Learn about the beta

Section II.—Navigation

Note to XII, sec. II

The German delegation complained that “the German rivers, together with all streams and canals connected therewith, are to be administered by International Commissions on which Germany never has the majority” and the scope of the powers of which were not defined. The commissions would in fact exercise unlimited economic power over German rivers, canals, and, indirectly, over German railways. This would have a decisive influence on the internal regulation of Germany’s whole economic life incompatible with its sovereignty (e.g. Germany would have to build canals against its wishes), and was unacceptable. Germany was willing, however, to revise existing conventions to meet new needs and to open up German rivers to the utmost extent to the traffic of all nations, subject to the principle that only the riparian states should participate in the administration.

As to the Elbe, Germany was ready to consider the requirements of Czechoslovakia; as regards the Rhine, the existing Central Commission was adequate but Germany was willing to accept suggestions for improvement; in the case of the Danube, Germany demanded immediate representation on the commission; for the Oder, a purely German river, no commission was necessary; as regards the Vistula and the Niemen, negotiations would be accepted with Poland and the [Page 651]riparian states respectively. Germany was not willing, however, without more detailed negotiations, to agree to place the port of Kehl under French administration located at Strasbourg, or to accept the stipulations concerning the Rhine bridges and waterworks. Germany was prepared to negotiate a treaty with Czechoslovakia for the use of Hamburg and Stettin. The division of river tonnage between the interested states could also be arranged by negotiations. The Kiel Canal could be opened to the traffic of all nations, under conditions of reciprocity, although the international commission could be accepted only if other straits were similarly treated (Foreign Relations, The Paris Peace Conference, vi, 869).

The reply of the Allies noted that Germany admitted the proposed measures to be practicable but opposed them on principle—infringement of sovereignty and lack of reciprocity. The Allies pointed out that article 23 (e) of the Covenant of the League of Nations provided for “freedom of communications and of transit, and equitable treatment for the commerce of all members of the League” (ibid., p. 992), and part XII of the treaty was intended to secure these on the territory of Germany. Reciprocity was not possible immediately, lest Germany “profit indirectly from the material devastation and the economic ruin” for which the German armies were responsible. The Allies had not attempted to prevent the “legitimate” but only the “abusive” use of German economic independence; but above all they had aimed at securing freedom of communications and transit to or from young land-locked states, which would otherwise “fall once again under the economic tutelage of Germany”. The various provisions for the benefit of Czechoslovakia were justified in detail, as well as those concerning the Rhine-Meuse canal, the Rhine-Danube waterway to be constructed, and the Kiel Canal. As regards French control of water power on the Rhine, France was prepared to pay Germany one half the value of the power produced, less the cost of the works. Five small concessions were made to Germany.

The provisions of this section of the treaty were applied according to their terms, with implementation, until the German Government in 1936 unilaterally withdrew from existing arrangements affecting international river systems.

On November 14, 1936, the German Government transmitted to the Governments of Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Rumania, Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary a notification (file 862.811/63) “that it no longer recognizes [Page 652]as binding on it the regulations contained in the Treaty of Versailles concerning the navigable streams in German territory nor the international stream acts based on these regulations”. It gave notice of termination with immediate effect of the modus vivendi concerning the Rhine reached on May 4, 1936 (see p. 671) and would not sign the agreement of similar character drafted for the Elbe. Further “collaboration of Germany in the Versailles streams commissions ceases” and the full powers of German delegates were ended.

Freedom of shipping and equal treatment for almost one hundred years before the world war had been the bases of fruitful cooperation between the riparian countries of navigable streams, Germany stated. But an “artificial system opposed to the practical requirements of shipping … created at Versailles in contradiction with the basic idea of equal rights … sought to impose upon Germany permanent international supervision of [its] navigable streams by transferring more or less the German sovereign rights to international commissions”. The German Government’s “most serious efforts to replace this unbearable arrangement” by January 1, 1937, “were not successful” because the other states involved would not “relinquish a system which in its fundamentals is incompatible with German sovereign rights”.

The Germans made several complaints. On the Rhine, the riparian state most important after Germany, the Netherlands, did not adhere to the agreements of May 4. On the Elbe it was not possible to do away with the Versailles condition that four non-riparian states not particularly interested in Elbe shipping claimed the right to be guarantors of the freedom of shipping. For the Oder streams there was, without German participation, an international commission with a French Secretary-General provisionally appointed in the year 1920 without German collaboration. Ten years of effort for German reentry into the Danube Commission had no success and revision of the Danube Act made “no progress whatsoever despite all Germany’s concessions”. With regard to the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal the other states adhered to “the arbitrary restriction of German sovereign rights forced upon Germany at Versailles”.

In closing its unilateral declaration Germany announced: “Shipping on the navigable streams in German territory is open to the ships of all states living at peace with the German Reich. No differential treatment of German and foreign ships takes place; [Page 653]this applies also to the question of shipping fees. Hereby the German Government presupposes that reciprocity will be granted on the navigable streams of the other states involved.”

This notification, which was given some sort of status by publication in the Reichsgesetzblatt (1936, ii, 361) on November 26, was made to the governments represented on the Danube, Elbe, Oder, and Rhine commissions. Those governments did not enter a joint protest with the German Government, as the French Government first suggested. By December 3, 1936 the Governments of the United Kingdom, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, and Yugoslavia made formal representations against the unilateral nature of the German action purporting to terminate part of a multilateral treaty. Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland made no protest and Italy later withdrew from the Central Rhine Commission. The prospect held out to the Netherlands and Switzerland of concluding bilateral agreements with Germany which would secure their interests on the Rhine did not materialize.