Treaty of Versailles

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A peace agreement known as the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, between Imperial Germany and the Allies. With the signing of the treaty, World War I came to a conclusion and put an end to the state of war that had existed between Germany and the Allies since 1914.

The pact was signed in the Palace of Versailles, hence its name.

Background of the Treaty of Versailles

Following the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I began in July 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the German Empire were opposed in the ensuing war by Britain, France, Russia, and their colonies.

By 1918, the war had reached a standstill, but the Central Powers—the name given to the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German factions—were preparing an offensive as the United States entered the conflict. Germany took the initiative to launch an offensive that would win the war for the Central Powers in an effort to fast conclude the battle before American soldiers arrived in Europe.

The attack fell short. Instead, the Allies decisively prevailed on the battlefield and compelled an armistice that resembled a surrender in November 1918.

The optimistic post-war society that President Woodrow Wilson envisioned was presented in a speech to the US Congress in January 1918. The Fourteen Points were their collective name. The Fourteen Points set the foundation for ethnic minorities in Europe to exercise their right to self-determination and for a global body to manage future crises and avert major ones..

  • Below is a quick summary of the Fourteen Points:
  • There wouldn’t be any covert agreements between rival powers. Their negotiations would be public information.
  • All nations would be eligible for free maritime navigation.
  • There wouldn’t be any trade restrictions among nations. The norm would be free trade.
  • To improve public safety, all countries should forgo an arms competition.
  • Colony-related claims must be unbiased and fair.
  • regaining Russian-lost regions
  • Belgium should be allowed to become free, as it was before 1914.
  • Alsace-Lorraine should be given back to France.
  • It is important to maintain ethnicities recognizable when defining Italy’s borders.
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s numerous ethnic groups must be granted the freedom to self-determination.
  • A guarantee of freedom and self-determination for the Balkan states is also necessary.
  • Self-determination should be allowed for Turks and anyone living under Turkish authority.
  • Poland should be made independent.
  • To mediate conflicts between nations, a general organization of nations must be established.

The German authorities believed that a future peace treaty would be drafted using Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points when they signed the armistice on November 11, 1918. The contrary would eventually come to pass.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles

On January 18, 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles will be written. Those present were aware of the significance of this particular day. The occasion commemorated the anniversary of Wilhelm I’s coronation, who was proclaimed emperor of Germany in the Versailles halls at the very conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Alsace and Lorraine were also lost to Germany during the conflict.

The newly drafted peace accord was therefore seen by the French as an appropriate way to exact revenge for their humiliating defeat on the same day and in the same location as it occurred.

Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy presided over the peace talks. Despite Italy’s small participation, they were referred to as the “Big Four” as a whole. There was no representation for Germany or other Central Powers parties that lost. Neither was Russia, which, while being a member of the Allied camp, had secretly signed a peace deal with Germany.

The ‘Big Four’ were not in agreement with the peace deal, as can be seen in retrospect. Each had personal goals that clashed with those of the other.

  • The French planned to economically cripple Germany in order to deter any more hostilities from it by making significant reparations payments.
  • In order to gain a powerful commercial partner, the British planned to rebuild Germany.
  • To be on an equal footing with other European nations, the Italians desired to increase their strength and influence in post-war Europe.
  • The Americans wanted to establish a world order that adhered to the Fourteen Points and resisted any territorial changes. Other European decision-makers believed the Fourteen Points were too idealistic to be implemented as policy.

These are some other characteristics of the agreement:

  • Germany would restrict the size of its armed forces and navy, and an air force would not be permitted.
  • It demanded that German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II be tried for war crimes.
  • Above all, it contained the “war guilt clause” that deemed Germany to be exclusively guilty for launching the war and mandated that it make up for Allied war losses.
Impact of the Treaty of Versailles

When Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, World War I had just begun. Gavrilo belonged to the Black Hand, a nationalist Serb organization that sought to bring together Serbs who resided outside of the Serbian country. Due to this, Serbia’s allies attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in turn sparked a declaration of war by Serbia against its adversary.

The German people were incensed that the Allies disregarded this truth and singled out Germany as the lone perpetrator of all the atrocities of World War I. The amount of reparations owed by the country exceeded 132 billion gold Reichsmarks. The amount was so enormous that analysts like John Maynard Keynes warned that Germany would not be able to pay it in full and that even if it could, the European economy would crash.

The article linked provides a comparison of Nazism and fascism.

Hitler and his Nazi Party used the economic hardship and resentment of the treaty to seize power and lay the foundation for World War II, a conflict that was far deadlier and more destructive than World War I had ever been.

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