The signing of the Treaty of Versailles formally concluded the First World War, and in doing so arguably paved the way for the Second. Indeed it has been described as a holding measure, one that brought about a long interlude of armistice rather than a period of true peace.
Different demands by the ‘Big Three’
It was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Versailles Palace in Paris, and the principal signatories and shapers of the Treaty were the ‘Big Three’ – David Lloyd George (Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France) and Woodrow Wilson (USA).
They all brought different demands to bear on the Treaty.
Clemenceau wanted Germany brought to its knees, rendered utterly incapable of invading France again.
Wilson, appalled by the savagery and devastation of the War, advocated reconciliation and a sustainable rebuilding of Europe.
Lloyd George was torn between wanting to build a strong Germany as a bulwark against communism, and public pressure to ‘Make Germany Pay.’
In the end the Treaty had the following key features:
1. Germany had to accept the blame for starting the war
This was Article 231 of the treaty, often known as the ‘War Guilt Clause’.
2. Germany had to pay $31.4 billion in reparations
Economically these reparations went on to cripple Germany.
3. Germany had to make substantial territorial concessions
They lost control of:
- Alsace Lorraine (France)
- Eupen and Malmedy (Belgium)
- North Schleswig (Denmark)
- Hulschin (Czechoslovakia)
- West Prussia, Posen and Upper Silesia (Poland)
- Saar, Danzig and Memel (League of Nations)
- All gains from the Treaty of Brest Litovsk (Russia)
- All colonies (League of Nations)
4. Germany had to cut its army to 100,000 men
5. Germany could retain only six pre-dreadnought battleships and no submarines or air force
6. The Rhineland had to be demilitarised
The Treaty of Versailles blamed German aggression as a key cause of the First World War. Germany’s economy, already hit hard by the costs of more than four years of fighting, now had to meet ‘the diktat’ of reparations – a total of $31.4 billion.
Germany’s economy struggled through the 1920s, encountering hyperinflation in 1923 followed by a heavy slump as the world fell into depression from October 1929. These struggles catalysed the rise of extremism in Germany and the steady collapse of the Weimar Republic.
A substantial constituency in Britain in particular believed that the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh and would destabilise and create resentment in Germany.
Meanwhile in France Ferdinand Foch, who was not happy with the outcome of the Treaty remarked,
“This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years”.
Both beliefs proved prophetic.
Resurrected as a National Socialist state, the German people were susceptible to Hitler’s assertive, confident rhetoric – Germany had been dealt a harsh hand and should not be ashamed of its strength and militarism.
The Treaty also factored into the disastrous policy of appeasement – many British and French alike were unwilling to confront Germany for addressing what seemed to be legitimate grievances.
I cannot imagine any greater cause for future war that that the German people…should be surrounded by a number of small states… each containing large masses of Germans clamouring for reunion.
David Lloyd George, March 1919