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The Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) was doomed to fail

WW1 had brought about unprecedented human suffering in European history. Almost every nation across Europe was crippled by the war. Of the 60 million European soldiers who were mobilised from 1914–8, 8 million were killed, 7 million permanently disab­l­ed and 15 million seriously injured. Russia lost the greatest pro­p­ortion of its servicemen, Germany lost 15%, Austria-Hungry lost 17%, France lost 11% and Britain lost 5%. And c5 million civil­ians died from war-induced causes.

Finally, on 11th Nov 1918, Germany agreed to an armistice based on USA’s President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, an idealistic set of peace terms designed to placate the isolationists in America. But the Treaty of Ver­s­ailles sharply differed from Wilson’s points.

The general goal of Versailles was to restore European stability and to main­tain perm­an­ent peace. The specific goals were to carve out new nat­ions, divide the Middle East between the victorious Allies, reassign German boundaries and assign reparat­ions. But note that the peace was being sought at the WORST time, a time of unparalleled polit­ical, social and econ­omic chaos.

The Treaty of Versailles, June 1919 
Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. 
by Joseph Finnemore, 1919, 165 x 247 cm.
Australian War Memorial 

The treaty, negotiated between Jan-June 1919 in Paris, was written by the Allies with little German involvement. In fact 32 nations sent delegates to Paris, but not Russia because the other Allies did not recognise the new Communist government. France and Belgium, where much of the brutal fighting had taken place, had paid the highest price. So it was not surprising that the negotiations revealed a split between the French and Belgium on one side Vs the British, Italians and Americans on the other.

The eventual treaty included 15 parts including:
Part I created the Covenant of the New League of Nations, which Germany was not allowed to join until 1926.
Part II specified Germany’s new boundaries, giving: German-speaking Eupen-Malmedy to Bel­g­ium, Alsace-Lorraine to France, eastern districts to Poland, Memel on the Baltic Sea to Lithuania, and parts of Schleswig to Denmark.
Part III stipulated a demilitarised zone and separated the Saar (on the French border) from Germany for 15 years.
Part IV stripped Germany of all its colonies.
Part V reduced Germany’s armed forces to very low levels and prohibited certain weapons, while also committing to eventual Allied disarmament.
Part VIII established Germany’s liability for reparations, beginning with Article 231, in which Germany accepted responsibility for Allied losses.

WWI officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The progressive German government (1919-33) signed the treaty, even though right-wing German parties attacked it as a betrayal. The Am­er­ican Sen­ate re­fused to ratify the treaty, and their government took no respons­ib­ility for most of its provisions. French Prime Min­ister Clemenceau wanted to dismember Germany. The British Prime Minister planned to use a strong Germany as a bulwark against the Russ­ians. 

There was debate about Total German Disarmament. Event­ually, the Allies agreed that the German navy was to be disarmed and limited in men and ships, and the army in men. But no one realistically expected Ger­many to be disarmed forever.

Britain was more interested in securing her over­seas colon­ies than helping her European allies. So while France argued for the western German front­ier to end at the Rhine for security reasons, British Prime Min­ist­er Lloyd George said no, for trading purposes. The compromise was for the Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied troops for 15 years.

Alas France believed that the Treaty had left Germany largely intact, with a pop­ulation doub­le that of France, and with no powerful East European neighbours. The treaty deprived Germany of only 13.5% of her territ­ory, 13% of her economic productivity and 10% of her inhabitants (7 million).

In 1919 France stationed c30,000 French colonial soldiers in the Rhineland. And for five years the French and the Belgians enforced the treaty rig­or­ously, leading in 1922 to their occupation of the Ruhr. But in 1924 Anglo-American financial pressure compelled France to low­er its goals. 

Big Four at Versailles, June 1919
Left: David Lloyd George UK; Vittorio Orlando Italy; Georges Clemenceau France and Woodrow Wilson USA. 

German War Reparations were also problematic. France felt that Ger­many should cover the costs of restoration of invaded territ­ories and repayment of all war debts. But Britain worried about the rev­ival of international trade, if Germany was impossible in debt. So the exact reparations owed by the Germans were never in­cluded in the Treaty of Versailles. As it happened, Germ­any paid repar­at­ions in 1924 and 1929, but the Depres­sion intervened and led to their can­cel­lation in 1932.

Instead, Article 231 (aka the War Guilt Clause) of the Treaty of Versailles simply laid the blame for WW1 solely on the shoulders of Germany and caused intense emotional debate among Germans: The Allied Governments affirm, and Germany accepts the responsib­il­ity of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss to which the Allied gov­ern­ments and their nationals have been subjected as a conseq­uen­ce of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

The War Guilt Clause and the reparations demanded from Germ­any added fuel to growing German resentment of the Allies, and to booming German nationalism. And as time went on, every party in Germany, from the Communists to Hitler’s National Social­ists, con­demned the Vers­ail­les Treaty as unjust. Versailles was the un­ifying issue that held German politics together! Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 made the remaining terms of the treaty highly doubtful.

The Versailles Treaty clearly failed to bring about ever-lasting European stability. But more than that, it can be argued that WW2 was waged by Germany in 1939 specifically to exact revenge for WW1. German nationalists apparently wished to revise the Versailles settle­ment by force, such that Hitler denounced the treaty altogether in 1935.

For follow-up to the Versailles Treaty, read Versailles and After, 1919-1933, by Ruth Henig. The All­ies could win WW1, but not sec­ure the peace. So Henig showed that no formal peace treaty was ever written to end WW2!


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