After WW1 and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany rose to become one of the most powerful militarized nations in the 20th century. In 1919, the allied nations, because of the Paris Peace Settlements, left Germany economically destroyed with no military force. As a result, Germany entered secret alliances, formed military bases, and revolutionized their military. The Treaty of Versailles, along with its harsh economic reparations and military restrictions, led to an unexpected, secret German-Soviet alliance, influenced the reinvention of the German military tactics and philosophy, and improved Germany’s mechanized forces with the development of the Panzer division.
The Paris Peace settlements were negotiated at the Paris Peace conference and signed on June 28, 1919. Happening at the Halls of mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, the Paris Peace settlements brought World War I to an end. The treaty ended the destructive four years of conflict and 16 million deaths from the war. The Paris Peace Settlements aimed to completely economically destroy Germany. In reparation, Germany was required to pay 132,000,000,000 gold marks to pay for the conflict of WW1. The Treaty of Versailles also aimed to destroy Germany’s military. By decreasing German military power, the allied nations hoped that there would be no future conflict. The treaty restricted Germany’s armed military to only 100,000 men. The League of Nations also found it critical that Germany would not be allowed to produce submarines or airplanes. In addition, German military conscription was banned, so only volunteers could become a part of the German military. Overall, the League of Nations aimed at decreasing the chance of future conflict by crippling Germany’s economy and army.
The Treaty of Versailles also led and promoted a new secret alliance between Germany and Soviet Russia, designed to support German military technological development and funding. To restore a pre-WW1 economy, Article 235 in the Treaty of Versailles stated that Germany, had to pay “in such installments and such manner (whether in gold, commodities, ships, securities or otherwise) as the Reparation Commission may fix, during 1919, 1920 and the first four months of 1921, the equivalent of 20,000,000,000 gold marks.” These economic reparations were designed to cripple Germany and to leave them without the necessary finances to support future militarization. Under the command of General Hans von Seeckt, Germany began to seek a new, unexpected alliance with the Soviets. Previously, Germany had fought brutally against the Russians in WWI. The long and devastating conflict ended with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, which forced Russian concessions of significant territory to the Germans. The Treaty of Versailles reversed some of these concessions, but the Russians, at the Paris Peace Conference were virtually shut out, leaving them without Western support against the rise of the Bolshevik led Soviets. This left Germany and the Soviets post-Versailles so vulnerable to Western allies that they were willing to forge new military and economic alliances. At the Treaty of Rapallo in April of 1922, Germany and the Soviet Union formalized their relationship and the two nations renounced all territorial and monetary claims against each other as a result of WWI. Without Western powers knowing, a secret clause was added to the treaty. In the secret clause, the German military would receive heavy weapons and facilities; meanwhile, Germany was to provide military training for the Soviets and to give annual payments. This secret alliance caused grave consequences for the West by the start of WWII as it allowed the German military to perfect the tactics of military deception and integrate the German industry into a military-industrial complex. Germany’s army, to hide their military development and avoid Versailles’ sanctions, had private companies take over shipyards, factories for aviation, artillery, grenades, rifles, chemical weapons plants, and other facilities. The first base to open was 600 miles south of Moscow at Lipetsk. Over 1000 German pilots, observers, mechanics, and engineers would live at Lipetsk and the base would become the core for the development of the Luftwaffe.
Figure 1: German and Soviet officers are seen working together at Lipetsk.
After Hitler in 1935 renounced the Treaty of Versailles and publicly revealed the development of the German rearmament, aviation production evolved and returned to Germany. By 1939, at Flossenbürg, a German concentration camp, forced labor from Jews was used to produce German planes. This concentration camp would remain operational until 1945 and would keep German aviation a prominent threat throughout the war. Overall, the Treaty of Versailles, along with its harsh military and economic reparations, coerced Germany to ally with a previous enemy. This unexpected alliance formed after Rapallo allowed Germany to rebuild its army and develop new technologies of war.
The restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on the German military and economy also fundamentally led to the reinvention of German military doctrine. Article 160 of the Treaty of Versailles notes that later than “March 31, 1920, the German army must not comprise more than seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry. After that, the total number of effectiveness in the army if the States constituting Germany must not exceed one hundred thousand men.” Also, Article 176 mandated the decrease in German military schools and “all military academies or similar institutions in Germany, as well as the different military schools for officers, student officers, cadets, non-commissioned officers or student non-commissioned officers, other than schools provided above will be abolished.” During WW1, Germany relied on positional warfare and a command-and-control-culture that relied on central orders with top-down mandates from upper staff. These tactics supported slow-moving armies and defensive tactics, maintained by stationary machine guns and massive artillery. Following the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was faced with no general staff, limited troops, and no special training program. Coming from these restrictions, Germany was led to innovate, resulting in new revolutionized military doctrines. These tactics were changed to alter how commanding officers deployed troops, used weapons, and invaded countries. The new philosophy was based on the idea that individual soldiers, at all levels in the military, would have increased responsibility. In the new doctrine, known as Verantwortungsfreudigkeit, each soldier in the army would be held accountable for their actions. This original doctrine, based on soldier’s independence, eventually evolved into Truppenfuhrung by 1933. This developed doctrine was based on the concept that “all leaders must work in all situations without fearing responsibility exert his whole personality. The joy of taking responsibility is the most distinguished leadership quality.” This new philosophy, countering the Treaty of Versailles’s restrictions on German leadership and army size, aimed to train lower-ranked soldiers to think like leaders. Organizationally, this made it easier for the German army to scale up in the late 1930s. On new leadership, coming out of a lost war in the trenches, Germany innovated their military tactics and operations, with emphasis on speed, volatility and maneuverability. Overall, the military restrictions from the Treaty of Versailles, which limited the number of German High-Command military officers, resulted in the complete innovation of German military tactics and doctrine.
Lastly, the Treaty of Versailles led to the complete reinvention of the tank technology and philosophy inside the German military. Article 171 of the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the manufacture and importation of armored cars, tanks, and similar construction suitable for use in war: “The Manufacture and the importation into Germany of armored cars, tanks and all similar constructions suitable for use in war are also prohibited.” In WWI, Germany’s tank force was much weaker than other countries, only being composed of 20 tanks. Mainly fighting in trench warfare with large artillery, Germany did not find priority in using tanks. In this era, Germany’s limited tanks were large, each requiring a crew of over 18 members. In addition, they were slow and often malfunctioned. German tank development then took a significant turn with the Treaty of Versailles. Germany, because of the restrictions in Article 171, could no longer publicly produce tanks, allowing them to rethink production and development altogether. While other countries used outdated, slow, and large tanks, Germany now focused on increasing mobility and decreasing size. Between 1922 and 1933, four facilities were built in secret locations in Russia, primarily focused on advancing chemical weapons, airplanes, and tanks. In the realm of tank development, was the (Panzertruppenschule) facility built along the Kama River, in central Russia. Soviets and Germans studied together and worked side by side to help each others’ developments. The alliance allowed the creation of many innovations in tank technology, including a new chassis system, improved guns, and probably most importantly, a radio that could operate within a tank. This late reentry into tank manufacturing, without being hindered by obsolescent tanks, seen with France and Britain, gave the Germans a significant advantage heading into WWII. With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany finally returned tank production within Germany. In 1934, Allett, a major weapons manufacturer for the German military began tank production on German grounds. The main factory was located in Berlin, but many more factories were soon opened. In these factories, Germany quickly manufactured many Panzer variations based on secret German-Soviet designs. By 1937, Germany was mass-producing the Panzer 4, which ultimately became the most commonly used German tank in WWII.
Figure 2: The German A7v tank. The slow and underdeveloped tank model used in WW1. This is one of the 20 tanks that were developed.
Figure 3: The Panzer IV tank. The faster, more maneuverable tank that was highly developed in the interwar period becoming the most commonly used German tank in WWII.
Overall, the Treaty of Versailles, and its clauses that restricted further tank production, led Germany to secretly innovate the maneuverability, production and use of tanks, giving German tank-warfare a drastic advantage heading into WWII.
Previous analysis by historians has focused on how the punitive damages imposed by the Treaty of Versailles culturally supported an environment in Germany that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. However, much less analysis has focused on how the treaty of Versailles specifically led to unexpected German-Soviet alliances, influenced the reinvention of German military tactics and philosophy, and improved Germany’s mechanized forces. After the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act of 1933, Hitler rose to authority in Germany. After two years of assuming power, Hitler publicly renounced the Treaty of Versailles in 1935. By this time, tank training and production had returned to Germany at the Alkett factories in Berlin. By 1939 German aviation part production had returned to Germany at Flossenbürg. In the twenty years following the Treaty of Versailles, the German military had risen to become the most operationally and technologically advanced force in Europe. The crisis of the loss of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles influenced change and adaptation in many aspects of Germany’s military. The secret Soviet alliance, improved military tactics, and innovative mechanized forces allowed Germany to sweep through Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France at the start of World War II.
The first action of the German A7V tank, on 21 March 1918. Photograph. Digital file.
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