The Treaty of Versailles

treaty of versailles
The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, 1919

World War I was formally ended by the Treaty of Versailles, concluded in Paris in mid-1919. This treaty imposed restrictions on Germany to reduce, if not eliminate her future capacity to make war against her neighbours. It also attempted to resolve outstanding disputes by arbitrating on ownership of European territories and colonial possessions, finalising national borders and setting up multilateral bodies to deal with future disagreements. The Versailles treaty is considered by most historians to have been a failure, both in its intents and its objectives. While moderate politicians pushed for a treaty that allowed European reconstruction and the reconciliation of national relationships, the negotiations were instead hijacked by populists who sought to punish and avenge, rather than to rebuild. The harsh treatment of Germany contributed to the rise of Nazism in the late 1920s, while its newly-formed organisations – particularly the League of Nations – proved ineffective. There was one telling sign of its failure: twenty years after the treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors, Europe was again plunged into total war, this time with even more catastrophic outcomes.

The treaty was negotiated and drafted at the Paris Peace Conference, which began its first sessions in January 1919. There were delegates from 25 nations at this conference, the most notable absentees being the defeated Germany and Bolshevik-controlled Russia (both did not receive invitations). The major combatants of the war were also joined by representatives of smaller nations, some of whom hoped to gain independence, territory or international recognition. The Chinese sought to regain control of the Shandong peninsula, a colonial outpost of Germany that was later overrun by the Japanese. The Italians, who had entered the war chiefly to acquire territory from the Austro-Hungarians, wanted land in the north and the east. Australia, represented by prime minister Billy Hughes, sought control of German New Guinea. Delegates from the newly-proclaimed Irish Republic sought international recognition and independence from Britain. Jewish Zionists lobbied the conference for the formation of a Palestinian state and acknowledgement of Palestine as their homeland. A Vietnamese student, Nguyen Sinh Cung (later known as Ho Chi Minh) desired protection for the rights of Viet people living under French rule.

These requests from smaller nations did little to distract onlookers from the ‘big show’: what to do about the defeated Germany. Much of this issue was dominated by American president Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French leader Georges Clemenceau. But the so-called ‘big three’ had arrived with their own agendas:

treaty of versailles
A cartoon lampooning Wilson’s idealism

Woodrow Wilson had the most conciliatory outlook of the three. Wilson’s agenda was based on research carried out by a thinktank of 150 American foreign policy experts and focused on the causal factors and crisis points of 1914. Armaments would be reduced to a minimum; colonial disputes must be finalised; secret diplomacy and naval attacks in international waters would be outlawed. A multi-national body, the League of Nations, would exist to resolve international disputes; to guarantee the sovereignty of member nations; and to protect smaller nations from larger ones. Wilson’s Fourteen Points also encouraged self-determination: the principle that national groups should be entitled to decide their own fate, govern themselves and to declare their independence, provided there was a consensus for this. Wilson also developed more specific points relating to European countries and disputes.

Georges Clemenceau had as his main aims the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine and the prevention of future German aggression against France. The most outspoken of the three, Clemenceau regularly spoke to the press and made his views known, sometimes quite bluntly. He expressed concern that Germany was never invaded or conquered, so its factories, mines and industrial capacity all remained intact. He argued for Germany’s industrial base to be dismantled; the German economy should be wound back to focus on agriculture and small manufacturing. The German military should be restricted in size, to provide for defence only. Clemenceau also sought a binding military alliance between France and both Britain and the United States, as further insurance against German aggression. He was not interested in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which did not contain punitive measures against Germany or sufficient protection against resurgent German militarism.

“Scholars, although remaining divided, now tend to view the treaty as the best compromise that the negotiators could have reached in the existing circumstances. The delegations in Paris and their entourages had to work quickly. Troops had to be sent home, food shipments needed to enter blockaded ports, and revolutionary movements required containment. None of those endeavours allowed for delay. The progress of the deliberations… made heavy demands on the organisational skills, patience, mental and physical health, and political survival skills of the participants.”
Manfred Boerneke, historian

David Lloyd George adopted a more moderate position, at least initially. He was keen to secure Britain’s imperial assets; Wilson’s Fourteen Points consequently bothered him, since notions of self-determination might undermine control in the colonies. Lloyd George was not immediately supportive of Clemenceau’s wish to economically cripple Germany; he viewed the Germans as important peacetime trading partners. In early discussions on the German question, Lloyd George found himself sandwiched between Wilson’s conciliatory approach and Clemenceau’s stubborn demands for retribution. When asked how he had fared at Versailles, Lloyd George later responded: “Not bad, considering I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon”. In time, however, Lloyd George’s position on Germany hardened. This was partly because of Clemenceau’s influence, but it also reflected attitudes in Britain. British public opinion, whipped up by the anti-German press, demanded that Germany be punished and incapacitated; there were calls to hang the Kaiser and to “squeeze Germany until its pips squeaked”.

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The Versailles treaty has often been condemned for its focus on laying blame for the war

After six months of negotiations, the delegates to Paris reached a series of awkward compromises that were fashioned into a treaty. The document was formally signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on June 28th 1919. Because of the wide gulf between their views, few delegates were happy with the final document. No nation was less happy than Germany. German delegates were excluded from the conference until May, after which their attendance was a formality, so they could be lectured about what had been decided on their behalf. Of greatest concern to Berlin was Article 231, the so-called ‘war guilt’ clause, which obligated Germany to admit full responsibility for causing the war. This clause was drafted by American legal experts, who argued that Germany could only be held liable for reparations for the war if she admitted starting it. Germans had been bracing for stern treatment in the treaty, however this clause proved almost too much to bear:

“The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

The territorial and economic penalties imposed by the treaty were also extensive. Germany lost thirteen per cent of its land; six million Germans found themselves citizens of other nations. Fifteen per cent of German agricultural land and ten per cent of its industry was surrendered, mainly to the French. Most of Germany’s merchant fleet was seized by Britain; she also lost all of her colonial possessions. Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France, the Rhineland was demilitarised and occupied, while Northern Schleswig was given to Denmark. Germany was forbidden from political or economic unification with Austria. Posen and West Prussia were ceded to Poland, cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men and forbidden from having tanks, warplanes or heavy artillery; its navy was restricted to 15,000 personnel, six battleships and no submarines. Germany was also indefinitely excluded from membership of the newly formed League of Nations.

treaty of versailles
A cartoon depicting the treatment of Germany at the Paris peace conference

The Treaty of Versailles was slammed by the German press as a humiliating peace forced upon them by diktat. Politicians of all colours openly condemned it. Some Germans, including members of the military high command, argued for a recommencement of the war, rather than submission to such costly and insulting terms. Its civilian politicians recognised the futility of this, however, and eventually committed to signing the treaty. The news rocked Germany and gave rise to a theory popular among nationalists and right-wing groups: that the nation had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by treacherous politicians. In Scapa Flow, Scotland, where most of the German navy had been detained since the armistice, the signing of the treaty prompted one last defiant act. German officers, not wanting to see their vessels gifted to the British or French navies, ordered their scuttling (intentional sinking); 52 ships were successfully sunk. Deutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, editorialised that “today in the Hall of Mirrors the disgraceful Treaty is being signed. Do not forget it! The German people will, with unceasing labour, press forward to reconquer the place among the nations to which it is entitled.”

treaty of versailles

1. The treaties ending World War I were negotiated in Paris in mid-1919 by delegates of the victorious Allies.
2. There were many delegates but the negotiations were dominated by the leaders of France, Britain and the US.
3. French leader Clemenceau urged strong punitive measures against Germany, to prevent the prospect of another war.
4. The Treaty of Versailles, deemed Germany to be entirely responsible for the war and liable to pay reparations.
5. The terms of the treaty were severe, restricting Germany’s industrial production and military; this was widely supported in Britain and France but caused outrage in Germany.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Treaty of Versailles” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

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