Treaty of Versailles

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William Orpen - The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
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The Treaty of Versailles was an end to the historically disastrous World War I.

While it may have made the victors feel better, its main purpose was to ensure that Germany could never pose a threat to Europe ever again. Had Ferdinand Foch had his way, this would have succeeded. This is where the quote "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years" came from, with the powers Great Britain and the USA refusing to comply to the harsher terms out of fear of French dominance on mainland Europe.


The Treaty was signed in the Palace of Versailles, a place of great historical significance to the nation of France. As it was the site of France's final humiliation during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871,[1] it was the perfect venue for Georges Clémenceau (born 1841) to put the proverbial boot to Germany.

The newly-formed Weimar Republic had little option but to agree to terms dictated by the Entente force and allies.[2]


The terms of the treaty were not as onerous as the terms the German Empire had dictated to Russia.[3] But no one remembers that because Germany had to give it all back, as per the Treaty of Versailles. Some of the terms included:

  • Germany was forced to restrict the size and equipment of its military until it was little more than a paramilitary police force (well, to the extent to which they complied with the obligations at least).[4]
  • Germany was forced to pay reparations to the victors, crippling the national economy.[5] Guess when it was finally paid off? December of 2010.[note 1][6]
  • Germany was forced to turn over all of its colonial possessions to the Allies or local governments and to give up treaty privileges with many countries.[7]
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II was to be put on trial for "a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties."[8] - This in fact never happened and there was little to no prosecution of war crimes (despite the fact that there were plenty; poison gas for one[note 2]) of any side, victorious or loser.
  • Germany was forced to take the blame for the whole war even happening.[5] This is the War Guilt Clause,Wikipedia and historians largely agree that it was the most damaging one, but it was seen as necessary by the lawyers of the victorious powers as the basis for making Germany liable for reparations.[note 3]
  • Germany was to deliver to the French government no less than 10,000 goats over three years and an additional quantity to be determined.[9]

Alternatively phrased as:

  • Germany will calm down.
  • Germany should feel bad.
  • Germany will pay for everything.


The Great Depression along with the Treaty and the utter humiliation of Germany and the German people was a significant contributing factor to the rise of Adolf Hitler.[10] A young Ho Chi MinhWikipedia also attended to fight for the freedom of what would become the territory of French Indochina and found himself loudly shouted down, causing him to eschew capitalism and thereby indirectly planting the seeds for what would become the Vietnam War.

Putting it into perspective[edit]

While from today's point of view the reparations were cruelly excessive and the war guilt clause was only adding insult to injury, the treaty was not overly harsh or downright malicious compared to other peace treaties of the late 19th and early 20th century. Germany for example had extracted reparations of five billion Francs in gold - payable within two years - after its decisive victory in 1871. That in addition to the territory of Alsace and Lorraine it annexed with little regard for its ethnic composition and the will of its population. Those reparations were so high that Germany still had part of it (120 million Reichsmark, or 1.3 billion Euros in today's money) stored in a tower in Berlin-Spandau by the time World War I ended. This of course left France understandably pissed, and the chief negotiator for France at the Versailles peace conference, prime minister Georges Clemenceau had been thirty when the last war against Germany (that of 1870/71) finished and was thus the main proponent of a harsh peace. Furthermore, when Germany had the chance to dictate a peace with Soviet Russia in 1918, it came up with the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk that in addition to taking away most of the Soviet land west of Moscow and converting it into satellite countries of the German Empire called for harsh reparations.

A further point of legitimate criticism of the peace of Versailles is the fact that while most territories were split off from Germany after popular votes as to which country the people wanted to belong to,[note 4] in some cases the will of the people was ignored or they were not even asked. In many cases, this was entirely arbitrary; for no obvious reason negotiators completely ignored the people of Belarus, who had made their desire to have their own country very clear, while creating Lithuania out of thin air, even though the Lithuanians were no more ready to govern themselves than the Belarusians. The new Soviet Union then had free rein to destroy everything in Belarus, from which about the only things to come from there until 1991 were horrific famines, a puppet seat in the United Nations after World War II, and Andrei GromykoWikipedia, whereas Lithuania weathered the later USSR takeover relatively well and has managed to do fairly well.

Still with the benefit of hindsight a more lenient and less hypocritical peace would have probably resulted in a much less angry Germany and a much better 20th century. This insight was not lost on some of the statesmen of the 1920s and by 1932 Germany had been fully readmitted into the international community and the obligation to pay reparations was formally gone, but by that point in time the Nazis had already profited from anti-Versailles rhetoric and by 1933 they took absolute power over Germany, rapidly dismantling even the - arguably - good provisions of the treaty (demilitarized Rhineland, peaceful agreements concerning borders, limited size of the German military).

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. However, the sum in question was only accumulated interest on a payment Germany had previously defaulted on. Overall Germany only paid a fraction of the initially demanded reparations
  2. Which - incidentally - the German military was the first to use and made the heaviest use of
  3. Also, Germany was pretty much the only losing power around that had any money: Austria-Hungary had already dissolved, the Ottoman Empire was clearly little more than a dead letter, none of their successor states were able to cough up reparations (and some, like Czechoslovakia, were essentially part of the victorious powers), and neither could Bulgaria.
  4. South Schleswig for one decided to stay part of Germany instead of joining Denmark