The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Treaty of Versailles

Woodrow Wilson with the American Peace Commissioners
Woodrow Wilson with the American Peace Commissioners

The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 is the peace treaty created as a result of six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which put an official end to World War I between the Allies and Central Powers. The ceremonial signing of the treaty with Germany occurred June 28, 1919. The treaty was ratified on January 10, 1920 and required that Germany and its allies accept responsibility for causing the war and pay large amounts of compensation (known as war reparations). Like many other treaties, it is named for the place of its signing: the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, the very place where the German Empire had been proclaimed, January 18, 1871 (below left). The choice of venue was not coincidental.



Proclamation of the German Empire in the Salle des Glaces, Versailles
Proclamation of the German Empire in the Salle des Glaces, Versailles

The treaty provided for the creation of the League of Nations, a major goal of US president Woodrow Wilson. The purpose of the organization was to arbitrate conflicts between nations before they lead to war.

Other provisions included the loss of German colonies and loss of German territories. The list of the former German provinces that changed their affiliation:

Article 156 of the treaty transferred German concessions in Shandong, China to Japan rather than returning sovereign authority to China. Chinese outrage over this provision led to demonstrations and the cultural movement known as the May Fourth Movement.

The Military conditions of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh and motivated not only out of fear, but a wish for revenge on the part of the French. France's lose of Alsace-Lorraine after it had started and lost the Franco-Prussian War contributed greatly to this wish for revenge (also known as revanchism). Further, the high rate of casualties and massive economic damage resulting from World War 1 (much of which was fought on French soil) caused a fear of future German aggression and an even greater sentiment for revenge. In fact a great deal of the provisions regarding Germany in the treaty can be linked back to this fear and desire for vengence.

The German army was to be restricted to 100,000 men, there was to be no conscription, no tanks or heavy artillery and no general staff. The German navy was restricted to 15,000 men and no submarines while the fleet was limited to six battleships (of less than 10,000 tonnes), six cruisers and 12 destroyers. Germany was not permitted an air force. Finally, Germany was explicitly required to retain all enlisted men for 12 years and all officers for 25 years, so that only a limited number of men would have military training.

Article 231 of the Treaty (the 'war guilt' clause) held Germany solely responsible for all 'loss and damage' suffered by the Allies during the war and provided the basis for reparations. The total sum due was decided by an Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. In January 1921, this number was officially put at 269 billion gold marks, a sum that many economists deemed to be excessive. Later that year, the amount was reduced to 132 billion marks, which still seemed astronomical to most German observers. The economic problems that the payments brought, and German resentment at their imposition, are cited by some as one of the causes of the end of the Weimar Republic and the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, which eventually led to the outbreak of World War II.

The United States never ratified the treaty. The elections of 1918 had seen the Republicans gain control of the United States Senate, and they blocked ratification twice (the second time on March 19, 1920), some favoring isolationism and opposing the League of Nations, others lamenting the excessive reparations. As a result, the US never joined the League of Nations and later negotiated a separate peace treaty with Germany: the Treaty of Berlin of 1921 which confirmed the reparation payments and other provisions of the Treaty of Versailles but explicitly excluded all articles related to the League of Nations.

A compromise

The "Big Three" consisted of Prime Minister Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America. Vittorio Orlando also served as an advisor from Italy and Count Makino was also sent from Japan. At the Treaty of Versailles it was difficult to decide on a common position, because each had been treated differently by Germany during the war. Because of this, the result was said to be a compromise that nobody liked.

France had suffered very heavy casualties during the war (some 1.24 million military and 40,000 civilians dead; see World War I), and much of the war had been fought on French soil. The country was in ruins, with much damage done to historic and important buildings and resources. George Clemenceau of France wanted reparations from Germany to rebuild and repair the damage done by the Germans. In all, 750,000 houses and 23,000 factories had been destroyed, and money was demanded to pay for the reconstruction of a country in tatters. In 1871, France and Germany had also been at war, and Germany had taken an area of France, Alsace-Lorraine. Clemenceau also wanted to protect against the possibility of an attack ever coming from Germany again, and demanded a demilitarisation of the Rhineland in Germany, and Allied troops to patrol the area. This was called a "territorial safety zone". They also wanted to drastically reduce the number of soldiers in the German army to a controllable point. As part of the reparations, France wanted to be given control of many of Germany's factories.

Not only did France want to severely punish Germany, they also wanted to preserve their great empire and their colonies. While America put forward a belief in national or ethnic "self-determination", France and Britain wanted to keep their valuable Empires. Clemenceau largely represented the people of France in that he (and many other Frenchmen) wanted revenge upon the German nation. Clemenceau also wanted to protect secret treaties and impose naval blockades around Germany, so that France could control trade imported to and exported from the defeated country. In effect, Clemenceau and many other French wanted to impose policies deliberately meant to cripple Germany militarily, politically, and economically. He was the most radical member of the Big Three, and was named "Le Tigre" for this reason.

The United Kingdom had played a backseat role only in that the country itself was never invaded. Many British soldiers died on the front line in France, and so the people in Britain wanted revenge as much as the French. Prime Minister Lloyd George still wanted severe reparations, but to a lesser extent than the French. Lloyd George was aware that if the demands made by France were carried out, France could become extremely powerful in Central Europe, and a delicate balance could be unsettled. Although he wanted to ensure this didn't happen, he also wanted to make Germany pay. Lloyd George was also worried by Woodrow Wilson's proposal for "self-determination" and, like the French, wanted to preserve the British Empire. This position was part of the competition between two of the world's greatest empires, and their battle to preserve them. Like the French, Lloyd George also supported naval blockades and secret treaties.

On the other hand, US president Woodrow Wilson had very different views about how to punish Germany. He had proposed the Fourteen Points before the war ended, which were less harsh than what the French or British wanted. Since the American people had been in the war only since April 1917, they felt that they should get out of the European mess as rapidly as possible. However, President Wilson wanted to institute a world policy that ensured that nothing like this could ever happen again. In order to maintain peace, the first attempt at a world court was created - the League of Nations. The theory was that if weaker and more fragile nations were attacked, others would guarantee protection from the aggressor.

On top of this, Wilson promoted "self-determination" which encouraged nationalities (or ethnic groups) to think, govern, and control themselves. This notion of self-determination resulted in increased patriotic sentiment in many countries that were or had once been under the control of the old empires, and also received much popular support in the home countries of the Empires. Self-determination was, and continues to be, a source of friction between different ethnic groups around the world as each group seeks to define and enhance its position in the world.

The acceptance by many peoples of the concept of self-determination was the beginning of the end for the empires, including those of Britain and France. Self-determination is partly the reason so many new countries were created in Eastern Europe; Wilson was not willing to increase the size of Britain, France, or Italy. There were also fighting in the eastern provinces of Germany, that were loyal to the emperor, but didn't want to be a part of the republic: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and 3 Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.

Map of treaty
Map of treaty

Territorial adjustments were made with the aim of grouping together ethnic minorities in their own states, free from the domination of once powerful Empires, specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Secret treaties were also to be discouraged, and Britain and France greeted a reduction in armaments by all nations with disapproval. This was supposed to indirectly reduce the ability of navies to create blockades.

The Big Three knew even before they met that they wanted to punish Germany. France wanted revenge, Britain wanted a relatively strong economically viable Germany as a counterweight to French dominance on Continental Europe, and the U.S. wanted the creation of a permanent peace as quickly as possible, as well as the destruction of the old Empires. The result was a compromise, which left nobody satisfied. Germany was neither crushed nor conciliated, which did not bode well for the future of Germany, Europe and the world as a whole. The treaty of Versailles did cripple Germany's economy in the early 1920's and left it vulnerable to the equally devastating Great Depression of the early 1930's, which in turn paved the way for the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, to seize power. However, the reparations were a failure in retrospect as well from the view that Germany made money off the treaty, as she did not repay most of her foreign loans in the 20s and did not complete her indemnity payments.

Further reading

Related Topics

External link

  • Contents of the Treaty of Versailles
  • The Full Text of the Treaty of Versailles
  • The Treaty of Versailles and its Consequences

Last updated: 05-02-2005 23:51:53
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55