The official end of the Great War

The guns officially fall silent

The Treaty of Versailles was the peace settlement that ended the First World War in 1919. 

The treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France, and it marked the end of a long and devastating war that had claimed millions of lives and caused immense destruction.

It was the most significant outcome of the Paris Peace Conference, which was held from January to June 1919 to negotiate peace treaties between the victorious Allied powers and the defeated Central Powers.

A British news placard announcing the signing of the peace treaty which signified the official end of the First World War.

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Objectives

One of the key objectives of the Treaty of Versailles was to impose significant territorial, military, and financial penalties on Germany.

These included the loss of territory, the reduction of Germany's military to a small defensive force, and the payment of war reparations to the Allies.

These penalties were designed to limit Germany's economic and military power and prevent it from posing a threat to Europe.

 

“A Burial Service at the Front.” Funeral of Major E.L. Knight, Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery. October 1916. After over four years of death and destruction, the world was ready for peace.

World War I in Color: Incredible Photos Bring Conflict to Life (newsweek.com)

The Treaty also aimed to create a new international order based on cooperation, disarmament, and collective security, with the establishment of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was envisioned as an international organization that would promote diplomacy and prevent future conflicts between nations.

Furthermore, the Treaty aimed to address the grievances and aspirations of various national groups in Europe, including the establishment of new states such as Czechoslovakia and the recognition of the rights of minority groups.

British Objectives:

  • Preserve the balance of power in Europe
  • Avoid measures that might provoke Germany to seek revenge.
  • Establish a framework for international cooperation and collective security through the League of Nations
  • Protect British imperial interests, especially in the Middle East and Asia
  • Prioritize economic stability and the restoration of free trade in Europe.

German prisoners captured by the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd Division, and the 4th Royal Fusiliers in the attack on St-Éloi, 27th of March 1916. The British aims at the Treaty of Versailles was to avoid provoking a defeated Germany into seeking revenge in the future.

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French Objectives:

  • Ensure security and prevent Germany from ever again threatening France with invasion.
  • Punish Germany for the damage inflicted on French territory and civilians during the war.
  • Create a buffer zone between France and Germany, including demilitarization of the Rhineland.
  • Extract maximum possible reparations from Germany to compensate for the war's devastation.
  • Weaken Germany economically and politically so that it could not again threaten Europe's peace and stability

American Objectives:

  • Create a lasting peace and prevent future wars.
  • Promote democracy and self-determination for all nations.
  • Establish the League of Nations to promote collective security and peaceful resolution of disputes.
  • Reduce armaments and military forces in Europe.
  • Promote free trade and economic cooperation among nations.

Italian Objectives:

  • Gain recognition as a major world power
  • Expand its territory and influence in the Balkans and Mediterranean region.
  • Obtain colonial territories in Africa and the Middle East
  • Secure economic and financial reparations from defeated powers
  • Ensure the unity and survival of the newly-established Italian state

Japanese Objectives:

  • Gain recognition as a major world power and establish itself as the dominant power in Asia.
  • Acquire new territories and resources in Asia, including control over China and its resources
  • Secure economic and financial reparations from defeated powers
  • Promote racial equality and challenge the traditional Western dominance in international relations.
  • Establish itself as a leading member of the League of Nations.

A group waits for news out of Versailles by a wireless Marconi radio, June 1, 1919. 

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Europe Reacts to the Treaty of Versailles, in Photos | History | Smithsonian Magazine


Participants

Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, who wanted harsh terms inflicted on Germany.

The primary participants at the Treaty of Versailles were the victorious Allied Powers, including France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States, which played a leading role in the negotiations.

The four major Allied powers were represented by their respective leaders:

  • President Woodrow Wilson of the United States,
  • Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom,
  • Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, 
  • Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy.

Japan, which was also an Allied Power, was represented at the conference, but played a less significant role in the negotiations.

Delegates at the Treaty of Versailles. Winston Churchill is standing in the front row, third to the right of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson is immediately behind and to the right of Churchill.

Treaty of Versailles - The Peace Process of World War I (weebly.com)

On the German side, the main negotiator was Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, who represented the German government.

The German delegation was largely excluded from the negotiations, as the Allies believed that Germany was solely responsible for starting the war and should accept the terms of the Treaty without question.

Other countries and territories affected by the Treaty of Versailles, such as Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the various national groups in Europe, were not represented at the conference and had little say in the negotiations.

This would later prove to be a significant source of tension and instability in the region.

Count Brockdorff-Rantzau led the German delegation, who were generally excluded from the negotiations.

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Crowds rush to the Palace of Versailles shortly after the signing of the treaty to celebrate the formal end of the First World War. 

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Europe Reacts to the Treaty of Versailles, in Photos | History | Smithsonian Magazine


Key provisions

The Treaty of Versailles contained numerous clauses that addressed a wide range of issues. Some of the most important clauses included:

  • War Guilt Clause: Germany was forced to accept full responsibility for starting the war and causing all the damage and losses suffered by the Allied powers.
  • Reparations: Germany was forced to pay enormous sums of money to the Allied powers as compensation for the damage caused by the war. The total amount of reparations was eventually set at 132 billion gold marks, a sum that was widely considered excessive and unpayable.
  • Territorial Changes: Germany lost all of its overseas colonies, which were either given to other countries or established as independent states. In Europe, Germany was forced to cede Alsace-Lorraine to France, give up the Polish Corridor and the port of Danzig to Poland, and cede territories in the east to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The cover of a publication of the Treaty of Versailles in English.

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Workers put the finishing touches on sewing the carpet inside the conference hall before the signing of the treaty, June 28, 1919. 

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Europe Reacts to the Treaty of Versailles, in Photos | History | Smithsonian Magazine

  • Military Restrictions: Germany was forced to disarm and demilitarize, with strict limits imposed on the size of its army, navy, and air force. Germany was also prohibited from producing certain types of weapons and technologies, including submarines and military aircraft.
  • League of Nations: The Treaty of Versailles established the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at promoting peace and cooperation among nations. The League was intended to prevent future wars by providing a forum for the peaceful resolution of disputes and by imposing economic and political sanctions on countries that violated international law.

German disarmament

The Treaty of Versailles was an effort by the Allies to reduce German armaments. But it also reflected divergent national agendas. The French wanted absolute fulfilment of the treaty, while Britain wanted to have an economically strong partner on the continent. Ultimately, the two sides failed to make the deal work. This resentment fuelled the German French rivalry. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Versailles was a major step toward peace.

The Treaty imposed significant disarmament measures on Germany. The treaty required Germany to reduce its military to a very limited size and to give up its most advanced military technology, such as airplanes, tanks, and submarines.

Cartoon reflecting the views of many Germans - they were being left little choice other than to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles

Workmen decommissioning a heavy gun, to comply with the terms of the Treaty.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-081-03 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Germany was only allowed to have a small army of 100,000 soldiers, and conscription was abolished. The navy was reduced to six battleships, six cruisers, and 12 destroyers, and Germany was prohibited from having submarines.

The treaty also imposed restrictions on the types and amounts of weapons and ammunition that Germany could possess and all of Germany's territory west of the Rhine River became a demilitarized zone.

German politician Friedrich Naumann criticizes the Treaty of Versailles in the Museum of Berlin, 15th June 1919. 

De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Europe Reacts to the Treaty of Versailles, in Photos | History | Smithsonian Magazine

These disarmament measures were seen as a way to prevent Germany from becoming a military threat again in the future. The treaty's authors believed that by limiting Germany's military capacity, they could ensure that Germany would not be able to start another war. However, they were a significant source of resentment for many Germans, who saw them as a humiliating imposition on their country's sovereignty.

The reduction in military power was seen as an insult to the country's martial traditions and a betrayal of the soldiers who had fought in the war.

Massive rally protesting the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Berlin, 1932.

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Despite this resentment, Germany complied with the disarmament measures, and the treaty was enforced by the occupying Allied forces.

However, the disarmament measures did little to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, who were able to rebuild Germany's military power in secret and eventually went on to start the Second World War in Europe.


German reparations

The Treaty of Versailles imposed significant financial reparations on Germany as a punishment for its role in the First World War.

The exact amount of the reparations was initially set at 132 billion gold marks, which was a staggering amount that Germany could not pay without causing severe economic damage to its country.

Racist banners at a Nazi-led rally against the Treaty of Versailles, June 28, 1933. The sign at the right reads, “Lose the chains of Versailles, Germany is not a Negro state.

Reparations | History, Definition, & Examples | Britannica

In addition to this, the treaty also included the provision that Germany would pay for the cost of the war itself. This meant that Germany had to pay for the war damages suffered by the Allies, which included everything from rebuilding infrastructure to compensating the families of fallen soldiers.

As Germany struggled to make its payments, it became clear that the reparations were unreasonably high and that Germany would not be able to pay them. This led to negotiations, and eventually, the reparations were reduced to 50 billion gold marks. Germany struggled to make even these payments, and the issue remained contentious in German politics throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

The burden of paying these reparations was a significant strain on the German economy, and it led to a period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, where the value of the German currency plummeted. The cost of basic goods skyrocketed, and people struggled to afford even the most basic necessities.

In an attempt to ease the financial burden on Germany, the allied nations adopted the Dawes Plan in 1924 and the Young Plan in 1929.

This was short-lived, however, as the collapse of the German economy caused the payments to be suspended. The reparations were then cancelled in 1932 at the Lausanne Conference.

The burden of reparations played a significant role in the rise of the Nazi party, who used it as a rallying cry for their campaign.

The party argued that the Treaty of Versailles was a humiliating document that imposed unjust and unaffordable financial penalties on Germany, leading to widespread support for the party and ultimately contributing to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Germany 1923: A woman burns German marks in the furnace to heat the home during the peak of the Weimar Germany hyperinflation - caused by the high cost of reparations Germany were forced to pay as agreed by the Treaty of Versailles.

What is Hyperinflation?. In economics, hyperinflation is defined… | by Nicoló Patti | The Rebus | Medium


German Territorial changes

Germany was forced to cede the province of Alsace-Lorraine to France, which had been a contentious issue between the two nations for many years. Germany also lost significant territory to Poland, including the cities of Danzig and Posen, as well as the entire region of West Prussia. The loss of this territory separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, which further weakened the country and created the Polish Corridor - a stretch of land which linked Poland with the Baltic Sea and would prove to be a future flashpoint with Germany.

Additionally, the treaty granted independence to the newly formed Republic of Austria and established Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as independent nations, which reduced Germany's influence in the region.

The treaty also transferred control of the Saarland to France for 15 years and granted the Allies control of important economic resources such as the Ruhr Valley.

The territorial changes imposed by the Treaty of Versailles were seen as a great humiliation by the German people, who believed that they had been unfairly punished for the actions of their leaders during the war.

These territorial changes, along with the other conditions of the treaty, contributed to a sense of bitterness and resentment in Germany that ultimately helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the Nazi Party and the outbreak of the Second World War

A contemporary cartoon reflecting the lack of choice Germany had in accepting the terms of the Treaty of Versaiiles.

Treaty of Versailles - The Peace Process of World War I (weebly.com)


Birth of the republics

With the creation of several new states in Europe as part of the redrawing of borders and territories, the Treaty aimed to address the aspirations of various national groups and promote self-determination, but it also created new challenges and tensions.

One of the most significant new states to emerge from the Treaty of Versailles was Czechoslovak Republic, which was formed by the combination of the Czech and Slovak territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The new state was established as a democratic republic with a mixed population of Czechs, Slovaks, and other minority groups.

The Second Polish Republic, which had been partitioned among its neighbouring states, was also re-established as an independent state with a larger territory and a significant Polish minority population in other neighbouring countries.

The Treaty of Versailles created several new nations - including the Second Polish Republic, shown here on a 1927 map.

Administrative Structure of Poland 1918-1939 | Steve's Genealogy Blog (stephendanko.com)

Wilhelm Humble and Adam Tomaszewski, Mapa Polski (Bernard Połniecki Polish Bookstore, Lwów, 1927); digital images, Polona Digital Library (http://polona.pl/item/15923852/ : accessed 26 February 2019).

Other new states included the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which emerged from the disintegration of the Russian Empire. Yugoslavia was formed by the combination of Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, among other territories, while Romania was expanded to include Transylvania, which had previously been part of Hungary.

However, the creation of these new states was not without controversy and challenges, and many of them faced significant political and economic difficulties in the years following the Treaty of Versailles.

The redrawing of borders also created new minority populations, which often faced discrimination and persecution in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The Treaty's attempt to promote self-determination and address national aspirations ultimately led to new challenges and tensions, contributing to the instability of the interwar period.

Prague in the 1930's, the capital city of the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic.

Wenceslas-Sq-2-large-web.jpg (1500×970) (steamthing.com)


League of Nations

The League of Nations was an intergovernmental organization established in 1920 and  was the first international organization created with the aim of promoting peace, cooperation, and resolving international disputes through negotiation rather than through war.

The League's main objectives were to prevent war, disarmament, and settling disputes peacefully. It was also responsible for enforcing international law, overseeing the mandates granted to former colonies and territories, and providing humanitarian aid.

Dignitaries gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France, for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, June 28, 1919.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The League's ability to enforce its decisions was also limited, as it had no standing army or effective means of coercion.

The League's failure to prevent the aggression of Nazi Germany and other aggressive states in the 1930s ultimately led to its downfall.

Although it had some successes in resolving disputes and promoting international cooperation, it ultimately failed to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.

This was due to several reasons, including the fact that some of the world's major powers, such as the United States and the Soviet Union, were not members of the League.

 

Additionally, some member states, such as Japan, Germany, and Italy, withdrew from the organization due to dissatisfaction with the League's decisions.

The failure of the League of Nations led to the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, which aimed to address the shortcomings of the League and promote international cooperation and peace.


Global reactions

The signing of the treaty had profound and varied effects on civilian populations outside of Germany, shaping perceptions and influencing the post-World War I global landscape. In the Allied nations, there was a mix of relief, exhaustion, and anticipation. Civilians, who had endured the hardships of the war, hoped that the treaty would herald a lasting peace. However, this sentiment was tempered by the harsh realities of the conflict and the recognition of the immense human toll it had exacted.

In the United States, reactions were divided. While President Woodrow Wilson aimed to establish a new world order through the League of Nations, some Americans were skeptical, viewing it as an entanglement in European affairs. The U.S. Senate ultimately rejected the treaty, reflecting a broader sentiment of war-weariness and a desire for isolationism.

Parisians start a round dance in the streets to celebrate the signing of the treaty, June 28, 1919.

Europe Reacts to the Treaty of Versailles, in Photos | History | Smithsonian Magazine

In France and Britain, where the war had taken a heavy toll, civilians faced a complex emotional landscape. There was pride in the victory, but this was overshadowed by mourning for the countless lives lost. Families grappled with the aftermath, mourning fallen soldiers and caring for the wounded. Economic hardships and the challenges of post-war reconstruction led to social unrest, culminating in strikes and demands for improved living conditions.

Colonial territories, integral to the Allied war effort, experienced a mixture of hope and disappointment. Hopes for greater autonomy and recognition of contributions to the war effort were met with varying degrees of fulfillment. Disillusionment grew in some regions, as promises of self-determination often remained unfulfilled.

The global civilian response to the Treaty of Versailles was nuanced and multifaceted, reflecting the complex interplay of relief, sorrow, optimism, and disillusionment. The treaty's aftermath set the stage for social and political changes, shaping the trajectory of the post-war era and sowing the seeds for future geopolitical developments.


Impact on the Second World War

The impact of the Treaty of Versailles on the Second World War can be seen in many ways. Not only did it force Germany to cede its colonies, but it also required the German government to significantly cut down on its military and pay reparations to the Allied countries. This agreement also led to a period of political and economic unrest and, in some ways, led to the Great Depression.

The Treaty of Versailles exposed a significant ideological divide between the Allies. In particular, Britain and France had different perspectives on Germany. While Britain viewed Germany as a barrier against the Russians and an economically powerful nation, France saw her as a threat to France's security. Hence, the French were afraid that not punishing Germany harshly enough would only make her stronger.

Adolf Hitler, accompanied by other Nazi party officials, walks down a staircase at the 1938 Annual Reich Party Congress. The harsh terms inflicted on Germany at the Treaty of Versailles would ultimately contribute to the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. Nuremburg, Germany, September 1938.

Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

36 Chilling Photos That Explain The Nazis' Rise To Power (allthatsinteresting.com)

Furthermore, the Treaty's failure to address colonialism, imperialism, and the aspirations of various national groups in Europe and beyond sowed the seeds for future conflicts. The Treaty created new states and borders, including the creation of the new country of Czechoslovakia, which were often drawn along ethnic lines without taking into account the complex history and inter-ethnic relations of the region.

Overall, the Treaty of Versailles marked the end of the First World War but created the conditions for future conflicts, including the Second World War.


Further reading


Sources:

http://ibslhistory.weebly.com/

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https://www.britannica.com/topic/reparations

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Getty Images

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https://steamthing.com/images/Wenceslas-Sq-2-large-web.jpg

Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

36 Chilling Photos That Explain The Nazis' Rise To Power (allthatsinteresting.com)

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-081-03 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Paul Johnson, from "Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties".

Margaret MacMillan, from "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World".

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