World War I was formally ended by the Treaty of Versailles, which was negotiated in Paris and signed at Versailles in June 1919.
The Treaty of Versailles sought to reduce Germany’s capacity to make war against her neighbours. It also attempted to resolve outstanding disputes over borders, sovereignty and colonial possessions, and provide a means of settling future disagreements that might lead to war.
Paris peace conference
The treaty was negotiated and drafted at the Paris Peace Conference, which began its first sessions in January 1919, just weeks after the November armistice.
The Paris conference was attended by delegates from 25 nations. The most notable absentees were the defeated Germany and Bolshevik-controlled Russia (both did not receive invitations).
The war’s major combatants were also joined by representatives of smaller nations, some of whom hoped to gain independence, territory or international recognition.
The Chinese, for example, hoped to regain control of the Shandong peninsula, a colonial outpost of Germany that was later overrun by the Japanese. A Vietnamese student, Nguyen Sinh Cung (later known as Ho Chi Minh) desired protection for the rights of Viet people living under French rule.
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. The Italians, who had entered the war chiefly to acquire territory from the Austro-Hungarians, wanted land in the north and the east.
Dealing with Germany
These requests from smaller nations were shadowed by the peace conferences’ overriding issue: what to do with the defeated Germany.
This question was dominated by the so-called ‘Big Three’: American president Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French leader Georges Clemenceau. Each arrived with their own agenda.
Woodrow Wilson had the most conciliatory outlook of the three leaders. His peace plan, dubbed the Fourteen Points, was developed by a thinktank of 150 US foreign policy experts who explored the causal factors and crisis points of 1914.
Under Wilson’s Fourteen Points, armaments would be reduced to a minimum, colonial disputes would be finalised and 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 declare their independence, provided there was consensus for this.
French leader Georges Clemenceau was far more outspoken and punitive in its thinking. Clemenceau wanted the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine to France and the prevention of future German aggression against his country.
Clemenceau regularly spoke to the press and made his views known, sometimes bluntly. He argued that was never invaded or conquered, its factories, mines and industrial capacity all remained intact.
Clemenceau argued for Germany’s industrial base to be dismantled and the German economy wound back to focus on agriculture and small manufacturing. The German military should be restricted in size for defensive objectives only.
Clemenceau also sought a binding military alliance between France, Britain and the United States, as further insurance against German aggression. He was not interested in Wilson’s Fourteen Points because it contained insufficient protections against German militarism.
Lloyd George’s position
British prime minister David Lloyd George adopted a more moderate position, at least initially. Wilson’s Fourteen Points 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 a conquered foe now but peacetime trading partners in the future.
In early discussions, Lloyd George found himself sandwiched between Wilson’s conciliatory approach and Clemenceau’s 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 also reflected public attitudes. British public opinion, whipped up by the anti-German press, demanded Germany be punished and incapacitated. There were calls to hang the Kaiser and to “squeeze Germany until its pips squeaked”.
The final treaty
After six months of negotiations, 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.
Few delegates were fully happy with the final document. No nation was more unhappy than Germany. German delegates had been excluded from the conference until May, after which their attendance was a formality, in effect 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, a clause assigning them total blame for the outbreak of war 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 fate of Germany
The territorial and economic penalties imposed by the final Versailles treaty were extensive.
Germany lost 13 per cent of its land and six million Germans found themselves citizens of other nations. Around 15 per cent of German agricultural land and 10 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.
The Treaty of Versailles was slammed by the German press as a humiliating peace forced upon them by diktat. German commentators, diplomats and academics publicly condemned it.
Some Germans, including members of the high command, argued for a recommencement of the war, rather than submission to such costly and insulting terms. Germany’s civilian politicians saw the futility of this, however, and eventually agreed to ratify the treaty.
The new government’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles 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 Treaty of Versailles prompted one last defiant act. Not wanting their vessels to be gifted to the British or French, German officers ordered the scuttling (intentional sinking) of 52 ships.
On June 28th 1919, 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.”
The Versailles treaty is considered by most historians to have been a failure, in terms of its attitude 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 weakness of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism in the late 1920s, while its newly formed organisations, particularly the League of Nations, proved ineffective.
As if to prove the failures of Versailles, 20 years after the treaty was signed, Europe was again plunged into total war, this time with even more catastrophic outcomes.
“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
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.