Lloyd George, Versailles and the Case of Upper Silesia

Posted on November 9, 2011

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Germany before and after the Versailles treaty

The case of Upper Silesia at Versailles is in my opinion essential to the understanding of the dilemmas faced by Lloyd George at the Paris Peace Conference. The British Prime Minister found himself virtually refereeing the claims of Delegations from all over Europe, fighting over strips of land, appealing to the right of Self Determination, advocated by Wilson. Wilson had initially stood for this right but later came to realize that the clear cut borders that he knew in North America did not exist in Europe. The Upper Silesia question is therefore significant because it represents what were the sentiments that undermined the Peace Treaty: Nationalism, mistrust and opportunism.

Upper Silesia became the subjectof a heated debate between the ‘Big Four’; central to this debate was whether it should be left to Germany or given to the new-born Poland, and it was part of a larger debate between the conflicting views over the stance to take towards Germany. Indeed, France sought to weaken Germany and to strengthen its rivals by carving large chunks of Germany and hand them over to surrounding countries. Since Upper Silesia provided the German Empire with much of its coal (23%), zinc (80%) and iron, giving it to Poland would strike a blow on German industrial might, which was Clemenceau’s main goal. Moreover, Upper Silesia was an ethnically heterogeneous region as it stood on the German-Polish border. The ‘Polish Territorial Commission’ assigned it to Poland, claiming an indisputable Polish majority. Wilson was not particularly in favour of the French’s hard-line against Germany but Czernin suggests that the large numbers of Polish-Americans in the United States influenced Wilson’s pro-Polish position on the matter. Upper Silesia’s German and Polish populations where not parted by a clear line and any division would result in controversy: it would be a case of appeasing Polish ambition or German indignation and its industrial importance would make it an even greater problem at Versailles.

It may be clear from the above explanation that Upper Silesia could not be split in half nor could it be handed to one of the two countries without causing any controversy. While France aimed at weakening the new Germany, Germany itself and Poland were officially interested in the ethnic nature of the disputed region but fantasized over the area’s natural resources and industry.  As for Lloyd George, his main objective was peace and claimed to be “averse to transferring more Germans from German rule to the rule of some other nation” as he could not “conceive any greater cause of future war” than spreading German populations around nations made up of  “people who have never… set up a stable government for themselves”. Lloyd George’s view on German superiority seems important to understand his support for German interests; he reportedly stated that “giving Upper Silesia to Poland would be like giving a clock to a monkey”. It is war however that worried him the most and its consequences: revolution and Bolshevism, as he told Wilson on June 3rd, at Versailles. Wilson supported France and Poland and satisfying German claims on regions of mixed populations could strengthen Italy’s claim on the city of Fiume and Dalmatia, which the ‘Three’ were decided not to appease. Lloyd George opposed adding German territories to Poland “on account of the existence of a railway” or other industrial infrastructure like it had been done north along the border and he called for a plebiscite in the area, to divide it on the accounts of ethnicity. Tension built up and in late 1919 violence broke out between Poles and German forces until the plebiscite was finally held on March 20th 1921. Most Upper Silesians spoke Polish but a clear majority voted to remain under German rule (707.393 against 479.565); the region was finally divided on a west-east basis. The eastern region was handed to Poland and the western region remained to Germany, leaving many Germans on the Polish side and Poles on the German one.

If avoiding war, revolution and the spread of Bolshevism were Lloyd George’s main concerns at the Versailles meetings of 1919, then Upper Silesia shows his ‘expedition’ there was a partial failure, as the Treaty failed to lay the foundations for a lasting period of peace in Europe. Nevetheless, the complexity of the situation must be acknowledged. Lloyd George believed that ‘bullying’ Germany would give her motives to seek revenge or pave the way for Bolshevism while the rest of Europe sought to get a share of the ‘booty’, in the form of reparations or territorial concessions. If at Versailles Lloyd George was in a difficult position, things weren’t better at home. The Tories demanded adequate punishments for Germany and pushed for Britain to recieve a major part of the reparations. That money was needed to provide for war veterans, the victims’ families and to rebuild an economy which had been weakened by four years of total war and Lloyd George ended up following that route.

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Posted in: History