On 28 June 1919, the peace treaty that ended World War I was signed by Germany and the Allies at the Palace of Versailles near Paris. Allied interests were represented by the ‘Big Three’: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Premier George Clemenceau and US President Woodrow Wilson. The Great War had devastated Europe. Vast areas of north-western Europe were reduced to moonscapes; French and Belgian villages and towns had disappeared without trace. The conflict decimated Europe’s male population. Both sides suffered casualties on an almost incomprehensible scale. France had suffered more than 1.4 million dead, and more than 4 million wounded. In total, 8.5 million men had perished.
Many voices at Versailles held Germany responsible for the war, calling for the country to be crushed economically and militarily, rendered incapable of future aggression. Clemenceau was the most ardent advocate of this view. Backed by the French public, he wanted to bring Germany to her knees. He called for Germany to pay huge sums of money, known as reparations. Lloyd George was aware of Britain’s appetite for vengeance, and publicly promised to ‘make Germany pay’. Yet privately, anxiety produced by the Russian Revolution convinced him that Germany needed to be a bulwark against Bolshevism. If Germany was left destitute, extreme left wing politics would find support among the population. Germany should not be treated leniently, but neither should she be destroyed.
Wilson believed that Germany should be punished in a way that would lead to European reconciliation rather than revenge. Although the US public increasingly supported isolationism, Wilson called for the creation of an international peacekeeping organisation. Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, his blueprint for the post-war world, called for self-determination for all European peoples, an end to secret treaties and European disarmament.
On 7 May, the treaty was presented to Germany. She was stripped of 13 per cent of her territory and ten per cent of her population; the border territories of Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France. Germany lost all of her colonies, 75 per cent of her iron ore deposits and 26 per cent of her coal and potash. The size of the army and navy was drastically cut, and an air force and submarines were forbidden. The Germans also had to officially accept ‘war guilt’ and pay reparations to the tune of £6,000 million.
For the Allies, the treaty had created a just peace which weakened Germany, secured the French border against attack and created an organisation to ensure future world peace, to be called the League of Nations. Yet the backlash in Germany against the Versailles ‘Diktat’ was enormous. Territorial losses to the new Polish state on the Eastern Front (where Germany had actually been victorious) outraged many Germans. The demilitarisation of the Rhineland and the incorporation of large numbers of Sudeten Germans into the new state of Czechoslovakia provoked similar feelings. Perhaps the greatest resentment, however, was caused by the ‘War Guilt Clause’, which forced Germany to accept full responsiblity for causing the war. In a nation that had lost 2 million men, and was quickly developing a myth that it had not been militarily defeated in the war, but ‘stabbed in the back’ by its own politicians, this was difficult to bear.
As Germany sought revisions to the treaty, the US Senate rejected the Versailles settlement and vetoed US membership of the League of Nations. This was to contribute to its failure as an international peacekeeping organisation in the unstable and dangerous years leading up to World War II. It was instability that the Versailles Treaty had done much to avoid and in the end created.