Treaty of Versailles

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The Treaty of Versailles was the treaty drawn up between the victorious Allied powers of World War One and the defeated Central Power, Germany. The treaty caused great resentment in Germany, as it required loss of territory, colonies, industry and natural resources to other European powers. Furthermore the War Guilt Clause created lasting resentment in Germany, particularly among its armed forces.

The Cost of World War One

The Allies and Associated powers are estimated to have mobilized more than forty-two million men in World War One and to have lost more than five million lives.[1] The Central Powers, with Turkey and Bulgaria, mobilized nearly twenty-three million and lost nearly three million, four hundred thousand lives.[2] The direct war expenditure of the allies was estimated approximately at $145,388,000,000 (including British, U.S. and French loans of $19,697,000,000 to other belligerents); the Central powers spent $63,018,000,000 (Including German loans of $2,375,000,000)

These figures take no account of the wounded combatants (more than twenty-one million in all) or of the indirect cost of the war, which includes billions of dollars' worth of lost property, ships, and cargo; loss of production; losses impaired on neutrals; and losses impaired in war relief.

Terms of the Treaty

The Paris Peace Conference opened nearly ten weeks after the German armistice; on January 18, 1919. Though 32 nations had seats at the conference, the major decisions were reserved for the great powers –- the USA, Britain, France, Italy and Japan. President Woodrow Wilson and his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, along with the premiers of the other four great powers constituted the Council of Ten; after this there was a Council of Four (the U.S, British, French and Italian leaders with occasional appearances by the Japanese); then, a Council of Five (the representatives of the great powers remaining after Wilson’s return to Washington in June 1919). The drafting of the covenant of the League of Nations was given priority on the conference's agenda. The German question would be considered following agreement on the League of Nations that culminated with the Treaty of Versailles.

On May 7, 1919, at Versailles, the draft of a treaty was presented to a delegate summoned from Germany. His protests and Germany's subsequent remonstrances had little effect, and on June 28, in the Hall of Mirrors, the treaty was signed. Ratified by Germany on July 9, it came into effect on January 10, 1920.

Part i of the Treaty consisted of the League Covenant. Parts ii and iii stipulated the cession of three small areas to Belgium; the release of Luxembourg from German command; the demilitarization of all German territory west of the Rhine River and of a 30 mile strip east of it; a provisional regime for the Saarland; the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France; recognition of Austria’s independence[3]; the cession of most of West Prussia and Poznan to Poland, together with plebiscites to determine the frontier in Upper Silesia and the East Prussian districts of Allenstein and Marienwerder; special regimes for Memel and Danzig; recognisation of Czechoslovakia, including Silesian areas to be taken from Germany; a plebiscite in Schleswig to determine Germany’s frontier with Denmark; the razing of Helgoland's defenses; and the abrogation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.

Part iv deprived Germany of all its rights and interests overseas.[4] Part v restricted both the manpower and the equipment needed for Germany’s army and navy; prohibited conscription; dissolved the grand general staff; and forbade any kind of German airforce.

Part vi dealt with prisoners of war and with graves. Parts vii and viii prescribed the indictment, before a special tribunal, of the former German emperor, Wilhelm II, for a “Supreme Offense against international morality and the sanctity of the treaties”;[5] the bringing to trial, with the German government's collaboration, of other persons whom the Allies might accuse of war crimes; and the payment, by Germany, within 30 years, of compensation for loss and damage sustained by the Allies throughout the war.

Parts ix and x adjusted the German debt as of 1914 with respect to some of the territorial cessions imposed but exempted the new powers from liability with respect to Alsace-Lorraine and to the formerly German overseas colonies; established that the victorious Allies would be granted favourable commercial conditions for trade with Germany; and authorized the confiscation of Germans’ private property abroad for the reparation account.[6]

Parts xi and xii gave provisional freedom of transit across Germany to the aircraft of the treaty powers; restored prewar “free zones” in certain German ports; and prescribed international control of the River Elbe, River Oder, River Nieman, River Danube and the River Rhine and the opening of the Kiel Canal to the ships of all nations at peace with Germany. Part xiii established the International Labour Organisation.

Part xiv imposed “guarantees” for the execution of the treaty: Allied or associated forces were to have the right to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and certain bridgeheads across the River for fifteen years. If Germany observed the Treaty, however, they would evacuate the Cologne bridgehead and adjacent territory after only five years and the Coblenz bridgehead after ten, retaining only the Mainz and Kehl bridgeheads; but if Germany defaulted the terms, they might retain or reoccupy all or part of the territory even after the supposed fifteen years. Also included in Part xiv was the provision that German troops should be withdrawn from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the Allies' behest –- which depended on their relations with Soviet Russia.[7] Part xv pre-empted Germany's assent to the peacemakers' forthcoming dispositions.

German discontent

The seeds of trouble for the next twenty years were sown in those articles of the Treaty that Germany had the most obvious grounds for resenting, whether as unduly harsh or offensive to national pride. Parts ii, iii, v, vii and viii were richest in such discontent. The special regime for the free city of Danzig irritated both the Germans and the Poles.

Germany however had some cause for satisfaction at the treaty’s prescription of plebiscites to determine the Polish-German frontier in East Prussia and Upper Silesia. The East Prussian vote, taken in the Allenstein and Marienwerder districts, was taken in July 1920, during the crisis of the Russo-Polish War, and the result was strongly in Germany’s favour. In Silesia, however, the vote was taken on March 20, 1921, two days after the Treaty of Riga between Poland and Soviet Russia, and gave results that were subsequently interpreted as pro-Polish in France and pro-German in Britain. The Poles, tired of the British attitude, occupied three fifths of the disputed area in May, and three months of Anglo-French polemic ensued. Finally, the Council of the League of Nations achieved compromise, splitting Silesia between the Poles and Germans based on voting patterns for parts of the province.


  1. Russia and France together accounting for some three million of those.
  2. Germany and Austria together losing some three million
  3. Unless the League Council should decide to revoke it.
  4. The main beneficiaries of this were the great powers and Belgium, among whom the League of Nations distributed ‘mandates’ over the former German colonies.
  5. Wilhelm had fled to the Netherlands, which refused to extradite him for trial.
  6. The German government had to compensate the individuals for their loss.
  7. Russia was unrepresented at the negotiations.