The End of Entente: The Ruhr Crisis 1923-24 and its Historiography

The Ruhr Crisis was the end of the Entente. The crisis was the climax of a bitter struggle over reparation and the Versailles settlement. This struggle led to political and economic change and pointed the way for European stability and security in the late 1920s. Once the French and Belgians arrived, this left-wing stronghold used the only weapon it had available, the strike. While passive resistance was defeated it was a pyrrhic victory for France. In December 1923 America formally returned to European politics defeating French intentions and allowing the resurgence of German power and domination of Europe.

The Ruhr Valley is an urban industrial area in north-western Germany. The region had many social problems with major strikes in 1889, 1905 and 1912 and worker’s uprisings in 1919 and 1920.

The German government protested the Ruhr occupation was a violation of the peace treaty while France used the Treaty of Versailles to justify its occupation. French security was tied to the Treaty of Versailles. She may have acted out of isolation, to keep Germany weak while extracting money. The reparation sum of 132 billion gold marks was imposed on Germany with most of this sum needed to repay war debts to America. French industry was restored by internal borrowing but faced disaster because they overspent to repair war damage falsely believing reparation payments would be forthcoming. German relations with the west were dominated by reparation in the early 1920s. Germany defaulted over coal even though she had supplied over 80% of her scheduled reparation.

On January 9 1923 voluntary default was declared by the reparation commission on coal deliveries. On January 11 French and Belgian troops moved into the Ruhr. Britain remained neutral suspicious of French ambitions. This was the biggest rift in the post-war alliance.

German resistance meant coal built up in supply dumps until mining stopped and the French began seizing mines in a feeble attempt to gain coal. Belgium never fully committed to the occupation with softening resolve as early as March 1923. Passive resistance which sprang up immediately is perhaps the most famous aspect of the crisis. It was the refusal to collaborate in any way with the occupiers. While initially successful, it was being financed by the most famous inflation in world history. German attempts at a solution in May 1923 failed due to reluctance to give up passive resistance. The German government kept trying to engage in talks but the French were not interested. In August hyper-inflation combined with a food crisis destroying the relationship between wages and prices. The country seemed to be collapsing with the currency.

France spent lavishly on its military but not on its war debts to Britain leading the British Foreign Office to declare the Ruhr occupation to be illegal on August 11 1923. Poincare rejected British legal claims amid growing hostility towards Britain.

On September 26 passive resistance was called off due to Germany’s grave internal situation with antigovernment revolts around Germany. France now seemed to have defeated Germany in the Ruhr. The temporary currency the Rentenmark introduced on November 15 1923 succeeded in halting the hyper-inflation. Currency stabilization and the reestablishment of order undermined France when the crisis ended by negotiation.

By the end of 1923 with France and Germany exhausted and ready to compromise the Anglo-America decided to intervene. France agreed due to the debilitating cost of the occupation, which collapsed the franc in January 1924, and domestic and international pressure to end the crisis. France was now dependent on American capital and unable to resist the Dawes Plan.

The Dawes Plan was a de facto revision of the Treaty of Versailles which deprived France of the legal sanction of occupying Germany. The plan fuelled the system of American loans, German reparation payments and British and French war debts. German Nationalist opposition was a major obstacle but in August 1924 the legislation was passed in the Reichstag under threat of withdrawal of American funds. The problem with Dawes Plan was that the Allies expected cash payments meaning America had to continue sending money or the system would collapse. The Locarno Treaty was the first post-war agreement between France, Britain and Germany who accept the new national frontiers as drawn in 1919.

The Ruhr Crisis led the Anglo-Americans to return to Europe and recast international politics before withdrawing as Europe stabilised. Reparation debt was finally abolished in July 1932. By December equality regarding armaments was accepted which was later capitalised on by Hitler.

Literature from early 1923 discussed its practical side with legal claims only mentioned later. Historical literature tends to debate French lost opportunities and Anglo-American financial forces. Since the 1970s the occupation has been seen as an act of coercion and spoilage with French archives virtually undisturbed. American global expansion of business takes up most recent scholarship.

The Ruhr Crisis was the climax of French and German friction until both were drawn into a western peace system. The Anglo-Americans saw from the Ruhr Crisis they needed greater involvement with Europe. The Dawes Plan and Locarno Pact allowed moderate German politicians to lead Germany out of the Ruhr Crisis and to pursue cooperative policies. But it was ultimately French acceptance that lowered tensions in Europe.

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One comment on “The End of Entente: The Ruhr Crisis 1923-24 and its Historiography

  1. adamthecon says:

    Hello Mark,
    I did an interesting essay last semester in Hsu-Ming’s ’20th Century European History’ (or similar) that touched on many of the same points as you have, however with the focus being on the rise of Fascism in Britain. The change in the popular and political mindset from one blaming Germany for the war, to blaming France for continued instability in Europe is well illustrated in Lloyd George’s Fontainebleau Memorandum. The aggressive and almost obsessed stance taken by France in opposition to Germany plays out well beyond the Ruhr Crisis and manifests itself in the Munich Agreement of 1938; restoration of Germany to something resembling what it was prior to its emaciation was believed to be key to European stability. One question; while you conclude that the American government saw that there needed to be greater involvement on the continent, does the scope of your essay allow you to see why there was a withdrawal resulting in this greater involvement appearing all for nought by the time the 30s are coming to a close?
    An interesting summary Mark, I enjoyed reading it!

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