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Treaty of Versailles

Paris [1919]

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: June 04, 2021

Signing of the Treaty of Versailles

The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles by Orpen. Subjects included President Woodrow Wilson, the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, and the British prime minister, David Lloyd George. Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a radical Serbian nationalist. The murder led to the July Crisis, and subsequently, to a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

The alliances each nation had, before long, drew major European powers to the conflict. Soon, Russia, Germany, France, Italy and Britain were in a fray that would evolve into World War I.

The Central Powers led by Germany, and the Triple Entente led by France, Britain and Russia, fought for nearly four years. The fighting escalated and flowed into Africa, Asia and the Middle East, until the entrance of the United States into the war brought a decisive victory to the Allies.

Signed at the Palace of Versailles, Paris, in June 1919, at the conclusion of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles laid out the terms of peace between a defeated Germany and the triumphant Allies.

The treaty blamed Germany for instigating the war, and imposed harsh penalties in the form of demilitarization, enormous reparations and lost territory. The humiliation which the terms inflicted upon Germany was evident, and according to many, would play no small role in the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ (NAZI) Party and the coming of World War II.

Summary
  • The Treaty of Versailles was signed at the Palace of Versailles in Paris at the conclusion of World War I; it laid out the terms of peace between a defeated Germany and the triumphant Allies.
  • The leaders of France, Great Britain, Italy and the United States wielded enormous influence over the terms of the treaty.
  • The President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had an idealistic plan with 14 points in order to ensure lasting peace; contrary to German expectations however, the Wilsonian plan did not fully materialize.
  • The Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for instigating the war, and imposed harsh penalties in the form of territorial concessions, demilitarization and enormous reparations.
  • Despite the opposition of many Germans, Germany eventually accepted the terms of the treaty for fear of an Allied invasion.
  • The treaty’s humiliation of Germany was not without repercussions, although a diversity of opinions exists on whether it contributed to the rise of Hitler, and the World War II.

The “Big Four”

The leaders of the four major nations which emerged victorious from World War I wielded substantial influence over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

These four, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, George Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of Great Britain and Vittorio Orlando of Italy, met in nearly 145 closed meetings to decide upon all the significant points, which were subsequently ratified by the entire assembly.

The four men went on to dominate the peace negotiations in Paris while none of the defeated powers, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary, were represented at the event.

It must be noted that although Russia had been one of the Allied powers, following the October revolution of 1917, the Russians withdrew from the war and negotiated a separate treaty with Germany. Despite their common foes and willing cooperation, the ‘Big Four’ had their own agendas to advance.

Lloyd George sought to help rebuild Germany and restore its status as a trading partner of Britain. George Clemenceau wanted to shield France from future German aggression, and therefore demanded heavy reparations from the vanquished nation to thwart a speedy German recovery.

Vittorio Orlando, intended to expand Italian power over the region with territorial demands. Woodrow Wilson, for his part, sought to create a new world order and portray the United States as “the savior of the world.”

Despite the skepticism of his colleagues, Wilson wanted to create an association of nations capable of resolving international disputes and advancing cooperation in order to prevent future largescale wars.

Wilson’s Points

In January 1918, Wood Wilson had already communicated his idealistic plan for world peace during a speech to Congress following the war. President Wilson had contended that they constituted the necessary foundation for lasting peace. The gist of each of his fourteen points is as follows:

  1. Open diplomacy without clandestine treaties.
  2. Absolute liberty of navigation upon the open seas with rare and internationally recognized exceptions.
  3. Free international trade devoid of prohibitive tariffs.
  4. The reduction of national armaments to levels necessitated by domestic safety.
  5. The impartial and open settlement of colonial claims honoring the interests of the populations and the sovereignty of the pertinent governments.
  6. The fair treatment of Russia and the restoration of her territories.
  7. The evacuation and restoration of Belgium.
  8. The liberation of France and the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France.
  9. An alteration of the Italian frontiers consistent with the lines of nationality.
  10. The right of Austro-Hungarians to self-determination and autonomous development.
  11. The evacuation, liberation and independence of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro.
  12. The secure sovereignty of the Turkish and the right to self-determination of the other nationalities living under Ottoman rule.
  13. An independent Poland with a secure and free access to the sea.
  14. An association of nations to assure the territorial integrity and the political independence of all states, both great and small alike.

In November 1918, when the Germans signed the truce to end the hostilities, they were convinced that Wilson’s vision would shape the future peace treaty. This, however, would prove to be a mistaken conclusion.

The Paris Peace Conference

The Paris Peace Conference began on the 18th of January 1919, on the anniversary of the German Emperor Wilhelm I’s coronation, and would last through 1920.

This was the formal meeting of the victorious allies to determine the terms of peace for the Central Powers. Granted, diplomats from thirty-two nationalities and countries were present. However, Germany as well as the other defeated nations had little leeway to voice their views.

Dominated by the ‘Big Four’ leaders of Britain, France, Italy and the United States, the conference would produce five different treaties which would fundamentally reshape the maps of Africa, parts of Asia, the Pacific Islands and Europe.

The overseas possessions of the Turkish Empire would be handed to the British and the French as ‘mandates,’ and plebiscites would be ordered to determine various national borders consistent with distinct ethnic boundaries. The main outcome of the conference, however, was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany.

The Stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles

Territorial Reductions
Versailles Territorial Reductions of Germany

The treaty required Germany to part with nearly 25, 000 square miles of its land and 7 million of its population. In addition, Germany would be stripped of its gains from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

In Western Europe, Germany was obliged to cede control of the Eupen-Malmedy region and acknowledge Belgian sovereignty over Moresnet. Germany would also have to transfer control of the Saar coalmines to the League of Nations, and the output of the Saar to France for 15 years in order to compensate for its destruction of the French coalmines during the war.

At the conclusion of 15 years, a plebiscite would determine the sovereignty of the Saar. The provinces of Alsace-Lorraine were also to be restored to France by abolishing the previous treaties of Frankfurt and Versailles of 1871.

Moreover, in Central Europe, the treaty obliged Germany to recognize the autonomy of Czechoslovakia and cede to it a portion of Silesian territory.

Additionally, Germany was required to acknowledge the autonomy of Poland and renounce any right over Polish territory. Germany would also have to cede parts of Upper Silesia and Poznan to Poland, and Poland would receive 20, 000 square miles of land at the expense of Germany.

Furthermore, Germany was required to renounce, in favor of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, any rights over territories between the north-eastern frontier of East Prussia and the former frontier between Russia and Germany.

Germany would also cede the region of Danzig to the League of Nations which would found the Free City of Danzig.

Former Colonies

Germany was obliged to cede its colonial territories to the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, which, in turn, assigned the rights over the colonies to various nations.

German Kamerun and Togoland were transferred to France while Ruanda-Urundi was given to Belgium. German South-West Africa was given to South Africa, German East Africa to Britain, Kionga Triangle to Portugal, territories in Shandong to Japan and German Samoa to New Zealand.

Restrictions on the German Military

The harsh and comprehensive military restrictions imposed on Germany sought to ensure that the Reichswehr (the German Armed forces) would be incapable of offensive military action.

The Allies also hoped that these sanctions would induce international disarmament. By the 31st of March 1920, Germany was obliged to have its army reduced to a maximum of 100, 000 men, with a maximum of 3 cavalry divisions and 7 infantry divisions.

Moreover, the General Staff would be dismantled, military academies for officer training restricted to 3, and conscription abolished. To render Germany incapable of developing a large number of trained men, the number of soldiers and officers permitted to leave early would be restricted.

While commissioned officers were to be retained for at least 25 years, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers were to be retained for a minimum of 12 years. Germany was not permitted to have an air force, and the German Navy was limited to a maximum of 15, 000 men, 6 pre-dreadnought battleships, twelve destroyers, twelve torpedo boats and 6 light cruisers. Germany could not have any submarines.

Furthermore, the police force had to be decreased to its pre-war numbers and paramilitary groups were prohibited. Additionally, Germany was required to demilitarize the Rhineland and demolish all of its fortifications there as well as on the islands of Dune and Heligoland.

Germany was, moreover, forbidden from engaging in the arms trade, and severe restrictions were imposed upon the amount and types of weapons it could possess.

Reparations

The treaty, most notably, obliged Germany to “accept the responsibility of […] causing all the loss and damage” during the war. Hence, Germany was to compensate the Allied powers for the destruction.

A special ‘Reparation Commission’ would be established to determine the exact amount as well as the mode of the payment Germany would use. This inter-Allied commission would present its conclusions by the 1st of May 1921.

In the meantime, Germany would have to pay 20 billion gold marks in commodities, gold, securities, ships or other forms to help defray the costs of Allied occupation.

The German Response

Germany was far from conciliated by the terms of the treaty. The German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Brockdorff-Rantzau, was outraged by the ‘War Guilt Clause’ which forced Germany to accept total blame for the war.

The German government too, protested against the unfair demands of the treaty, and denounced it as a ‘violation of honor.’ Germans across the political spectrum condemned the treaty as ‘the Diktat,’ or as a dictated peace.

Philip Scheidemann, the first democratically elected head of the German government, called it a “horrific and murderous witch’s hammer,” and resigned from office rather than sign the treaty. Following the resignation of Scheidemann, a coalition government was formed.

The new President Friedrich Ebert shared the people’s dislike for the treaty, but he also knew that a refusal to sign it would result in an invasion by the Allies—which Germany did not seem to be in a position to thwart.

Thus, when General Wilhelm Groener informed the government that the German army did not have the slightest chance of successfully stopping the Allied forces in the event of an invasion, with the endorsement of President Ebert, the National Assembly decided to sign the treaty.

The French Prime Minister Clemenceau was informed of Germany’s decision just hours prior to the deadline, and subsequently, the German Colonial Minister Johannes Bell and Foreign Minister Hermann Muller were sent to Versailles. They signed the agreement on the 28th of June, 1919, and within two weeks, the German National Assembly ratified it by a vote of 209 to 116.

In Retrospect

In his book, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” the British economist and the representative of the British Treasury, John Maynard Keynes, criticized the Treaty of Versailles as a ‘Carthaginian peace’ actuated by French revanchism.

The fairer principles embodied by President Wilson’s 14 points, he contended, would have been a more acceptable alternative. Keynes also argued that the enormity of the reparations demanded from Germany would be both impossible to pay and harmful to economic stability.

On the other hand, however, the German historian Detlev Peukert has contended that despite its flaws, the Treaty of Versailles was quite reasonable. He has pointed out that the real culprit was the ‘millenarian hope’ which pervaded Germany when, for a brief time, it seemed as though Germany would conquer all of Europe.

Peukert has also argued that the constructive policies of the German Chancellor Gustave Stresemann between 1923 and 1929 could have permitted Germany to reconcile with Western powers. The Great Depression and the nationalism which accompanied the policy of autarky, he has stated, were primarily responsible for the death of the Weimar Republic.

Indeed, the diversity of views on the impact of Versailles on the instigation of World War II must be acknowledged. Nonetheless, few would utterly isolate the rise of Hitler from the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Treaty of Versailles." World History Blog, June 04, 2021. https://www.worldhistoryblog.com/Treaty-of-Versailles-1919.html.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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