At the end of World War I, during a peace conference held in Paris, France, the victorious Allies concluded a series of peace treaties that would be imposed on the defeated Central Powers. The most important of these was the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919 at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. The treaty, which codified peace terms between the Allies and Germany, held Germany responsible for starting the war, and imposed harsh penalties in terms of loss of territory, massive reparations payments and demilitarization.
Far from the “peace without victory” that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had outlined in his famous Fourteen Points in early 1918, the Treaty of Versailles humiliated Germany while failing to resolve the underlying issues that had led to war in the first place. Economic distress and resentment of the treaty within Germany helped fuel the ultra-nationalist sentiment that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, as well as the coming of a second World War just two decades later.
From the Fourteen Points to the Paris Peace Conference
In a speech to Congress in January 1918, Wilson laid out his idealistic vision for the post-war world. In addition to specific territorial settlements based on an Entente victory, Wilson’s so-called Fourteen Points emphasized the need for national self-determination for Europe’s different ethnic populations. Wilson also proposed the founding of a “general association of nations” that would mediate international disputes and foster cooperation between different nations in the hopes of preventing war on such a large scale in the future.
When German leaders signed the armistice ending hostilities in World War I on November 11, 1918, they believed this vision articulated by Wilson would form the basis for any future peace treaty. This would not prove to be the case.
The Paris Peace Conference opened on January 18, 1919, a date that was significant in that it marked the anniversary of the coronation of German Emperor Wilhelm I, which took place in the Palace of Versailles at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Prussian victory in that conflict had resulted in Germany’s unification and its seizure of Alsace and Lorraine provinces from France. In 1919, France and its prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, had not forgotten the humiliating loss, and intended to avenge it in the new peace agreement.
The Terms of the Versailles Treaty
The “Big Four” leaders of the victorious Western nations—Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France and, to a lesser extent, Vittorio Orlando of Italy—dominated the peace negotiations in Paris. Germany and the other defeated powers, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, were not represented at the conference; nor was Russia, which had fought as one of the Allied powers until 1917, when the country’s new Bolshevik government concluded a separate peace with Germany and withdrew from the conflict.
The Big Four themselves had competing objectives in Paris: Clemenceau’s main goal was to protect France from yet another attack by Germany, he sought heavy reparations from Germany as a way of limiting German economic recovery after the war and minimizing this possibility. Lloyd George, on the other hand, saw the rebuilding of Germany as a priority in order to reestablish the nation as a strong trading partner for Great Britain. For his part, Orlando wanted to expand Italy’s influence and shape it into a major power that could hold its own alongside the other great nations. Wilson opposed Italian territorial demands, as well as previously existing arrangements regarding territory between the other Allies; instead, he wanted to create a new world order along the lines of the Fourteen Points. The other leaders saw Wilson as too naive and idealistic, and his principles were difficult to translate into policy.
In the end, the European Allies imposed harsh peace terms on Germany, forcing the nation to surrender around 10 percent of its territory and all of its overseas possessions. The treaty also called for the demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, limited Germany’s army and navy, forbade it to maintain an air force, and required it to conduct war crimes trials against Kaiser Wilhelm II and other leaders for their aggression. Most importantly, Article 231 of the treaty, better known as the “war guilt clause,” forced Germany to accept full responsibility for starting World War I and pay enormous reparations for Allied war losses.
Criticism of Versailles Treaty
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, sparking the outbreak of the war. Though the treaty included a covenant creating the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at preserving peace, the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped ensure that peace would not last for long.
Germans were furious about the treaty, seeing it as a diktat, or dictated peace; they bitterly resented the sole blame of war being placed at their feet. The nation’s burden of reparations eventually topped 132 billion gold Reichsmarks, the equivalent of some $33 billion, a sum so great that no one expected Germany to be able to pay in full; in fact, economists like John Maynard Keynes predicted the European economy would collapse if it did.
Keynes was only one prominent critic of the Treaty of Versailles. The French military leader Ferdinand Foch refused to attend the signing ceremony, as he thought the treaty didn’t do enough to secure against a future German threat, while the U.S. Congress failed to ratify the treaty, and later concluded a separate peace with Germany; the United States would never join the League of Nations.
In the years following the Treaty of Versailles, many ordinary Germans believed they had been betrayed by the “November Criminals,” those leaders who signed the treaty and formed the post-war government. Radical right-wing political forces—especially the National Socialist Workers’ Party, or the Nazis—would gain support in the 1920s and ‘30s by promising to reverse the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty. With the onset of the Great Depression after 1929, economic unrest destabilized the already vulnerable Weimar government, setting the stage for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s fateful rise to power in 1933.
The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian.
“The Treaty of Versailles: An Uneasy Peace,” WBUR.org (excerpt from Michael Neiberg, The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise History), August 13, 2017.
Treaty of Versailles, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.