Aftermath of World War I: The Seeds of Future Conflict Sown

The Treaty of Versailles

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President Woodrow Wilson. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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The World Comes to Paris

In the wake of the November 11, 1918 armistice which ended hostilities on the Western Front, Allied leaders gathered in Paris to begin negotiations over the peace treaties that would formally conclude the war. Convening in the Salle de l'Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry on January 18, 1919, the talks initially included leaders and representatives from over thirty nations.

To this crowd was added a host of journalists and lobbyists from a variety of causes. While this unwieldy mass took part in the early meetings, it was President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy who came to dominate the talks. As defeated nations, Germany, Austria, and Hungary were prohibited from attending, as was Bolshevik Russia which was in the midst of a civil war.

Wilson's Goals

Arriving in Paris, Wilson became the first president to travel to Europe while in office. The basis for Wilson's position at the conference was his Fourteen Points which had been instrumental in securing the armistice. Key among these was freedom of the seas, equality of trade, arms limitation, self-determination of peoples, and the formation of the League of Nations to mediate future disputes.

Believing that he had an obligation to be a prominent figure at the conference, Wilson endeavored to create a more open and liberal world where democracy and liberty would be respected.

French Concerns for the Conference

While Wilson sought a softer peace for Germany, Clemenceau and the French wished to permanently weaken their neighbor economically and militarily.

In addition to the return of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been taken by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), Clemenceau argued in favor of heavy war reparations and the separation of the Rhineland to create buffer state between France and Germany. Furthermore, Clemenceau sought British and American assurances of aid should Germany ever attack France.

The British Approach

While Lloyd George supported the need for war reparations, his goals for the conference were more specific than his American and French allies. Concerned first and foremost for the preservation of the British Empire, Lloyd George sought to settle territorial issues, ensure the security of France, and remove the threat of the German High Seas Fleet. While he favored the formation of the League of Nations, he discouraged Wilson's call for self-determination as it could adversely affect Britain's colonies.

Italy's Goals

The weakest of the four major victorious powers, Italy sought to ensure that it received the territory that it had been promised by the Treaty of London in 1915. This largely consisted of the Trentino, Tyrol (including Istria and Trieste), and the Dalmatian coast excluding Fiume. Heavy Italian losses and a severe budget deficit as a result of the war led to a belief that these concessions had been earned.

During the talks in Paris, Orlando was constantly hampered by his inability to speak English.

The Negotiations

For the early part of the conference, many of the key decisions were made by the "Council of Ten" which was comprised of the leaders and foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. In March, it was decided that this body was too unwieldy to be effective. As a result, many of the foreign ministers and nations left conference, with talks continuing between Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando. Key among the departures was Japan, whose emissaries were angered by a lack of respect and the conference's unwillingness to adopt a racial equality clause for the Covenant of the League of Nations. The group shrank further when the Italy was offered Trentino to the Brenner, the Dalmatian port of Zara, the island of Lagosta, and a few small German colonies in lieu of what was originally promised.

Irate over this and the group's unwillingness to give Italy Fiume, Orlando departed Paris and returned home.

As the talks progressed, Wilson was increasingly unable to garner acceptance of his Fourteen Points. In an effort to appease the American leader, Lloyd George and Clemenceau consented to the formation of the League of Nations. With several of the participants' goals conflicting, the talks moved slowly and ultimately produced a treaty which failed to please any of the nations involved. On April 29, a German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, was summoned to Versailles to receive the treaty. Upon learning of the content, the Germans protested that they had not been allowed to participate in the talks. Deeming the treaty's terms a "violation of honor," they withdrew from the proceedings.

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Terms of the Treaty of Versailles

The conditions imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles were severe and wide-ranging. Germany's military was to be limited to 100,000 men, while the once formidable Kaiserliche Marine was reduced to no more than six battleships (not to exceed 10,000 tons), 6 cruisers, 6 destroyers, and 12 torpedo boats.

In addition, production of military aircraft, tanks, armored cars, and poison gas was prohibited. Territorially, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France, while numerous other changes reduced Germany's size. Key among these was the loss of West Prussia to the new nation of Poland while Danzig was made a free city to ensure Polish access to the sea. The province of Saarland was transferred to League of Nations control for a period of fifteen years. At the end of this period, a plebiscite was to determine whether it returned to Germany or was made part of France.

Financially, Germany was issued a war reparations bill totaling £6.6 billion (later reduced to £4.49 billion in 1921). This number was determined by the Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. While Wilson took a more conciliatory view on this issue, Lloyd George had worked to increase the demanded amount. The reparations required by the treaty included not only money, but a variety of goods such as steel, coal, intellectual property, and agricultural produce.

This mixed approach was an effort to prevent hyperinflation in postwar Germany which would decrease the value of the reparations.

Several legal restrictions were also imposed, most notably Article 231 which laid sole responsibility for the war on Germany. A controversial part of the treaty, its inclusion had been opposed by Wilson and it became known as the "War Guilt Clause." Part 1 of the treaty formed the Covenant of the League of Nations which was to govern the new international organization.

German Reaction & Signing

In Germany, the treaty provoked universal outrage, particularly Article 231. Having concluded the armistice in expectation of a treaty embodying the Fourteen Points, Germans took to the streets in protest. Unwilling to sign it, the nation's first democratically-elected chancellor, Philipp Scheidemann, resigned on June 20 forcing Gustav Bauer to form a new coalition government. Assessing his options, Bauer was soon informed that army was not capable of offering meaningful resistance. Lacking any other options, he dispatched Foreign Minister Hermann Müller and Johannes Bell to Versailles. The treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors, where the German Empire had been proclaimed in 1871, on June 28. It was ratified by the National Assembly on July 9.

Allied Reaction to the Treaty

Upon release of the terms, many in France were displeased and believed that Germany had been treated too leniently. Among those who commented was Marshal Ferdinand Foch who predicted with eerie precision that "This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years." As a result of their displeasure, Clemenceau was voted out of office in January 1920. While the treaty was better received in London, it ran into strong opposition in Washington.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, worked vigorously to block its ratification. Believing that Germany had been let off too easily, Lodge also opposed the United States' participation in the League of Nations on constitutional grounds. As Wilson had intentionally excluded Republicans from his peace delegation and refused to consider Lodge's changes to the treaty, the opposition found strong support in Congress. Despite Wilson's efforts and appeals to the public, the Senate voted against the treaty on November 19, 1919. The US formally made peace through the Knox-Porter Resolution which was passed in 1921. Though Wilson's League of Nations moved forward, it did so without American participation and never became an effective arbiter of world peace.

The Map Changed

While the Treaty of Versailles ended conflict with Germany, the Treaties of Saint-German and Trianon concluded the war with Austria and Hungary. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a wealth of new nations took shape in addition to the separation of Hungary and Austria. Key among these was Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. To the north, Poland emerged as an independent state as did Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In the east, the Ottoman Empire made peace through the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne. Long the "sick man of Europe," the Ottoman Empire was reduced in size to Turkey, while France and Britain were given mandates over Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. Having aided the aided in defeating the Ottomans, the Arabs were given their own state to the south.

A "Stab in the Back"

As the postwar Germany (Weimer Republic) moved forward, resentment over the end of the war and the Treaty of Versailles continued to fester. This coalesced in the "stab-in-the back" legend which stated that Germany's defeat was not the fault of the military but rather due to a lack of support at home from anti-war politicians and the sabotaging of the war effort by Jews, Socialists, and Bolsheviks. As such, these parties were seen to have stabbed the military in the back as it fought the Allies. The myth was given further credence by the fact that German forces had won the war on the Eastern Front and were still on French and Belgian soil when the armistice was signed.

Resonating among conservatives, nationalists, and former-military, the concept became a powerful motivating force and was embraced by the emerging National Socialist Party (Nazis). This resentment, coupled with the economic collapse of Germany due to reparation-caused hyperinflation during the 1920s, facilitated the rise of the Nazis to power under Adolf Hitler. As such, the Treaty of Versailles may be seen as leading to many of the causes of World War II in Europe. As Foch had feared, the treaty simply served as a twenty-year armistice with World War II beginning in 1939.

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