Treaty of Versailles – a summary

On 28 June 1919, Germany reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles as part of the Paris Peace Conference in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles – exactly five years on from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that had ignited the First World War.

On being presented with the document, in early June, Germany was given three weeks to comply. The German government complained that having not been consulted, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were nothing less than a dictate set by the representatives of the thirty-two nations present. (The conference was led by the Allies, the ‘Big Four’, represented by, left to right: David Lloyd George for Great Britain, Vittorio Orlando for Italy, Georges Clemenceau for France and Woodrow Wilson for the US). Germany had not been permitted to take part in the talks and ultimately the German government was too weak, both politically and militarily, to do anything but add its signature, which, on 28 June, they duly did.

The Treaty of Versailles was only one of five treaties produced by the Paris Peace Conference, one for each of the defeated Central Powers, none of whom were in attendance, and each named after a Parisian suburb.

The Treaty of Sevres, for example, officially closed down the Ottoman Empire and virtually abolished Turkish sovereignty, while the Treaty of Trianon imposed strict punishments on Hungary.

The League of Nations

Out of the talks came the founding of the League of Nations, an international body to help maintain peace and arbitrate over disputes. The idea was originally Wilson’s and formed part of his ‘Fourteen Points’, a blueprint he formulated in January 1918 for the future peace. The Paris Peace Conference was meant to provide the means to ensure that the Great War, as it  was known then, was ‘the war to end war’, the phrase coined by HG Wells and often attributed to Wilson. But Lloyd George was more accurate when, mockingly, he said, ‘This war, like the next war, is a war to end war’.

The Treaty of Versailles

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh and not for negotiation. Germany lost 13 per cent of her territory, which meant 12 per cent of Germans now lived in a foreign country, and Germany’s colonial possessions were redistributed among the other colonial powers. The German Rhineland, on the border with France, was to be demilitarized (stripped of an armed presence) and placed under Allied control until 1935. The small but industrially important Saar region was to be governed by Britain and France for fifteen years and its coal exported to France in recompense for the French coal mines destroyed by Germany during the war. After fifteen years a plebiscite (or referendum) of the Saar population would decide its future.

Most of West Prussia was given to Poland. The German city of Danzig (modern-day Gdansk) was made a ‘free’ city so that Poland could have use of a port. To give Poland access to Danzig, they were given a strip of land, the ‘Polish Corridor’, through Prussia, thereby cutting East Prussia off from the rest of Germany.

Militarily, Germany’s army was to be limited to a token 100,000 men, and its navy to 15,000, plus a ban on conscription. She was not permitted to have an air force, nor tanks, and was prohibited from producing or importing weaponry.

The payment of reparations was for ‘compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied powers and their property’. It was to include raw material, such as the coal from the Saar and Ruhr regions. Two years later, in 1921, the cost of reparations was announced – £6.6 billion, which German economists calculated would take until 1988 to pay. The figure shocked and angered Germans who conveniently forgot that Germany had demanded an even greater sum from a defeated France following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1.

But it was the humiliating clause that forced Germany into accepting responsibility for the war and for the damage to the civilian populations of the Allies that rankled most with the public at home.

‘An armistice for twenty years.’

Ultimately, the treaty satisfied no one. Britain thought it too harsh, believing an economically weak Germany would be detrimental to all Europe; Wilson returned to the US to find a country increasingly isolationist in its outlook and a Senate that refused to either ratify the treaty or join the League of Nations; and the French who felt it not harsh enough. It was they, the French argued, who had suffered most during the war. The French public was so dissatisfied with their president, Clemenceau, that they voted him out six months later, replacing him with Ferdinand Foch who, with sharp intuition, said, ‘This is not peace, this is an armistice for twenty years.’

Italy, lured into war in 1915 by territorial promises, was treated dismissively during talks causing its prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, to walk out. Italy was disappointed by its spoils of war. Orlando, heavily criticised by Italy’s rising Right, led by Benito Mussolini, was soon ousted.

Germany was outraged by the Treaty of Versailles and Germans throughout the country rounded on the politicians that had signed it. The war had been lost, not by the German army, they claimed, but the politicians – the government had ‘stabbed the nation in the back’. After all, not since 1914 had a single foreign soldier stepped on German soil. The new Weimar government, although democratically elected, was deemed responsible for Germany’s humiliation, and criticized by all sides for its weakness in standing up to the Allies. In March 1920 the Freikorps, led by Wolfgang Kapp, tried to seize power in Berlin but the coup, unable to gain the army’s support, failed.

The Kapp Putsch may have failed but there was another agitator waiting in the wings, seething at how Germany had been betrayed by its politicians. His name was Adolf Hitler.

Rupert Colley
See also articles on the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson.

Read more about the First World War in World War One: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.