The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 is the peace treaty created as a result of the six-month-long Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which put an official end to World War I. The treaty was ratified on January 10, 1920 and required that Germany accept responsibility for the war and was thus obliged to pay large amounts of compensation (known as war reparations). Like many other treaties, it is named for the place of its signing: the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. On January 18, 1919 a peace conference opened in Versailles, France to work on the treaty.
The treaty provided for the creation of the League of Nations, a major goal of US president Woodrow Wilson. The purpose of the organization was to arbitrate conflicts between nations before they lead to war.
Woodrow Wilson with the American Peace Commissioners
Other provisions included the loss of German colonies and loss of German territories. The list of the former German provinces that changed their affiliation:
- Alsace-Lorraine restored to France,
- northern Schleswig at Tondern in Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark,
- most of Province Posen and West Prussia, part of Silesia to Poland,
- the city of Danzig with the delta of Vistula river at the Baltic Sea was made the Free City of Danzig under the League of Nations and Polish authority.
The treaty of Versailles also greatly restricted the German armed forces.
The treaty established a commission which was to determine the exact size of the reparations to be paid by Germany. In 1921, this number was officially put at $33,000,000,000, a sum that many economists deemed to be excessive. The economic problems that the payments brought are cited as one of the causes of the end of the Weimar Republic and the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, which inevitably led to the outbreak World War II.
The United States never ratified the treaty. The elections of 1918 had seen the Republicans gain control of the United States Senate, and they blocked ratification twice (the second time on March 19, 1920), some favoring isolationism and opposing the League of Nations, others lamenting the excessive reparations. As a result, the US never joined the League of Nations and later negotiated a separate peace treaty with Germany: the Treaty of Berlin of 1921 which confirmed the reparation payments and other provisions of the Treaty of Versailles but explicitly excluded all articles related to the League of Nations.
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The "Big Three" consisted of Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of America. At the Treaty of Versailles it was difficult to decide on a common ruling, because each had been treated differently by Germany during the War. Because of this, the result was said to be a compromise, which nobody liked.
France had suffered most of the casualties during the War, and much of it had been fought on French soil. The country was in ruins, with much damage done to historic and important buildings and resources. George Clemenceau of France wanted reparations from Germany to rebuild and repair the damage done by the Germans. In all, 750,000 houses and 23,000 factories had been destroyed, and money was demanded to pay for the reconstruction of a country in tatters. In 1871, France and Germany had also been at war, and Germany had taken an area of France, Alsace-Lorraine. Clemenceau also wanted to protect against the possibility of an attack ever coming from Germany again, and demanded a demilitarisation of the Rhineland in Germany, and Allied troops to patrol the area. This was called a "territorial safety zone". They also wanted to drastically reduce the number of soldiers in the German army to a controllable point. As part of the reparations, France wanted to be given control of many of Germany's factories.
Not only did France want to severely punish Germany, they also wanted to preserve their great empire and their colonies. While America put forward a belief in national or ethnic "self-determination", France and Britain wanted to keep their valuable Empires. Clemenceau largely represented the people of France in that he wanted revenge upon the German nation. Clemenceau also wanted to protect secret treaties and allow naval blockades around Germany, so that France could control trade imported to and exported from the defeated country. He was the radical member of the Big Three, and was named "Le Tigre" for this reason.
Great Britain had played a backseat role only in that the country itself was never invaded. Many British soldiers died on the front line in France, and so the people in Britain wanted revenge as much as the French. Prime Minister Lloyd George still wanted severe reparations, but to a lesser extent than the French. Lloyd George was aware that if the demands made by France were carried out, France could become extremely powerful in Central Europe, and a delicate balance could be unsettled. Although he wanted to ensure this didn't happen, he also wanted to make Germany pay. Lloyd George was also worried by Woodrow Wilson's proposal for "self-determination" and, like the French, wanted to preserve the British Empire. This position was part of the competition between two of the world's greatest empires, and their battle to preserve them. Like the French, Lloyd George also supported naval blockades and secret treaties.
On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson had very different views about how to punish Germany. He had proposed the Fourteen Points before the war ended, which were less harsh than what the French or British wanted. Since the American people had been in the war only since April 1917, they felt that they should get out of the European mess as rapidly as possible. However, President Wilson wanted to institute a world policy that ensured that nothing like this could ever happen again. In order to maintain peace, the first attempt at a world court was created- the League of Nations. The theory was that if weaker and more fragile nations were attacked, others would guarantee protection from the aggressor.
On top of this, Wilson promoted "self-determination" which encouraged nationalities (or ethnic groups) to think, govern, & control themselves. This notion of self-determination resulted in increased patriotic sentiment in many countries that were or had once been under the control of the old empires, and also received much popular support in the home countries of the Empires. Self-determination was, and continues to be, a source of friction between different ethnic groups around the world as each group seeks to define and enhance its position in the world.
The acceptance by many peoples of the concept of self-determination was the beginning of the end for the empires, including those of Britain and France. Self-determination is partly the reason so many new countries were created in Eastern Europe; Wilson was not willing to increase the size of Britain, France, or Italy. There were also fighting in the eastern provinces of Germany, that were loyal to the emperor, but didn't want to be a part of the republic: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and 3 Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.
Territorial adjustments were made with the aim of grouping together ethnic minorities in their own states, free from the domination of once powerful Empires, specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Secret treaties were also to be discouraged, and Britain and France greeted a reduction in armaments by all nations with disapproval. This was supposed to indirectly reduce the ability of navies to create blockades.
When the Treaty of Versailles had been concluded, Germany was forced to pay the Allies £6,600,000,000; hand over all its colonies; accept all blame for the war (the War Guilt Clause); reduce the size of its armed forces (six warships, 100,000 infantry, and no air force); and give land to many countries, including Belgium, France, Denmark, and Poland.
The Big Three were undecided in their punishment of Germany. France wanted revenge, Britain wanted a relatively strong economically viable Germany as a counterweight to French dominance on Continental Europe, and the U.S. wanted the creation of a permanent peace as quickly as possible, as well as the destruction of the old Empires. The result was a compromise, which left nobody satisfied. Germany was neither crushed nor conciliated, which did not bode well for the future of Germany, Europe and the world as a whole.