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 consisted of 440 articles setting out the terms for Germany’s punishment. 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 terms:
1. Germany was exluded from joining the newly established League of Nations
Founded as a method of avoiding war, the League of Nations was an international organization created at the end of World War One as one of US President Wilson’s fourteen points for peace.
Under Articles 1-26, Germany was not allowed to join. However, under the Weimar Republic, Germany was later admitted to the League of Nations through a resolution passed on 8 September 1926.
2. The Rhineland had to be demilitarised
Under Article 42, all fortifications in the Rhineland and 31 miles east of the river were to be demolished and new construction was forbidden. The German territory to the west of the Rhine, toegther with the bridgeheads, was also to be occupied by Allied troops for 5-15 years to ensure the execution of the treaty’s terms.
3. The Saar, with its rich coalfields, were given to France for 15 years
Article 45 directed this as compensation for the destruction of the coal-mines in the north of France, and as part payment towards reparations due from Germany.
4. Germany had to make substantial territorial concessions
The Treaty of Versailles reduced Germany’s European territory by roughly 13%, and stripped Germany of all its overseas territories and colonies. 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 – given to France and Britain as ‘mandates’)
5. Germany was forbidden to unite with AustriaUnder Article 80, this was prohibited without the consent of the League of Nations.
(Less than two decades later, on 12 March 1938, following German pressure to the collapse the Austrian Government, German troops crossed into Austria. The following day Hitler announced the Anschluss: the annexation of Austria by Germany).
6. Germany had to cut its army to 100,000 men
This was set out in Article 163. These men were to be in a maximum of seven infantry and three cavalry divisions (Article 160). Conscription was also forbidden and the German general staff was to be dissolved – officers who previously belonged to any formations of the army who were not retained in the units allowed to be maintained were forbidden to take part in any military exercise, whether theoretical or practical (Article 175).
7. Germany could retain only six battleships and was to have no submarines
Article 181 also stated that all other warships had to be placed in reserve or devoted to commercial purposes. The manpower of the navy was not to exceed 15,000 men, including manning for the fleet, coast defences, signal stations, administration, other land services, officers and men of all grades and corps (Article 183).
8. Germany was not allowed to have an air force
Neither military or naval air forces were allowed under Article 198, which also required Germany to hand over all aerial related materials. Germany was also forbidden to manufacture or import aircraft or related material for a period of six months following the signing of the treaty.
9. Germany had to accept the blame for starting the war
This was Article 231 of the treaty, often known as the ‘War Guilt Clause’.
Germany had to accept responsibility for the losses and damages caused by the war “as a consequence of the … aggression of Germany and her allies.” Although the article didn’t specifically use the word ‘guilt’, the Allies used this Article as a legal basis and justification for Germany to pay their claims to reparations for the war.
This was one of the most controversial points of the treaty. The Germans viewed this clause as a national humiliation, forcing them to accept full responsibility for causing the war. They were angry that they hadn’t been allowed to negotiate, and deemed the Treaty a diktat – dictated peace.
10. Germany had to pay $31.4 billion in reparations
In 1921 the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion gold marks (£6.6 billion – roughly equivalent to £284 billion in 2021).
Whilst key figures at the time (such as economist John Maynard Keynes), thought the reparations in Article 232 too harsh, prominent figures on the Allied side (such as French Marshal Ferdinand Foch), thought the treaty treated Germany too leniently.
Economically these reparations went on to cripple Germany. Afterwards, they defaulted in 1923, but despite The Dawes and Young Plans re-scheduling Germany’s payments, eventually Hitler refused to pay altogether. It took Germany 92 years to repay its World War One reparations.
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