In his autobiography, Arnold Brecht, a chancellery aide in the newly formed Weimar Republic, recalled the day he communicated Germany’s reluctant acceptance of the Versailles Treaty to the French government. In the text, the German republic declared that “yielding to overwhelming power and without abandoning its view of the unheard-of injustice of the peace conditions, declares itself to be ready to accept and sign the peace conditions imposed by the Allied and Associated governments.”
Drafted by the victorious Allied powers during the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh terms on Germany, held as the sole entity responsible for the conflict. In the following years, the new European order created by the treaty eventually led to more socioeconomic and political instability.
The Paris Peace Conference & the Treaty of Versailles
On January 18, 1919, the victorious Allies met in Paris to negotiate the terms of the peace and draw a new world order after the end of World War I. On the same day in 1871, Wilhelm I had become emperor of a united Germany. The conflict had led to millions of deaths and irremediably changed the geopolitical European landscape.
As the dynastic empires of the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Ottomans, and Romanovs collapsed, new national states began to appear on the European map. The war had also disrupted trade and weakened economic stability. Overall, the conflict cost more than 236 billion dollars.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
At the Paris Peace Conference, the victorious powers, also known as the “Big Four,” faced the difficult task of (re)building a more stable Europe while simultaneously trying to compromise their different agendas. The defeated powers did not take part in the conference. Instead, they were directly presented with the treaties. Russia was also absent in Paris. The new Bolshevik government, born after the 1917 revolution, had already left the conflict and negotiated a separate treaty with Germany.
During the negotiations, the “Big Four” (France, Great Britain, the United States, and Italy) often struggled to find a shared basis for their peacemaking. The previous secret agreements between several Allied powers also complicated the talks. Vittorio Orlando, Italy’s prime minister, left the conference early to protest the other countries’ unwillingness to grant Italy its territorial demands in the Adriatic and Aegean regions. The unsuccessful attempt to expand the national borders was met with bitterness by many Italians, especially Mussolini and his supporters. The general unhappiness contributed to the creation of the so-called vittoria multilata (mutilated victory) narrative, which, in turn, led to social and political instability.
Georges Clemenceau, France’s prime minister, was mainly intent on preventing a future German attack. He saw the imposition of heavy reparations and the demilitarization of Germany as a way of protecting France (and Europe) from other conflicts.
Initially, David Lloyd George, Great Britain’s prime minister, also sought to exact harsh peace terms from Germany. During the election campaign that preceded the conference, Eric Gedder, a member of his government, declared: “The Germans, if this government is returned, are going to pay every penny, they are going to be squeezed as a lemon is squeezed – until the pipes squeak.”
In the Fontainebleau Memorandum of March 1919, however, Lloyd expressed his doubts about seeking a punitive peace with Germany. Indeed, he was primarily concerned with restoring a balance of power in Europe. Unlike his European counterparts, US President Woodrow Wilson did not advocate for territorial demands. Wilson saw the peace conference as an opportunity to establish a new order based on his Fourteen Points, a geopolitical vision aiming for a “peace without victory” the other leaders saw as too idealistic.
Germany’s Territorial Losses
Georges Clemenceau saw the rebuilding of Germany as a potential threat to the security and stability of Europe. At the peace conference, he hoped to achieve his objective by stripping Germany of its eastern territories. In particular, he sought to regain control of Alsace-Lorraine, a region Germany had annexed after the 1871 Franco-Prussian War that led to its unification.
Clemenceau also aspired to acquire the Rhineland, the industrialized banks of the river Rhine. The German forces had already invaded France from this region multiple times, thus making it a potentially volatile zone. However, French territorial ambitions clashed with President Wilson’s desire to draw a map of Europe based on the principle of national self-determination.
Between March and April 1919, the peace talks almost collapsed due to the conflicting plans about the Rhineland. After attempting to incite a separatist movement in the region, France eventually agreed to a compromise.
In the end, Articles 42 to 44 of the Treaty of Versailles decreed the demilitarization of the Rhineland. Similarly, Article 180 declared that “all fortified works, fortresses and field works situated in German territory to the west of a line drawn fifty kilometers to the east of the Rhine shall be disarmed and dismantled.”
To further assuage France’s concerns about the Rhineland, the United States and Great Britain agreed to come to its aid in the event of a German attack. However, this clause lapsed when the American Senate voted against ratifying the treaty.
At the conference, France also asked to annex the coal-rich Saarland as compensation for the French mines destroyed by the German army. When Great Britain and the United States refused to accept its claim, the French government agreed to place the Saarland under the supervision of the League of Nations until 1935, when a plebiscite would determine its territorial status. However, as decreed by Article 45 of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to cede the ownership of the region’s coal mines to France. In 1935, more than 90 percent of the Saar Basin’s residents voted to return the region to Germany. The electoral outcome was an important victory for Adolf Hitler and his nationalist propaganda.
The treaty also compelled Germany to hand over additional portions of its territory. As the Allied powers, following Wilson’s vision, recognized the independence of Czechoslovakia and the newly restored Poland, West Prussia and the province of Posen (Poznań) went to the Polish state. This strip of land, commonly referred to as “Polish Corridor,” granted Poland “free and secure access to the sea” and separated East Prussia from the rest of the German territory. Danzig (modern Gdańsk) became a free city.
Finally, Article 119 of the Treaty of Versailles demanded Germany to renounce all its overseas possessions in China, the Pacific, and Africa. The former German colonies, dubbed mandated territories (or mandates), were divided into three groups and assigned to the Allied powers. When invited to sign the treaty, the German delegation protested the loss of the colonies, claiming that it contradicted the call for “a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims,” stated in Wilson’s Fifth Point.
The Treaty of Versailles Decreed the Disarmament of the German Army
To reduce the possibility of future German aggression, the Allied powers included in the Treaty of Versailles a series of provisions reducing the size of Germany’s army and limiting its military arsenal. At the outbreak of the conflict, the German land forces counted 1.9 million troops. The 1919 treaty drastically reduced the defeated country’s army to just 100,000 soldiers.
Additionally, it was decreed that the postwar officer corps could not exceed four hundred men. Article 160 further stated that the remaining forces “shall be devoted exclusively to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of the frontiers.” Conscription was forbidden.
The military clauses of the treaty, meticulously regulating the demobilization of the German army, introduced precise and strict limits on Germany’s infantry, artillery, and naval and air forces. The articles of the second chapter of the military clauses even determined the exact number of ammunition and weapons Germany was allowed to manufacture. The new material could be produced only “in factories or works the location of which shall be communicated to and approved by the Governments of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers.”
Germany’s naval and air forces were similarly drastically reduced. Article 181, for example, stated that the new German naval forces could not exceed “6 battleships of the Deutschland or Lothringen type, 6 light cruisers, 12 destroyers, 12 torpedo boats.” Germany was also no longer allowed to own submarines. Similarly, Article 198 decreed that “the armed forces of Germany must not include any military or naval air forces.” In particular, the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles banned the feared Zeppelins that Germany employed during the bombing of Great Britain.
War Reparations and the “War Guilt Clause”
The issue of the reparations to demand from Germany became a point of contention among the Allies. In particular, France was determined to ask for high reparation payments. The French government, which had borrowed a large sum of money from the United States and Great Britain, hoped to use the reparations to repay its war debts and cover the cost of reconstruction. However, France’s call for high payments was not popular among all other negotiators.
During the conference, British economist John Maynard Keynes famously resigned from his position as Lloyd George’s Treasury advisor, warning the Western powers that a punitive peace settlement would create financial and political instability in Germany and Europe. In the end, the Allies were unable to set the exact sum of war reparations in Paris. Instead, they entrusted an inter-allied Reparation Commission with the task of computing the final amount Germany owned.
In the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies “recognize[d] that the resources of Germany are not adequate … to make complete reparation for all such loss and damage.” However, they legitimized their moral right to ask Germany to “make compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property” with Article 231 of the treaty, or the so-called War Guilt clause, which attributed the sole responsibility of the conflict to Germany.
The Allies also demanded the extradition of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern and other German war criminals. According to Articles 227 and 228 of the Treaty of Versailles, military tribunals would try the Emperor and the other accused “for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.” However, the Netherlands, where Wilhelm II took refuge after his abdication, refused to hand him over to the Allies.
In 1921, the inter-allied Commission finally set the amount of war reparations the German government had to pay to 33 billion dollars. Over the following years, Germany strained under high inflation and an economic crisis and struggled to pay the reparations. In January 1923, when the Weimar Republic failed to meet the requested payment installment, France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr. The crisis was solved when a committee presided by American financier Charles G. Dawes reduced the reparations and granted Germany a substantial loan. Known as the Dawes Plan, this arrangement was initially successful. However, Germany’s dependence on American and international loans proved disastrous in 1929, when the Wall Street Crash caused a worldwide depression.
The Covenant of the League of Nations
In the last of his Fourteen Points, Woodrow Wilson called for the establishment of a “general association of nations … for the purpose of affording natural guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity.”
This association would provide a forum to resolve any future dispute peacefully. Wilson, like many other diplomats, believed that the several secret treaties and agreements between the European nations had contributed to the outbreak of the conflict. In the League of Nations, a new kind of “open diplomacy” would replace the custom of forming “private understanding[s].”
During the Paris Conference, Wilson was adamant that a just and lasting peace treaty should include the covenant of the League of Nations. Despite some skepticism among the Allies, Wilson’s request was ultimately successful, and the first section of the Treaty of Versailles laid out the structure and internal regulations of the future League. In particular, the covenant called for “the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety,” established a Permanent Court of International Justice, and authorized the League to issue military and economic sanctions against any member that should resort to military aggression.
Upon his return to the United States, Wilson failed to persuade the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and, consequently, the nation’s adherence to the League of Nations. Wilson’s Republican opponents, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, were unwilling to be entangled in the complex European political landscape. The absence of the United States weakened the League and contributed to its inability to prevent the members from violating the terms they had agreed upon in Paris. In particular, the League was ultimately ineffective in combatting the rise of Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany.
The Aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles
When the Entente powers presented the German delegation with the Treaty of Versailles, the German officials were shocked by the severity of its terms and initially refused to agree to them. On June 16, 1919, the Allies even threatened Germany with invasion if its National Assembly failed to sign the treaty. Thus, on June 28, the German government signed the document in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. In the same room, Wilhelm I had been crowned Emperor of Germany in 1871. The significance of the location was not lost on the German delegation, and it contributed to Germany’s post-war resentment.
In particular, the new democratic government of the Weimar Republic protested the War Guilt clause and the imposition of heavy reparations, claiming that the Treaty of Versailles was a Diktat (dictated peace) imposed on Germany in blatant disregard of Wilson’s call for an open, democratic diplomacy.
In the years following the treaty’s signing, the Allies’ efforts to weaken Germany’s military power resulted in the isolation of the Weimar Republic and undermined its legitimacy and authority. Amid political turmoil and economic instability, the far-right nationalist parties, especially Hitler’s NSDAP, capitalized on the unpopularity of the treaty to promote the so-called Dolchstoßlegende (stab in the back legend), a narrative hinging on the claim that the Weimar officials who signed the treaty (dubbed as “November criminals”) had “stabbed Germany in the back.” The Dolchstoßlegende became especially widespread in the 1930s when hyperinflation and the economic depression led many Germans to sympathize with the Nazi party’s nationalist propaganda that called for the rearmament and the dismantlement of the treaty’s terms.
In his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes declared that “the campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible.”
In 1961, British historian A.J.P. Taylor echoed Keynes’ assessment of the Treaty of Versailles, stating that “the first war explains the second and, in fact, caused it, in so far as one event causes another.”
While some modern scholars are hesitant to establish such a clear automatism between the Treaty of Versailles and the outbreak of World War II, historians generally agree that the peace settlement played a crucial role in creating instability in Europe. In particular, the harsh terms imposed on Germany and the effort to find a compromise between the Allies’ interests ultimately led to the creation of a volatile post-war order.