World History 2 194 - 12.1.2 The Treaty of Versailles

In January 1919, the leaders of the major Allied powers (except Russia) met outside Paris at Versailles to negotiate the treaty formally ending the war (Figure 12.4). Committees were assigned to resolve the many issues concerning not only Europe but also the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The conference lasted about a year. In its finished form, the Treaty of Versailles was actually a series of treaties, a “massive document that ran to 436 pages containing 433 articles organized into fifteen parts.”

In this painting, a large room is filled with men dressed in military uniforms and business suits. Some men sit at a table that is covered with papers. Others stand around the table.
Figure 12.4 This large 1919 painting by John Christen Johansen is called Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson is shown seated near the center of the group, holding some papers in his hand. (credit: “Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919” by National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of an anonymous donor, 1926, CC0)

President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919 to grand parades and a hero’s welcome. In January 1918, he had already published a plan he hoped would be the basis of the treaty—the Fourteen Points—embodying his wish to prevent future war by solving issues he believed had led to the recent conflict. Among these points were the rights of neutral nations, freedom of the seas, and the need to break up the empires that had caused the war and create new sovereign states in Europe. Wilson’s last point proposed a League of Nations where member nations could come together for mutual security and work out problems without resorting to war.

Wilson also strongly advocated self-determination, the idea that each ethnic group should have its own government. The treaty ushered in a major redrawing of Europe, and new countries flooded onto the map. Their borders were drawn by diplomats in Paris, however, and did not always reflect where people of different nationalities lived. Nor could they. In an already diverse empire such as Austria-Hungary, people of different backgrounds lived side by side, so it was no easy feat to draw a border. In some cases, the treaty grouped people in ways that may not have made sense to them. For example, the new country of Czechoslovakia was predominantly composed of Czechs and Slovaks, who did not see themselves as having similar nationalities.

Poland resurfaced after having been partitioned out of existence in the late 1700s. A new Polish nation was carved from territory on the German Empire’s eastern side and land Russia had relinquished under the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ending its involvement in the war. The German-speaking country of Austria became an independent nation, as did Hungary. The area of the Balkans, the site of so much uncertainty and nationalism prior to the war, received a particularly unfavorable decision regarding self-determination. The Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins, and other Slavic groups there viewed themselves as separate nationalities, yet all were assembled in a single country, to be called Yugoslavia or “land of the Southern Slavs.” Yugoslavia was simply a diplomatic creation, and it did not survive the century (Figure 12.5).

There are two maps that both show Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Map (a) is titled Pre-World War I Europe. The German Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire cover most of central Europe. The Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire are also included on the map. Map (b) is titled Post-World War I Europe. What was the German Empire is now Germany and part of Poland. What was the Astro-Hungarian Empire is now Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, part of Poland, part of Romania, and part of Yugoslavia. What was the Russian Empire is now the USSR, Lithuania, part of Poland, and part of Romania. What was the Ottoman Empire is now Turkey.
Figure 12.5 These maps show Europe (a) before and (b) after World War I. Notice the postwar proliferation of new countries created by the Treaty of Versailles. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Other provisions of the treaty were designed to weaken Germany. Great Britain and France were intent on punishing Germany for backing Austria-Hungary in 1914 and enlarging the conflict by invading Belgium and France. They did not want Germany to simply be blamed for the war; they wanted Germany to literally pay for it, so they began a painstaking financial accounting. Every destroyed house or building was assigned a monetary value. Every lost military and civilian life was assessed an amount based on what that person’s future earnings might have been. These reparations totaled over $30 billion in 1919 dollars. (For context, a loaf of bread cost about 9 cents at the time.) Wilson hoped to persuade the other Allied leaders to abandon this course but was unable to, and the treaty reflected their goal of revenge.

Link to Learning

The full text of the Treaty of Versailles is available through the Library of Congress.

Take a few minutes and read through some of the first two parts. The first is about the League of Nations, and the second is about the borders of Germany.

One of the clearest punishments the treaty inflicted on Germany was restrictions on its military capacity. The German Army was limited to 100,000 troops, the draft was ended, and the number of ships, planes, tanks, and submarines was similarly curtailed. The Allied powers hoped that limiting the might of the German Army would limit its aggressiveness. The method of enforcing these limits was not resolved in Paris, however, and it arose as a real issue in the 1930s.

Germany was also shrunk, losing 13 percent of the territory it had held in Europe before the war. The Saar region was to be administered by the League of Nations. The Rhineland in the west (the Rhine River Valley) became a demilitarized zone. Germany also lost western territory to both France (Alsace-Lorraine, previously seized by Germany) and Belgium. In the east, German lands and the port of Danzig (now Gdańsk) were given to Poland. Other lands went to Lithuania and the new country of Czechoslovakia. As a result, Germany lost about one-tenth of its population, approximately 6.5 million people. It also had to give up its colonies in Asia and Africa.

One provision of the treaty related directly to Japan and China. Japan had occupied China’s Shandong Province, a former German concession, including the port of Qingdao (Tsingtao), and continued to hold it after the war. Without consulting the millions of Chinese people living there at the time, the treaty makers allowed Japan to retain this territory, which it did until 1922.

The racism of the era was apparent in what was not included in the treaty. Japan had requested a clause affirming the equality of all nations regardless of race. This proviso would have set the stage for more open migration and fairer treatment of immigrants (such as Japanese immigrants to the United States). Several powers supported its inclusion, but Australia (which allowed no non-White immigration) and then the United States stated their opposition. Wilson claimed a unanimous vote was necessary to include it, though this was not true for any other clause. In the end, the racial equality clause was absent from the final version of the treaty. As another example, when France and Britain tallied the destruction of the war, they did not include African lives lost in the fighting in Africa. The cost of the devastation there was borne solely by Africans.

It was clear that a significant period of adjustment must follow the treaty’s signing as the peoples of the new regions and their fledgling governments established themselves. There was also disappointment. For instance, in 1915, Italy had been promised territory in Dalmatia in return for joining the Allied cause but was forced to relinquish it due to Wilson’s opposition. This prompted anger in Italy and some anti-American rallies. France was annoyed that it had received only part of Germany’s African colonies of Cameroon and Togo while the rest went to Britain. Japan, besides being angered at the rejection of the racial equality clause, was disappointed that it had not been given all of Germany’s colonial holdings in Asia and the Pacific. It received only some, while others went to New Zealand and Australia. Internal ethnic issues had not been fully solved by the treaty (such as in the creation of Czechoslovakia) and could easily resurface given the chance.

The “war guilt” clause of the treaty, blaming Germany for the war, caused many problems for that country over the next decades. Its diplomats felt dishonored by being forced to agree to it, and the harsh monetary reparations left Germany unstable for several years. The government’s decision to print more money to pay these debts caused hyperinflation and made its politicians look incompetent. It was easy for rumors of conspiracy to take hold, particularly among war veterans. The “stab-in-the-back” theory, for example, claimed that German democratic politicians had betrayed the military with the 1918 cease-fire agreement. (In truth, the German military had reached its breaking point in 1918 and was not in a position to continue the war, especially given the continuous arrival of fresh U.S. troops.)

The U.S. Senate’s biggest worry about the Treaty of Versailles was that if the United States joined the League of Nations, its troops could be sent anywhere in the world, drawing the nation into foreign disputes that the Senate, then dominated by the Republican Party, wanted to avoid. Senators feared the treaty would thus cost them their constitutional power to declare war. They also objected to Britain and France’s desire to control the League. For these reasons, the United States did not approve the treaty and did not join the League of Nations. The organization's ability to mediate and resolve international disputes was weakened by the lack of U.S. participation.

The treaty was more popular in other Allied nations. Britain generally felt it was even-handed and that the punishment of Germany was just. The British people looked forward to joining the League. The French also agreed with the penalties heaped upon Germany, though some felt they should have gone even further because France had suffered more than Britain had. China was frustrated that Japan was allowed to retain Shandong under the treaty, but its protests fell on deaf ears. Anger at China’s treatment helped lead to the May Fourth Movement, which began in Beijing in 1919 as a protest by students. It grew to include labor strikes, calls for a boycott of Japanese-made products, and the removal of Japanese-leaning government officials.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax