AMONG the many controverted chapters of the Treaty of Versailles that disposing of the Saar Basin is one of the least generally understood. Like the rest of the treaty, this has been rarely read by the general public, and from the outset there has been a large amount of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, whether deliberate or unconscious, with respect to the meaning and the actual operation of these provisions. The matter is of interest in relation to the work of the League of Nations, which is charged with the administration of the Saar, as well as to the age-long problem of the Franco-German borderland, which the treaty in effect declared a matter of international concern; and, now that the new régime has had three years of trial, it may be worth while to summarize its problems and its achievements, on the basis of the documentary material supplemented by personal observation and conference.

Fortunately, materials for an independent judgment are no longer lacking. Besides its local Amtsblatt, the Governing Commission, since April, 1920, makes periodical reports, at first monthly but now quarterly, which are published in the Official Journal of the League of Nations.[i] These are remarkably full and satisfactory, and while matters are naturally presented from the point of view of the administration, the principal questions are explained as they arise with full appreciation of the difficulties involved. The opponents of the Commission have free run of the local newspapers as well as the press of the Reich, and a selection of documents and ex parte statements was issued as an official White Book of the German Government in 1921.[ii] Since July, 1922, the proceedings of the Saar Assembly should be consulted. There is also becoming available a certain amount of less interested observation, notably the articles of its Berlin correspondent, J. Halperin, in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, January 10-29, 1922; the correspondence of H. Wilson Harris for the London Daily News, July 11-13, 1922; and, still fresher, the experiences of Whiting Williams as a miner in the Saar published in Scribner's Magazine last April.

The Territory of the Saar, as created by the Treaty of Versailles, has an area of about 700 square miles and a population of nearly 700,000. Lying along the new French frontier in Lorraine, it was made up partly from a strip of the Bavarian Palatinate but chiefly from land which had been Prussian since 1815. About one-third of the district falls between the Franco-German frontier of 1814 and that of 1815.[iii] It is a pleasant region on either side of the River Saar, with field and forest running to the edge of mine and city in agreeable contrast to most industrial districts of Europe and America. The chief natural resource is the coal mines, which yielded in 1913 an annual output of seventeen and one-half million tons, or eight per cent of the total coal production of the German Empire. About the mines there has grown up an important group of iron and steel plants and other manufactures, the whole constituting a densely populated industrial district closely connected with the iron mines of Lorraine. The population is predominately Catholic, as in the neighboring Rhineland, and almost wholly German-speaking.

The primary purpose of the Saar clauses of the treaty was to give France a secure and much needed means of reparation in the coal mines of this district, which lie within a dozen miles of the French frontier, without permitting the annexation of the inhabitants. The Peace Conference took the view that France was entitled to the mines of the Saar in compensation for the deliberate destruction of her mines in the north and as an item on the general account of reparation, and that she should have every facility for their exploitation. The mines, chiefly the property of the Prussian and Bavarian Governments, were accordingly transferred to the French state in full ownership; while the administration of the territory was handed over to a commission of the League of Nations for fifteen years, at the end of which period a plebiscite should decide the future status of the district, whether for union with France or Germany, or for a continuation, with necessary adjustments, of local autonomy under the League. In the meantime the inhabitants "retain their local assemblies, their religious liberties, their schools and their language," and are exempt from military service, while the Governing Commission has "all the powers of government hitherto belonging to the German Empire, Prussia, or Bavaria."

The framers of the treaty had in mind a strong Governing Commission, free from local obstruction on the one hand and secure on the other from interference in current matters by the Council of the League. The ultimate control of the League was secured by the appointment of the five members of the Commission for annual terms only, but it was anticipated that reappointment would be denied only in case of inefficiency or abuse of power, and that normally members would serve for a number of years. Moreover, the Commission was made the interpreter of its own powers, without any superior court or administrative body to restrain it. It was agreed that the highly concentrated economic life of the territory and the conflicting interests demanded a strong executive of this type.

In appointing the Commission the Council named as French representative and chairman M. Victor Rault, an administrator of long experience as préfêt and member of the Conseil d'Etat; as local member Herr Alfred von Boch, who resigned in August, 1920, and was succeeded by Dr. Hector; and for the three other members, a Belgian, Major Lambert, a Dane long resident in Paris, Count von Moltke-Huitfeld, and a Canadian, Mr. R. D. Waugh, formerly mayor of Winnipeg. The Commission established itself in the government buildings at Saarbrücken and distributed the various departments among its members. Much criticism has been directed at M. Rault because of his lack of familiarity with the German language, but mention should be made of the able assistance which he receives from the Secretary of the Commission, M. Jean Morize, well acquainted with Germany and German problems. Certain other assistants were appointed, chiefly French, but for the most part the personnel of the Prussian and Bavarian bureaucracy was taken over en bloc. Their status involved long negotiations with the German Government, complicated by an abortive strike of the officials, including the police, in August, 1920. The local opposition objects to the French element, while the Commission complains of German interference with its subordinates.

In actual practice the problems of the Governing Commission were rendered more difficult by the delay in putting the treaty into effect. From the armistice of November 11, 1918, until February, 1920, the country remained under French military administration, in a state of agitation and friction, drifting away from Germany in legislative and social policy, but without any means of permanent organization. Several months likewise passed before the final delimitation of such portions of the boundary as were not actually drawn in the treaty. In economic matters the steady decline in value of the mark created one of the main difficulties of the new régime, while the loose collection of taxes which has prevailed in Germany since the armistice also embarrassed the finances of the region. At the outset the Commission faced a considerable task of administrative organization and, according to all unprejudiced judgments, has performed these duties well. It took over, for example, the railroads of the territory, and, in spite of the predictions of both French and German authorities, has succeeded in managing them successfully as a separate system and with favorable financial returns.[iv] The traveler gets a distinct impression of abundant rolling stock and other facilities, and efficient working, and cars marked "Saar" are a not uncommon sight at some distance from the territory. Another success was achieved in the field of finance by the Canadian member, Mr. Waugh.

Turning to economic conditions, we should note that the principal resource of the Saar, the coal mines, lies quite beyond the control of the Commission, being owned and operated directly by the French state. It is generally agreed that the management of the mines has been a decided success. Production has steadily increased; sales have been well handled in spite of the special difficulties of the international coal market; and Saar coal is sold in Germany as well as in France. The mining authorities have shown more than mere technical efficiency. Mr. Whiting Williams, who himself worked as a miner, found very little evidence of shirking and sabotage, but instead a general feeling that the miners were well treated by the French engineers, trained to keep in close and friendly relations with the workers. "Every day," he says, "the French engineer visits his pits underground. As we worked they would come along and enter into conversation with the workers, discussing with them, among other things, the necessity of increased coal production--with its increased wage to the worker--as a means of lowering the whole country's high cost of living. Such contacts made a good impression as compared with those of their predecessors, the German engineers. These went underground comparatively seldom. It was in marked contrast also with the almost military strictness and discipline with which the present German underforemen still act with their fellow Germans." As one-third of the population of the Saar is directly dependent on the mines, the prosperity of this industry is of the first importance.

The economic status of the territory in general has been affected by the industrial depression throughout Europe, as complicated by the special position of a border territory in close relation to both French and German markets. Matters are less prosperous than before the war, and local agitators have made the most of such comparisons. But business is everywhere less prosperous than before the war, and the Saar appears to have suffered less than adjacent regions. The elaborate economic report issued by the Commission in December, 1921,[v] makes a distinctly favorable showing as regards production and non-employment, although such conclusions may need frequent revision as industry and markets fluctuate. Certainly in 1922 visitors are impressed by the prosperity of the Saar basin and the well-being of its inhabitants, especially as reflected in that excellent mirror, the appearance of the children.

The monetary problem is one of special difficulty in the Saar, owing to the steady depreciation of the mark in relation to the franc. By the terms of the treaty "no prohibition or restriction shall be imposed upon the circulation of French money in the territory," and the mining administration from the start took advantage of its right to pay its employees in francs. The effect was to forestall strikes by raising considerably the real wages of the miners and maintaining contentment and efficiency in this basic industry, while it accentuated the disadvantages of the rest of the population, who continued to be paid in marks. The Commission in course of time introduced payment in francs into the public services, partly upon petition of those interested, partly because it considered a wide circulation of the franc an essential preliminary to the closing of the German customs barriers provided by the treaty for 1925. The further decline in the mark has worked to the disadvantage of such workmen as are still paid in marks as well as of those with fixed incomes, and the double circulating medium has brought a rich harvest to the money-changers. Unfortunately, a difficult economic question has taken on a political color. A paper like the Saarbrücker Zeitung, which in 1919 declared the maintenance of the mark an impossibility, suddenly changed its views, and accusations were hurled at the Commission on the ground that its real purpose was the de-Germanizing of the territory. Yet in October, 1922, the local shops voluntarily put up signs, often in French, that they would receive francs at the current rate. To an outsider the trouble seems to lie, not with the Commission, but with the mark. It is the Commission's duty to do what it can to stabilize the currency. If it had worked in a vacuum it might have issued a unit of its own, or chosen Swiss francs or pounds or dollars, but so long as the French franc circulated in the territory independently of its authority it had naturally to make the best use it could of this relatively stable currency rather than introduce a third monetary unit. As even Halperin admits, the Commission's motives were economic, not political. It would seem that the territory will be better off when it comes, as it must sooner orlater, to a single system of currency, although the further decline of the mark will injure its German markets. It is the employer, rather than the workman, who now benefits by payment in marks.

A principal grievance of the local population has been the presence of French troops, numbering 7,000 at first but now only about 2,000, none of them African. The number is not large, and their good conduct is well attested, but the civilian population considers them a survival of military rule and an infringement of the treaty. The Commission believes such a garrison necessary for the protection of the mines and factories in case of disorder, and points out that the considerable expense is borne by the French Government, at no cost to the territory, which would be heavily burdened by the maintenance of the necessary local police. The treaty (Saar Annex, §30) provides that there shall be no military service but only a local gendarmerie for the maintenance of order, but it goes on to charge the Commission with the responsibility for the protection of persons and property, without further specifying the means it may employ. It would seem that further effort should be made to organize the local gendarmerie, and it has been suggested that the French troops might be kept on call over the Lorraine border.

In still other ways the Commission has been accused of being French rather than international in its policy. To a certain extent this is inevitable, owing to the major interest of the French Government in the mines and the close relations created by the treaty in monetary and customs arrangements, while the appointment of a French president of the Commission necessitated a certain number of French assistants. The Commission, however, though well within its rights, was hardly wise in handing over to France the protection of inhabitants of the Saar abroad, a protection which is annoying to many of the inhabitants and which the German Government refuses to recognize in Germany. The force of the protests against French influence would be stronger if the protestants always urged local interests rather than those of distant parts of Germany. As in the imperial administration of Alsace-Lorraine, it was a well-understood policy of the Prussian administration of the Saar to send in officials from other parts of Prussia, with the result, as stated in the memorandum of the local parties, April 6, 1922, urging the eligibility of such to the new assembly, that "the majority of the teaching corps and the clergy, of the officials, of the staff of industry and commerce, of the leaders of labor, in short of the directing forces of the Saar Basin, were born, not here, but elsewhere in Germany." This plainly means that a docile population was subjected by Prussia to what in America would be called a "carpet-bag" régime. It should hardly be a matter for local pride that the leaders should have been imported in this fashion, and the Commission is moving in the right direction in seeking to train teachers and civil servants from the population of the region.

Between the German Government and the Saar Commission there have been persistent difficulties. Some of these were temporary, affecting the intricate problems of transfer of jurisdiction and property, while others arise out of the somewhat anomalous legal position of the Saar territory. The German Government has sought not only to preserve as many as possible of the attributes of sovereignty over the territory, but also to retain a control over officials, as, for example, through a railroad commission at Saarbrücken. The Governing Commission, on the other hand, in stepping into the place of its German predecessors, has asserted its exclusive authority over officials, and has sought to represent the territory in such international matters as posts and telegraphs, railroads, etc. Germany has formally protested against the admission of the Saar territory to the international conventions affecting these matters, and the question still remains open. Unfortunately, the German Government has not confined its activity to forms of obstruction to which a color of legal right might be given. The Commission was obliged to call its attention officially to the efforts of various imperial and local officials to interfere in the affairs of the Saar. The Commission further maintains that the strike of officials in August, 1920, was ordered from without, and it could point to the arrest and condemnation of a leading member of the German secret police (Heimatsdienst) found in the territory with incriminating documents in his possession.[vi]

A major subject of discussion in the Saar has been the creation of an elective assembly. According to the treaty, new legislation can be framed and new taxes other than customs can be imposed only after consulting the elected representatives of the people, but the Commission is expressly left free to decide how such consultations shall be held. It should be noted that the treaty speaks of the "consultation" of the representatives, not their consent. At first the Commission limited itself to asking the advice of the separate local bodies, such as the Kreistage, which it found already in existence, and was subjected to much criticism for its delay in providing for a general assembly, finally established by decree of March 24, 1922. The new Advisory Council, as it is called, consists of thirty members elected on a general ticket, with proportional representation, by all inhabitants of twenty years or over. Much criticism was called forth by a provision limiting membership to native inhabitants of the territory, and by the merely consultative functions assigned the assembly. Local demand was for a "parliament" of at least seventy members. In spite of threats to abstain, all parties finally participated, though with a reduced vote, in the first election, held June 25, 1922, in which the Centrum secured sixteen seats, or a bare majority, the Social Democrats coming next with five seats. The opening sessions in July called forth vigorous declarations from the several groups, which besides repeating certain usual grievances made specific demands for enlarging the importance of the assembly: Interpellation, initiative, formulation of grievances, control over its procedure and the choice of its president, and freedom from arrest, as well as the eligibility of non-natives. In direct opposition to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the Social Democrats demanded "not a merely consultative organ but a parliament with full control of legislation and finance."[vii] In case of difficulties between assembly and Commission, the Democrats demanded an appeal to the Council of the League, a division of authority which would of course paralyze the activity of the Commission. The latter proposal is open to much the same objection as the proposal for a legislative assembly, respecting which the Council of the League decided last March, on the report of Mr. Wellington Koo: "The Governing Commission could not be permitted, therefore, to set up, in contradiction to the Treaty, a Saar Parliament to which the Commission would be responsible and which could prevent the Commission appointed by the Council of the League from carrying out its duties."

Even with its limited functions, the new assembly opens another chapter in the history of conflicts between local legislatures and independent executives, a history which has run much the same course for three hundred years. The Commission will doubtless take its stand on the treaty, which did not contemplate local parliamentary control of the League's organ of government, while the assembly will make its meetings the occasion of appeals to public sentiment and will doubtless work to enlarge its functions to the point of demanding a change in the treaty. The assembly has it in its power to perform an important function in expressing local opinion, provided it will work constructively and avoid the temptation to mere opposition. Differences are inevitable, but if the interests of the territory are the primary consideration there is a large field for collaboration between the Commission and the assembly. The most hopeful evidence of a disposition to accept the treaty as an accomplished fact and work with the Commission for local betterment was seen in a memorandum addressed to the League January 2, 1922, by the Independent Socialist and Communist parties, in opposition to a merely negative protest from the nationalist parties; but this more objective and constructive attitude, which earned them at the time the obloquy of "Französlinge," is abandoned in the Communist declaration read at the opening of the assembly, which is full of denunciation of the Commission's "capitalism."

In general, in the criticisms of the Commission's policy it is not easy to distinguish the valid from the merely partisan. Much has been made of the Commission's decree defining the term "inhabitant of the Saar," on the ground that this was an attempt to separate the people from their German nationality; but the recurrence of this term in the treaty certainly called for a definition and the qualifications were stated in a liberal spirit. Similarly the introduction of French as an optional study in the elementary schools was attacked as a dangerous move toward Frenchification. Whatever the Commission's reasons may have been, there is everything to be said for the teaching of French in a region lying permanently on the border of France and having necessarily within it a body of French engineers and customs officials, provided always that the subject is not made compulsory. Indeed failure to provide such instruction would be a legitimate reproach against the Commission quite irrespective of politics. Any progress that the French language may make in the current speech of the Saar is more likely to come from the French schools for their workmen maintained by the mining authorities, in accordance with a specific clause of the treaty. It is inevitable that the progress of the Commission's government will result in increasing divergence of the Saar from Germany, in legislative policy as well as in local autonomy, and that all such divergencies will be attacked by German nationalists within the territory and without. Yet the region has economic and social characteristics which distinguish it in many ways from distant parts of Prussia and Bavaria, and it ought to be more sympathetically ruled from Saarbrücken than from Munich and Berlin. Nevertheless, the social problems of the Saar and the Reich are much the same, and there will be a continuing demand from certain local elements for the introduction into the Saar of the more recent social legislation of Germany, such as the creation of industrial councils. On such questions legitimate differences of opinion may arise which, in a region left to itself, might produce local political parties instead of mere appendages to the established German groups.

In France the Saar Commission has been the object of criticism by nationalist elements on the ground that it has not pursued a more vigorous pro-French policy--in short, that it has been more interested in administration than in playing politics. Those who desired the annexation of the whole Left Bank were naturally dissatisfied with the new régime in the Saar and accepted it, if at all, only as a means of preparing a vote for annexation in 1935, and many who wished only the frontier of 1814 have the same attitude toward the compromise of Versailles. The chairman of the Finance Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, M. Adrien Dariac, in a report presented May 23, 1922, attacks the creation of the Saar assembly, elected by universal suffrage, as the virtual holding of a plebiscite before the ground had been suitably prepared, a vote sure at the moment to result unfavorably for the French cause and to be misinterpreted as an expression of the ultimate sentiment of the region. Most Frenchmen who are familiar with conditions in the Saar cherish no illusions as to a pro-French vote in 1935, but believe that the plebiscite might result in a vote for autonomy if the local population were given a fair opportunity to judge of its best interests without interference from German nationalists. It is important to remember that the only voters in the plebiscite will be those who resided in the territory at the date of signature of the Treaty of Versailles, so that there is no temptation to colonize or disfranchise on either side, and the local conditions of the moment may well prove decisive. In the meantime liberal French opinion accepts the Saar régime as an indispensable element in reparation which amply guarantees the welfare of the laboring population of the district.

That autonomy might be the outcome in 1935, no German or pro-German is at all ready to admit. Indivisible German nationalism was the key-note of the declarations of the local parties at the opening of the Saar assembly, and these take no account of the economic and social reasons working for differentiation. Nevertheless, the possibility of permanent autonomy is contemplated by the treaty, and an intelligent vote on the question requires that the present régime be given a fair trial and that its results be free from misrepresentation. This, however, is precisely what German nationalists, within and without the Saar, do not wish to see. The better the government of the Commission, the greater the possibility of a vote against Germany. The more mistakes the Commission makes, or can be made to appear to make, the better for the German cause. To all such elements the predominant interest is not the welfare of the Saar population, but the cause of German nationalism.

Under such conditions it is inevitable that such local agitators should do all they can to hamper the Commission, and that their ideas should receive wide publicity abroad through the well-financed news service of German propaganda. Thanks to money whose sources it would be interesting to know, this group has "a good press," which is hostile to the work of the League of Nations, and as the Commission and the League have no such means of publicity the world is much more likely to hear the hostile side. Thus more has been heard of the complaints brought before the League than of their rejection by the Council, more of the local campaign of calumny and less of the stinging rebuke of its methods administered by Lord Balfour at Geneva last September. If there has been as much misrepresentation of local conditions as there has been distortion of the clauses of the treaty, even by high German officials, still stronger language would be warranted.

Three main conclusions seem justified by the history of the territory of the Saar up to the present. The first is that as a measure of reparation the mines of the Saar have proved an unqualified success. The French have got the coal they needed, and the mining population has thrived. Moreover, the mines of the Saar constitute the only significant asset of reparation which France has so far received, and the hope of other forms of payment has steadily diminished, as regards both certainty and promptness. Those who are opposed to effective reparation are naturally opponents of the Saar settlement.

The second conclusion is that the Governing Commission is a serious, hard-working body, which, while apparently guilty of occasional mistakes, has labored earnestly for what it considers the good of the population. In all its fundamental decisions it has been sustained by the Council of the League of Nations, and it is indirect testimony to its honest execution of the Treaty of Versailles that its critics are beginning to direct their efforts toward revision of the instrument under which it acts. Outside of the field of political agitation, there is evidence of friendly relations between the central bureaus of the Commission and the population, who seek advice and help on a variety of matters which under previous administrations they kept to themselves.

In the third place, whatever good work the Commission has done and may do is likely to receive scant recognition from German nationalist elements. Indeed the better the Commission succeeds, the louder is likely to be the expression of their discontent. Such protestors plainly protest too much. They would be more effective if they were animated less by future German interests and more by the present welfare of the population of the Saar Basin. As things stand, whatever they say must be discounted as part of an electioneering campaign for 1935, if not for immediate revision of the treaty. Meanwhile, the Commission, in spite of attacks from French imperialists and German nationalists, goes steadily on with its job.

[i]The latest published periodical Report, the twelfth, is that for April-June, 1922. See also the last general report of the Secretary-General of the League, 26 September, 1922.

[ii]Das Saargebiet unter der Herrschaft des Waffenstillstandsabkommens und des Vertrags von Versailles (Berlin, 1921).

[iii]See the accompanying map. For a summary of the history of the region and the negotiations at Paris, see Haskins and Lord, "Some Problems of the Peace Conference," pp. 132-150; House and Seymour, "What Really Happened at Paris," pp. 56-65.

[iv]See the special report of Major Lambert annexed to the eighth report of the Commission (May-July, 1921).

[v]Published by the League of Nations as a "Special Report from the Governing Commission on the Economic Situation in the Territory."

[vi]See the special Report of the Commission, August 18, 1920; the fifth Report, pp. 11-13; the sixth Report, pp. 10-12; and the German White Book, pp. 152-244.

[vii]Local newspapers, July 20, 1922; published in French and English versions by the League of Nations, August 22, 1922 (C. 543. M. 328).

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  • CHARLES H. HASKINS, Professor of History and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard, Chief of Division of Western Europe on the American Delegation at the Paris Conference, President of the American Historical Association
  • More By Charles H. Haskins