Treaty of Versailles

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The Treaty of Versailles (1919) was the peace treaty which officially ended World War I between the Allied and Associated Powers and the German Empire. After six months of negotiations, which took place at the Paris Peace Conference, the treaty was signed as a follow-up to the armistice signed in November 1918 in the Compiègne Forest (which had put an end to the actual fighting). Although there were many provisions in the treaty, one of the more important and recognized ones required Germany to accept full responsibility for causing the war and, under the terms of articles 231-247, make reparations to certain countries that had made up the Allies.

Negotiations between the allied powers started on May 7, the anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Terms imposed by the treaty on Germany included losing a certain amount of its own territory to a number of surrounding countries, being stripped of all of its overseas and African colonies, and its ability to make war again was limited by restrictions on the size of its military. Because Germany was not allowed to take part in the negotiations, the German government issued a protest to what it considered to be unfair demands, and soon afterwards withdrew from the proceedings. Later on the German president, Ebert, agreed to sign it on June 28, 1919. The treaty was ratified by the League of Nations on January 10, 1920. In Germany, the treaty caused shock and humiliation that contributed to the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933, particularly because many Germans did not believe that they should accept the sole responsibility of Imperial Germany and its allies for starting the war.

The "Big Four" that negotiated the treaty consisted of Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, President Georges Clemenceau of France and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America. The Prime Minister of Italy, Vittorio Orlando, also played a minor part in the discussions. Germany was not invited to France to discuss the treaty. At Versailles, it was difficult to decide on a common position because their aims conflicted with one another. The result was said to be a compromise that nobody liked.


The treaty had provided for the creation of the League of Nations, a major goal of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The League of Nations was intended to arbitrate international disputes and thereby avoid future wars. Only three of Wilson's Fourteen Points were realized, since Wilson was compelled to compromise with Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Orlando on some points in exchange for retaining approval of the "fourteenth point," the League of Nations.

The common view has been that France's Clemenceau was the most vigorous in his pursuit of revenge against Germany, the Western Front of the war having been fought chiefly on French soil. This treaty was felt to be unreasonable at the time because it was a peace dictated by the victors that put the full blame for the war on Germany. This was over-simplistic. Some modern historians, however, argue that this cause was reasonable in that it reflected the harsh terms Germany had negotiated with Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Besides the loss of the German colonial empire the territories Germany lost were:

  • Alsace-Lorraine, the territories which were ceded to Germany in accordance with the Preliminaries of Peace signed at Versailles on February 26, 1871, and the Treaty of Frankfurt of May 10, 1871, were restored to French sovereignty without a plebiscite as from the date of the Armistice of November 11, 1918. (area 14 522 km², 1,815,000 inhabitants (1905)),
  • Northern Schleswig including the German-dominated towns of Tondern ( Tønder), Apenrade, Sonderburg, Hadersleben and Lügum in Schleswig-Holstein, after the Schleswig Plebiscite, to Denmark (area 3 984 km², 163,600 inhabitants (1920)),
  • The Prussian provinces Posen and West Prussia, which Prussia had annexed in Partitions of Poland (1772-1795), were returned to the reborn Poland. This territory had already been liberated by local Polish population during the Great Poland Uprising of 1918-1919 (area 53 800 km², 4,224,000 inhabitants (1931), including 510 km² and 26,000 inhabitants from Upper Silesia)).
  • West Prussia was given to Poland to provide free access to the sea, along with a sizeable German minority, creating the Polish corridor.
  • The Hlučínsko Hulczyn area of Upper Silesia to Czechoslovakia (area 316 or 333 km², 49,000 inhabitants),
  • The east part of Upper Silesia, to Poland (area 3 214 km², 965,000 inhabitants), although after plebiscite 60 % voted for Germany
  • The area of German cities Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium
  • The area of Soldau in East Prussia (railway station on the Warsaw- Gdańsk route) to Poland (area 492 km²),
  • The northern part of East Prussia as Memelland under control of France, later transferred to Lithuania without plebiscite.
  • From the eastern part of West Prussia and the southern part of East Prussia Warmia and Masuria, a small area to Poland,
  • The province of Saarland to be under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years, after that a plebiscite between France and Germany, to decide to which country it would belong. During this time the coal went to France.
  • The port of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) with the delta of Vistula river at the Baltic Sea was made the Freie Stadt Danzig (Free City of Danzig) under the League of Nations. (area 1 893 km², 408,000 inhabitants (1929)).
  • Germany acknowledges and will respect strictly the independence of Austria.

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 a cultural movement known as the May Fourth Movement and influenced China not to sign the treaty. China declared the end of its war against Germany in September 1919 and signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921.

Reparations and the war guilt clause

In her book, Margaret Olwen MacMillan wrote that "from the start, France and Belgium argued that claims for direct damage should receive priority in any distribution of reparations. Belgium had been picked clean. In the heavily industrialized north of France, the Germans had shipped out what they wanted for their own use and destroyed much of the rest. Even as German forces were retreating in 1918, they found time to blow up France's most important coal mines." 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 and was set at £6.6 Billion, about $32 billion. This would have taken Germany till 1984 to pay.

The economic problems that the payments brought, and German resentment at their imposition, are usually cited as one of the more significant factors that led to the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, which eventually led to the outbreak of World War II. Some historians, such as Margaret Olwen MacMillan, have since disagreed with this assertion, originally popularised by John Maynard Keynes.

Commercial transport vessels, including all oceanliners, locomotives, commercial motorvehicles, factory equipment and anything else that was not "nailed down" was confiscated.

In 1921, Carl Melchior, a WWI soldier and German financier with M. M. Warburg & Co who became part of the German negotiating team, thought it advisable to accept an impossible reparations burden. Melchior said: "We can get through the first two or three years with the aid of foreign loans. By the end of that time foreign nations will have realized that these large payments can only be made by huge German exports and these exports will ruin the trade in England and America so that creditors themselves will come to us to request modification." (Quote from: Lord D'Abernon, An Ambassador of Peace, Vol. 1, p. 194.).

The 1924 Dawes Plan modified Germany's reparation payments. In May 1929, the Young Plan reduced further payments to 112 billion Gold Marks, US $26,350,000,000 over a period of 59 years (1988). In addition, the Young Plan divided the annual payment, set at 2 billion Gold Marks, US$473 million, into two components, one unconditional part equal to one third of the sum and a postponable part for the remaining two-thirds. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression resulted in the Allies instituting a moratorium for 1931–32 during which the Lausanne Conference voted to cancel reparations. By this time Germany had paid only one eighth of the sum required under the Treaty of Versailles. However, the Lausanne agreement was contingent upon the United States agreeing to also defer payment of the war debt owed them by the Western European governments. The plan ultimately failed because of the U.S. Congress refusal to go along but in fact no more reparations were paid by Germany.

On first glance, the reparations seem excessive. However, according to William R. Keylor in "Versailles and International Diplomacy", 'A increase in taxation and reduction in consumption in the Weimar Republic would have yielded the requisite export surplus to generate the foreign exchange needed to service the reparation debt.' In "American Reparations to Germany 1919-33", Stephen Schuker says that 'the Weimar Republic ended up paying no net reparations at all, employing the proceeds of American commercial loans to discharge its reparation liability before defaulting on its foreign obligations in the early thirties.'

France's aims

Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America
Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America

France had suffered very heavy casualties during the war (some 1.24 million military and 40,000 civilians dead; see World War I casualties), and much of the war had been fought on French soil. France wanted to be given control of many of Germany's factories. In wanting this, Clemenceau was representing the interests and opinions of the French public.

Coal from the Ruhr industrial region was transported to France by train. French military had taken over towns in key locations such as Gau Algesheim, forcing homelessness upon its inhabitants. German railroad workers sabotaged coal shipments to France. Around 200 German railroad workers involved in sabotage were executed by French authorities.

Clemenceau's intentions were therefore simple: punitive reparations and Germany’s military to be not only weakened for the time being, but permanently weakened so as never to be able to invade France again. Clemenceau also wanted to symbolically destroy the old, militaristic Germany – something that could have been achieved by never allowing the pre-1914 politicians back into politics and by hanging the Kaiser (who had abdicated towards the end of the war and fled to Holland). He 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.

Territorily, France felt that Germany should be punished. Obviously, he demanded the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, but also the demilitarisation of the Rhineland to act as a buffer zone against future attacks. Furthermore, Germany’s colonies should be taken from her and distributed between the victors. Clemenceau was the most radical member of the Big Four, and received the nickname "Le Tigre".

Britain's aims

It is often suggested that Lloyd George represented the middle ground between the idealistic Wilson and the vengeful Clemenceau. However, his position was a great deal more delicate than it first appears. The British public wanted to punish Germany in a similar fashion to the French for her apparent sole responsibility for the outbreak of the war, and had been promised such a treaty in the 1918 election that Lloyd George had won. There was also pressure from the Conservatives (who were part of the coalition government) demanding that Germany be punished severely in order to prevent such a war in the future as well as preserving Britain’s empire. Lloyd George did manage to increase the overall reparations payment and Britain’s share by demanding compensation for widows, orphans, and men left unable to work through injury. Also, he wanted to maintain and possibly increase Britain’s colonies, and both he and Clemenceau felt threatened by Wilson’s ‘self-determination’, which they saw as a direct threat to their respective empires. Lastly, like Clemenceau, he supported upholding secret treaties and the idea of a naval blockade.

However, Lloyd George was aware of the potential trouble that could come from an embittered Germany, and he felt that a less harsh treaty that did not engender vengence would be better at preserving peace in the long run. Another factor was that Germany was Britain’s second largest trade partner, and a reduced German economy due to reparations would lower Britain’s trade. Moreover, he (and Clemenceau) recognised that America’s status as an economic superpower would lead to the U.S. becoming a military superpower in the future, and subsequently, Wilson’s idealistic stance could not be laughed at if Britain and France were to remain on good terms with the USA. This helps to understand why the League of Nations, Wilson’s main idea (along with self-determination), was apparently jumped at by Britain and France when Wilson arrived at the peace conference. Furthermore, Britain wanted to maintain the 'Balance of Power' - no country within Europe being allowed to become a lot more powerful than the others. If France's wishes were carried out, then not only would Germany be crippled, but France would soon become the main superpower, and so disrupt the Balance of Power in two ways.

Overall, Lloyd George's aims can be summarised as follows: 1) To defend British interests by preserving Britain’s naval supremacy that had been threatened by Germany in the run up to the war, maintaining Britain’s empire and possibly increased colonial expansion; 2) To reduce Germany’s future military power and to obtain reparations; and lastly, 3) To not create an embittered Germany that would seek revenge and threaten peace in the long term future.

United States of America's aims

The United States of America took a more peaceful view towards the reparations of Germany. They put forward fourteen points, which the German public thought that the Treaty would be based around. The goal of President Wilson in the search for peace was "to make the world safe for democracy".

Reaction to the treaty

The French felt they had been slighted, and subsequently voted out Clemenceau at the next election. Britain as a whole was at first content, but then felt that the Treaty was too harsh, and of particular concern were Germany’s eastern frontiers, which were seen as a potential trouble spot for the future. For the USA, it was seen as Europe’s problem, and that overall, the Treaty was too harsh.

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 call for the reduction in armaments by all nations with disapproval. This was supposed to reduce, indirectly, the ability of navies to create blockades.

The Big Three had known even before they met that Germany was to be punished. 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, with financial compensation for its military expenditures and the destruction of the old empires.

The result was a compromise that left nobody satisfied. Germany was neither crushed nor conciliated, which, in retrospect, did not bode well for the future of Germany, Europe or the world as a whole.

Implementing reparations also failed to achieve its punitive aims insofar as Germany profited from the treaty by neither repaying most of its foreign loans in the following decade nor completing her indemnity payments.

Henry Kissinger called the treaty a "brittle compromise agreement between American utopism and European paranoia - too conditional to fulfill the dreams of the former, too tentative to alleviate the fears of the latter."

On Nazi Germany's rise to power, Adolf Hitler resolved to overturn the remaining military and territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. German military buildup began almost immediately, in direct defiance of the Treaty, which, by then, had been destroyed by Hitler in front of a cheering crowd. "It was this treaty which caused a chain reaction leading to World War II" claimed historian Dan Rowling (1951).

More recently, however, a new point of view has gained currency (well-articulated by historian Gerhard Weinberg in his book A World At Arms) that the treaty was in fact quite advantageous to Germany and far more generous than she had a right to expect. More importantly, according to this view, the Bismarckian Reich was maintained as a political unit instead of being broken up, and Germany largely escaped post-war military occupation. (Mistakes that were not repeated following the Second World War.)

In retrospect, a good case can be made that Germany was in a superior strategic position in 1919 than it had been five years earlier. Instead of having an economically expanding and threatening Russian Empire allied with France on her eastern flank, Germany now faced a diplomatically isolated Russia that was also embroiled in revolution and civil war. To the south, the large (though increasingly enfeebled) Austro-Hungarian monarchy had been replaced by a group of small, weak republics that were to prove easy prey for a revitalized Germany two decades later. Indeed, the ease with which Germany later shook off the treaty's restrictions argues strongly against its being the " Carthaginian peace" of John Maynard Keynes' formulation.

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