01 June 2019

The Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) was doomed to fail

WW1 had brought about unprecedented human suffering in European history. Almost every nation across Europe was crippled by the war. Of the 60 million European soldiers who were mobilised from 1914–8, 8 million were killed, 7 million permanently disab­l­ed and 15 million seriously injured. Russia lost the greatest pro­p­ortion of its servicemen, Germany lost 15%, Austria-Hungry lost 17%, France lost 11% and Britain lost 5%. And c5 million civil­ians died from war-induced causes.

Finally, on 11th Nov 1918, Germany agreed to an armistice based on USA’s President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, an idealistic set of peace terms designed to placate the isolationists in America. But the Treaty of Ver­s­ailles sharply differed from Wilson’s points.

The general goal of Versailles was to restore European stability and to main­tain perm­an­ent peace. The specific goals were to carve out new nat­ions, divide the Middle East between the victorious Allies, reassign German boundaries and assign reparat­ions. But note that the peace was being sought at the WORST time, a time of unparalleled polit­ical, social and econ­omic chaos.

The Treaty of Versailles, June 1919 
Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. 
by Joseph Finnemore, 1919, 165 x 247 cm.
Australian War Memorial 

The treaty, negotiated between Jan-June 1919 in Paris, was written by the Allies with little German involvement. In fact 32 nations sent delegates to Paris, but not Russia because the other Allies did not recognise the new Communist government. France and Belgium, where much of the brutal fighting had taken place, had paid the highest price. So it was not surprising that the negotiations revealed a split between the French and Belgium on one side Vs the British, Italians and Americans on the other.

The eventual treaty included 15 parts including:
Part I created the Covenant of the New League of Nations, which Germany was not allowed to join until 1926.
Part II specified Germany’s new boundaries, giving: German-speaking Eupen-Malmedy to Bel­g­ium, Alsace-Lorraine to France, eastern districts to Poland, Memel on the Baltic Sea to Lithuania, and parts of Schleswig to Denmark.
Part III stipulated a demilitarised zone and separated the Saar (on the French border) from Germany for 15 years.
Part IV stripped Germany of all its colonies.
Part V reduced Germany’s armed forces to very low levels and prohibited certain weapons, while also committing to eventual Allied disarmament.
Part VIII established Germany’s liability for reparations, beginning with Article 231, in which Germany accepted responsibility for Allied losses.

WWI officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The progressive German government (1919-33) signed the treaty, even though right-wing German parties attacked it as a betrayal. The Am­er­ican Sen­ate re­fused to ratify the treaty, and their government took no respons­ib­ility for most of its provisions. French Prime Min­ister Clemenceau wanted to dismember Germany. The British Prime Minister planned to use a strong Germany as a bulwark against the Russ­ians. 

There was debate about Total German Disarmament. Event­ually, the Allies agreed that the German navy was to be disarmed and limited in men and ships, and the army in men. But no one realistically expected Ger­many to be disarmed forever.

Britain was more interested in securing her over­seas colon­ies than helping her European allies. So while France argued for the western German front­ier to end at the Rhine for security reasons, British Prime Min­ist­er Lloyd George said no, for trading purposes. The compromise was for the Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied troops for 15 years.

Alas France believed that the Treaty had left Germany largely intact, with a pop­ulation doub­le that of France, and with no powerful East European neighbours. The treaty deprived Germany of only 13.5% of her territ­ory, 13% of her economic productivity and 10% of her inhabitants (7 million).

In 1919 France stationed c30,000 French colonial soldiers in the Rhineland. And for five years the French and the Belgians enforced the treaty rig­or­ously, leading in 1922 to their occupation of the Ruhr. But in 1924 Anglo-American financial pressure compelled France to low­er its goals. 

Big Four at Versailles, June 1919
Left: David Lloyd George UK; Vittorio Orlando Italy; Georges Clemenceau France and Woodrow Wilson USA. 

German War Reparations were also problematic. France felt that Ger­many should cover the costs of restoration of invaded territ­ories and repayment of all war debts. But Britain worried about the rev­ival of international trade, if Germany was impossible in debt. So the exact reparations owed by the Germans were never in­cluded in the Treaty of Versailles. As it happened, Germ­any paid repar­at­ions in 1924 and 1929, but the Depres­sion intervened and led to their can­cel­lation in 1932.

Instead, Article 231 (aka the War Guilt Clause) of the Treaty of Versailles simply laid the blame for WW1 solely on the shoulders of Germany and caused intense emotional debate among Germans: The Allied Governments affirm, and Germany accepts the responsib­il­ity of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss to which the Allied gov­ern­ments and their nationals have been subjected as a conseq­uen­ce of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

The War Guilt Clause and the reparations demanded from Germ­any added fuel to growing German resentment of the Allies, and to booming German nationalism. And as time went on, every party in Germany, from the Communists to Hitler’s National Social­ists, con­demned the Vers­ail­les Treaty as unjust. Versailles was the un­ifying issue that held German politics together! Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 made the remaining terms of the treaty highly doubtful.

The Versailles Treaty clearly failed to bring about ever-lasting European stability. But more than that, it can be argued that WW2 was waged by Germany in 1939 specifically to exact revenge for WW1. German nationalists apparently wished to revise the Versailles settle­ment by force, such that Hitler denounced the treaty altogether in 1935.

For follow-up to the Versailles Treaty, read Versailles and After, 1919-1933, by Ruth Henig. The All­ies could win WW1, but not sec­ure the peace. So Henig showed that no formal peace treaty was ever written to end WW2!


Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Excellent article, Hels!

Joseph said...

I think the peace terms should have depended on who started the war and why?

Andrew said...

While I knew about the treaty, I did not know what the treaty actually spelt out. Thanks. The victors of WWI were not magnanimous in victory and clearly the punishment meted out was too severe.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - thanks for enlightening me ... history is a muddled affair - because we cannot see the circumstances ahead. The world changed so much then ... life is not simple. Hilary

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The Versailles Treaty clearly did not utilize the basic tenets of human psychology. On the other hand, if it gave more face to the defeated, it would have amounted to a slap on the wrist that would have encouraged renewed aggression anyway. Clearly, both in what it spelled out and what it didn't, the seeds of WWII were planted in the Versailles treaty.

Hels said...


Thanks ��. I did plenty of history at school and uni, but history is written (or rewritten) by the winners. Thus a relook at Versailles is long overdue.

Hels said...


tricky! Everyone says the war was caused by the assassination of the Emperor's nephew in Sarajevo in June 1914. But the negotiations over military alliances (on both sides) started years earlier than 1914, as did the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913).

Hels said...


Had the Weimar Republic stayed intact, Germany and France etc probably would have stayed true to their obligations. But once the Fascists defeated the elected government of Germany in 1933, in the worst Depression ever, undying hatred took over on both sides.

Hels said...


True about hindsight *nod*. Life was not, and is not simple. At the time the treaty was signed in 1919, Russia was excluded, France was still angry about losing Alsace Lorraine decades early, the USA isolationists hated participating in a European war, Italy was still distrusted over its invasion of Libya.

Hels said...


Yes and no. Yes because there was no way each country could understand its own allies, let alone understand the other side. But no, because this was the greatest catastrophe in modern history, the War To End All Wars!! Both sides were obliged to find true agreement, however long it took.

Student of History said...

Hel how were the debts to be paid back? The German mark lost its value.

Anonymous said...
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Asmah said...

Great article. Glad to read. Thank you for posting this.
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Hels said...


not only was the Versailles Treaty fascinating for my history students. Now I am thinking it is also important for future political thinking.

Hels said...


spot on! The only financial catastrophe I mentioned in the post was the Great Depression. Actually we should be looking back to 1914, to see how Germany planned to pay the huge costs of managing WW1. German Emperor Wilhelm and the German parliament voted to fund the war by borrowing, which of course devalued the mark.

The Germans believed that they would be able to pay off the debt by winning the war, especially when Germany would be able to absorb resource-rich industrial lands from both borders. Plus reparations from France, Britain and Russia. No wonder there was hyper-inflation in Germany, once they lost the war, which The Treaty of Versailles only aggravated.

BBC Four said...

The Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally, summoned all Muslims to Jihad to overthrow Allied power in the Middle East. Turkey's search for scapegoats after defeat by the Russians at Sarakamish led to the mass-deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps 800,000 Armenians died in all. The Allies initially thought Turkey would be a pushover, but Turkey tied up Allied troops across the Middle East for four years, winning triumphantly at Gallipoli with terrible losses on both sides, and then at Kut, south of Baghdad, forcing the British into humiliating surrender.

BBC Four
The First World War, episode 4

steffanronan05@gmail.com said...

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Hels said...


welcome aboard. Let me know what your favourite types of architecture are.

Hels said...

Thank you BBC Four

Why wasn't Turkey included in the Versailles Treaty? Russia had already negotiated their treaty with the Ottoman Empire in 1918. And the Treaty of Versailles was signed with the German Empire which annulled German concessions in the Ottoman sphere.

So it wasn't until the Treaty of Sèvres was signed in August 1920 that the Ottoman Empire was broken up and ceded to the Allies eg the British Mandate for Palestine and the French Mandate for Lebanon etc. Armenia became an independent state, but I cannot find what the Treaty of Sevres said about the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in the old Ottoman Empire, or reparations.

heritagpoliceman said...

Oh yes hard to believe now but the terms of the treaty were all about punishment and defendable borders, which of course just led to resentment, and fodder for the next war - I guess they simply accepted that there might be another war despite the awful horror of the one they just had! Don’t forget the creation of the Danzig corridor too, splitting off East Prussia completely, and not incorporating what later was called the Sudetenland, the German speaking fringes of Chechaslovakia. It was a time of the ending of multi-ethnic empires, which had allowed mixing of different ‘nationalities’, so for instance many Hungarian speakers found themselves in Romania and Ukrainian speakers in Poland, and Yiddish communities everywhere. Single ethnic states only came about after WW2, with great explulsians and sufferering - though Romania still has a large Hungarian population!

Hels said...


I most definitely do not believe that they simply accepted that there may be another war. So many millions of young men died in the armed forces, and so many civilians as well, that EVERY participating nation believed it was the War to End All Wars.

Interesting that you mention Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Ukraine. My family came from Ukraine and my in-laws came from the part of Czechoslovakia that became Hungary!! Thank you.

Woofwoof said...

It's interesting to compare how the victorious side behaved after ww2 where basically the severe military restrictions were imposed but there were no reparations and every effort was made to help the federal Republic to build up its economy. Undoubtedly this policy has been spectacularly successful (ditto similar treatment of Japan). If only a similar policy had been followed after ww1 ie restrictive militarily but generous economically with no attempt to humiliate, history might have been different?

Hels said...


I agree, but I wonder how much the world learns from history. France, Britain and the USA were so caught up their own urgent agendas that they didn't even consider a peace treaty that was "restrictive militarily but generous economically with no attempt to humiliate". And to exclude Russia from the peace process was the most counter-productive humiliation of all.