The Treaty of Versailles: An Overview

The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles by Orpen
The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles by Orpen. Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Signed on June 28, 1919, as an end to the First World War, The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to ensure a lasting peace by punishing Germany and setting up a League of Nations to solve diplomatic problems. Instead, it left a legacy of political and geographical difficulties that have often been blamed, sometimes solely, for starting the Second World War.

Background

World War I had been fought for four years when, on November 11, 1918, Germany and the Allies signed an armistice. The Allies soon gathered to discuss the peace treaty they would sign, but Germany and Austria-Hungary weren't invited; instead, they were allowed only to present a response to the treaty, a response that was largely ignored. Instead, terms were drawn up mainly by the so-called Big Three: British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Frances Clemenceau, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The Big Three

Each government represented by the men in the the Big Three had different desires:

  • Woodrow Wilson wanted a "fair and lasting peace" and had written a plan—the Fourteen Points—to achieve this. He wanted the armed forces of all nations reduced, not just the losers, and a League of Nations created to ensure peace.
  • Frances Clemenceau wanted Germany to pay dearly for the war, including being stripped of land, industry, and its armed forces. He also wanted heavy reparations.
  • Lloyd George was affected by public opinion in Britain, which agreed with Clemenceau, though he personally agreed with Wilson.

The result was a treaty that tried to compromise, and many of the details were passed down to uncoordinated subcommittees to work out, who thought they were drafting a starting point rather than the final wording. It was an almost impossible task. They were asking for the ability to pay off loans and debts with German cash and goods but also to restore the pan-European economy. The treaty needed to state territorial demands—many of which were included in secret treaties—but also to allow self-determination and deal with growing nationalism. It also needed to remove the German threat but not humiliate the nation and breed a generation intent on revenge—all while mollifying voters. 

Selected Terms of the Treaty of Versailles

Here are some of the terms of the Versailles Treaty, in several main categories.

Territory

  • Alsace-Lorraine, captured by Germany in 1870 and the war aim of the attacking French forces in 1914, was returned to France.
  • The Saar, an important German coalfield, was to be given to France for 15 years, after which a plebiscite would decide ownership.
  • Poland became an independent country with a "route to the sea," a corridor of land cutting Germany in two.
  • Danzig, a major port in East Prussia (Germany) was to be under international rule.
  • All German and Turkish colonies were taken away and put under Allied control.
  • Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Czechoslovakia were made independent.
  • Austria-Hungary was split up, and Yugoslavia was created.

Arms

  • The left bank of the Rhine was to be occupied by Allied forces and the right bank demilitarized.
  • The German army was cut to 100,000 men.
  • Wartime weapons were to be scrapped.
  • The German Navy was cut to 36 ships and no submarines.
  • Germany was banned from having an Air Force.
  • An Anschluss (union) between Germany and Austria was banned.

Reparations and Guilt

  • In the "war guilt" clause, Germany has to accept total blame for the war.
  • Germany had to pay £6,600 million in compensation.

The League of Nations

  • A League of Nations was to be created to prevent further world conflict.

Results

Germany lost 13 percent of its land, 12 percent of its people, 48 percent of its iron resources, 15 percent of its agricultural production, and 10 percent of its coal. Perhaps understandably, German public opinion soon swung against this diktat (dictated peace), while the Germans who signed it were called the "November Criminals." Britain and France felt the treaty was fair—they actually wanted harsher terms imposed on the Germans—but the United States refused to ratify it because it didn't want to be part of the League of Nations.

Other results include:

  • The map of Europe was redrawn with consequences which, especially in the Balkans, remain to the modern day.
  • Numerous countries were left with large minority groups: There were three and a half million Germans in Czechoslovakia alone.
  • The League of Nations was fatally weakened without the United States and its army to enforce decisions.
  • Many Germans felt unfairly treated. After all, they had just signed an armistice, not a unilateral surrender, and the Allies hadn't occupied deeply into Germany.

Modern Thoughts

Modern historians sometimes conclude that the treaty was more lenient than might have been expected and not really unfair. They argue that, although the treaty didn't stop another war, this was more due to massive fault lines in Europe that WWI failed to solve, and they argue that the treaty would have worked had the Allied nations enforced it, instead of falling out and being played off one another. This remains a controversial view. You rarely find a modern historian agreeing that the treaty solely caused World War II, although clearly, it failed in its aim to prevent another major war.

What is certain is that Adolf Hitler was able to use the treaty perfectly to rally support behind him: appealing to soldiers who felt conned and wielding the anger at the November Criminals to damn other socialists, promise to overcome Versailles, and make headway in doing so.

However, supporters of Versailles like to look at the peace treaty Germany imposed on Soviet Russia, which took vast areas of land, population, and wealth, and point out that country was no less keen to grab things. Whether one wrong justifies another is, of course, down to the perspective of the reader.