Versailles, Treaty of

views updated



The Treaty of Versailles is the popular name for the peace treaty with Germany after World War I that was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace of France's former Bourbon monarchy, located in the city of Versailles near Paris. It was one of five peace treaties signed in various Parisian suburbs by plenipotentiaries of the victorious and defeated powers: the Treaty of Saint-Germanen-Laye with Austria (10 September 1919), the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria (27 November 1919), the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary (4 June 1920), and the Treaty of Sevrès with Turkey (10 August 1920).


Representatives of the twenty-seven countries that had declared war on Germany converged on the city of Paris in January 1919 to draft a peace treaty for presentation to representatives of the newly established German Republic. The full conference met in plenary session only a few times, and little of importance was accomplished in these large ceremonial gatherings, which were held in the ornate Clock Room of the French Foreign Ministry. The real work was done in top-secret meetings of the two highest ranking representatives of the five countries whose military forces had defeated the German Empire—the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. When even this so-called Council of Ten proved too unwieldy for efficient decision making, the heads of government of the four major powers represented at the conference—President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Premier Georges Clemenceau of France, and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy—began meeting in Wilson's apartment as the Council of Four. It was in these intimate gatherings, during which the "Big Four" received a steady stream of supplicants from various countries and interest groups, that the most important decisions about the political future of Europe were reached.

When the finished treaty was finally presented to the German representatives on 7 May, they bitterly denounced the alleged harshness and unfairness of its provisions. Ordered to accept the treaty under the threat of an Allied military advance toward Berlin, the German government gave in and agreed to sign. The signing ceremony on 28 June at the Palace of Versailles was held in the very room in which the German Empire had been proclaimed in January 1871 after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The treaty officially entered into force on 10 January 1920 once the requisite number of powers had ratified it.


Alone among the major victorious powers at the peace conference, the United States failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty. The U.S. Senate, whose consent to treaties was required by the American constitution before they became part of American law, rejected the peace treaty twice, on 19 November 1919 and 19 March 1920. The major reason for the Senate's opposition was that President Wilson had linked the peace treaty with Germany to the constitution (or Covenant, as it was called) of the new League of Nations organization, which he had persuaded the conference in Paris to approve as the best hope for the future peace of the world. The Republican majority in the Senate, led by the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, opposed the League Covenant as drafted on the grounds that it violated the American constitution and represented a threat to American sovereignty. Lodge attached a number of reservations to the pact that Wilson and his supporters in the Senate were unwilling to accept. Though a sufficient number of senators favored the Versailles Treaty to secure its passage, its connection to the more controversial League of Nations Covenant proved to be the kiss of death. After the Senate refused to consent to the treaty, American representatives were withdrawn from the various bodies that had been set up to enforce the treaty's provisions, leaving France and Great Britain with the primary responsibility for ensuring that Germany lived up to its obligations under the treaty.


The three most important (and controversial) provisions of the Versailles Treaty were its territorial, military, and financial clauses. As the peacemakers in Paris set about redrawing the map of Europe, Wilson insisted that their decisions be based on a radical new principle of statecraft that he had enunciated as he summarized America's war aims in a speech to Congress on 11 January 1918. "[P]eoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game, even the great game, now forever discredited, of the balance of power," he boldly announced. Instead, he asserted, "every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states." This declaration became the basis for the famous principle of national self-determination, which held that peoples enjoyed a sacred right to choose their own form of government. It provided an intellectual justification for a development that Wilson himself had neither favored nor foreseen, but that took on a life of its own: the breakup of the multinational empire of Austria-Hungary and the emergence of several new nation-states in central and eastern Europe based on the ethnic identity of and the language spoken by the people of the territory concerned.

The fatal flaw in the principle of national self-determination was the fact that its strict application to the territorial settlement with Germany would have left the defeated power much stronger than it had been at the beginning of the war: The three million German-speaking inhabitants of the borderland of Bohemia, a territory that was claimed by the newly created state of Czechoslovakia on strategic, economic, and historical grounds, desired to be united with their linguistic and ethnic kin in the new German Republic. The new Austrian Republic—the German-speaking rump of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire—formally petitioned the peace conference to be permitted to join Germany as well, also on the basis of a common language and ethnicity. In point thirteen of his famous "fourteen points" address on 8 January 1918, President Wilson had announced that the country of Poland, which all of the Allied Powers hoped to see reconstituted in Eastern Europe at the end of the war, "should be assured a free and secure access to the sea" and "should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations." But when the peacemakers sought to delineate the western border of Poland, they discovered that these two objectives were incompatible: the city of Danzig, the only suitable commercial port for Poland on the Baltic Sea, contained a majority German population, as did the territory that Poland would have to obtain from Germany to ensure access to this seaport. The presence of a large German-speaking population in the two border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which France had lost to Germany in 1871 and adamantly insisted on recovering for strategic, economic, and sentimental reasons, raised the possibility that the inhabitants of France's two "lost provinces" would vote to remain German if given the opportunity to express their wishes. Thus, the hallowed Wilsonian principle of national self-determination paradoxically seemed to dictate that Germany, which had just lost a war that all of the Allied Powers believed it was responsible for starting, be rewarded for its aggression in 1914 and its defeat four years later by becoming much larger, richer, and more populous through the acquisition of neighboring territory that was inhabited by German-speaking people.

In the final peace treaty, the principle of national self-determination was sacrificed on a number of occasions in deference to what was deemed to be the overriding security or economic interests of Germany's neighbors. France was allowed to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine that it had lost to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, without having to run the risk of a plebiscite to determine the wishes of its inhabitants. In order to provide the new state of Czechoslovakia with a defensible border, that new state was permitted to absorb the predominantly German-speaking portion of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire known by the Germans as the Sudetenland. To provide Poland with an outlet to the Baltic Sea and overland access to it, that new country was permitted to acquire from Germany a strip of territory with a predominantly German population that would connect it to the predominantly German-speaking Baltic port of Danzig. The latter city was detached from Germany and established as a free city under the supervision of the League of Nations. In order to prevent a potentially dangerous expansion of the power, population, and resources of defeated Germany, the Austrian Republic's request for the right to join that country was denied and expressly forbidden without the unanimous consent of the League. In short, population groups were "bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty" against their wishes for the higher purpose of giving Germany's neighbors a fighting chance to survive and prosper.

In the world beyond Europe, the victorious allies had originally intended to divide up among themselves the German colonial possessions that their armies had conquered. But President Wilson protested that the transfer of territory from one colonial power to the other directly violated his admonition that territorial settlements should protect the interests of the populations concerned. So the British delegation persuaded the American president to allow the victors to administer the former German possessions as "mandates" of the League of Nations, ostensibly for the purpose of preparing the subject populations for eventual self-rule. In Africa, Great Britain and France divided up the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo. Most of German East Africa was transferred to Great Britain, with the small northwestern districts of Rwanda and Urundi (later Burundi) turned over to Belgium, the colonial master in the neighboring Congo. The Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, obtained control of the adjacent territory of German Southwest Africa. In the Pacific, Japan received the mandate for Germany's colonial possessions north of the equator—the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline island chains. Australia got New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago while New Zealand received Samoa.


One of the major objectives of the peace conference was to prevent the revival of German military power, which was widely blamed for instigating the recent war. Of the four great powers that dominated the decision-making process, France was the one that was most insistent on this point. At the end of the war, that country found itself in an unenviable position vis-à-vis its longtime adversary to the east. Even with the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine, France's population of forty million was inferior to that of Germany's sixty million. The country's prewar alliance with the Russian Empire, which had obliged Germany to fight a war on two fronts in 1914 and therefore caused it to divide its military forces, had collapsed after the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia's withdrawal from the war.

In order to rectify this strategic imbalance, France demanded stringent restrictions on German military power, particularly after the failure of the French attempt to detach the Rhineland from Germany and create a protective buffer state. The alternative to this geographical protection was the imposition of strict limitations on Germany's military forces. Germany was required to dismantle all of its fortifications in the Rhineland and to refrain from introducing troops in the region in perpetuity. To ensure German compliance with this requirement, the Rhineland was to be occupied by an inter-Allied military force for fifteen years (by which time it was hoped that the old spirit of militarism would have been completely extinguished in the new democratic Germany). The country was required to replace its enormous conscript army with a small volunteer force of 100,000 officers and men that was prohibited from possessing offensive weapons such as tanks, poison gas, and heavy artillery. Germany was forbidden an air force, while the German navy was restricted to a small coastal defense fleet. An inter-Allied control commission was created to verify compliance with the disarmament clauses of the treaty by conducting periodic inspections of German military facilities.


The most controversial issue at the peace conference was the question of how to bear the enormous costs of repairing the damage caused in the theaters of combat: the northeastern part of France, Belgium, northern Italy, and Serbia (which became part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia). (Russia, whose western territories had suffered terrible destruction at the hands of the German army, was excluded from the peace conference because of the Allied Powers' hostility to the Bolshevik regime that had been established in 1917 and pulled Russia out of the war.) More than eight million acres of land in northeastern France that had served as the principle battleground on the western front had suffered almost total devastation, not only because of four years of unrelenting artillery barrages but also as a result of the "scorched earth" policy pursued by the retreating German army in the fall of 1918 (which flooded coal mines, destroyed railway track, burned farmhouses and crops, and slaughtered or hauled off livestock). After a brief, unsuccessful bid by the French government to get the prosperous United States to finance much of the reconstruction costs, France and the other countries on whose territories the war had been fought demanded that Germany—which had surrendered before any of its territory was invaded by Allied forces—finance the reparation of the extensive damage its armies had caused.

When the topic of reparations was raised at the peace conference, it immediately became evident that Great Britain would receive very little from a settlement based solely on the principle of repairing damage to property, because that island nation had suffered only minimal damage from the few German bombers and zeppelins that had crossed the English Channel. In order to increase the amount that Great Britain would be entitled to receive, Lloyd George persuaded his colleagues to include the cost of pensions for veterans, widows, and orphans in the reparation bill. Recognizing that Germany would never be able to pay the entire cost of the war, the peacemakers decided to adopt an American proposal that affirmed Germany's theoretical responsibility for the entire cost of the war but restricted the actual payment to compensation for all of the damage done to the civilian population and to an amount that was within its capacity to pay.

The first of the two articles of the treaty that embodied this compromise came to be known, unfairly, as the "war guilt clause." It was denounced by German nationalists as an unjust and insulting moral condemnation of an entire nation and became a major source of German resentment of the entire treaty. The second of these two articles, a generous gesture that conceded that Germany's limited resources would be insufficient to pay for the entire costs of the war, was totally overlooked by the German critics. Worried that any amount of reparations specified in the peace treaty would be much less than the enormous sums expected by the aroused publics in the victorious countries, the peacemakers declined to specify an exact amount. They instructed a Reparation Commission to determine the full amount owed and present it to Germany by May 1921, by which time it was hoped that the wartime passions would have cooled and the Allied publics would be willing to accept a smaller sum. In the meantime Germany was required to make a down payment through the transfer of gold, goods, and cash to the recipient countries.


The ink was hardly dry on the Treaty of Versailles before it came under intense criticism, particularly from disappointed members of the British delegation such as the economist John Maynard Keynes. This negative evaluation of the peace settlement of 1919 persisted for many years thereafter. The principal complaints about the treaty were directed at its territorial, military, and reparation clauses, which were denounced for reducing defeated Germany to a humiliating condition of impotence and servitude that bred resentment and guaranteed that it would seek to destroy the Versailles settlement at the first opportunity.

In fact, subsequent scholarship has demonstrated that the Versailles Treaty has been unfairly stigmatized for causing the rise of Adolf Hitler and the breakdown of the new European order. Despite its violations of the principal of national self-determination, the territorial settlement of 1919 produced the closest approximation of linguistic and ethnic frontiers in Europe ever achieved. It was much less harsh and vindictive than the territorial settlement at the end of the next European war, when millions of Germans were expelled from their ancestral lands as Poland and Czechoslovakia simply reclaimed (without the authorization of a peace treaty) the German-inhabited territory they had acquired at Versailles. The military provisions of the Versailles Treaty hardly imposed a crushing burden on the defeated power. On the contrary, they were violated with impunity, beginning in 1921 when the Weimar Republic concluded a secret arrangement with Bolshevik Russia whereby the German army could evade the prying eyes of the inter-Allied inspection team by secretly testing proscribed weapons deep in Russian territory. The reparations bill that was finally submitted to Germany in the spring of 1921 was much lower than the fantastic sums bandied about at the peace conference. That amount was then effectively reduced twice more during the 1920s until Germany finally suspended reparation payments altogether in 1932. The Weimar Republic ended up paying less in reparations than France had paid Germany as an indemnity after the Franco-Prussian War, and much less than was extracted by the Soviet Union from its occupation zone in Germany after World War II.

To those critics of the Versailles Treaty who blame it for the rise of Hitler and the horrible carnage of World War II, the historian Margaret MacMillan offered this appropriate cautionary observation in her 2002 reassessment of the 1919 settlement with Germany: "Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles, although he found its existence a godsend for his propaganda. Even if Germany had been left with its old borders, even if it had been allowed whatever military forces it wanted, even if it had been permitted to join Austria, he still would have wanted more: the destruction of Poland, control of Czechoslovakia, above all the conquest of theSoviet Union. He would have demanded room for the German people to expand and the destruction of their enemies.… There was nothing in the Treaty of Versailles about that" (p. 493).

See alsoDawes Plan; Reparations; World War I.


Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elizabeth Glaser, eds. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years. Washington, D.C., 1998.

Burgwyn, H. James. The Legend of the Mutilated Victory: Italy, the Great War, and the Paris Peace Conference, 1915–1919. Westport, Conn., 1993.

Elcock, Harold. Portrait of a Decision: The Council of Four and the Treaty of Versailles. London, 1972.

Goldstein, Erik. Winning the Peace: British Diplomatic Strategy, Peace Planning, and the Paris Peace Conference, 1916–1920. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Kent, Bruce. The Spoils of War: The Politics, Economics, and Diplomacy of Reparations, 1918–1932. Oxford, U.K., 1989.

Keylor, William R., ed. The Legacy of the Great War: Peacemaking, 1919. Boston, 1998.

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace. New York, 1971.

Lentin, Antony. Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and the Guilt of Germany. Baton Rouge, La., 1984.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. New York, 2002.

Mayer, Arno J. Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918–1919. New York, 1967.

Mee, Charles L. The End of Order: Versailles, 1919. New York, 1980.

Nelson, Harold I. Land and Power: British and Allied Policy on Germany's Frontiers, 1916–1919. London, 1963.

Sharp, Alan. The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking in Paris, 1919. New York, 1991.

Tillman, Seth P. Anglo–American Relations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Princeton, N.J., 1961.

Trachtenberg, Marc. Reparations in World Politics: France and European Economic Diplomacy, 1916–1923. New York, 1980.

Walworth, Arthur. Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. New York, 1986.

William R. Keylor