commission are documents concerning those governments alone. This, a question of life and death for the German nation, must be discussed in all publicity; methods of secret diplomacy are here out of place.’22

On 29 May, Count Brockdorff-Rantzau presented Germany’s formal reply to the draft treaty. The remarks on the penalty provisions were prepared by a distinguished panel that included the eminent sociologist Max (p.205) Weber. Weber had dabbled in politics, although without great achievement. In 1918, he joined the Heidelberg workers’ council. He later helped to draft the Constitution of the Weimar Republic. Weber supported the controversial provision on emergency powers that proved to be the Republic’s undoing, in 1933. The German expert panel on the penalty clauses in the treaty also included a prominent international lawyer, Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy, grandson of the great composer, as well as historian Hans Delbrück and diplomat Max Montgelas. With its numerous annexes, the German reply on penalties comprised more than 200 pages.

The German reply said that prosecution of the Kaiser was not founded ‘upon any legal basis’. It insisted that ‘international law in force provides punishment as a sanction for commandments and prohibitions; no law of any of the interested powers threatens with punishment the violation of the international law of morality or the breach of treaties’. The German document noted that there was ‘no criminal tribunal competent to decide the impeachment in question’. For this reason, the drafters of the treaty ‘had to create a criminal law with retroactive powers, as exceptional law, to form the basis of judgment’. Moreover, it affirmed that Germany could not allow a German to be put before ‘a foreign special tribunal, to be convicted on the basis of an exceptional law promulgated by foreign powers solely against him, on the principles not of right, but of politics, and to be punished for an action which was not punishable at the time it was committed’. The German reply also addressed the provisions governing trials for violations of the laws and customs of war, covered by Articles 228, 229, and 230. It said that Germany could not agree to surrender suspects for trial because its Criminal Code prohibited extradition of German nationals. It went on to challenge the very basis of prosecution of war crimes which it said was a matter reserved to the responsibility of a State, not an individual:

In the opinion of the German Delegation, one of the noblest objects of the conclusion of peace is to appease passions which mutual reproach for the violation of international law has aroused, by satisfying the offended sense of justice in all cases where an injustice has actually been committed. This end cannot be attained if, as the draft requires, the demand for the atonement of a wrong committed is, for political purposes, accompanied by the branding and proscription of the opponent, or, if, by giving the role of judge to the victor, might is put in the place of right. If a violation of the law is to be atoned for, the proceedings themselves must be legal. Under the law of nations in force at present, only the state, as bearer of the international obligation, is responsible for acts in violation of the laws and customs of war. If satisfaction is to be given (p.206) by the punishment of guilty individuals, the injured state itself may not convict; it can only demand the punishment of the state responsible for the guilty person. Germany has never refused, and once more declares her readiness to see to it that violations of international law are punished with the full severity of the law, and that all accusations, from whichever party they come, are examined impartially.

The German delegation said that it was prepared to let an international tribunal rule on whether or not individuals could be punished for violations of the laws and customs of war, but on the condition of participation by representatives of neutral States. Were the conclusion to be positive, Germany would then agree to an international tribunal where all violations, committed by both sides, could be judged. Moreover, Germany would also have an equal share in the constitution of the tribunal. Its jurisdiction would be restricted to matters of international law, with punishment left to the national courts.

Instead of prosecution, the Germans proposed that the peace agreement contain an amnesty. ‘[W]rongs committed by the nationals of both parties, the necessity for which resulted from the circumstances of the war, should, so far as the general feeling for justice allows it, be consigned to oblivion upon the conclusion of peace.’ It said that amnesty had been agreed to in many previous peace treaties as a means to ‘contribute towards a reconciliation of the peoples’. Therefore,

… each Power should grant the nationals of the other party immunity for all criminal acts committed by them in the course of the war to the benefit of their own country, or for contravention of the special laws enacted to the detriment of enemy aliens; such acts as infringe the laws and customs of war must be excepted. Further, certain acts which were committed before the conclusion of peace by the inhabitants of a territory occupied by the enemy should be included in the amnesty. The unusual circumstances prevailing during a military or conventional occupation will often give cause of a political or military behaviour which generally loses its significance with the return of the former authorities, and may then remain unpunished without injury to the sense of justice.23

Replying to Germany

A reply to the German delegation was prepared by a body named the ‘Committee on Responsibilities’. This was something new, not provided (p.207) for by any decisions of the plenary Peace Conference. It consisted of five members, one from each of the ‘Great Powers’: Ernest Pollock, who chaired the Committee, James Brown Scott, Ferdinand Larnaude, Gustave Tosti, and Sakutaro Tachi. All had served as delegates or alternates on the Commission on Responsibilities. There was no place for representatives of the smaller countries. The Committee’s conclusions were set out in a memorandum dated 7 June. The Committee opposed any concessions to the Germans on the issue of penalties. Its report did not attempt to justify the legal basis of Article 227, saying it was sufficient to say it represented ‘a minimum of what is demanded in respect of the violations of international morality, the sanctity of treaties and the most essential rules of justice’. The Committee explained that ‘special and exceptional measures have been contemplated arising from the acts with which the German ex-Emperor is charged and the entirely new circumstances under which such acts took place’.

The Committee attempted to interpret Article 227 of the treaty. ‘It is important to understand Article 227 aright and it is essential to explain the method of arraignment set up thereby against the German ex-Emperor, otherwise the meaning and import of the Article might be distorted from its true sense’, wrote the Committee. It insisted that the ‘public arraignment’ of the Kaiser ‘has not a juridical character as regards its substance, but only in its form’. The justification, said the Committee, was that by giving judicial forms and judicial procedure, and setting up a regularly constituted tribunal, the judgment would not only be ‘a most solemn one’, but would also ensure ‘guarantees to the accused’. Such a judicial procedure would provide ‘in the accused’s favour a guarantee such as has not hitherto been known to international law; it is in order to ensure him the most complete rights and liberty as regards his defence that the Allied and Associated Powers have consented to set up this procedure’.

This is the closest we come to any attempt at construing the abstruse text of Article 227 by any of those who were involved in its drafting, albeit rather marginally. James Brown Scott was a member of the Drafting Committee of the Conference that had transformed Wilson’s text into treaty language. But the members of the Committee on Responsibilities, including James Brown Scott, had not been privy to the discussions in the Council of Four when the basis of Article 227 was adopted. They knew little or nothing of the comments by Lloyd George about the scope of Article 227, made public only decades later. Members of the Committee could not do much more (p.208) than speculate about the intentions of those who were at the origin of the text. The comments on the rights and freedoms of the Kaiser were cut from whole cloth by the five experts. That issue was far from the minds of the four leaders in early May when they cooked up the scheme. The phrase ‘thereby assuring him the guarantees essential to the right of defence’ in the second paragraph of Article 227 was only added by the Drafting Committee. The memorandum of the Committee on Responsibilities is the first reference to the Kaiser’s fair trial rights as a rationale for Article 227.24

On 12 June, the Council of Four discussed a draft reply to the Germans prepared by Phillip Kerr, the personal secretary of Lloyd George.25 Kerr described the war itself as ‘the greatest crime against humanity and the freedom of peoples that any nation, calling itself civilised, has ever consciously committed’. His note focused not on Germany’s responsibility for starting the war, but on an issue that the German reply did not really consider at all, ‘the savage and inhuman manner in which it was conducted’. Kerr cited ‘a series of promiscuous shootings and burnings with the sole object of terrifying the inhabitants into submission by the very frightfulness of their action’. He accused Germany of being the first to use poison gas (Britain, France, and the United States also used various poisonous gases during the war), ‘notwithstanding the appalling suffering it entailed’. He also mentioned the long-distance shelling of towns and submarine warfare, described as a ‘piratical challenge to international law’.

‘Justice, therefore, is the only possible basis for the settlement of the accounts of this terrible war’, Kerr’s note continued. ‘Justice is what the German Delegation asks for and says that Germany had been promised. Justice is what Germany shall have. But it must be justice for all. There must be justice for the dead and wounded and for those who have been orphaned and bereaved that Europe might be freed from Prussian despotism … There must be justice for those millions whose homes and land, ships and property German savagery has spoliated and destroyed.’26

Clemenceau said he liked Kerr’s document ‘well enough as a magazine article’, but thought that it was not vigorous enough. Wilson too was hesitant. If Kerr’s text was only used ‘to reassure our own people that the Germans were not believed’, Wilson thought it might be sufficient. The result of the discussion was inconclusive. Even Lloyd George conceded that the summary nature of Kerr’s reply was a shortcoming. Something more elaborate would be required if the Germans refused to sign and Allied military action became necessary. Then ‘it might be necessary to stir up public opinion again (p.209) to a certain extent’, said Wilson.27 Later that day, the Council agreed that Kerr’s memorandum would make up part of the materials for the answer to the Germans. Kerr was designated as the English member of a five-member committee charged with finalising the reply.28

On 16 June, the Allied and Associated Powers delivered their response, consisting of a covering letter and a detailed discussion of the contentious provisions. The covering letter consolidated but also condensed the text prepared by Kerr and the memorandum of the Committee on Responsibilities. It spoke of establishing a deterrent for those who might follow the example of Germany, an idea that had not been present in the earlier drafts. Previous peace settlements had been ‘singularly inadequate in preventing the renewal of war’, said the letter. The treaty with Germany was to be a break with the past.

As regards the German contention that a trial of the accused by tribunals appointed by the Allied and Associated Powers would be a one-sided and inequitable proceeding, the Allied and Associated Powers consider that it is impossible to entrust the trial of those directly responsible for offences against humanity and international right to their accomplices in their crimes. Almost the whole world has banded itself together in order to bring to nought the German plan of conquest and dominion. The tribunals they will establish will therefore represent the deliberate judgment of the greater part of the civilised world. The Allied and Associated Powers are prepared to stand by the verdict of history as to the impartiality and justice with which the accused will be tried.

The first version of the paragraph contained, as its penultimate sentence, the words: ‘They cannot entertain the proposal to admit to the tribunal the representatives of countries which have taken no part in the war.’ The Council decided that it was better to delete the sentence. The covering letter concluded: ‘The Allied and Associated Powers must make it clear that this letter and the memorandum attached constitute their last word.’29

Robert Lansing cited the Allied reply in a speech to the American Bar Association in Boston, in September 1919. Lansing insisted that Article 227 reflected the vision of the American reservations to the report of the Commission on Responsibilities. ‘Manifestly the tribunal thus created is not a court of legal justice, but rather an instrument of political power’, he said. Lansing explained that Article 227 ‘was in accordance with the suggestion made in the American memorandum that there might be a political sanction but no judicial sanction for the offences of having caused the war and violated the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg’.30

(p.210) On 21 June, the Conference was rocked by news from Orkney, in the northern reaches of Scotland. Following the armistice of 11 November 1918, the German fleet had been impounded at Scapa Flow, a deep-water British naval base. The vessels continued to be manned by German sailors, many of them in a revolutionary mood. The French, in particular, hoped to claim some of the warships as a reparation payment. Early in the morning of 21 June, the German admiral in charge ordered the sailors to scuttle the vessels. Seacocks, valves, and pipes were opened. The ships slowly filled with water. The once mighty German Navy sunk to the seabed. More than fifty of the seventy-four German ships at Scapa Flow were damaged in this way, many of them beyond repair. The scuttling of the fleet was not strictly prohibited by the armistice, but there was a sense that it showed bad faith and was contrary to general principles governing armistices.31 The events at Scapa Flow brought an end to any goodwill from which the German delegation at Versailles might have benefitted.

The same day, the German delegation answered the Allied reply: ‘The Government of the German Republic is ready to sign the Treaty of Peace without, however, recognising thereby that the German people was the author of the war and without undertaking any responsibility for delivering persons in accordance with Articles 227 to 230 of the Treaty of Peace.’32 In more detailed comments, the Germans said it was impossible to reconcile the penalty clauses, Articles 227 to 230, with their ‘dignity and honour’. Germany also objected to the ‘war guilt clause’, Article 231, by which the State assumed responsibility for the loss and damage resulting from ‘the aggression of Germany and her allies’. Article 231 was the first provision in the part of the treaty dealing with reparations. Finally, Germany also protested the loss of all of its colonies.33

Although the German reply mentioned Article 227 expressly, the fate of the ex-Kaiser was hardly a priority. In any case, his fortunes lay with the Dutch Government more than with Germany. Many Germans were relieved to see the end of Wilhelm, his family, and royalty in general. The real preoccupation of the German negotiators was an unconditional undertaking to surrender their military and political leaders whose numbers had not been set and whose identities had not been determined. The treaty gave the Allies a blank cheque and, potentially, the authority to imprison much of the German elite. Ultimately, none of the penalty provisions of the treaty on which the German negotiators dug in their heels proved to be a serious threat. When the time came to arrest and surrender suspects for trial pursuant to Articles (p.211) 228, 229, and 230, Germany offered modest resistance and the Allies buckled, agreeing that only a handful of second-level officers be brought to justice before German courts.

Wilson’s physician brought him the German reply when he awoke on the morning of 22 June. The President read the note, then said to Dr Grayson: ‘Germany does not want to accept responsibility for the war alone. We do not charge Germany alone. It is Germany and her allies.’34 That afternoon, the Council of Four met to discuss the final German reply. Wilson read a draft note affirming that there was no exception or reservation possible. It was agreed to summon a meeting of the full Council for 9 pm and to submit the draft reply for its consideration.35 The Council agreed on the text. It was signed by Clemenceau and dispatched to Versailles. The Council also decided that the reply should be published in newspapers the following day.36

The strain of the treaty provoked the collapse of the German Government, led by Philipp Heinrich Scheidemann since February 1919. He resigned with the rest of the cabinet as a protest against the harsh terms imposed by the obdurate Allies. Gustav Adolf Bauer replaced him as Reichsministerpräsident. One of Bauer’s first acts was to bid the Supreme Council for a forty-eight-hour extension. This was refused. Alluding to the Scapa Flow incident, Wilson said that ‘if he was assured that he was dealing with honourable men, or even ordinary men, he would be willing to give not forty-eight, but twenty-four, hours. However, he shared Mr Lloyd George’s suspicions to the full, and did not trust the Germans.’37

The Allied armies made preparations to resume the war should Germany not accept the treaty. Rumours circulated that the Kaiser might be returning to Germany to lead a revived militarism. Late in the afternoon of 22 June, Balfour reported on a dispatch from the Weimar Government to the German delegation in Versailles that said Germany had agreed to sign, ‘the Allies having decided to employ the most extreme violence to force Germany to accept terms without material importance, but which tend to besmirch the honour of Germany, and since the German people no longer have the means to defend themselves’.38 The news arrived as the Council of Four was planning the signing ceremony, then scheduled for the afternoon of the following day.39 At 5.40 pm, the Secretary of the Conference entered the room with the official note from the Germans announcing their unconditional acceptance of the treaty. ‘Orders were given for guns to be fired. No further discussion took place.’40

(p.212) The treaty was formally signed on 28 June, five years to the day from the assassination in Sarajevo. The symbolic venue was the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, in the western suburbs of Paris, where the German Empire had been proclaimed not quite half a century earlier. For many, the mood was one of relief and celebration. It concluded months of tense negotiation, not so much with the Germans, who for most of the time were bystanders at best, but among the Allies themselves as they defined the new borders of Europe, creating new States from the remnants of old empires and distributing Germany’s modest colonial possessions among themselves. But there was also much anxiety, rooted in concern that the harshness of the terms had engendered an inherently unstable peace. In the weeks and months that followed, the young Adolf Hitler was radicalised. He spent the summer obsessively studying the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. By October, as he later described in Mein Kampf, he was haranguing the growing crowds of his young movement about the disastrous peace agreement accepted by Germany’s leaders.


(1.) Draft clauses prepared by the Drafting Committee, FRUS PPC V, pp. 401–2.

(2.) ‘Responsabilités et sanctions’, Le Temps, 29 April 1919, p. 4; ‘Arraignment of the Kaiser’, The Times, 30 April 1919, p. 12.

(3.) Minutes of a Meeting of the British Empire Delegation, 28 April 1919 at 11 am, in M. Dockrill (ed.), British Documents on Foreign Affairs, Series I, The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British Empire Delegation Minutes, March–June 1919, Reports of Peace Conference Commissions, Vol. IV, [Frederick, MD]: University Publications of America, 1989 pp. 55–7.

(4.) Borden to White, with Enclosure, 3 May 1919, WWP 58, pp. 415–16.

(5.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 1 May 1919, 11 am, FRUS PPC V, pp. 389–402; USNA 180.03401/135; WWP 58, pp. 277–96.

(6.) Arthur S. Link (ed.), The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, April 23–May 9, 1919, Vol. 58, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 278, fn. 3 (editorial footnote, presumably by Arthur S. Link).

(7.) James Brown Scott, ‘The Trial of the Kaiser’, in Edward M. House and Charles Seymour (eds), What Really Happened at Paris?, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1921, pp. 231–58, at pp. 245–6.

(8.) ibid. p. 237.

(9.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 14 May 1919, 11.00 am (12.15 pm according to Hankey’s minutes), Mantoux II, pp. 64–72, at pp. 70–1; Deliberations II, pp. 60–9, at p. 67; WWP 59, pp. 130–9, at p. 131; FRUS PPC V, pp. 605–13, at p. 605.

(10.) FRUS PPC V, pp. 401–2.

(11.) Robert Lansing, The Big Four, and Others of the Peace Conference, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1921, p. 20.

(12.) USNA 180.0201/6, pp. 50–1; FRUS PPC III, pp. 388–90. For the French version of the declaration of Honduras: Conférence de Paix 1919–1920, Recueil des Actes de la Conférence, Partie III, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1922, pp. 190–1; the declaration is annexed, at pp. 388–90.

(13.) Plenary Session, 6 May 1919, USNA 180.0201/6; FRUS PPC III, pp. 333–88, at p. 334.

(14.) Bonilla to Stabler, 3 May 1919, USNA 185.118/68.

(15.) H. W. V. Temperley (ed.), A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, Vol. II, London: Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, p. 1.

(16.) ‘Address of Count Brockdorff-Rantzau of May 7, 1919’, in German White Book Concerning the Responsibility of the Authors of the War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 3–5.

(17.) Note of Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, 13 May 1919, USNA 185.118/82.

(18.) Klotz to Clemenceau, 19 May 1919, WWP 59, p. 275; USNA 180.03401/19.

(19.) Draft letter, approved by Klotz, Scott, Lord Sumner, M. Crespi and M. Sakutaro Tachi, to be submitted to the Council of Four, WWP 59, pp. 275–6; USNA 180.03401/19.

(20.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 20 May 1919, 11 am, WWP 59, pp. 297–309, at p. 298; USNA 180/03401/20; FRUS PPC V, pp. 732–8, at p. 733. For the letter itself, see FRUS PPC V, pp. 743–4; ‘Note of Clemenceau of May 20, 1919’, in German White Book Concerning the Responsibility of the Authors of the War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1924, p. 7.

(21.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 12 June 1919, 4 pm, FRUS PPC VI, pp. 348–56, at p. 350.

(22.) Translation of Note from Herr Brockdorff-Rantzau, 24 May 1919, WWP 59, pp. 488–502, at p. 492; USNA 180.03401/32.

(23.) Observations on the Report of the Commission of the Allied and Associated Governments as to the Responsibility of the Authors of the War, 27 May 1919, TNA FO 371/4271; FRUS PPC VI, pp. 781–901; German White Book Concerning the Responsibility of the Authors of the War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1924. An original German version is in the United States Archives: USNA 185.118/120.

(24.) Memorandum Submitted to the Council of Principal Allied and Associated Powers by the Committee on Responsibilities in order to justify the articles of Conditions of Peace, CP 62, Appendix VIII, USNA 180.03401/62 and USNA185.118/89; Memorandum présenté au Conseil des principales puissances alliées et associées par le Comité des responsabilités pour justifier les articles des conditions de paix, Scott Papers, Box 23.35b.

(25.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 12 June 1919, 11 am, Mantoux II, pp. 390–4; Deliberations II, pp. 401–5; WWP 60, pp. 436–62; FRUS PPC VI, pp. 324–47; USNA 180.03401/61.

(26.) Draft letter, USNA 180.03401/61; FRUS PPC VI, pp. 330–4; WWP 60, pp. 460–2.

(27.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 12 June 1919, 11 am, Mantoux II, pp. 390–4; Deliberations II, pp. 401–5; WWP 60, pp. 436–62; FRUS PPC VI, 324–47; USNA 180.03401/61.

(28.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 12 June 1919, 4 pm, Mantoux II, pp. 395–401, at p. 396; FRUS PPC VI, pp. 348–56; USNA 180.03401/62.

(29.) Reply of the Allied and Associated Powers to the Observations of the German Delegation on the Conditions of Peace, FRUS PPC XIII, pp. 544–5; Scott Papers, Box 24.6; H. W. V. Temperley (ed.), A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, Vol. II, London: Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, 1920, pp. 304–6 (excerpts).

(30.) Robert Lansing, Some Legal Questions of the Peace Conference, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919, p. 18.

(31.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 23 June 1919, 11 am, FRUS PPC VI, pp. 617–22, at pp. 617–20; WWP 61, pp. 82–8; USNA 180.03401/83; Mantoux II, pp. 482–90, at pp. 482–5; Deliberations II, pp. 520–7, at pp. 520–3.

(32.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 22 June 1919, 7.20 pm (7.15 pm according to Hankey’s minutes), FRUS PPC VI, p. 607; WWP 61, p. 70; Mantoux II, pp. 478–80; Deliberations II, pp. 512–14.

(33.) Translation of German note, 22 June 1919, FRUS PPC VI, pp. 609–11; WWP 61, pp. 72–6; Deliberations II, pp. 515–18.

(34.) Grayson Diary, 22 June 1919, WWP 61, p. 69.

(35.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 22 June 1919, 7.20 pm (7.15 pm according to Hankey’s minutes), FRUS PPC VI, p. 607; WWP 61, p. 70; Mantoux II, pp. 478–80; Deliberations II, pp. 512–14.

(36.) Meeting of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, 22 June 1919, 9.00 pm, FRUS PPC VI, p. 607. For the full text of the reply, see Reply to German note of 22nd June 1919, WWP 61, pp. 76–7; USNA 180.03401/81; FRUS PPC VI, pp. 612–13.

(37.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 23 June 1919, 9 am, WWP 61, pp. 79–81; FRUS PPC VI, pp. 613–15; Mantoux II, p. 481; Deliberations II, pp. 519–20.

(38.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 23 June 1919, 4 pm, Mantoux II, pp. 491–6, at p. 491; Deliberations II, pp. 528–33, at p. 528.

(39.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 23 June 1919, 4 pm, Mantoux II, pp. 491–6, at p. 496; Deliberations II, pp. 528–33, at p. 533.

(40.) Meeting of the Council of Four, 23 June 1919, 5 pm, FRUS PPC VI, pp. 641–4, at p. 644; WWP 61, pp. 99–104, at p. 104; USNA 180.03401/86. For the note, FRUS PPC VI, p. 644.