June 20

This Day in History

World War I

Jun 20, 1919:

German cabinet resigns over Versailles deadlock

On this day in 1919, during the final days of the Versailles Peace Conference held in Paris, France, the German cabinet deadlocks over whether to accept the peace terms presented to its delegation by the other nations at the peace conference–most notably the Council of Four: France, Britain, the United States and Italy–and ratify the Versailles Treaty.

Presented with the terms of the treaty on May 7, 1919, the German delegation was given two weeks to examine the document and submit their official comments in writing. The Germans, who had put great faith in U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's notion of a so-called "peace without victory" and had pointed to his famous Fourteen Points as the basis upon which they sought peace in November 1918, were greatly angered and disillusioned by the treaty. By its terms, Germany was to lose 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population; it would also have to pay reparations, a punishment justified in the treaty by the infamous Article 231, which placed the blame for the war squarely on Germany.

Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Germany's foreign minister and leader of the German delegation at Versailles, was furious about the treaty. "This fat volume was quite unnecessary. They could have expressed the whole thing more simply in one clause–Germany renounces its existence." The country's military leaders were similarly against the treaty; as Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg saw it, "as a soldier I can only prefer honorable defeat to a disgraceful peace." Some members of the coalition government that had taken power in Berlin, however, were of a different view, believing that Germany, in its weakened state, would benefit by signing the treaty in order to put the war behind it and begin rebuilding its manufacturing and commerce operations.

After Brockdorff-Rantzau's delegation passed a unanimous recommendation to reject the treaty, the German cabinet, which had previously been leaning towards signing, deadlocked in its vote on June 20 and subsequently resigned en masse. Brockdorff-Rantzau followed suit, leaving Paris, and politics, altogether. Friedrich Ebert, the German president since late 1918, was persuaded to stay on, however, and as the Allied deadline of June 23 approached, he managed to assemble another cabinet to put the issue to a vote. After a last-minute flurry of activity, the German National Assembly voted to sign the treaty and its answer was delivered to the Council of Four at 5:40 p.m. on June 23. The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife at Sarajevo.

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