The Controversial Versailles Treaty Ended World War I

The treaty that ended the First World War was partly responsible for the Second

A picture of Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Wilson heading to the Versailles Peace Conference.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (left), French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (center), and American President Woodrow Wilson (right) on their way to the Versailles Peace Conference. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Versailles Treaty, signed on June 28, 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in Paris, was the peace settlement between Germany and the Allied Powers that officially ended World War I. However, the conditions in the treaty were so punitive upon Germany that many believe the Versailles Treaty laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of Nazis in Germany and the eruption of World War II.

Debated at the Paris Peace Conference

On January 18, 1919—just over two months after the fighting in World War I's Western Front ended—the Paris Peace Conference opened, beginning the five months of debates and discussions that surrounded the drawing up of the Versailles Treaty. 

Although many diplomats from the Allied Powers participated, the "big three" (Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States) were the most influential. Germany was not invited.

On May 7, 1919, the Versailles Treaty was handed over to Germany, who was told they had only three weeks in which to accept the Treaty. Considering that in many ways the Versailles Treaty was meant to punish Germany, Germany, of course, found much fault with the Versailles Treaty.

Germany did send back a list of complaints about the Treaty; however, the Allied Powers ignored most of them.

The Versailles Treaty: A Very Long Document

The Versailles Treaty itself is a very long and extensive document, made up of 440 Articles (plus Annexes), which have been divided into 15 parts.

The first part of the Versailles Treaty established the League of Nations. Other parts included the terms of military limitations, prisoners of war, finances, access to ports and waterways, and reparations.

Versailles Treaty Terms Spark Controversy

The most controversial aspect of the Versailles Treaty was that Germany was to take full responsibility for the damage caused during World War I (known as the "war guilt" clause, Article 231). This clause specifically stated:

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.

Other controversial sections included the major land concessions forced upon Germany (including the loss of all her colonies), the limitation of the German army to 100,000 men, and the extremely large sum in reparations Germany was to pay to the Allied Powers.

Also enraging was Article 227 in Part VII, which stated the Allies intention of charging German Emperor Wilhelm II with "supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties." Wilhelm II was to be tried in front of a tribunal made up of five judges.

The terms of the Versailles Treaty were so seemingly hostile to Germany that German Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann resigned rather than sign it. However, Germany realized they had to sign it for they had no military power left to resist.

Versailles Treaty Signed

On June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany's representatives Hermann Müller and Johannes Bell signed the Versailles Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Controversial Versailles Treaty Ended World War I." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, September 9). The Controversial Versailles Treaty Ended World War I. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Controversial Versailles Treaty Ended World War I." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).

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