Jan Smuts condemns the Ruhr occupation (1923)

In January 1923, French and Belgian troops marched into western Germany and occupied industrial centres in the Ruhr Valley. According to Paris, the Ruhr occupation was a response to Berlin’s unwillingness to meet her reparations obligations. France’s military intervention caused outrage in Germany, where it disrupted the economy, unsettled the Weimar government, fuelled right-wing nationalist movements and contributed to the hyperinflation crisis of late 1923. The occupation of the Ruhr also drew criticism from abroad. One vociferous complainant was South African prime minister Jan Smuts (1870-1950), who at the peak of the crisis visited London for an imperial conference. In a speech delivered on October 23rd, Smuts called the Ruhr occupation an illegal action that would fail to extract reparation payments from Germany. He also claimed the occupation was not provided for in the Treaty of Versailles, which had been reduced to another “scrap of paper”:

“The Ruhr occupation… is a grave matter from whatever point of view it is considered… All the experts whom I have consulted are unanimously of opinion that as long as the Ruhr occupation continues, there can be no reparation payments by the German government. The occupation will not only yield no payments but will render the payment of reparations impossible. While the industrial heart is severed from the body of Germany, her government cannot restore their finances and cannot even prepare to pay reparations…

The least that should be done is that the Ruhr occupation should, without further delay, become an invisible occupation, and that all barriers between the Ruhr and the Rhineland on one hand and the rest of Germany on the other, should be removed, and that free and unhampered trade relations between the two should be restored. Unless that is done, all discussions and settlements of the reparation question will be in the air and have no relation to facts at all.

This is grave enough but there is more. The Ruhr occupation can also be considered… a productive pledge, to be worked by the occupying authorities in default of official reparation payments by the German government. This is the official French viewpoint. But see what it means. It is not merely a bare occupation to exercise pressure on the German government. It is a direct exploitation of German territory, entirely unprovided for in the Versailles treaty…

The French hate the word revision and yet they have actually begun the revision of the Versailles treaty! They are enforcing a settlement outside and different from that provided for in the treaty. They have the congratulations of all those who hate the treaty. They have begun a process which will go very far…

There is a far graver aspect from which the Ruhr occupation can be considered… The British government have stated their view that the occupation is illegal. With all their authority and responsibility, they have declared before the world that the Ruhr occupation is a breach of the Versailles treaty on the part of France and Belgium. They have asked that the question should be decided by the supreme court of appeal among the nations, by the high court of international justice…

If the action of France and Belgium is right and legal under the [Versailles] treaty, then any one signatory of the treaty can at any time allege a breach of the treaty by Germany and thereupon proceed to invade her territory. Such an interpretation of the peace treaty, on the face of it, is unfair and wrong…

The greatest issue in the international relations, not only of Europe but of the whole world, has once more come to the front. We are back in August 1914. It is again the scrap of paper. Once more a great instrument of European settlement has been broken. We entered the Great War to avenge such a breach. It bodes ill for the future peace of Europe that four years after the war, we should have to face the same sort of situation again.”

ruhr occupation 1923
A cartoon from 1923 depicting French premier Raymond Poincaré dining on children from the Ruhr region, a reference to hunger caused by food seizures
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