Ancient history

One hundred years of the Treaty of Versailles

Last updated:2022-07-25

A June 28, 1914 Gavrilo's pistol Princip opened fire on Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the streets of Sarajevo, unleashing a conflict whose dimensions earned him the nickname of the Great War (see Desperta Ferro Contemporánea #1:1914. The outbreak of the Great War ). Five years later, on the same date, German ChancellorHerman Müller signed the Treaty of Versailles . With this act harsh economic and social conditions were imposed on his country. Although the objective of the treaty was to ensure peace and build a new world order, its strong impositions on the vanquished could pave the way for World War II.

The road to the Treaty of Versailles

Kaiser William II abdicated the imperial throne on November 9, 1918 and on the 11th, Germany signed the armistice. The social, military and political turmoil of a people tired of a war that had cost almost two million dead and five million wounded and maimed precipitated the German surrender. This armistice forced Germany to withdraw its troops at the same time that the allies occupied the Rhineland region, remaining in a threatening position. For greater Allied security, Britain maintained a naval blockade of Germany during those non-war months, preventing the entry of food and supplies for a starving people. The victors met in Paris to negotiate the treaties to be signed with the defeated nations.

Historians define the “Peace of Paris” , a name that encompasses all the treaties signed at the end of the war, such as an "imposed peace" . This term reflects the fact that within these negotiations no delegation from the defeated countries will be present. In the German case, they were only summoned twice:once to transfer the draft of the treaty and another so that they would sign the agreement in their absence and under threat of invasion. The Germans sent a report with proposals and changes from that first draft, but they were ignored. Added to all this is the humiliation they put the German delegates through at the signing. Under military escort, they were seated at a different table from the rest of the delegations, as if they were criminals. These affronts contributed to the image of an imposed peace or Diktat which Hitler would talk so much about in the future. German military personnel were not allowed to attend the signing, as their presence was considered undemocratic. This caused the establishment to accuse its politicians of having sold out the country.

The French insisted that Paris be the venue for the conferences negotiate the terms of peace. This request was problematic, since Paris had been a city that had remained in the rear of the war front, so the passions against Germany were still very much alive at that time. Added to this, the terrible shortages and hardships that Parisians had gone through made it difficult for a meeting of such magnitude to be held in this city, which needed thousands of hotel rooms, offices, printing presses and cars for all those who wanted to perform. a role in peace conferences. The choice of this city contributed considerably to the erratic course of future events.

The different positions of the negotiators

In Paris twenty-seven countries met in total , leaving only Russia outside, since it was considered that it had already signed its peace in the Treaty of Brest-Listovsk. The greatest burden of command was carried, initially, by "the council of five", made up of Great Britain, France, the United States, Japan and Italy. They were actually l The first three who took the lead during the negotiations. Japan was soon discriminated against and Italy was practically ignored in its territorial demands, causing its prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, to end up literally losing his nerve.

The interests of France, represented by Georges Clemenceau , were very clear:after having lost more than a million soldiers in battle and their territory being the most affected by the war, their demands went through economic reparation, the change of domain of territories and the weakening of Germany for security reasons. . With measures such as the demilitarization of the Rhine region they wanted to avoid a new invasion attempt. Alsace and Lorraine, lost in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War (see Awake Ferro Modern History #13:The Twilight of Napoleon III and #28:Bismarck vs. the Third Republic ), became part of France again, while Clemenceau demanded the Saar Basin, a rich mining region. The allies preferred to keep the Saarland under the domain of the League of Nations, handing over its benefits to France for 15 years. Monetary debts fell short of the amounts demanded by the French and his proposal for a Republic of the Rhineland was ignored. These refusals came mainly from Great Britain. The British wanted Germany to pay the costs of the war, but an excessive weakening of this nation would allow France to rise as the hegemonic continental power, which did not suit them. In exchange for not granting all the French demands, an alliance was offered in case Germany declared war again.

For his part Lloyd George , British representative, sought to weaken the German fleet that during the war had threatened his command of the seas (see Desperta Ferro Contemporánea #32:Jutland ). Part of the Imperial Fleet was to be handed over to France but the German officers preferred to sink it rather than give up their ships. In this way Great Britain maintained her rule over the sea. They also tried not to damage the German economy too much as it was an important trading partner and a German economic crisis could have repercussions on the British market.

USA . pronounced himself in favor of a conciliatory treaty with the defeated, using as a base the Fourteen Points of its president Woodrow Wilson , presented on January 8, 1918. They advocate the right to self-determination of the colonies, trade without tariffs, freedom of navigation and a League of Nations to ensure that a conflict of such magnitude does not recur. At the end of the negotiations, the US Senate refused to allow the US to participate in its own proposals, advocating an isolationist policy. Many have criticized that the US sought its benefit by overthrowing the old order of colonial empires for one governed by trade and capitalism worldwide.

The measures imposed on Germany

States like Belgium, Denmark or Italy got some portions of German and Austrian territory. Others, like Poland, obtained political autonomy through forced territorial concessions from the former Central Powers. Poland obtained important areas such as Upper Silesia from Germany. The most striking thing was the formation of Danzing runner , created to provide Poland with an outlet to the sea. This territorial modification separated Germany from East Prussia, which provoked a revanchism of the Germans with the Poles. Most of the German colonies became "mandates" under the rule of the League of Nations. Others were delivered to countries like New Zealand (English protectorate in those years) or Japan. In this way, Germany had lost a seventh of her territory, her colonial empire and a tenth of her population.

In the military field, German forces were reduced to 100,000 troops (96,000 soldiers and 4,000 officers) unable to produce aircraft, tanks, or heavy artillery; it could only count on 288 guns and all manufacturing of military weapons would be supervised by the allies. The left bank of the Rhine was occupied by the Allies, initially to ensure peace and later as a measure of pressure on the German Government to pay its debt (an action that the Germans did not carry out regularly until 1921). Regarding the payment of war reparations, the total amount of 120,000 million gold marks was established . The German Government had to deliver 20,000 million before 1921 and to ensure this a "Reparations Commission" was created in charge of monitoring the German economy. The population protested this immense amount and the Government refused to pay. The allies began to subjugate German territories until they gave way.

However, the article of the Treaty of Versailles that caused the most controversy was 231 . This section spoke of Germany as the main culprit in the war, relegating the rest of those involved to the background. The Germans refused to recognize this article but the Allies remained unmoved and forced them to assume this role.

Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles

Obviously the Versailles treaty cannot be considered as sole cause of the rise of Nazism . However, its conditions could generate in the majority of Germans an anti-European and revanchist sentiment, which added to the precarious social and economic conditions that existed during the interwar period, contributed to generating a favorable breeding ground for the emergence of extremist movements such as the National Socialist.