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The Treaty of Versailles: An Overview

By Edited May 14, 2015 1 1

Negotiating is a careful art. Entire books and websites are devoted to this deceivingly simple topic. Although almost anyone can negotiate, very few can negotiate effectively. The Treaty of Versailles is perhaps the 20th Century’s best example of negotiation attempts on a global scale. Let’s take a look at what the major negotiating parties wanted and received. Let’s also examine post-World War 1 Germany from 1919 through 1938.


The Big Three

One year after the end of World War 1, the “Big Three” (Great Britain, France, and the United States) met on January 1919 at Paris’ Versailles Palace. The main representatives for the Big Three were David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States. As one may suspect, each party had a different concept of what such a treaty should achieve.

Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Europe to mass excitement. He was initially revered as someone who held moral principles much higher than self-interests. Wilson presented America’s intents in the form of Fourteen Points. One goal was an overall reduction in arms and military power for all countries. Another key objective was a European continent reorganized and governed along the lines of nationality. This meant a restoration of Belgium; it also recommended that Germany relinquish Alsace-Lorraine, and that an independent Polish state be given access to the Baltic Sea. By far, however, Wilson’s biggest push was for the establishment of a League of Nations. This group would act as mediators during an international conflict, in an effort to avoid disputes or progressions towards war. Wilson feared a rise of Bolshevism in Russia, and felt free, democratic nations could prove even more successful than Lenin’s socialist motives. Lastly, Wilson also realized that an extremely weakened Germany could lead to an unrightfully strong shift of power to France. In other words, giving Germany either too much or too little power could be catastrophic.

Georges Clemenceau

As one may suspect, France’s Georges Clemenceau had quite different goals. Although he knewBritish and American support was vital during this process, Clemenceau did not take Wilson’s Fourteen Points seriously. In fact, he was quoted as saying, “Even the Good Lord only had ten points.” His overwhelming urge was to weaken Germany in whatever way possible, including financially, militarily, and territorially. After everything France had been through during the previous decade, this wasn’t surprising. In essence, Clemenceau wanted to ensure that it would be utterly impossible for Germany to overpower France again. He lobbied for Germany to pay excessively high reparations—payments that were meant to reconstruct France’s infrastructure, cover France’s own war debt, and massively reduce German superiority. Clemenceau also wanted significant reductions in Germany’s military forces. Territorially, he requested the return of Alsace-Lorraine and the French occupation of Germany’s vital Rhineland region, until reparations were paid in full.

David Lloyd George
Great Britain’s David Lloyd George had a few key requests of his own. First of all, he wanted Germany’s naval fleet neutralized. This would give Great Britain supremacy of the seas once again. Lloyd George also hoped he could swing at least a portion of the reparations money in Great Britain’s direction. Like France, Great Britain was also in debt. Incidentally, its largest creditor was the United States. Lloyd George felt Germany should be weakened, but not dissolved to nearly the point that Clemenceau intended. In public, Lloyd George was said to be more aggressive against Germany than he was in private. His true feeling was that communism’s spread was a more serious threat, and that the only nation capable of resisting its expansion was Germany. The Big Three had now all weighed in, with noticeably different goals. Obviously self-interest for one’s nation dictated much of these requests, but that is only understandable.


Other Nations Weigh In

Vittorio Orlando

Throughout the Treaty of Versailles talks, one nation seemed to always end up more on the outside looking in: Italy. Perhaps it was because Italy had initially aligned itself with Germany and Austria before joining the Big Three. Perhaps it was because Italy lacked much actual involvement in the war and did not possess as much military clout. Italy’s leader, Vittorio Orlando, actually threatened to walk out of treaty talks at one point, assuming he would be invited back. Orlando’s bluff was called, and he left without any interference. He quickly realized that Italy had no upper hand in bargaining and must take whatever it could get.

Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau
After some negotiating between the Big Three, Germany joined the table to discuss peace negotiations. The term “negotiations” is used very loosely here. As one may suspect, Germany was given very little say in any treaty talks. Still, Germany was optimistic that Wilson and his Fourteen Points would ensure some fairness in the treaty provisions.  The treaty was presented, to which the Germany representatives’ jaws dropped in disbelief. To say Germany felt betrayed by Wilson would be an understatement. The terms were astounding and the two options offered—either sign or face invasion—really only provided Germany one choice. Although German foreign minister Count Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau offered a counterproposal, his offerings achieved nothing and signing was inevitable. Besides, the alternative would have been further military action against a decimated Germany.


The Consequences

What really came out of the final Treaty of Versailles that was signed on June 28? Territorially speaking, Germany lost significant portions of land. Land lost included Alsace-Lorraine (to France); the Saar, Danzig, Memel, and overseas colonies (to League of Nations control); as well as portions that went to Belgium, Denmark, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Germany’s military was to be reduced to an army of 100,000 men, and it could not own military airplanes, tanks, heavy artillery, or poison gas. In addition, an area around the Rhineland was to become a demilitarized zone, and only a few small naval ships were allowed. The treaty stated all countries would be disarming, but Germany had to disarm first. Financially, Germany was obliterated; it had to accept that it was responsible for starting the war, and agree to pay reparations for both damage done and other country’s war expenses. This was in the form of a blank check: Germany was not even given an amount when it signed the treaty. In addition, some two thousand German officers and officials were to be put on trial for war crimes.

What were the short and long-term consequences for Germany? Most German citizens immediately grew resentful towards their government, calling those who signed the treaty, the “November Criminals.” Incidentally, two prior German governments actually stepped down since they did not want to sign the treaty. German citizens felt that they were made to suffer for previous mistakes made by their government—after all, the government had declared the war, not the people. 

During the turbulent times from the treaty signing of 1919 through 1933, the German Empire was referred to as the Weimar Republic, since the new constitution was adopted in Weimar. As previously mentioned, Germany basically signed a blank check when the treaty was signed in 1919. It was not until 1921, that the massive figure owed was actually revealed: 132 billion gold marks. The amount was to be paid over thirty years, with a little over one quarter of Germany’s export proceeds to also be included. To no surprise, Germany quickly defaulted on these payments. Accordingly, on January 11, 1923, France and Belgium occupied Germany’s Ruhr District. During this period, Germany’s printing presses were running rampant. Inflation was spiraling out of control, as Germany put more and more money into circulation. Many believe increased volumes were purposely created to heighten inflation. Ultimately, Germany’s inflation caused the French franc to fall in value by twenty-five percent. Just to buy the barest of essentials could literally cost wheelbarrows full of money.

Although France obviously wanted to hurt Germany as much as possible, Great Britain and the United States were very leery of how Germany would react and recover to the provisions of the treaty. A Germany left too strongly could pose a significant military threat, while an extremely weak Germany could fall as easy prey to France. All things considered, Germany did comply with most terms of the Treaty of Versailles during the 1920s. As suspected, although Germany had disarmed to the reduced level requested, the rest of the world still did not seem to be in any hurry to follow suit.

Beneath everything else going on, many overlooked just how well Germany’s core potential was still intact. The roots of its successful economy, massive population, and education had not been destroyed. After all, deep down this was the nation that had held off multiple major world powers for the majority of the war. This was also the nation known for swift mobilization, when necessary. Although the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933 seemed willing to “play by the new rules,” what if a different regime some day took control? What if Germany’s national pride and confidence could be resurrected? Enter Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.


Hitler’s Rise

Adolf Hitler

Hitler’s strong Nazi leadership and Germany’s ability for fast mobilization led to a quick surge of military power. In addition, it appears that Germany had not completely reduced its army to 100,000 soldiers in the 1920s like it had claimed. To get around this loophole, German soldiers had often signed up for a short contract and then spent time in the reserves, ther efore not counting against the 100,000 soldier maximum. Instantly, Hitler had a larger quantity of soldiers at his disposal. Hitler strongly felt that “The victors of 1919 would yield only to force and never to reason,” and it was time to prove it.

Hitler quickly gained confidence from many Germans who felt the Weimar Republic was weak. He also garnered respect from the young, unemployed, and lower-class. Throughout the 1930s, Hitler stopped honoring the treaty’s provisions, and also annexed larger portions of land. As soon, as Hitler started breaking the treaty, nations should have stood up to him. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Instead, the Allied response was very weak. Accordingly, Hitler was able to quickly and effectively start his notorious reign. 

In conclusion, as World War 1 subsided, something significant had to be done. The Treaty of Versailles attempted to meet these needs. Was the treaty too harsh or too soft? Many feel this treaty was too harsh on Germany, fueling the industrious country with anger and resentment. Although historians weigh in with different opinions, history cannot be changed. Politicians and military officials must never forget this monumental span of twenty years, so that hopefully our world does not encounter a similar situation in the future.



Jun 1, 2013 6:53pm
American interference in the Treaty of Versailles turned what would have been an occupation of Germany similar to that after WWII into a situation which would allow the rise of the Nazi party.
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