The Face of the 20th Century Was Determined By the Treaty of Versailles

Compiled by Vaino Kallas

The World War I (1914-1918) ended on November 11, 1918, with Germany's capitulation after the US president had announced on which conditions the Allied Powers are ready to make peace. These conditions are listed in the US President Woodrow Wilson's speech to the US Congress on January 8, 1918; this speech is known as the Fourteen Points.

January 18, 1919 representatives of the World War I victors gathered in the Palace of Versailles near Paris to come to an agreement on the conditions of the "peace" treaty.

The decisions made in Versailles affected the development of Europe during the next 20 years. Many historians believe that the decisions made with this treaty made way for the Second World War.

What where the demands of the victors in the convention of Versailles?

Georges Clemenceau – the Prime Minister of France demanded that the destroyed Germany would pay for the war damages. His three major demands were:

  • Germany has to give back the province of Alsace-Lorraine to France. The Bismarck's Germany had annexed this area during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.
  • Germany has to pay indemnity or, in other words, reparations to France to compensate for the damage done with battles. France lost about 750,000 buildings and 23,000 factories during the war.
  • France wanted to get the Rhineland into its possession. The aim of this demand was to make sure that Germany would not attack France in the future.

David Lloyd George – the Prime Minister of Great Britain was an intelligent and experienced politician, his point of view was:

  • Germany must not be punished too hard; they have to be reasonable, unnecessary harshness could cause problems in the future.
  • Germany must be rebuild quickly.
  • Rhineland must not be given to France. Lloyd George's opinion was that Rhineland should be demilitarised instead.

The same time many people in England held an opinion that Germany and Germans must be punished because of the war horrors. "Make Germany Pay", "Squeeze them until the pips squeak" – these slogans were heard from the foggy Albion.

Vittorio Orlando – the Prime Minister of Italy. Germany had declared war on Italy and on Austro-Hungarian Empire in May 1915 after the representative of Italy had signed a London Pact (or the Treaty of London). With this pact Great Britain and France promised to give the coast of Adriatic Sea to Italy after the war had ended successfully. Orlando had now come to Versailles in the hope that London and Paris will keep their promise.

Woodrow Wilson – the President of the United States of America. The US had declared a war on Germany in April 1917, therefore it didn't have notable human losses or material damages. Wilson came to the peace convention with his Fourteen Points and he was hoping to prevent a new war in Europe with that speech. Important points in his speech were:

  • All countries must abandon secret diplomacy in the future.
  • All European nations must have the right to decide their future; Wilson called it the the right for "self-determination" and based on this right all empires must disappear from the old continent's map.
  • All countries must decrease their armament.
  • Poland must become an independent country.
  • The borders of Italy must be corrected according to the habitat of the nation (it should be added that Wilson did not support giving the coast of Adriatic Sea to Italy).
  • All colonial arguments must be solved publicly and impartially.
  • To avoid political fights the League of Nations must be established (the predecessor of the United Nations).

What really happened during the peace convention in Versailles?

On the contrary to previous international traditions, there were no oral negotiations between the victors and the losers in Versailles peace convention. The central European countries who lost the war (Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey) were not represented at the convention and they were given already compiled peace treaties to sign. The representatives of the central European countries and Germany were not allowed in the conference room of the Versailles Palace. Germans were forced to agree with the demands unconditionally, otherwise things would get violent. At the same time Germans were hoping that the demands are not too harsh, especially thanks to Wilson's Fourteen Points. However, these hopes were not justified.

Only four of President Wilson's Fourteen Points were used in a way. Nevertheless the Germans were forced to sign the treaty. During the compilation of the peace treaty Germany was held in blockade and the situation continued even after the treaty was signed, so the German people faced the threat of starving to death daily. With the Treaty of Versailles Germany faced the following demands:

  • To take away the lands and areas belonging to Germany and give:
    • Alsace-Lorraine to France;
    • the towns of Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium;
    • A part of East Prussia should be divided among the allies, later it should be merged with Lithuania;
    • Northern Schleswig to Denmark;
    • The Hultschin area to Czechoslovakia;
    • West Prussia, Posen and a part of Upper Silesia to Poland; this area was later called the Polish Corridor because it divided Germany into two.
  • To make Danzig (Gdansk) an independent quasi-state under the protection of the League of Nations;
  • The province of Saarland was to be under the League of Nations control for 15 years;
  • To give Kehl, Koblenz and Köln from the Rhine's left bank to the allies;
  • To subordinate the colonies of Germany to the League of Nations.

According to the Treaty of Versailles Germany had to give away (without its colonies) 70,579 km² of its land and 6,5 million of its habitants. Germany had to compensate the war damages and pay 233 billion Reichsmarks to the victors. Since Germany failed to pay such a huge amount of money, France and Belgium occupied the areas of Düsseldorf and Ruhr.

In addition to all aforementioned Germany was disarmed. Germany only had the right to have 100,000 Reichswehr soldiers with light armoury. It was forbidden for Germany to have tanks or armoured cars and it had to abolish compulsory military service. Germany also was not allowed to have air forces. The navy – Reichsmarine – was allowed to have only 15,000 men, but it was forbidden to have any battle ships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and submarines.

The Rhineland was also disarmed and it was supposed to remain under the allies occupation for 15 years.

Three countries were not satisfied with the results of the World War I:

  • Germany, the main loser, was not happy with the big territorial losses and the reparations it had to pay;
  • Italy, one of the winners, was not satisfied because it gained too little territories after the war had ended;
  • Japan, also one of the winners, was not satisfied because it failed to take power in Eastern Asia.

The consequences of Versailles

All these circumstances together sowed the seed for a new war. During time all these facts together formed a horrifying political weapon. The US President Herbert Hoover had said about signing the Treaty of Versailles: "Justice was strangled in Versailles and jurisdiction became injustice."

French President Clemenceau, who was partly responsible for the dictate in Versailles, was not modest, saying: "It is the day of reckoning and we have been waiting for it for half a century. The day of reckoning has now arrived."

What happened in Versailles was not peace, it was the beginning of a new war. One of the men who signed it, Marshall Foch, has later said: "This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years."

Most Germans were convinced that Germany did not actually lose the war in 1918, since the Allied Powers did not occupy Germany.

One of those people, who believed the abovementioned, was Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) who during the World War I served in the German army as a corporal. During the signing of the Compiègne Armistice on November 11, 1918, Hitler was in a military hospital recovering from the injuries of a gas attack. Like many other Germans, Hitler believed that his homeland was "stabbed in the back" by the so-called November Criminals.

The November Criminals was a name given to German Social Democrats who had organised the German Revolution (in German: Novemberrevolution) and thus overthrew emperor Wilhelm II. Many German Social Democrats were Jews and this could explain why Hitler hated Jews so much. According to him German people were hit by Jewish conspiracy in autumn of 1918.

Several articles in the Treaty of Versailles turned out to be very severe. Thus the damaged Germany was not able to pay reparations. Also it seemed highly unfair that the whole blame for the war was put on German people. Honestly – how can only Germans be blamed for it? The cause of the World War I was actually the Serbian nationalists' attempt to murder Austro-Hungarian Empire's successor to the throne: a Serbian student Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Therefore those who claimed that the Allied Powers made Germany and its people a scapegoat by blaming them in the death of tens of millions of people, were actually telling the truth.

This kind of injustice caused a lot of discontentment in Germany. During the years of 1919 to 1922 several revolts and coup d'état attempts took place. Mainly demobilised soldiers took part in these revolts. In spring of 1920 they tried to take the power (the Kapp Putsch). A bit earlier, in January 1919, German communists had tried to take the power. In addition to all that, many political murders were committed in Germany and the victims were mainly those politicians who made truce with the Allied Powers.