Concluded in June 1919 by the victorious Allies, the Treaty of Versailles, which brought World War I to an end, was famously condemned by the economist John Maynard Keynes as a “Carthaginian peace.” Since then, it has become widely accepted in the West that the treaty’s cruel measures left Germany economically crippled and humiliated, paving the way for the collapse of the Weimar Republic (the new postwar regime the Allies helped to establish) and the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler. Conventional wisdom draws many lessons from this account, which is based on fundamental misunderstandings of the past, as Kyle Orton argues:
Wartime censorship had hidden from Germans the true course of the [First World War], meaning that their defeat came as a total shock, and the sense of disbelief never went away. As far as Germans knew, things were going well, and then suddenly they were told they had lost; internal treason was a very attractive explanation to bridge that gap. . . . German troops were able to march home in formation with their weapons, which they had quite deliberately been allowed to keep in case they had to quell a domestic Communist revolution, where they could be met by crowds with flowers and flags. No less a figure than the [Social Democratic] Weimar president Friedrich Ebert told troops as they reached Berlin on December 10, 1918: “No enemy has defeated you,” a first articulation of the stab-in-the-back myth.
Had German defeat been visible and unarguable, the population would have been able to move on. Instead, Germans felt they were left with a mystery (where in fact none existed)—i.e., Why had their leaders signed a treaty recognizing a defeat that never occurred?—and a determination to fight the last war, to try to reverse the costs imposed on them after the Great War. If the defeat never happened, those costs were by definition unjust. In such a political environment, Versailles was devastating to the legitimacy of the Weimar state in its very foundations.
The economic travails in Germany through the early 1920s related to Versailles are clearly a contributing factor in the Weimar state failing to gain widespread acceptance. . . . As an explanation for the breakdown of the Weimar Republic, however, Versailles and the economic impact from it only go so far, not least because the Treaty of Versailles was never really enforced, and by 1924 the hyperinflation crisis caused by Germany’s efforts to work around the reparations [imposed by the treaty] had been solved. . . . Between 1924 and 1929, the situation in Germany looked rather optimistic.
What remained after 1924 was Versailles as a symbol of wounded national pride, widely seen as inflicted unfairly by vengeful foreigners and conspired in by domestic traitors, especially socialists, probably of Semitic extraction.
As Orton explains at length, it was the very lack of harshness on the part of Allies that made the German nation willing to fight again. And the supposedly inexplicable defeat could be best explained by pointing to the Jews.