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The Treaty of Versailles was one of the peace treaties at the end of World War I. It ended the state of war between Germanymarker and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinandmarker. The other Central Powers on the German side of World War I were dealt with in separate treaties. Although the armistice signed on 11 November 1918 ended the actual fighting, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty.

Of the many provisions in the treaty, one of the most important and controversial required Germany to accept sole responsibility for causing the war and, under the terms of articles 231–248 (later known as the War Guilt clauses), to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. The total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion marks ($31.5 billion, £6,600 million) in 1921, which inflation adjusted, is roughly equivalent to $400 billion US Dollars as of 2007. This was a sum that many economists deemed to be excessive because it would have taken Germany until 1988 to pay.. The Treaty was undermined by subsequent events starting as early as 1932 and was widely flouted by the mid-1930s.

The result of these competing and sometimes conflicting goals among the victors was compromise that left none contented: Germany was not pacified, conciliated nor permanently weakened. This would prove to be a factor leading to later conflicts, notably and directly the Second World War.


Negotiations between the Allied powers started on 18 January in the Salle de l'Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry, on the Quai d'Orsaymarker in Paris. Initially, 70 delegates of 27 nations participated in the negotiations. Having been defeated, Germany, Austriamarker, and Hungarymarker were excluded from the negotiations. Russia was also excluded because it had negotiated a separate peace with Germany in 1918, in which Germany gained a large fraction of Russia's land and resources.

Until March 1919, the most important role for negotiating the extremely complex and difficult terms of the peace fell to the regular meetings of the "Council of Ten", which comprised the heads of government and foreign ministers of the five major victors (the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japanmarker). As this unusual body proved too unwieldy and formal for effective decision-making, Japan and—for most of the remaining conference—the foreign ministers left the main meetings, so that only the "Big Four" remained. After his territorial claims to Fiume (today Rijekamarker) were rejected, Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Orlando left the negotiations (only to return to sign in June), and the final conditions were determined by the leaders of the "Big Three" nations: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and American President Woodrow Wilson.

At Versailles, it was difficult to decide on a common position because their aims conflicted with one another. The result has been called the "unhappy compromise".

France's aims

While both American and British leaders wanted to come to a fair and reasonable deal, France's interests were much more aggressive and demanding as many of the battles had been fought on French soil. Although they had agreed after the treaty was signed many world leaders agreed that some of France's demands were far too harsh and unsympathetic. France had lost some 1.5 million military personnel and an estimated 400,000 civilians to the war. (See World War I casualties) To appease the French public, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wanted to impose policies meant to cripple Germany militarily, politically, and economically, so as never to be able to invade France again. Clemenceau also particularly wished to regain the rich and industrial land of Alsace-Lorrainemarker, which had been stripped from France by Germany in the 1871 War. Clemenceau wanted the Rhineland to be separated from Germany as it was a key area of industry. This land also acted as a buffer zone between France and Germany in case of repeated attack.

Britain's aims

Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported 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 the most powerful force on the continent, and a delicate balance could be unsettled. Lloyd George was also worried by Woodrow Wilson's proposal for "self-determination" and, like the French, wanted to preserve his own nation's empire. Like the French, Lloyd George supported secret treaties and naval blockades.

Prior to the war, Germany had been Britain's main competitor and its second largest trading partner, making the destruction of Germany at best a mixed blessing. Lloyd George managed to increase the overall reparations payment and Britain's share by demanding compensation for the huge number of widows, orphans, and men left unable to work as a result of war injuries.

United States' aims

There had been strong non-interventionist sentiment before and after the United States entered the war in April 1917, and many Americans were eager to extricate themselves from European affairs as rapidly as possible. The United States took a more conciliatory view toward the issue of German reparations. Before the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson, along with other American officials including Edward Mandell House, put forward his Fourteen Points, which he presented in a speech at the Paris Peace Conference.


Impositions on Germany

Legal restrictions

  • Article 227 charges former German Emperor, Wilhelm II with supreme offence against international morality. He is to be tried as a war criminal.
  • Articles 228–230 tried many other Germans as war criminals.
  • Article 231 (the "War Guilt Clause") lays sole responsibility for the war on Germany, which is to be accountable for all damage to civilian populations of the Allies.

Military restrictions

Part V of the treaty begins with the preamble,"In order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations, Germany undertakes strictly to observe the military, naval and air clauses which follow."Germany was also forbidden to unite with Austria to form a larger Nation to make up for the lost land
  • The Rhineland will become a demilitarized zone administered by Great Britain and France jointly.
  • German armed forces will number no more than 100,000 troops, and conscription will be abolished.
  • Enlisted men will be retained for at least 12 years; officer to be retained for at least 25 years.
  • German naval forces will be limited to 15,000 men, 6 battleships (no more than 10,000 tons displacement each), 6 cruisers (no more than 6,000 tons displacement each), 6 destroyers (no more than 800 tons displacement each) and 12 torpedo boats (no more than 200 tons displacement each). No submarines are to be included.
  • The manufacture, import, and export of weapons and poison gas is prohibited.
  • Armed aircraft, tanks and armoured cars are prohibited.
  • Blockades on ships are prohibited.
  • Restrictions on the manufacture of machine guns (e.g. the Maxim machine gun) and rifles (e.g. Mauser 1898 rifles).

Territorial changes

[[Image:German losses after WWI.svg|thumb|Germany after Versailles:

Germany's borders in 1919 had been established forty-five years earlier at the country's creation in 1871. Territory and cities in the region had changed hands repeatedly for centuries, including at various times being owned by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kingdom of Swedenmarker, Kingdom of Poland, and Kingdom of Lithuania. However, Germany laid claim to lands and cities that it viewed as historically "Germanic" centuries before Germany's establishment as a country in 1871. Other countries disputed Germany's claim to this territory. In the peace treaty, Germany agreed to return disputed lands and cities to various countries.

Germany was compelled to yield control of its colonies, and would also lose a number of European territories. The province of West Prussia would be ceded to the restored Polandmarker, thereby granting it access to the Baltic Seamarker via the "Polish Corridor" which Prussia had annexed in the Partitions of Poland. This turned East Prussia into an exclave, separated from mainland Germany.

  • Alsacemarker and much of Lorrainemarker, both originally Germanmarker-speaking territories, were part of Francemarker, having been annexed by France's King Louis XIV who desired the Rhinemarker as a natural border. After approximately two centuries of Frenchmarker rule, Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine were ceded to Germany in 1871 under the Treaty of Frankfurt. In 1919 both regions were returned to France.

  • The eastern part of Upper Silesia was assigned to Poland, despite the Upper Silesia plebiscite resulting in 717,122 votes being cast for Germany and 483,514 for Poland.

  • The area of the towns Eupenmarker and Malmedymarker went to Belgiummarker despite a plebiscite to the contrary. The Vennbahn railway was also transferred to Belgium.

  • The area of Soldaumarker in East Prussia, an important railway junction on the Warsawmarker–Danzigmarker route, was transferred to Poland without a plebiscite (area 492 km²).

  • The province of Saarlandmarker was to be a under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years, after which a plebiscite between France and Germany, was to decide to which country it would belong. During this time, coal would be sent to France. The region was then called the Saargebiet (German: Saar Area) and was formed from southern parts of the German Rhine Provincemarker and western parts of the Bavarian Palatinate under the Saar statute of the Versailles Treaty of 28. 6. 1919 (Article 45–50).

  • The strategically important port of Danzigmarker with the delta of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea was separated from Germany as the Freie Stadt Danzigmarker (Free City of Danzig). This created the so-called Polish Corridor, giving Poland access to the sea.

  • Austria was forbidden from merging with Germany.

Shandong problem

Article 156 of the treaty transferred German concessions in Shandongmarker, China, to Japan rather than returning sovereign authority to China. Chinese outrage over this provision led to demonstrations and a cultural movement known as the May Fourth Movement and influenced China not to sign the treaty. China declared the end of its war against Germany in September 1919 and signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921.


Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles assigned blame for the war to Germany; much of the rest of the Treaty set out the reparations that Germany would pay to the Allies.

The total sum of war reparations demanded from Germany—around 226 billion Reichsmarks—was decided by an Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. In 1921, it was reduced to 132 billion Reichsmarks (£4.99 billion).

It could be seen that the Versailles reparation impositions were partly a reply to the reparations placed upon France by Germany through the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt signed after the Franco-Prussian War; critics of the Treaty argued that France had been able to pay the reparations (5,000,000,000 francs) within 3 years while the Young Plan of 1929 estimated German reparations to be paid until 1988. Indemnities of the Treaty of Frankfurt were in turn calculated, on the basis of population, as the precise equivalent of the indemnities imposed by Napoleon I on Prussia in 1807.

The Versailles Reparations came in a variety of forms, including coal, steel, intellectual property (eg. the trademark for Aspirin) and agricultural products, in no small part because currency reparations of that order of magnitude would lead to hyperinflation, as actually occurred in postwar Germany (see 1920s German inflation), thus decreasing the benefits to France and the United Kingdom.

The reparations in the form of coal were a big part in punishing Germany. The Treaty of Versailles made out Germany to be responsible for the destruction of coal mines in Northern France, parts of Belgium, and parts of Italy. Therefore, France was awarded full possession of Germany's coal-bearing Saar basin. Also, Germany was forced to provide France, Belgium, and Italy with deliveries of millions of tons of coal for ten years. However, within a few years, Germany, under the control of Adolf Hitler, stopped these deliveries of coal; therefore violating the Treaty of Versailles.

A German author expressed the view that Germany would be finishing to pay off its World War I reparations until 2020.

The creation of international organizations

Part I of the treaty was the Covenant of the League of Nations which provided for the creation of the League of Nations, an organization intended to arbitrate international disputes and thereby avoid future wars. Part XIII organized the establishment of the International Labour Organization, to promote "the regulation of the hours of work, including the establishment of a maximum working day and week, the regulation of the labour supply, the prevention of unemployment, the provision of an adequate living wage, the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment, the protection of children, young persons and women, provision for old age and injury, protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own recognition of the principle of freedom of association, the organization of vocational and technical education and other measures" Further international commissions were to be set up, according to Part XII, to administer control over the Elbe, the Oder, the Niemenmarker (Russstrom-Memel-Niemen) and the Danube rivers.


The Treaty contained a lot of other provisions (economic issues, transportation, etc.). One of the provisions was the following:

"ARTICLE 246. Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, ... Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty's Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany."


Among the allies

Clemenceau had failed to achieve all of the demands of the French people, and he was voted out of office in the elections of January 1920. French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who felt the restrictions on Germany were too lenient, declared, "This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years."

Influenced by the opposition of Henry Cabot Lodge, the United States Senate voted against ratifying the treaty. Despite considerable debate, Wilson refused to support the treaty with any of the reservations imposed by the Senate.
As a result, the United States did not join the League of Nations, despite Wilson's claims that he could "predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it."

Wilson's friend Edward Mandell House, present at the negotiations, wrote in his diary on 29 June 1919:
"I am leaving Paris, after eight fateful months, with conflicting emotions.
Looking at the conference in retrospect, there is much to approve and yet much to regret.
It is easy to say what should have been done, but more difficult to have found a way of doing it.
To those who are saying that the treaty is bad and should never have been made and that it will involve Europe in infinite difficulties in its enforcement, I feel like admitting it.
But I would also say in reply that empires cannot be shattered, and new states raised upon their ruins without disturbance.
To create new boundaries is to create new troubles.
The one follows the other.
While I should have preferred a different peace, I doubt very much whether it could have been made, for the ingredients required for such a peace as I would have were lacking at Paris."

After Wilson's successor Warren G. Harding continued American opposition to the League of Nations, Congress passed the Knox-Porter Resolution bringing a formal end to hostilities between the United States and the Central Powers. It was signed into law by Harding on 21 July 1921.

In Germany

On 29 April the German delegation under the leadership of the Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau arrived in Versailles. On 7 May when faced with the conditions dictated by the victors, including the so-called "War Guilt Clause", von Brockdorff-Rantzau replied to Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George: We know the full brunt of hate that confronts us here. You demand from us to confess we were the only guilty party of war; such a confession in my mouth would be a lie. Because Germany was not allowed to take part in the negotiations, the German government issued a protest against what it considered to be unfair demands, and a "violation of honour" and soon afterwards, withdrew from the proceedings of the Treaty of Versailles.

Germans of all political shades denounced the treaty—particularly the provision that blamed Germany for starting the war—as an insult to the nation's honour. They referred to the treaty as "the Diktat" since its terms were presented to Germany on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Germany's first democratically elected Chancellor, Philipp Scheidemann refused to sign the treaty and resigned. In a passionate speech before the National Assembly on 12 March 1919, he called the treaty a "murderous plan" and exclaimed,

After Scheidemann's resignation, a new coalition government was formed under Gustav Bauer. After being informed that the army was not capable of any meaningful resistance, the new government recommended signing the treaty. The National Assembly voted in favour of signing the treaty by 237 to 138, with 5 abstentions. The foreign minister Hermann MĂĽller and Johannes Bell travelled to Versailles to sign the treaty on behalf of Germany. The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 and ratified by the National Assembly on 9 July 1919 by a vote of 209 to 116.

Conservatives, nationalists and ex-military leaders condemned the peace and democratic Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, and Jews were viewed by them with suspicion, due to their supposed extra-national loyalties. It was rumoured that the Jews had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies. Those who seemed to benefit from a weakened Germany, and the newly formed Weimar Republic, were regarded as having "stabbed Germany in the back" on the home front, by either opposing German nationalism, instigating unrest and strikes in the critical military industries or profiteering. These theories were given credence by the fact that when Germany surrendered in November 1918, its armies were still on French and Belgian territory. Furthermore, on the Eastern Front, Germany had already won the war against Russia and concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the West, Germany had seemed to have come close to winning the war with the Spring Offensive earlier in 1918. Its failure was blamed on strikes in the arms industry at a critical moment of the offensive, leaving soldiers with an inadequate supply of materiel. The strikes were regarded by nationalists as having been instigated by traitors, with the Jews taking most of the blame.


The German economy was so weak that only a small percentage of reparations was paid in hard currency. Nonetheless, even the payment of this small percentage of the original reparations (132 billion Gold Reichsmarks) still placed a significant burden on the German economy. Although the causes of the devastating post-war hyperinflation are complex and disputed, Germans blamed the near-collapse of their economy on the Treaty, and some economists estimated that the reparations accounted for as much as one third of the hyper-inflation.

The economic strain eventually reached the point where Germany stopped paying the reparations agreed in the Treaty of Versailles. As a result French and Belgian forces invaded and occupied the Ruhr, a heavily industrialised part of Germany along the French-German border. German workers offered 'passive resistance', meaning that they refused to work in the factories as long as the French controlled them.

Some significant violations (or avoidances) of the provisions of the Treaty were:
  • In 1919 the dissolution of the General Staff appeared to happen; however, the core of the General Staff was hidden within another organization, the Truppenamt, where it rewrote all Heer (Army) and Luftstreitkräfte (Air Force) doctrinal and training materials based on the experience of World War I.
  • On 16 April 1922 representatives of the governments of Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Rapallo Treaty at a World Economic Conference at Genoamarker in Italy. The treaty re-established diplomatic relations, renounced financial claims on each other and pledged future cooperation.
  • In 1932 the German government announced it would no longer adhere to the treaty's military limitations, citing the Allies' violation of the treaty by failing to initiate military limitations on themselves as called for in the preamble of Part V of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • In March 1935 Adolf Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles by introducing compulsory military conscription in Germany and rebuilding the armed forces. This included a new Navy (Kriegsmarine), the first full armoured divisions (Panzerwaffe), and an Air Force (Luftwaffe).
  • In June 1935 the United Kingdom effectively withdrew from the treaty with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
  • In March 1936 Hitler violated the treaty by reoccupying the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland.
  • In March 1938 Hitler violated the treaty by annexing Austriamarker in the Anschluss.
  • In September 1938 Hitler with approval of France, Britain and Italy violated the Treaty by annexing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakiamarker.
  • In March 1939 Hitler violated the treaty by occupying the rest of Czechoslovakia.
  • On 1 September 1939 Hitler violated the treaty by invading Polandmarker, thus initiating World War II in Europe.

Historical assessments

In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes referred to the Treaty of Versailles as a "Carthaginian peace", a misguided attempt to destroy Germany on behalf of French revanchism, rather than to follow the fairer principles for a lasting peace set out in President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which Germany had accepted at the armistice. He stated: "I believe that thecampaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war wasone of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which ourstatesmen have ever been responsible." Keynes had been the principal representative of the British Treasury at the Paris Peace Conference, and used in his passionate book arguments that he and others (including some US officials) had used at Paris. He believed the sums being asked of Germany in reparations were many times more than it was possible for Germany to pay, and that these would produce drastic instability.

French Resistance economist Étienne Mantoux disputed that analysis. During the 1940s, Mantoux wrote a book titled, "The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes" in an attempt to rebut Keynes' claims; it was published after his death.

More recently it has been argued (for instance by historian Gerhard Weinberg in his book "A World At Arms") that the treaty was in fact quite advantageous to Germany. The Bismarckian Reich was maintained as a political unit instead of being broken up, and Germany largely escaped post-war military occupation (in contrast to the situation following World War II.)

The British military historian Correlli Barnett claimed that the Treaty of Versailles was "extremely lenient in comparison with the peace terms Germany herself, when she was expecting to win the war, had had in mind to impose on the Allies". Furthermore, he claimed, it was "hardly a slap on the wrist" when contrasted with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany had imposed on a defeated Russia in March 1918, which had taken away a third of Russia's population (albeit of non-Russian ethnicity), one half of Russia's industrial undertakings and nine-tenths of Russia's coal mines, coupled with an indemnity of six billion marks. Eventually, even under the "cruel" terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany's economy had been restored to its pre-war status.

Barnett also claims that, in strategic terms, Germany was in fact in a superior position following the Treaty than she had been in 1914. Germany's eastern frontiers faced Russia and Austria, who had both in the past balanced German power. But Barnett asserts that, because the Austrian empire fractured after the war into smaller, weaker states and Russia was wracked by revolution and civil war, the newly restored Poland was no match for even a defeated Germany.

In the West, Germany was balanced only by France and Belgium, both of which were smaller in population and less economically vibrant than Germany. Barnett concludes by saying that instead of weakening Germany, the Treaty "much enhanced" German power. Britain and France should have (according to Barnett) "divided and permanently weakened" Germany by undoing Bismarck's work and partitioning Germany into smaller, weaker states so it could never disrupt the peace of Europe again. By failing to do this and therefore not solving the problem of German power and restoring the equilibrium of Europe, Britain "had failed in her main purpose in taking part in the Great War".

Regardless of modern strategic or economic analysis, resentment caused by the treaty sowed fertile psychological ground for the eventual rise of the Nazi party. Indeed, on Nazi Germany's rise to power, Adolf Hitler resolved to overturn the remaining military and territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Military buildup began almost immediately in direct defiance of the Treaty, which, by then, had been destroyed by Hitler in front of a cheering crowd. "It was this treaty which caused a chain reaction leading to World War II," claimed historian Dan Rowling (1951). Various references to the treaty are found in many of Hitler's speeches and in pre-war Nazi propaganda.

French historian Raymond Cartier points out that millions of Germans in the Sudetenland and in Posen-West Prussia were placed under foreign rule in a hostile environment, where harassment and violation of rights by authorities are documented. Cartier asserts that, out of 1,058,000 Germans in Posen-West Prussia in 1921, 758,867 fled their homelands within five years due to Polish harassment. In 1926, the Polish Ministry of the Interior estimated the remaining number of Germans at less than 300,000. These sharpening ethnic conflicts would lead to public demands of reattaching the annexed territory in 1938 and become a pretext for Hitler's annexations of Czechoslovakia and parts of Poland.

See also

Further reading

  • The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years, Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Gläser, editors. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1998.



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