The Treaty of Versailles is a peace document signed at the end of World War I by the Allied and Associated Powers and by Germany in the Palace of Versailles, France, on June 28, 1919; it took force on January 10, 1920.
Background of First World War
Major Causes of World War I
Growth in German power and ambition: Although Germany did not become a unified country until 1871, it prospered and used its growing wealth to create military power. Britain was concerned that the growth in German power would threaten its dominance on the sea. Hence, it established formal ties with France and Russia. Since the European powers started to gang up against Germany, it sought more armaments and closer relations with Austria‐Hungary.
Arms races and nationalism: Germany expanded its naval weapon which seemed to threaten Britain’s dominance of the seas so essential for maintaining the British Empire. The alliance system and the tensions generated by the arms races fueled nationalism all over Europe, which in turn intensified tensions and mutual suspicions. German nationalism focused on achieving a world empire to match the country’s growing economic and military might. France, Russia, and Austria‐ Hungary also had their own agenda influenced by the ideology of nationalism. Slavic nationalism threatened Austria‐Hungary; Russian nationalism placed pressure on Russia to aid Serbia because
many Serbians and Russians shared common ethnicity; French nationalism demanded the return of its lost provinces of Alsace‐Lorraine.
Colonial rivalries: For many centuries, European nations built empires. Colonies supplied European nations with raw materials and provided markets for manufactured goods. As Germany industrialized it competed directly with France and Britain to gain colonies. Major European countries also competed for land in Africa.
Formation of peacetime alliances: By 1907 there were two major defense alliances in Europe. The Triple Entente, later known as the Allies, consisted of France, Britain, and Russia. The Triple Alliance, later known as the Central Powers, consisted of Germany, Austria‐Hungary, and Italy (Soon joined by the Ottoman Empire). Once Russia acted in response to Austria’s attack on Serbia, alliance commitments pulled one European great power after another into the war.
World War I – Major Events
World War I took place for four years and three months between 1914 and 1918. The war killed more than 18 million people and the total cost was nearly $333 billion. The Great War began as a local collision between Serbia and Austria‐Hungary. Bosnia was controlled by Austria‐Hungary and a Serbian group was fighting to free Bosnia from Austria‐Hungary and make it a part of Serbian kingdom. The war was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne of Austria, was assassinated in Sarajevo (Bosnia), by a Serbian terrorist organization that wanted Bosnia to be free of Austria‐Hungary and to become part of a large Serbian kingdom. Bosnia had been thesite of numerous plots against Austria‐Hungary’s Hapsburg rulers, especially after 1908 when Bosnia Herzegovina was annexed by Austria‐Hungary. Austria‐Hungary placed the blame for the assassination directly on Serbia. Austria‐Hungary also saw the crisis as an opportunity to deal with Serbia once and for all.
Austrian leaders wanted to attack Serbia but feared Russian intervention on Serbia’s behalf since Russia (having a large Slavic population) had public pressure to defend fellow Slavs in Serbia and elsewhere from Austria‐Hungary’s threats. Hence, Austria‐Hungary wanted German assistance with a hope that the German commitment would prevent Russia from entering the conflict. Some historians argue that at least some of Germany’s leaders did not hope to deter Russia, but they actually hoped that war would begin so that Germany could defeat Russia before Russia’s growing military power made it a serious threat to Germany. On July 25th, 1914, Austria‐Hungary mobilized
its army, and three days later declared war on Serbia. Russia decided to support Serbia and Germany declared for Austria‐Hungary. Russia was also upset with Austria‐Hungary for its failure to perform the deal they had made in 1908 in which Russia would not raise any voice against the annexation of Bosnia‐Herzegovina by Austria‐Hungary and Austria‐Hungary would support Russia’s efforts to secure free passage to Russian warships into the Mediterranean. Germany’s agreement to support Austria‐Hungary is often cited when holding Germany responsible
for World War I. When Austria‐Hungary declared war against Serbia, Russia did decide to come to the defense of Serbia. Fulfilling its promise to back Austria‐Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1st and then on Russia’s ally, France on August 3rd. Germany planned to swing through neutral Belgium to attack France from the north where its defenses were the weakest. Great Britain also joined the contest on August 4 because of its moral obligation, especially to France with which it had made secret but informal military arrangements. The trigger for British entry in the war was the German invasion of neutral Belgium. The limited war in the Balkans spread across all of Europe because of the alliance system. In 1915, Italy joined the Triple Entente, thereby betraying its earlier obligations as a member of the Triple Alliance in return for territorial promises made in the secret Treaty of London. In 1917, the United States, which had been neutral, also tilted in favor of Britain because of a shared ancestry
and language. American had stronger economic interests with the Allies (Triple Entente). US had a major reason to be involved in World War I since American public opinion turned against Germany and Central Powers after Germany sank a British passenger ship on May 7, 1915 killing all passengers including 128 American tourists. Eventually, 32 countries on six continents became enmeshed in the conflict. The entry of the United States into the war in 1917 gave the Allies a much‐needed psychological boost, along with fresh forces and material. On the other hand, the Central Powers had no hope of getting fresh supplies. On November 3, 1918, Austria‐Hungary surrendered to the Allies. On November 11, 1918, Germany signed a truce ending the Great War.
Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles
The Paris Peace Conference, held at the Palace of Versailles, opened on January 12, 1919, and was attended by the political leaders of 32 countries representing three‐quarters of the world’s population. America’s President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain (1863–1945), Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France (1841–1929), and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy (1860–1952) were the victorious war leaders that dominated the conference and each had his own objectives. Britain sought to recreate a workable balance of power and safeguard its empire. France sought to dismember Germany and create security for itself in
Europe. Italy sought the territories it had been promised during the war. Wilson sought a forgiving and generous peace with America’s defeated enemies. Wilson sought a liberal world that reflected his Fourteen Points on the basis of which Germany surrendered.
Wilson’s Fourteen Points:
- Russia should be allowed to operate whatever government it wanted.
- Belgium should be evacuated and restored to the situation before the war.
- France should have Alsace‐Lorraine and any lands taken away during the war.
- The Italian border should be readjusted according to nationality.
- The national groups in Europe should be given their independence.
- Romania, Montenegro and Serbia should be evacuated and Serbia should have an outlet to the sea.
- The people of Turkey should have a say in their future.
- Poland should become an independent state with an outlet to the sea.
- Ensuring freedom of the seas
- Ending secret treaties and negotiations
- Establishing equal and free trade
- Reducing arms
- Granting self‐governments to the peoples in Central Europe
- Establishing League of Nations
However, America’s allies wanted to impose a harsh peace on Germany that would prevent any revival of German military power that might again endanger their security. Britain considered the freedom of the seas as a danger to the British Empire and wanted to make the Germans pay for the war. In the end, Wilson gave over his principles one after the other in order to get the last of them, a league of nations. Wilson’s League of Nations was written into the peace treaty with Germany as the first of 440 articles. The U.S. Senate opposed the treaty, instead signing the Treaty of Berlin with Germany in August 1921. Germany was not invited to attend the peace conference. Germany and the other defeated powers were forced to sign treaties that provided a very different peace than they had anticipated. The finalpeace settlement of Paris consisted of five separate treaties with the defeated nations ‐ Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey. In addition to signing the Versailles Treaty with Germany, the victors and the defeated Central Powers signed four other treaties during the meetings: the treaties of St. Germain (with Austria), Trianon (with Hungary), Neuilly (with Bulgaria), and Sevres (with Turkey). The Treaty of Versailles with Germany, signed at Versailles near Paris, on June 28, 1919, was by far the most important. The Treaty of Versailles contained 440 articles. It dealt comprehensively with the territorial, military and war guilt of the Central Powers and the economic, political and other related aspects of the peace settlement. Germany had to accept the blame for starting the War. Germany was asked to surrender nearly 40,000 square kilometers of territory with more than seven million people. Germany was told to pay huge reparations, which after prolonged negotiations were fixed at $33,000 million. German colonies were taken away and were described as ‘Mandated territories of the League’ which France, Britain, and Japan distributed among themselves. Germany and Austria were barred form uniting. Germany had to reduce its army to a hundred thousand men, cut back its navy, and eliminate its air force. Alsace and Lorraine, taken by the Germans from France in 1871, were returned. Sections of eastern Germany were awarded to a new Polish state. German land along both sides of the Rhine was made a demilitarized zone and stripped of all weapons and fortifications. The conference created the League of Nations, the predecessor of today’s United Nations and the organization that gave voice to the idea of collective security. The conference also established the Permanent Court of
International Justice and the International Labour Organisation. The principle of national self‐determination was the most important and durable outcome of the peace conference. As the consequence of World War I and the peace conference, three empires—the Austrian‐ Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman (Turkish) collapsed, and in their place the independent states of Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Hungary were born. The Ottoman Empire was divided into several political entities, including Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, each of which consisted of peoples of different ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. The Treaty also established Yugoslavia, another artificial nation‐state, from remnants of the Austro‐Hungarian Empire.
Negative Arguments regarding the Treaty of Versailles
None of the defeated nations had any say in shaping the treaty. Germany was shocked at the severity of the contradictions between the assurances made when the truce was negotiated and the actual treaty. The desire to punish and permanently weaken Germany gained priority over the quest for a just peace. The Treaty was not based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points as the Germans had been promised it would. The loss of territory and population angered most Germans who believed that the losses were too severe. Germans thought the Treaty was a dictated peace. They had not been invited to the peace conference at Versailles and when the Treaty was presented to them they were threatened with war if they did not sign it. The Germans considered the Treaty of Versailles a harsh
peace. They were especially unhappy with Article 231, the so‐called War Guilt Clause, which declared that Germany (and Austria) were responsible for starting the war. The harsh treatment of Germany prevented the Treaty from creating a lasting peace in Europe. It created anger among Germans who regarded it as unfair. This determination provided the climate for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and in the end, to World War II. Hence, some scholars claim that the ‘Peace Treaty of Versailles was an imposed Peace’ and the ‘Second World War was started immediately after the settlement of First World War’. The First World War was supposed to be the war to end all war. However, the Treaty of Versailles is often criticized as the ‘Peace to end all Peace’. Germany was imposed to pay $33 billion in reparations that it was not capable of paying. Although economists at the time declared that such a huge sum could never be collected without upsetting international finances, the Allies insisted that Germany be made to pay, and the treaty permitted them to take punitive actions if Germany fell behind in its payments. The rise of fascism in Italy
under Mussolini in 1922 is linked to the fact that Italy was deprived of territories that were promised through a number of secret treaties before the War. The Paris Peace Conference was supposedly guided by the principle of self‐determination. However, the mixtures of peoples in Eastern Europe made it impossible to draw boundaries along neat ethnic lines and compromises had to be made. As a result of compromises, almost every eastern European state was left with ethnic minorities. The problem of ethnic minorities within nations would lead to later conflicts.