TO THE average American the word Saar conveys little if anything; to the unhappy few who specialize in the problems of Europe it labels one of the points in dispute between Germany and France; to the extremely few who personally took part in the peace negotiations preceding the Versailles Treaty it may recall the most heated and excited controversy between President Wilson and the French at the time when the breakdown of the negotiations seemed imminent and the President ordered the George Washington to be kept in readiness for his return to America.

The Saar, as it exists today, is a wholly artificial creation which corresponds to nothing grown-up in history. For the most part, the Saar region was arbitrarily cut out from Prussian territory, to a lesser extent from the Bavarian Palatinate. The reason for the creation of the territory as it exists today was to meet the French desire to possess and exploit the rich coal deposits. The surface boundary lines were devised without any attention to the needs or desires of the people living there, but with regard exclusively to the coal seams underground. The deposits are important; experts estimate them at about 12½ billion tons.

None of the documents enumerating French war aims mentioned the Saar, neither the official government declarations of December 31, 1916, and January 10, 1917, nor the resolution of the French Parliament of June 5-6, 1917. On the other hand, the secret treaty between France and Russia of February 1917 does mention the Saar. The agreement made between France and the Powers, particularly the United States, defining the aims to be attained by the Versailles Treaty, makes no mention of the Saar.

When it became clear that the whole of Alsace-Lorraine as annexed by Germany in 1871 would return to France, industrialists familiar with the conditions of iron and steel making in Alsace-Lorraine must have clearly perceived that the vast steel industry which German enterprise had built up there would be in a precarious position without the Saar coal deposits, on which it had depended almost exclusively. When the French began to explain to their astonished Allies why they believed they had a right to annex the Saar their tactics revealed considerable confusion. Light is thrown on the subject by a letter written by Briand on January 12, 1917, to the French Ambassador in London. He says: "It seems advisable to form an autonomous state on the left bank of the Rhine. Alsace and Lorraine must be returned to France, not diminished as under the Treaty of 1815 but with boundaries such as were constituted in 1790. France would then, geographically and industrially, possess the Saar Basin, which seems essential for French industry."

The first plan was evidently to claim the Saar as being a sort of annex of Alsace-Lorraine, if the boundaries were established on the lines of 1790. To this President Wilson most fittingly replied that he had only agreed to restore Alsace-Lorraine within the boundaries of 1871. After the opening negotiations it became clear to the French that determined opposition would be encountered from President Wilson, though Mr. Lloyd George seemed somewhat more compliant. The French therefore decided to abandon their annexation claims to part of the Saar region and to attempt to obtain instead the permanent possession of the whole of the Saar coal deposits. They hoped to build up enough so-called "guarantees" around their possession of the mines to make complete annexation inevitable in the long run.

The river Saar originates on the northern slopes of the Vosges mountains, runs 246 kilometers through a triangle of German territory between the left bank of the Rhine and the Moselle, and eventually joins the latter river. In the basin of that river lies what is now the Saar territory, 1,910 square kilometers in extent. It is inhabited by about 805,000 inhabitants, 560,000 of them Roman Catholics. Were it not for the great coal deposits and the important industries which had sprung up around them, nobody would ever have attached particular importance to the Saar Basin. The coal deposits have been known for a long time and a modest industry on a small scale existed right through the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. This industry was based in the main on the use of charcoal, and on some minor deposits of iron ore found close to the surface. It was only when in the second half of the nineteenth century the black diamond gained a steadily increasing importance, and when, through the invention of Sir Henry Bessemer, the vast minette iron ore deposits of Lorraine could be used on a large scale, that the Saar became an important factor in the development of Imperial Germany and one of its most prosperous industrial provinces.

The stipulations of the Versailles Treaty dealing with the Saar Basin are Articles 45-50. They read as follows:

Article 45. As compensation for the destruction of the coal mines in the north of France and as part payment towards the total reparation due from Germany for the damage resulting from the war, Germany cedes to France in full and absolute possession, with exclusive rights of exploitation, unencumbered and free from all debts and charges of any kind, the coal mines situated in the Saar Basin as defined in Article 48.

Article 46. In order to assure the rights and welfare of the population and to guarantee to France complete freedom in working the mines, Germany agrees to the provisions of Chapters I and II of the Annex hereto.

Article 47. In order to make in due time permanent provision for the government of the Saar Basin in accordance with the wishes of the populations, France and Germany agree to the provisions of Chapter III of the Annex hereto.

Article 48 describes the boundaries of the territory of the Saar Basin.

Article 49. Germany renounces in favour of the League of Nations, in the capacity of trustee, the government of the territory defined above.

At the end of fifteen years from the coming into force of the present Treaty the inhabitants of the said territory shall be called upon to indicate the sovereignty under which they desire to be placed.

Article 50. The stipulations under which the cession of the mines in the Saar Basin shall be carried out, together with the measures intended to guarantee the rights and the well-being of the inhabitants and the government of the territory, as well as the conditions in accordance with which the plebiscite hereinbefore provided for is to be made, are laid down in the Annex hereto. This Annex shall be considered as an integral part of the present Treaty, and Germany declares her adherence to it.

I shall now analyze these Articles and attempt a short history of the circumstances under which they were drafted.

Article 45 cedes to France the coal mines situated in the Saar Basin, and gives the reasons therefor.

The French coal mines in the departments Nord and Pas de Calais suffered damage in the war. Germany was ready to make good this damage by delivering quantities of coal, to be determined by agreement; but France, who not only wanted the coal, but hoped by the Saar Statute as embodied in the Treaty to obtain a veiled annexation of the whole Saar Basin, refused the German proposals. She insisted on getting the property of the Saar coal mines. Only when Tardieu, after the first discussion with the Big Four in Paris, discovered that the pure and simple annexation of the Saar (under the pretense that the case was analogous to Alsace-Lorraine, and that a large proportion of the population was French) would not be acceptable to President Wilson, did the French revise their scheme. Making use of the President's admission that he would be ready to give them temporary use of the Saar mines to make good the deficiencies of the French coal mines, they claimed possession, control and exploitation of all the coal deposits in the Saar. Tardieu, always a resourceful diplomat, widened the breach in Wilson's defensive position by inducing the American experts, amongst them Professor Haskins, to overstep their instructions, adding a recommendation of purely political character to their technical findings. Bernard M. Baruch on April 9 addressed a letter to the President. It is an excellent document, admirably clear and wise. It came too late. Wilson had already given in to the French.[i] The thin end of the wedge had been introduced. The tenacity of France, and her masterful psychology in giving President Wilson satisfaction on points concerning the League of Nations, succeeded in shattering his position. The second week in April, which ended with the drafting of the articles regulating the fate of the Saar, was the week of Wilson's final collapse, the week that marked his moral defeat in the Paris negotiations.[ii]

This Article 45 is of paramount importance. All the rest of the Saar Statute was built around the French possession of the coal deposits, on the pretense of setting up the guarantees necessary for unencumbered mining and selling of coal.

It is clear that the two reasons quoted for letting the French have possession of the Saar coal deposits no longer exist. Already at Versailles there was an acute controversy between the French experts and André Tardieu on one side, who claimed that ten years was the minimum needed for repairing the damages to the French mines in the north, and the English and American experts on the other side, who agreed that five years seemed ample. Events have shown that the Anglo-Saxon experts were right. The total production of coal in the two departments of Nord and Pas de Calais in 1913, the last year before the war, was 27 million tons. After dwindling during the war and immediately afterwards, by 1924, just five years after the beginning of reconstruction work, 25½ million tons were mined in northern France -- practically the prewar quantity. In 1925, the production of 29 million tons considerably exceeded the pre-war production. So from 1925 on, war damages could no longer be claimed as a reason for further exploitation by France of the Saar coal. The second argument that these coal mines constituted part payment towards reparations no longer holds good, as, by the agreements concluded in the last years, German reparations are for all practical purposes dead. Besides, in the course of the coming negotiations, Germany will have to buy back the Saar coal mines from France.

The next article, Article 46, notes Germany's acceptance of the Annex. Chapter 1 of it describes the exploitation of the mines ceded to France. In Chapter 2 the government of the Saar territory is described. As in Article 45, two reasons are given for transferring the government of the Saar territory from Germany to a new body. The first is to "assure the rights and welfare of the population." As already pointed out, the French desire for acquisition of the Saar was not mentioned in any of the documents prior to the opening of the Paris negotiations. Therefore, strong arguments had to be used to batter down the objection put forward by Mr. Lloyd George and the obstinate resistance of President Wilson. A considerable French population in the Saar had to be invented; and it plays a predominant rôle in all the French arguments and in the French documents. The "rights and welfare of the population" were introduced for the sake of this purely fictitious French population. The census of 1910 showed 342 people in the Saar region using the French language. As nobody in Germany at the time ever dreamt of the possibility of a French claim to the Saar, this figure may be considered as absolutely reliable. Tardieu, knowing the weakness of the argument, carefully avoids figures or specifications. Clemenceau spoke boldly of 150,000 Frenchmen who had sent memorials to the French Government. These have never been discovered, and the 150,000 Frenchmen vanished without trace as soon as the Saar Statute had been written and signed according to French desires. It is not an exaggeration to say that the agreement of the Allies to the Saar Statute was procured under false pretenses. Unfortunately, neither Wilson nor Lloyd George had the machinery or the time to examine alleged facts submitted by the French.

Article 47 endorses Chapter 3 of the Annex, dealing with the plebiscite. In bringing about Wilson's final abandonment of his vital principles, the French found plebiscites useful. These avoided an immediate and complete surrender of the doctrine of the right of people to determine their own fate. The final vote was postponed, and details were so regulated that a reasonable hope existed that the vote might go according to French desires.

In Article 49 Germany expressly renounces the government of the Saar Territory. Article 50 declares that the Annex shall be considered an integral part of the Versailles Treaty.

As remarked above, the Anglo-Saxon experts were of the opinion that five years would be ample for repairing the damage done to the northern French coal fields. French engineers maintained it could not be done in ten years. To be on the safe side, the Treaty provided that after fifteen years of separation from Germany the inhabitants of the territory should be called upon to indicate the sovereignty under which they desire to be placed. This plebiscite must take place, then, in 1935.

The French at Versailles took no pains to disguise their hopes that within the period of fifteen years they would so arrange things as to be able to annex the Saar by plebiscite. Their plan ran as follows. Through ownership of the coal mines they had considerable influence over the miners and their families. By acquiring a majority of shares in the large privately-owned industrial establishments, they hoped to get control particularly of the metallurgical industry. Through the French schools attached to the coal mines, they hoped to influence the younger generation in the Saar. Finally, by encouraging somewhat doubtful individuals along the same lines followed with the separatists and autonomists in the Rhineland, they hoped to mould public sentiment in favor of absorption by France.

The iron industry of the Saar had been built up almost exclusively on the use of Lorraine iron-ore, called minette. The more important industrial establishments in the Saar had been owners of big deposits of minette, which were calculated to last a hundred years or more. By the Peace Treaty they were deprived of this iron-ore in Lorraine, which automatically passed into French possession, as the Versailles Treaty, for the first time in history, confiscated all private property without compensation to the owner. At the same time, their coal reserves, which had been owned by the Prussian State, became automatically French governmental property. The Saar Basin and the industrial plants were occupied by French troups, a good many of them colored. Taking advantage of this almost hopeless plight of the Saar industry, the French forced some of the greatest concerns in the Saar to sell 60 percent of their shares to French interests, hoping thereby to gain definitely control of the privately-owned Saar industry. It took a good deal of patient negotiating on the part of the Saar industrialists before agreements could be reached with the French State coal mines in the Saar so that a regular delivery of fuel would be provided. Private agreements with the French interests who had bought the Lorraine iron-ore deposits from France made possible a regular supply of Lorraine ore to the Saar steel works. Little by little the arteries of industry which had been brutally cut by the drawing of new political frontiers were reëstablished, so that the Saar works could continue to exist, though precariously, hoping for better days.

In the main, French hopes in the Saar have been disappointed. The conspicuous lack of psychological sense shown by the French in all their post-war dealings with Germany deprived them in time of any sympathy in the Saar population. The French private industrial groups, finding the Saar business much less attractive under the new and difficult circumstances than they had calculated, sold out a large proportion of their shares. Today in some of the most important industrial establishments the French holdings have been reduced from a majority of 60 percent to small minorities, hardly exceeding 10 percent.

The repeated attempt to denationalize German children by educating them in the French mining schools has created much bad blood. The complaint that the French mining administration has attempted to use pressure to induce the miners to send their children to the French school is one of the sorest points.

Until recently, French interest in the Saar seemed on the wane. The hope of annexing it, or at least of establishing it definitely as a sort of buffer state between France and Germany, seemed to be almost abandoned. But in the spring of 1933, after Adolf Hitler's appointment to the Chancellorship of Germany, matters took on a completely new aspect. The Saar had practically continued under German law even under the League of Nations régime. Now suddenly it became a favorite refuge for subversive elements, who either owing to advanced political opinions or for racial reasons had left Germany. These aggressive elements, in principle opposed to Hitlerite Germany, were enabled to use the Saar as an advanced position for launching their attacks. On the other hand, the wave of enthusiasm for the new national Germany did not halt at the Saar frontier, but engulfed the greater part of the German population there -- as happened in almost every country bordering on Germany. The great forces unchained by the Hitler Revolution in a short time exacerbated the cool but nevertheless businesslike relations which had existed between the Saar population and their five rulers appointed by Geneva. This antagonism may have been encouraged by the intellectual (to a great extent Jewish) German emigrés, who have made Paris their center. New hope and new activity as regards the future of the Saar sprang up in Paris, and there was a revival of the old ambitions either to keep the whole Saar permanently or to chop off some desirable bit.

Chancellor Hitler, passionately adhering to his program of promoting peace (which has found strong expression in the German-Polish declaration of January 26, 1934) has attempted in his conversations with the French Ambassador, M. François-Ponçet, to open a direct Franco-German discussion on the Saar question. But Paris opinion, almost morbidly distrustful, has not been favorable to such a course.

There can be no doubt that potent reasons plead for some sort of Franco-German agreement before the plebiscite takes place. The wording of the existing International Stipulations is so vague that the plebiscite does not decide anything definitely, but can only be used as a basis for a subsequent exchange of opinions between Germany and France. The great and permanent interests of all concerned -- France, Germany and the Saar -- are to heal, as far as possible, the wounds inflicted on the region in question by the Versailles Treaty. French industry in Lorraine needs the Saar coal, the Saar industry needs the Lorraine iron-ore. The French industry eventually can live on other than the Saar coal. The Saar industry can, like that in the Ruhr, depend on foreign iron-ores or German deposits. But in both circumstances it is cheaper and more natural to maintain relations established by long historical development. It is to the interest of Lorraine to continue to supply the Saar with agricultural products; the Saar industry has an interest in keeping, at least for a transition period, some of the French markets she now supplies. These are the solid interests to be regulated by future Franco-German conventions. There will be difficulties, there will be hard bargaining, but given skill and good-will a favorable result is possible.

Nobody doubts that the plebiscite in the Saar will go overwhelmingly in favor of Germany. Some elements may vote against return to Germany, that is, for continuing the present arrangement. If such votes are cast they may not be read as being pro-French. They would be evidence of antagonism against certain aspects of present Germany. Opinion in France seems to be divided. Some advocate working for votes for France, because only votes for France, however few, may be used as an argument for annexing some part of the Saar. Even a most biased interpretation of the vote could not interpret votes cast for maintaining the present status as arguments for French annexation of parts of the Saar. Even under present conditions the chance of obtaining more than a ridiculously minute number of French votes seems extremely small. It is most seriously to be hoped that the French Government will avoid any attempt to tear off a part of the Saar, however small, creating thereby a new and serious point of friction in Franco-German relations.

Seldom since the ink dried on the disastrous peace instrument of Versailles has the world been so full of war talk as today. Much of this talk centers round Franco-German relations and the so-called disarmament question. Disarmament has never had a chance since the war, simply because the French nation will not disarm. Whoever is now not wholly convinced that disarmament, in the real sense of the word, is as dead as Queen Anne, is incurably optimistic. One may deplore this state of affairs; but it would be political blindness not to see it.

To me, it seems as if the importance of disarmament for the maintenance of peace had been enormously exaggerated. Even an almost complete lack of armaments does not prevent long and bloody wars, as the Civil War in the United States proved. On the other hand, after the war of 1870-71 Europe saw a long period of armed peace. During this period the world enjoyed a degree of prosperity which we now can only look back at with envy. The most serious menace to the maintenance of peace is an utterly unarmed Germany in the center of a heavily armed Europe. In fact, the period of acute war danger through which we have been passing was only so dangerous because to a purely soldierly mind the temptation of a walk-over for the French Army against a practically disarmed Germany was difficult to resist. Modern history teaches that under present conditions nations get onto their feet after defeat much more quickly again than they did in olden times. This rapid return to vitality seems alarming to the victor of yesterday and encourages in some sections of the people the idea of a new war to prevent the other from gathering strength again. After the crushing defeat of France in 1871 the symptoms of a too rapid recovery provoked in 1875 a crisis not utterly dissimilar to the one we have lived through last autumn and this winter. The danger may even now not have entirely disappeared.

Adolf Hitler, who since he came to power has revealed himself as a far-seeing statesman, knows perfectly that to rebuild Germany after the destruction caused by the World War, by revolution and by inflation, many years are needed and that this work can only be carried out if peace is not disturbed. The undisputed head of German nationalism, he can afford to be much more conciliatory than were his predecessors in office who, all leaning more or less on the parties to the Left, were bound to encounter the most bitter opposition from the conservatives and the nationalists in any attempt to pursue too moderate a policy. The Chancellor has, as I know, one main desire -- to come to a lasting agreement with France. As by negotiating with Poland he has succeeded in completely changing the atmosphere on Germany's eastern frontier, his hope seems by no means unreasonable. This spirit may be taken as a guarantee that in dealing with the Saar question German policy will be inspired by a broad desire to establish a working agreement with France in the only question left open by the Versailles Treaty.

National conditions and history alike make it unavoidable that the two neighboring countries should come to a working economic understanding. This can be accomplished provided French policy gives up any attempt to chop off some part of the Saar for annexation to France. Many people in Germany would prefer coming to an understanding with France before the plebiscite. This would remove practically all the bitterness of propaganda on either side. But French public opinion seemingly is not ripe yet for this idea. Germany can do nothing, then, but settle down quietly and firmly to prepare for the battle at the polls. She is confident of her right and confident of victory and will certainly not for a moment forget in the heat of the struggle that for all time to come Germans and French -- these two greatest, most gifted and most warlike people in Central Europe -- will have to live as neighbors, and that on the spirit in which this neighborhood is practised depends the future, not only of the two countries themselves, but of Europe and likely of the whole civilized world.

[i] Ray Stannard Baker: "Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement," vol. III, p. 253.

[ii] A considerable literature exists concerning these eventful weeks. The muddle of the Conference has never been described more vividly than in Harold Nicolson's book, "Peacemaking 1919" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933).

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  • RICHARD VON KÜHLMANN, Counselor of the German Embassy in London, 1908-1914; Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1917-1918, during which time he negotiated the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the Peace of Bucharest
  • More By Richard von Kühlmann