Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles was the agreement negotiated during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that ended WORLD WAR I and imposed disarmament, reparations, and territorial changes on the defeated Germany. The treaty also established the LEAGUE OF NATIONS, an international organization dedicated to resolving world conflicts peacefully. The treaty has been criticized for its harsh treatment of Germany, which many historians believe contributed to the rise of Nazism and ADOLF HITLER in the 1930s.
President WOODROW WILSON played an important role in ending the hostilities and convening a peace conference. When the United States entered the war in January 1917, Wilson intended to use U.S. influence to end the long cycle of peace and war in Europe and create an international peace organization. On January 8, 1918, he delivered an address to Congress that named Fourteen Points to be used as the guide for a peace settlement. Nine of the points covered new territorial consignments, while the other five were of a general nature. In October 1918 Germany asked Wilson to arrange both a general ARMISTICE based on the Fourteen Points and a conference to begin peace negotiations. On November 11 the armistice was concluded.
The Paris Peace Conference began in January 1919. The conference was dominated by David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Wilson of the United States, with Vittorio Orlando of Italy playing a lesser role. These leaders agreed that Germany and its allies would have no role in negotiating the treaty.
The first of Wilson's Fourteen Points stated that it was essential for a postwar settlement to have "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view." Wilson's lofty vision, however, was undercut in Paris by secret treaties that Great Britain, France, and Italy had made during the war with Greece, Romania, and each other.
In addition, the European Allies demanded compensation from Germany for the damage their civilian populations had suffered and for German aggression in general. Wilson's loftier ideas gave way to the stern demands of the Allies.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. The terms dictated to Germany included a war guilt clause, in which Germany accepted responsibility as the aggressor in the war. Based on this clause, the Allies imposed reparations for war damage. Though the treaty did not specify an exact amount, a commission established in 1921 assessed $33 billion of reparations.
The boundaries of Germany and other parts of Europe were changed. Germany was required to return the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to France and to place the Saarland under the supervision of the League of Nations until 1935. Several territories were given to Belgium and Holland, and the nation of Poland was created from portions of German Silesia and Prussia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled, and the countries of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania were recognized. All German overseas colonies in China, the Pacific, and Africa were taken over by Great Britain, France, Japan, and other Allied nations.
France, which had been invaded by Germany in 1871 and 1914, was adamant about disarming Germany. The treaty reduced the German army to 100,000 troops, eliminated the general staff, and prohibited Germany from manufacturing armored cars, tanks, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas. In addition, all German territory west of the Rhine River (Rhineland), was established as a demilitarized zone.
The Treaty of Versailles also created the League of Nations, which was to enforce the treaty and encourage the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. Many Americans were opposed to joining the League of Nations, however, and despite Wilson's efforts, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaty. Hence, instead of signing the Treaty of Versailles, the United States signed a separate peace treaty with Germany, the Treaty of Berlin, on July 2, 1921. This treaty conformed to the Versailles agreement except for the omission of the League of Nations provisions.
The Treaty of Versailles has been criticized as a vindictive agreement that violated the spirit of Wilson's Fourteen Points. The harsh terms hurt the German economy in the 1920s and contributed to the popularity of leaders such as Hitler who argued for the restoration of German honor through remilitarization.
Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds. 1998. The Treaty of Versailles: 75 Years After. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Marks, Sally. 2003. The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe, 1918–1933. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.