The Treaty of Versailles was one of the peace treaties at the end of World War I. It ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of the events that triggered the start of the war. Although the armistice signed on 11 November 1918 ended the actual fighting, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. Of the many provisions in the treaty, one of the most important and controversial required Germany and its allies to accept full responsibility for causing the war and, under the terms of articles 231-248, to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. The Treaty was undermined by subsequent events starting as early as 1922 and was widely flouted by the mid-thirties.
The result of these competing and sometimes incompatible goals among the victors was a compromise that nobody was satisfied with. Germany was neither pacified nor conciliated, which, in retrospect, did not bode well for the future of Germany, Europe, or the world as a whole.
Negotiations between the Allied powers started on 18 January in the Salle de l'Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry, on the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. Initially, 70 delegates of 26 nations participated in the negotiations. Having been defeated, Germany, Austria, and Hungary were excluded from the negotiations. Russia was also excluded because it had negotiated a separate peace with Germany in 1917, in which Germany gained a large fraction of Russia's land and resources.
Until March 1919, the most important role for negotiating the extremely complex and difficult terms of the peace fell to the regular meetings of the "Council of Ten" (heads of government and foreign ministers) composed of the five major victors (the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan). As this unusual body proved too unwieldy and formal for effective decision-making, Japan and - for most of the remaining conference - the foreign ministers left the main meetings, so that only the "Big Four" remained. After his territorial claims to Fiume were rejected, Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Orlando left the negotiations (only to return to sign in June), and the final conditions were determined by the leaders of the "Big Three" nations: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and American President Woodrow Wilson.
At Versailles, it was difficult to decide on a common position because their aims conflicted with one another. The result has been called the "unhappy compromise".
Prior to the war, Germany had been Britain's main competitor and its largest trading partner, making the destruction of Germany at best a mixed blessing.
Lloyd George managed to increase the overall reparations payment and Britain's share by demanding compensation for the huge number of widows, orphans, and men left unable to work through injury, due to the war. Wanted a stable and balanced Europe.
Before the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson, along with other American officials including Edward Mandell House, put forward his Fourteen Points which he presented in a speech at the Paris Peace Conference.
Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles assigned blame for the war to Germany; much of the rest of the Treaty set out the reparations that Germany would pay to the Allies.
The total sum of war reparations demanded from Germany—226 billion Reichsmarks in gold (around £11.3 billion)—was decided by an Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. In 1921, it was reduced to 132 billion Reichsmarks (£4,990 million).
The Versailles reparation impositions were partly a reply to the reparations placed upon France by Germany through the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt signed after the Franco-Prussian War. However, critics of the Treaty argued that France had been able to pay the reparations (5 billion Francs) within 3 years while the Young Plan of 1929 estimated German reparations to be paid until 1988. Indemnities of the Treaty of Frankfurt were in turn calculated, on the basis of population, as the precise equivalent of the indemnities imposed by Napoleon I on Prussia in 1807.
The Versailles Reparations came in a variety of forms, including coal, steel, intellectual property (eg. the patent for Aspirin) and agricultural products, in no small part because currency reparations of that order of magnitude would lead to hyperinflation, as actually occurred in postwar Germany (see 1920s German inflation), thus decreasing the benefits to France and the United Kingdom.
Influenced by the opposition of Henry Cabot Lodge, the United States Senate voted against ratifying the treaty. Despite considerable debate, Wilson refused to support the treaty with any of the reservations imposed by the Senate. As a result, the United States did not join the League of Nations, despite Wilson's claims that he could "predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.
Wilson's friend Edward Mandell House, present at the negotiations, wrote in his diary on 29 June 1919:
"I am leaving Paris, after eight fateful months, with conflicting emotions. Looking at the conference in retrospect, there is much to approve and yet much to regret. It is easy to say what should have been done, but more difficult to have found a way of doing it. To those who are saying that the treaty is bad and should never have been made and that it will involve Europe in infinite difficulties in its enforcement, I feel like admitting it. But I would also say in reply that empires cannot be shattered, and new states raised upon their ruins without disturbance. To create new boundaries is to create new troubles. The one follows the other. While I should have preferred a different peace, I doubt very much whether it could have been made, for the ingredients required for such a peace as I would have were lacking at Paris.
After Wilson's successor Warren G. Harding continued American opposition to the League of Nations, Congress passed the Knox-Porter Resolution bringing a formal end to hostilities between the United States and the Central Powers. It was signed into law by Harding on 21 July 1921.
Because Germany was not allowed to take part in the negotiations, the German government issued a protest against what it considered to be unfair demands, and a "violation of honour and soon afterwards, withdrew from the proceedings of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany's first democratically elected Chancellor, Philipp Scheidemann refused to sign the treaty and resigned. In a passionate speech before the National Assembly on 12 March 1919, he called the treaty a "murderous plan" and exclaimed,
After Scheidemann's resignation, a new coalition government was formed under Gustav Bauer and it recommended signing the treaty. The National Assembly voted in favour of signing the treaty by 237 to 138, with 5 abstentions. The foreign minister Hermann Müller and Johannes Bell travelled to Versailles to sign the treaty on behalf of Germany. The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 and ratified by the National Assembly on 9 July 1919 by a vote of 209 to 116.
Conservatives, nationalists and ex-military leaders began to speak critically about the peace and Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, and Jews were viewed with suspicion due to their supposed extra-national loyalties. It was rumoured that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies. This was mainly due to certain members of the World Zionist Congress attempting to influence (with a limited amount of success) the British and American governments' policy toward the Ottoman Empire (with special attention given to the fate of Palestine), which became known at the Paris Peace Conference. These November Criminals, or those who seemed to benefit from a weakened Germany, and the newly formed Weimar Republic, were seen to have "stabbed them in the back" on the home front, by either criticizing German nationalism, instigating unrest and strikes in the critical military industries or profiteering. These theories were given credence by the fact that when Germany surrendered in November 1918, its armies were still in French and Belgian territory. Not only had the German Army been in enemy territory the entire time on the Western Front, but on the Eastern Front, Germany had already won the war against Russia, concluded with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the West, Germany had seemed to come close to winning the war with the Spring Offensive. Its failure was blamed on strikes in the arms industry at a critical moment of the offensive, leaving soldiers with an inadequate supply of materiel. The strikes were seen to be instigated by treasonous elements, with the Jews taking most of the blame. This overlooked Germany's strategic position and ignored how the efforts of individuals were somewhat marginalized on the front.
Nevertheless, this myth of domestic betrayal fell on fertile ground, due to the conditions of the treaty seen unanimously seen as unacceptable (quote Philip Scheidemann before he refused to sign and stepped down) by all political parties from left to right.
In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes referred to the Treaty of Versailles as a "Carthaginian peace". That analysis was disputed by French Resistance economist Étienne Mantoux. During the 1940s, Mantoux wrote a book entitled The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes in an attempt to rebut Keynes' claims; it was published after his death.
More recently it has been argued (for instance by historian Gerhard Weinberg in his book A World At Arms) that the treaty was in fact quite advantageous to Germany. The Bismarckian Reich was maintained as a political unit instead of being broken up, and Germany largely escaped post-war military occupation (in contrast to the situation following World War II.)
The British military historian Correlli Barnett claimed that the Treaty of Versailles was "extremely lenient in comparison with the peace terms Germany herself, when she was expecting to win the war, had had in mind to impose on the Allies". Furthermore, he claimed, it was "hardly a slap on the wrist" when contrasted with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany had imposed on a defeated Russia in March 1918, which had taken away a third of Russia's population (albeit of non-Russian ethnicity), one half of Russia's industrial undertakings and nine-tenths of Russia's coal mines, coupled with an indemnity of six billion marks.
Barnett also claims that, in strategic terms, Germany was in fact in a superior position following the Treaty than she had been in 1914. Germany's eastern frontiers faced Russia and Austria, who had both in the past balanced German power. But Barnett asserts that, because the Austrian empire fractured after the war into smaller, weaker states and Russia was wracked by revolution and civil war, the newly-restored Poland was no match for even a defeated Germany.
In the West, Germany was balanced only by France and Belgium, both of which were smaller in population and less economically vibrant than Germany. Barnett concludes by saying that instead of weakening Germany, the Treaty "much enhanced" German power. Britain and France should have (according to Barnett) "divided and permanently weakened" Germany by undoing Bismarck's work and partitioning Germany into smaller, weaker states so it could never disrupt the peace of Europe again. By failing to do this and therefore not solving the problem of German power and restoring the equilibrium of Europe, Britain "had failed in her main purpose in taking part in the Great War".
Regardless of modern strategic or economic analysis, resentment caused by the treaty sowed fertile psychological ground for the eventual rise of the Nazi party. Indeed, on Nazi Germany's rise to power, Adolf Hitler resolved to overturn the remaining military and territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Military build-up began almost immediately in direct defiance of the Treaty, which, by then, had been destroyed by Hitler in front of a cheering crowd. "It was this treaty which caused a chain reaction leading to World War II" claimed historian Dan Rowling (1951). Various references to the treaty are found in many of Hitler's speeches and in pre-war Nazi propaganda.
French historian Raymond Cartier points out that millions of Germans in the Sudetenland and in Posen-West Prussia were placed under foreign rule in a hostile environment, where harassment and violation of rights by authorities are documented. Cartier asserts that, out of 1,058,000 Germans in Posen-West Prussia in 1921, 758,867 fled their homelands within five years due to Polish harassment. In 1926, the Polish Ministry of the Interior estimated the remaining number of Germans at less than 300,000. These sharpening ethnic conflicts would lead to public demands of reattaching the annexed territory in 1938 and become a pretext for Hitler's annexations of Czechoslovakia and parts of Poland
The "2008 School Project History" has explored the question of depicting Germany as having "accepted the Versailles Treaty" in many German history textbooks, insofar as this creates the impression that German delegates signed the treaty freely rather than under the threat of renewed (or continued) sanctions .