The Versailles Peace Treaty – When, Where, Who, Why, What?

 
 
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The treaty of Versailles was one of several peace treaties which signaled the end of the devastating years of World War I. It sealed the end of the war between Germany and the Allied Powers.

Here is everything you need to know about this key treaty.

When was it signed?

The hostilities of the First World War came to an end at last on November 11th 1918, following a series of Armistices across Europe.  Early the following year the process of negotiating peace began with the opening of the Paris Peace Conference.

The Conference began on 18th Jan 1919 and lasted almost exactly a year, ending with the inaugural meeting the League of Nations on 16th January 1920.

Treaty of Versailles Signed June 1919
Treaty of Versailles Signed June 1919.

Key Dates:

  • Paris Peace Conference opens January 18th, 1919
  • Treaty of Versailles is signed June 28th 1919
  • Conference closes with the inaugural meeting of the League of Nation on January 20th, 1920

Where did it happen?

At the Negotiating Table (Wikipedia)
At the Negotiating Table.

The Conference took place in Versailles just outside the French Capital.  The sumptuous Palace of Versailles had been the scene many meetings and negotiations already. It was famous as it had once been the home of the extravagant French monarch, King Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie-Antoinette.

It would soon give its name to the most famous document to emerge from the Conference – The Treaty of Versailles. This document was signed in the Palace’s famous Galerie des Glaces – The Hall of Mirrors.

Who were the key players?

Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919. From left: Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britian) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, President Woodrow Wilson
Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919. From left: Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britian) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, President Woodrow Wilson.

The key players were the representatives of the countries who had emerged victorious after four years of fighting in Europe and beyond. The so-called “Big Four” who held the majority of power at the negotiating table were:

  • David Lloyd George – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • Woodrow Wilson – President of the United States
  • George Clemenceau – Prime Minister of France, and
  • Vittorio Emanuele Orlando – Prime Minister of Italy.

They had originally been the “Big Five” and included Japan, but Japan gave up its place at the table. Japan’s two main concerns were racial equality and restoration to Japan of its former territories in China and the Pacific which, until the end of the war, had been under German control.

However, some would say that the “Big Three” representing the United Kingdom, United States and France held the real power with Italy playing a much smaller role.

In addition to these major powers, many other countries were represented. Each tried to negotiate the best possible outcome for post-war recovery.  A total of 27 nations were represented, negotiating 52 commissions. During the 1,646 sessions that took place, they prepared reports and documents calling upon the specialist knowledge of international experts on a wide range of subjects, including prisoners of war, international aviation and, perhaps most crucially, the responsibility for the war.

What brought it about?

Workmen decommission a heavy gun, to comply with the treaty. Photo Credit.
Workmen decommission a heavy gun, to comply with the treaty. Photo Credit.

When the final Armistice was declared in November 1918, the world could never return to the way it had been before the war.  New alliances had been formed. Huge debts had been accrued to pay for the war efforts. The enormous and terrible human cost led to a great depletion of the workforce, making it even harder for countries to recover.

It was also felt that there was a need for retribution and compensation so that the many suffering nations could feel as though justice had been done. Just as importantly, there was the more idealistic ambition to put measures in place to ensure that a war on this scale could never take place again. Balancing all these different needs along with the claims of many different nations was not going to be an easy task.

German colonies (light blue) made into League of Nations mandates. Image Credit.
German colonies (light blue) made into League of Nations mandates. Image Credit.

Even the three top negotiators – United States, United Kingdom, and France – had competing priorities and different ideas about how best to achieve lasting peace.  Amongst the three countries, France had experienced the most direct consequences of Germany’s actions. It had suffered invasion and occupation as the other two had not.  Because of this Clemenceau wanted retribution. France felt that Germany ought to be punished for its actions and should pay for the damage France had suffered. In addition they wanted Germany to be severely weakened, to ensure that it would no longer pose a threat.

The Unites States was more focused on achieving Peace. When Woodrow Wilson outlined his fourteen key points in a speech to Congress in January 1918, the focus was on reducing armaments worldwide and self-determination for nations, rather than revenge and retribution.

The United Kingdom had suffered directly, particularly from German bombing raids, but not to the same extent as France.  Perhaps, for this reason, Lloyd George took the middle ground, trying to balance the demands for justice and compensation with the need to ensure the safety of all nations and prevent future wars.

What did the conference achieve?

Cartoon: The cost of Reparation (Wikipedia)
Cartoon: The cost of Reparation.

After almost exactly a year of discussions and negotiations, the groundwork had been laid for five Major Peace Treaties, the most significant of which was the Treaty of Versailles. Published in English under the title Treaty of Peace, this document was primarily concerned with future relations with Germany (Germany’s Allies were dealt with in other smaller treaties). The signing took place on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that had ignited the war.

The most significant of the provisions in the treaty was the “War Guilt Clause” requiring Germany and its allies to accept the responsibility for all loss and damage. In practical terms this meant that Germany was forced to disarm, to give up large parts of its overseas territories and pay reparations to the countries that had previously formed the Triple Entente – Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The sum required to meet the cost of reparation was 132 billion Marks, equivalent at the time to $31.4 billion or £6.6 billion. In modern terms, this would be around $442 billion or £284 billion.

Demonstration against the treaty in front of the Reichstag. May 1919.
Demonstration against the treaty in front of the Reichstag. May 1919.

Even at the time opinion was divided on these measures with the some claiming they were too harsh and would be counterproductive while the France thought them too lenient. While the “Guilt Clause” was intended to reduce the threat of future aggression by Germany, many historians have argued that it had the opposite effect.

The burden of repayment led to internal instability during the decades that followed. Combined with the desire to regain some of its former territories, this created the ideal conditions for the unrest which fuelled Germany’s descent into fascism, ultimately leading to the Second World War.

It is easy to argue with hindsight that the desire for retribution was placed above the higher ideal of securing world peace. Unfortunately, however, the mirrors of the Palace of Versailles’s Galerie des Glaces could only reflect the present, not the future.