The Treaty of Versailles

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Podcast Transcript

On November 11th, 1918, the first world war came to an end. Or to be more precise, the fighting stopped. 

For the next eight months, a final peace treaty was hammered out, and hanging over the negotiations was the very real threat that fighting could break out again. 

In the end, the treaty ended the world’s greatest war and might have been the starting point for an even worse one.

Learn more about the Treaty of Versailles, the agreement which ended World War I, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

November 11th is honored as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day in countries around the world. This was the day in 1918 when the Great War, the war to end all wars, finally ended. 

However, while it was the end of the fighting, it wasn’t the end of the conflict per se.  The terms of the peace still had to be hammered out, and the armistice wasn’t necessarily a permanent thing. While no one really wanted to start fighting again, the threat of resuming hostilities was always in the air. 

Before I get into the details of the Paris Peace Conference, I should note a few things about how the peace was negotiated. 

The Central Powers in the war, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey all had separate peace treaties which were negotiated and signed with the Allies. 

As the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up, separate treaties were signed with both of the new countries. 

The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was the treaty with the new Republic of Austria. They had to give up territory which formed the basis of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. The United States signed a separate treaty with Austria

The Treaty of Trianon was the peace treaty with the new Republic of Hungary.

The Treaty of Lausanne was the treaty signed with the new Turkish Republic, and the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine was the treaty ending the war with Bulgaria. 

The Treaty of Versailles was a treaty that was only signed with Germany, which was by far the largest belligerent of the Central Powers. 

The Paris Peace Conference convened about two months after the armistice was signed in January 1919. 

All of the parties which entered the conference had their own agendas. 

France had probably suffered more than any other country. They had lost 1.3 million soldiers and another 400,000 civilian lives. 25% of all French men between the age of 18-30 were dead. Much of their industrial capability had been destroyed.

France came into the conference wanting compensation for what they lost, as well as wanting to punitively punish Germany to prevent a belligerent Germany from ever rising again. 

Britain suffered heavy casualties but suffered very little in terms of infrastructure. They wanted compensation, but they didn’t want to punitively punish Germany as the French did. They wanted to do what they had always done and keep a balance of power in continental Europe, which was to keep Germany strong enough to balance France.

They also wanted to severely shrink the German navy, which did threaten Britain, and they wanted to keep and expand their empire.

The United States had very lofty goals entering the conference, most of which came from President Woodrow Wilson and his fourteen points. He really wanted to use the end of the war as an opportunity to recreate the world order, spread democracy, and reduce the future risk of war.

There were other countries represented as well which had smaller roles in the war with Germany including Italy, Japan, South Africa, Australia, and Canada. The inclusion of Canada, South Africa, and Australia as separate attendees, and not being represented by Great Britain, was one of the first recognition of them as independent countries.

Russia was not invited as they had signed a separate treaty, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, after the Communist Revolution.

The Germans of course wanted to come away from this giving up as little as possible, but they didn’t have a lot of room to negotiate.  Part of the terms of the armistice was that Germany would withdrawal from all territory in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Furthermore, the Allies would occupy the Rhineland, which was the westernmost part of Germany bordering the aforementioned countries and the Netherlands. 

The naval blockade of Germany was also still in place, which restricted the number of goods that were imported to Germany and its ability for its economy to function. 

The negotiations weren’t between the two sides of the war so much as they were between the Allied powers. It wasn’t a case of the allies being on one side of the table and Germany on the others. 

Even then, it was mostly the big three powers of Britain, France, and the United States that set the terms of the treaty. The negotiations were really just a matter of figuring out how much Germany was going to have to pay and how much they would be punished. 

Germany was given the peace terms as a fait accompli. If they didn’t agree to the terms, the allies threatened to resume hostilities. 

Had they done that, it wouldn’t have been of the resumption of the war the way it had been the last four years. Now, with the allies occupying a larger part of Germany, it would have been fought on German soil, and the allies might just overrun and conquer the whole country.

So what were the terms presented to Germany? 

For starters, Germany lost quite a bit of territory. 65,000 km2 or 25,000 mi2 of land was ceded to France, Belgium, and Poland, and smaller amounts were given to Denmark, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia. 

In particular, Frace got back the Alsace-Lorraine which was taken back in the Franco-Prussian war almost 50 years earlier.  The Saarland was to be put under the control of the newly created League of Nations, and the coal production of the region was to be given to France. More on the League of Nations in a bit.

Germany had to give up all rights to its colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Most of them had already been occupied by allied countries during the war.

Significant limits were put on the German military, with the intent of making it impossible for Germany to engage in an offensive war. They were to reduce the entire army down to 100,000 men consisting of seven infantry and three cavalry divisions.

The Rhineland was to be completely demilitarized, which was the area boarding the allied countries. Likewise, restrictions were put on the size of the German navy as well as on the number of tanks and artillery pieces.

One of the biggest terms of the treaty was reparations. Turkey, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria paid little to nothing in terms of reparations because their economies were so bad. 

Germany was required to pay 132 billion gold marks which was the equivalent of $33 billion US dollars. The terms of the reparations were renegotiated several times after the fact and Germany paid off the last of their reparation debt in 2010. 

The other big thing to come out of the Paris Peace Conference was the League of Nations. This was intended to be a multination organization where countries would arbitrate disputes between themselves to, hopefully, reduce the risk of war. 

The treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, at the Palace of Versailles in France, which is where the treaty gets its name.

The United States Senate couldn’t ratify the treaty, so they signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921.

So, what happened with the treaty? 

Let’s start with the last point I brought up, the League of Nations. It was proposed by the United States, but the US never joined because the senate never ratified the treaty. 

It ultimately failed to achieve its goals and didn’t do anything to prevent the next war. The idea behind it was finally achieved in the United Nations about 30 years later. 

The reparations, territorial concessions, and military restrictions were the center of German politics for the next decade. It was a source of national shame and it set off conspiracies theories. 

The biggest conspiracy was the stabbed-in-the-back theory. This held that Germany didn’t actually lose the war on the ground, but rather was betrayed by people in the government. This was one of the biggest drivers of the German far-right and the rise of antisemitism after the war. 

The stabbed in the back theory was a central tenet of the Nazi Party which was founded only 8 months after the treaty was signed, and would come to power only 14 years later. 

Almost all of the terms of the treaty were changed or abandoned in the 1930s, and they were able to do so without any real repercussions. 

British economist John Maynard Keynes called the Treaty of Versailles, “one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible.”

It probably isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the punishing terms of the  Treaty of Versailles were a direct cause of the second world war. 

After World War II, the allies learned the lessons of the first war. There was no attempt to impose similar reparations on either Germany or Japan. Likewise, because the surrender was unconditional and the victory was total, there was no possibility for people to think that they had been sold out.

In fact, through programs like the Marshall Plan, money was invested in the vanquished countries after the war to help get them back on their feet quickly to reduce instability. 

The Treaty of Versailles is a textbook case study for what not to do once you defeat an adversary. Creating bitterness, resentment, and shame in a former enemy doesn’t work in the long run.