After World War I, the Big Four (United States, France, Italy, and Great Britain) met in Paris in 1919 to negotiate a peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty charged Germany with a vast amount of war reparations and economic restrictions. Ironically, it is this treaty and French modifications to it that led to the second World War. In John Knott’s political cartoon, “Going Down Third Time,” Knott used drowning as a metaphor to illustrate Germany’s debt, its relationship with France, and how German animosity toward the French could (and did) lead to further conflict.
In the cartoon, the image of Germany drowning is a metaphor that portrayed their asphyxiation by war debt. The title “Going Down Third Time” alludes to the saying, “going down for the third time.” This idiom means that if someone is drowning and they go underwater for a third time, they supposedly won’t come back up (Babylon’s Free Dictionary). Therefore, this saying can be used out of the context of drowning in order to portray failure or death. Knott’s title was an effective representation of Germany’s economic state as they tried to deal with their overwhelming amount of war debt; the debt made it impossible for their economy to resurface and swim. However, this was the main reason France wanted such strict contingencies on Germany. They hoped that Germany would remain bankrupt and “drowning” so that it may not rise back up to power (“WWI: Treaties and Reparations”). Because of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans had their boundaries reassigned, restrictions placed on their military and weaponry, and they were charged with a reparations bill of 6.6 billion pounds (History.com Staff and “War Reparations”). Ironically, these actions were taken to avoid war, yet they only succeeded in kindling the events in years to come.
Water is a well-fitted symbol for Germany’s war reparations. Not only is it dense and seemingly limitless, but water stays on clothes and skin even after someone gets out. This represents how even if Germany could repay this debt (get out of the water) they would still feel the lasting effects of debt. Their clothes would still be drenched with water, that is to say, the German economy would be further destabilized and in need of reconstruction. It could also be seen that Germany floundering in the water (debt) generated splashes that affected those near, such as the French. France got splashed which wet them with debt as well. War with Germany caused France to be indebted to other countries, such as the United States, after World War I (“War Reparations”).
In the cartoon, the depiction of the French withholding help and saying “sign, first” as Germany drowned illustrated the tensions that were drawn taught between the two countries. Germany’s war ridden land and economy was incapable of fixing itself so Germany needed assistance from other countries. However, they owed other countries mass amounts of money or gold in order to pay off material damages caused by the war (“WWI: Treaties and Reparations”). When they signed the Treaty of Versailles, Germany unhappily acknowledged that they were the sole cause of World War I and agreed to the stringent obligations set by the Big Four (“WWI: Treaties and Reparations”). German bitterness deepened toward the French because they thought France held almost all of the responsibility for charging Germany with an outrageously high reparations bill (“War Reparations”). This was depicted in Knott’s cartoon because Germany drowned under the French conditions, but France required Germany to sign their conditions before they offered help. However, if Germany didn’t sign, it would still drown. Paradoxically, Germany had to hurt itself in order to potentially save itself. Signing acknowledged responsibility for the war, loss of land, loss of military, and insurmountable reparations yet Germany retained hope that the economy and political relations would be repaired. However, things would get worse before they got better. Due to the debt and unnecessary stipulations, the tensions between France and Germany continued to tighten putting Europe on the brink of World War II.
The French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is more easily recognized than the German man in the cartoon. This is most likely because Clemenceau was known for his austerity in exacting revenge on Germany (“Treaty of Versailles,” sec. 1). The German man was not so easily recognized because Germany had nine different chancellors from 1917-1920 (during which Clemenceau held office in France), not to mention all nine chancellors had bushy mustaches like the man Knott depicted (Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica). The editorial mentions Chancellor Bruening of Germany, however, Clemenceau died before Bruening held office so it’s unlikely that Bruening is depicted here (“Georges Clemenceau” and Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica).
Without prior knowledge, it can be deduced simply from Knott’s cartoon that this situation wasn’t handled efficiently. Standing by and letting someone drown unless they agree to ridiculous conditions is a fast and sure way to make enemies. The prevention of war simply cannot be executed by repressing a country and limiting its resources. Clemenceau’s strict demands did anything but smooth tensions and ease these countries out of a post war period. The cartoon showed that no matter what Germany did, it drowned in debt and desperately needed a savior. The attempted repression of Germany caused animosities toward the French that only built as Germany struggled to make payments. This is the beginning of how and why Hitler and his National Socialist, or Nazi, Party rose to power (“Treaty of Versailles,” sec. 1.1).
The editorial for “Going Down Third Time” is titled “Hitler to the Rescue!” While praising Adolf Hitler seems facetious in this time period, he had serious leadership potential in the years following World War I. Hitler was seen as an eloquent public speaker and his platform rejected the Versailles treaty, aimed for Germany to return as a military power, and suppressed communism (“Hitler to Rescue!”). Because Germany struggled to stand on its own feet, Hitler’s policies were enticing to many people. He asserted that he was “ready to take charge of the Government and to resist communism by force of arms,” however, the French were ready to invade Germany “to restore order” once revolution broke out (“Hitler to Rescue!”). Germany was on the brink of World War II and all it needed was a nudge before crisis hit. It’s odd to think that World War II could have possibly been avoided had France given Germany a little room to breathe after World War I.
The symbols and portrayal of the issue in the cartoon is humorous in a sense that it is utterly ridiculous. Obviously, someone can’t sign a document if they are drowning. However, as one begins to process this humour, a more somber tone is evoked because of the realization of this fundamental problem. Knott’s cartoon showed that Germany’s post World War I debt was an indomitable obstacle. It not only struck the German economy harder as the world entered the Great Depression, but it created tensions between countries, specifically France, that led to conflict. Furthermore, the cartoon was published in 1931, however, it depicted circumstances that occurred in 1919 and throughout the 1920’s. This emphasizes how issues regarding debt and unfriendly political relations festered for over a decade and led to the problems they faced as World War II drew nearer.