June 28th in German History: The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Versailles, English version.jpg
The Treaty of Versailles

The First World War was the single most important event of the 20th Century. Every conflict or crisis that occurred after was caused either directly or indirectly by the outcomes of that conflict. The First World War led to the rise of the Soviet Union, the end of colonialism, the Great Depression, and the Nazi Party taking power in Germany. While the fighting itself was certainly consequential, perhaps more important were the impacts of the treaty that ended the war, the Treaty of Versailles, which was singed on June 28th, 1919.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on the five year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which directly precipitated the war. It followed months of negation after the armistice on November 11th, 1918, between the Allied powers. No Germans were allowed to attend. Most of the negotiations were conducted by the “Big Four”: France, Britain, Italy, and the US. Russia was excluded as it had made an earlier separate peace with Germany and had left the war early. The four nations each had their own goals. France, led by Georges Clemenceau, had suffered enormous economic devastation in its most economically productive regions and had suffered 1.7 million soldiers and civilians killed. France thus wanted to annex German territory up to the Rhine to provide a buffer against German aggression and weaken Germany economically. France also wanted reparation payments. The UK under Prime Minister Lloyd George had suffered less and wanted a less harsh peace. Britain did not want France to dominate Europe and instead wanted a viable Germany, and only sought reparation payments and the annexation of German colonies. Italy had few deigns on Germany and was more focused on taking pieces of Austrian territory. The US had suffered the least and wanted an amiable peace, opposing the annexation of colonies, preferring that they be guided towards independence via mandates, and harsh reparations. France, Britain, and Italy all wanted a war guilt clause, which would force Germany to accept full responsibility for starting WWI. Germany, for her part, did not want to pay reparations or give up territory but was in such a desperate position, the Allied blockade was still starving the German population, that it was forced to accept whatever the Allies demanded. The minor Allied Powers – Portugal, Argentina, China, the British and French colonies, Romania, Belgium, and many others – were all also largely excluded from having any influence on the treaty. In the end, Germany would lose the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, which it had taken from France nearly fifty years earlier. It would also be forced to cede parts of Eastern Prussia to the newly formed Polish nation. Germany also had to had to abide by severe military restrictions, including limiting its army to 100,000 men and being prohibited from constructing or purchasing tanks, planes, submarines, and chemical weapons. The exact amount of reparations was not determined in the 1919 treaty, but in 1921 the figure was set at 132 billion gold marks, or $33 billion. Several other provisions were included in the treaty, including one banning unification with Austria. Finally, Germany was forced to accept full responsibility for the war.

The treaty of Versailles would end up satisfying no one, with the possible exception of the Polish. France did not get as much territory as it wanted, and Britain and the US thought that France received too much. Germany nearly resumed the war after hearing of the terms, and as it was the German Minister President resigned rather than sign the treaty. In the long run, Germany humiliation would by the treaty would help crate the environment in which Nazism rose. Many minor nations were upset at the treaty, chiefly colonies which had fought in the war and had received little in return. Ho Chi Min famously spoke at one of the sessions, arguing for Vietnamese independence, a desire ignored by the French. The Treaty of Versailles did not solve and underlying issues. It merely let them fester for two decades and allowed for the world to rearm itself for another war.

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