The Importance of the Versailles Peace Treaty


Dr Steve Wharton, Senior Lecturer in French and Communications University of Bath

19 October 2014


The approach in this talk was announced as a ‘before, during and after’ one, as for any such momentous events. The Peace Treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 was certainly one of those, with profound long-term consequences. Long before 199, Versailles had been the setting for another historic peace treaty, that between France and Austria, in 1756.Three great diplomatic events or initiatives preceded the Armistice on 11 November 1918. The first was Lenin’s decree on Peace of 8 November 1917, signalling a wish to end Russian participation in the war. The second was President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in January 1918, setting out his view of the desirable aims and prerequisites for a peace settlement, based on his new idea of self-determination. The third was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, to which the signatories were Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, on 3 March 1918. Lenin’s move, following the upheaval of the October revolution, had been to seek a ‘just democratic peace’ and an ‘immediate armistice’ with open negotiations. He had turned his back on the secret treaties of the past. Brest-Litovsk was the result of clear indications of exhaustion on the Russian side, in what was soon to become Soviet Russia, not the Russia of the Romanovs.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Wilson’s Fourteen Points of 8 January 1918 were a major diplomatic preamble, anticipating the eventual end of the war. No one at the beginning of 1918 knew when that might be. It has been described as the only explicit declaration of war aims by any of the belligerent nations in the Great War. Wilson addressed the moral cause of the war, questions of free trade, of open agreement, democracy and self-determination, including that of all colonial territories. He sought open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which ‘there shall be no private understandings of any kind’ but that diplomacy ‘shall proceed always frankly and in public view.’ It became the basis for the terms of Germany’s surrender in November 1918. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts, but his health was failing. He remained President until 1921, and died on 3 February 1924. Of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, it was said, with bitter sarcasm ‘ Quatorze? Le bon Dieu n’avait que dix’ (Fourteen? / God himself had only ten…)’ Nevertheless, the Fourteen Points were wide-ranging and comprehensive, leading to a settlement of national boundaries from Alsace-Lorraine and Belgium right across to Poland, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire countries, and the Dardanelles.  They also led to the foundation of the League of Nations on 10 January 1920, a body intended as a central international forum to prevent future wars by discussion and negotiation.

Detail from painting of Johannes Bell signing the Versailles Peace Treaty  28th June 1919

On 5 October 1918, a message was sent from Berlin to President Wilson indicating willingness to negotiate. The actual Armistice was signed at 11.00am on 11 November (the eleventh day of the eleventh month) 1918, in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne, northern France. It had to be formally extended on three separate occasions in January and February 1919, and the final ratification was not until 10 January 1920.The USA did not ratify the Treaty. The actual signing was at the Galerie des Glaces, Versailles on 28 June 1919, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the crucial event which had triggered mobilisation. The signatories were Britain (David Lloyd George) France (Georges Clemenceau) the USA (Woodrow Wilson) and Italy (VE Orlando), plus Japan.  Major issues were the future security of France, and several territorial contentions, including the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, together with Clemenceau’s wish for revenge on Germany (the French had lost 1.4 million men in battle). Lloyd George, despite the loss of nearly a million British and Commonwealth soldiers, was more sceptical about punishing Germany so heavily. There was also some scepticism in the air that Wilson’s Fourteen Points had not been adhered to sufficiently. In addition, there was the big question of the foreign possessions of Germany and the Turkey: these were turned into territorial ‘mandates’, mostly under the jurisdiction of Britain and France. There is no doubt that Woodrow Wilson’s negotiating position was weakened by his return to the USA.  He had spent far too much time on the status of the town of Fiume, in dispute between Italy and the new South Slav state of Yugoslavia, when he could have been dealing with other, broader matters. Lloyd George slowly discovered the British wish to make Germany pay reparations. Orlando, speaking for Italy, demanded territorial acquisitions, including Dalmatia and Porto Escunio.

The scale and intensity of the war after August 1914 had taken everyone by surprise. Three great factors dominated the peace process and what followed - punishment, payment, and the prevention of any such war in the future. Delegates from 27 nations took part, and there were in all 1646 sessions. There was a German delegation of six, and the substantial Western Allies delegation was soon whittled down to the ‘Big Four’ of Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Wilson, with Vittorio Emmanuele Orlando of Italy as a ‘passenger’.  Lloyd George was concerned about law and order in Germany (quite rightly) and also the future reduction of the German Army. While conscription remained in Britain and France, the future in Germany would be a volunteer army of not more than 100,000 men. There would be no standing army in Germany in future. A ban was placed on the use, by the Germans, of heavy artillery, gas, tanks or aircraft, while the navy was restricted to shipping of under 10,000 tons, and with a ban on submarines. These decisions were made without any involvement of the German delegation. These six individuals had received the Treaty in its finished form, and naturally protested strongly over much of its content; however, their protests were ignored.


David Lloyd George

The Treaty had sixteen chapters and 440 clauses, with numerous Annexes. A crucial clause was Article 231 - The War Guilt Clause the source of all the trouble later on. It emphasised the ‘loss and damage’ suffered by the Western Allies ‘as a consequence of war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.’ German reparations were set at £6000 million in 1921: just how Germany was expected to find such a sum was never made clear. In fact Germany actually repaid only £1100. The British and French could continue to repay American war-loans, though following the Dawes Plan of 1924, the Young Agreement of 1929 rescheduled payments of £60 million worth of loans. In 1932, all repayments ceased because of the Depression.

The consequences of the war involved imperial breakup, and changes in nationhood and identity, with new national frontiers. In the Balkans, new nation states were created, sowing seeds of trouble in the longer term. The Ottoman Empire was broken up, and the Turks, led by Mustapha Kemal, drove the Greeks out of their territory. Following the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), ethnic minority transfers took place, with the inevitable accompanying massacres. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 set out British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This led, inevitably and some said unfortunately, to an increase in Jewish immigration to the region. The League of Nations, when it appeared in 1920, was the first proper forum of debate and decision-making: far from being a mirage, and for all its admitted weaknesses, it was a vital long-term portent for the future of international diplomacy. Yet when the League was established, the USA and Russia did not join it, even though it had been so strongly advocated by President Wilson. Of course, the League had no armed forces of its own.

The six German delegates at Versailles 1919

The Germans dropped back, and the River Rhine became the new western frontier. The French wanted the Rhine permanently occupied by them as a buffer zone. The complete Treaty was shown to the Germans only on 7 May 1919, the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. Reparations and territorial issues were the central bones of contention, and as time went on, the gaps became wider and wider. The northern part of Schleswig Holstein was ceded to Denmark, as well as Alsace-Lorraine to France, and a vast slice of eastern Prussia (Silesia) became part of Poland. Yet many German speakers still lived in West Poland and Schleswig Holstein, in the Sudetenland and northern Italy, creating immense geo-political problems for the future. In all, Germany lost some 13 per cent of its territory, and ten per cent of its population. By a great irony, the large numbers of Germans living in the USA played a significant part in America’s military isolationism in the mid and late 1930s. They influenced American policy towards the European war which broke out in September 1939, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, in December 1941, changed everything.

Britain and France wanted the Russians and the Germans to be less close, yet Soviet Russia and Germany signed the secret defensive Treaty of Rapallo on 16 April 1922, ratified on 31 January 1923. Each country renounced any territorial claim on the other. Rapallo was a product of the Genoa Conference, which had broken down over France’s demands for pre-1914 debt incurred by the Czarist regime in Russia, and by demands for reparations from Germany to the USSR. A supplementary agreement extended to Germany’s relation with the Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Far Eastern Republic.

In January 1923 the Belgians and the French occupied the Ruhr industrial belt, intending to heighten anti-German sentiment there. But it had the effect of increasing anti-French feeling instead. Thirteen years on, in 1936, the Germans reoccupied the Rhineland, and once again, the French (rightly) felt insecure. In October 1925, Germany, France and Britain (ie the British Empire) supported by Belgium, signed the Treaty of Locarno in Switzerland. The Locarno treat arose out of France’s cordon sanitaire - the alliance system between France, Poland and Czechoslovakia. There was a fear in Britain that if the cordon sanitaire broke down, Poland and Czechoslovakia would be forced to hand over (peacefully) territories claimed by Germany. This fear was far-sighted, and was borne out by events thirteen or fourteen years later in far more aggressive circumstances, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then Poland in 1939, triggering the Second World War. The three areas of concern in 1925 were precisely those which proved vulnerable at the end of the 1930s, namely the Sudetenland, the Polish Corridor, and the Free city of Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland.

France signed further treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia, pledging mutual assistance in the event of conflict with Germany, and reaffirming earlier treaties with Poland (1921) and Czechoslovakia (1924). This was the perceived  ‘spirit of Locarno’. For their combined work on the Locarno Treaty, Sir Austen Chamberlain, Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925/6.

The Versailles Treaty was generally seen as ‘a bad thing’ up to around 1950. The key document earlier on had been JM Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) and H.W.V.Temperley’s multi-volume History of the Peace Conference of Paris (1920-21), published under the auspices of the Institute of International Affairs.  Volume Five of this was entitled ‘Economic Reconstruction and Protection of Minorities.’ But after the 1950s, more documents became available, and the Cold War altered international perspectives. The feeling about Versailles changed insofar as the terms themselves were less criticised, while what came to be frowned on more was the lack of a proper mechanism to enforce these terms on Germany. More recently, important studies have been The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (edited by Boehmke, Feldman and Glaser) and Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months to change the World (2001).

The American President Herbert Hoover said that ‘We (meaning Jan Smuts of South Africa, JM Keynes and himself) agreed that the consequences of many parts of the proposed Treaty would ultimately bring about destruction.’ Indeed the Germans set up Flying Clubs in the 1920s. There were only 4000 officers in Germany after 1920, to comply with restrictions, but to exploit the obvious loophole; some 40,000 German NCOs (non-commissioned officers) were created. Concentration on Western Europe meant that many other areas to the south and east were ignored. Though the Versailles Treaty was a genuine attempt at a solution in 1919, those who signed it were never able to implement it in the way that was intended. A celebrated Australian cartoon summed up the mood of doubt. It was headed  ‘Peace and Future Cannon Fodder’ and showed ‘The Tiger’ saying ‘Curious! I seem to hear a child weeping…’

© 2016  Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, based on notes taken at Dr Steve Wharton’s talk, with some additions.