Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles officially ended World War I and created the League of Nations envisioned by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was unable to garner support for the treaty at home, however, and the Senate failed to ratify it. The treaty’s provisions placed an extreme financial burden on Germany, thereby laying the foundation for another world conflict within a generation.

Summary of Event

The Treaty of Versailles was the first and most important of the several peace treaties concluded at the Peace Conference of Paris in 1919. Not only did it formally assert the defeat of Germany in World War I, but, as the basis of the peace settlement, the Treaty of Versailles also represented the attempt of the victorious powers to regulate the new international order that had emerged in Europe as a result of the outcome of World War I. This new international order was the product of the most far-reaching political and social changes that had taken place in modern European history. Chief among these was the disappearance or imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian, Austrian, and German empires, and their ruling dynasties. Versailles, Treaty of (1919)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Versailles treaty
Diplomacy;Versailles treaty
Paris Peace Conference (1919)
[kw]Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919)
[kw]Versailles, Treaty of (June 28, 1919)
Versailles, Treaty of (1919)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Versailles treaty
Diplomacy;Versailles treaty
Paris Peace Conference (1919)
[g]France;June 28, 1919: Treaty of Versailles[04790]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 28, 1919: Treaty of Versailles[04790]
[c]World War I;June 28, 1919: Treaty of Versailles[04790]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 28, 1919: Treaty of Versailles[04790]
Clemenceau, Georges
Lloyd George, David
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Treaty of Versailles
Orlando, Vittorio Emanuele
Brockdorff-Rantzau, Count Ulrich von

In Russia, Romanov rule collapsed in the Russian Revolution of 1917, followed after a brief interlude by the Bolshevik seizure of power in November and the breakup of the czarist presence in Eastern Europe. As the war drew to a close late in 1918, Austria-Hungary virtually disappeared from the map of Europe. Germany, meanwhile, faced the prospect of extensive territorial losses along its western and eastern frontiers to a victorious France and a revived Polish state, respectively. The collapse of Ottoman rule in Europe had actually preceded the war and had helped set it off; after the war, the Turks lost control over non-Turkish peoples in the Near East.

In the place of these empires, there emerged in Eastern Europe a series of new states stretching from Finland in the north to Yugoslavia in the south, all of which reflected the spirit of nationalism that the upheaval of World War I had promoted. Situated between Germany and Russia, these states collectively constituted a large unstable power vacuum. Russia had been defeated by Germany early in 1918 and been forced to sign the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Germany had in turn been defeated by the combined French, British, and American armies in November, 1918.

Both Russia and Germany were still potentially powerful and posed a threat to the smaller powers located between them. Russia, under Bolshevik rule, was bent on fomenting revolution among the proletariat throughout war-torn Europe, while Germany regarded the middle Danube Valley, now vacated by the Habsburgs, as an area in which to seek compensation for the expected territorial losses mentioned above. Hence, as the diplomats representing the victorious powers made their way to Paris in December of 1918, they sought ways to prevent Germany from once again posing a threat to the peace of Europe and to stave off the menace of Communism as represented by Bolshevik Russia.

The Peace Conference of Paris formally convened on January 18, 1919, amid the tumult and confusion of the immediate postwar period and with nations and diplomats from all over the world clamoring for attention. The presence of President Woodrow Wilson from the United States attested the emergence of a new power on the European scene. Major decisions at the conference were made initially by the Council of Ten, which comprised two representatives from each of the five Great Powers: France, Great Britain, the United States, Italy, and Japan. These sessions soon proved unwieldy, and the significant decisions fell to the leaders of the major powers. After March 24, the first ranking delegates of these states ceased to attend the sessions of the Council of Ten, which became known as the Council of Five, an agency of relatively secondary importance.

To expedite the completion of the German treaty, the four top Western delegates called themselves the Council of Four: Georges Clemenceau, premier of France and president of the Peace Conference; David Lloyd George, the British prime minister; Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States; and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, prime minister of Italy. During the three months when these statesmen were drafting the German treaty, all agreed on the necessity of providing safeguards that would ensure the perpetuation of peace as well as German defeat. Beyond this general aim, the Big Four found it difficult to agree on which provisions should be incorporated into a treaty.

Seeking to safeguard France against another German invasion, Clemenceau wanted to strip Germany of the Rhineland and the Saar, the former to be set up as a separate state and the latter to be annexed directly to France. In addition, he vigorously opposed German annexation (Anschluss) of the new state of Austria. Lloyd George rejected the French effort to establish a weak Germany; instead, he called for a restoration of the traditional European balance of power, but with guarantees to France against another German attack.

President Wilson’s program, the famous Fourteen Points, Fourteen Points was the best known of the Allies’ war aims. Wilson, however, was prepared to sacrifice complete realization of many of the principles embodied in the first thirteen points, including self-determination, in order to secure the fourteenth, the League of Nations. League of Nations;Versailles treaty Aware of political problems in the United States with the Senate, which had to approve whatever treaty he negotiated, Wilson was convinced that the League of Nations, if established, could in time deal with any shortcomings that might be incorporated into the treaty. Hence he pressed for the inclusion of the League Covenant into the treaty itself.

The Italian spokesman, Orlando, played a relatively minor role at the conference; he appeared, primarily, in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to secure territories in the Adriatic region that Great Britain and France had promised to Italy in the secret Treaty of London London, Treaty of (1915) in 1915 as a means of bringing Italy into the war on their side. Despite these and other areas of disagreement among the Big Four, they managed to complete their work on the Germany treaty by the end of April. The Allies then instructed the German provisional government to send a delegation to Paris to receive the terms.

After some delay caused by Germany’s insistence that it ought to be allowed to “negotiate” and not merely “receive” the treaty, the Allies on May 7 formally presented the document to the German delegation headed by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, the foreign minister of Germany. No negotiations took place; the Germans were merely given three weeks to submit their written observations on the harsh treaty. In their lengthy response of May 28, the Germans deplored among other matters those provisions in the treaty that forbade the German-speaking peoples of Austria and Czechoslovakia from uniting with Germany, and the German representatives denounced in strong terms the double standard that existed on the principle of self-determination.

The Allies, in their reply of June 16 to the German observations, made only a few concessions and gave the German government seven days to accept the treaty without any further alterations. Germany did so on June 22. On June 28, 1919, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles. Of the Great Powers that signed the Versailles treaty, only the United States refused to ratify it: The Senate failed to give its approval in 1919 and 1920; not until August 25, 1921, was a separate peace concluded between the United States and Germany.

The Paris Peace Conference formally came to a close on January 21, 1920, following the conclusion of the Treaty of St. Germain St. Germain, Treaty of (1919)[Saint Germain, Treaty of] with Austria on September 10, 1919, and the Treaty of Neuilly Neuilly, Treaty of (1919) with Bulgaria on November 27. Treaties with Hungary and Turkey remained to be signed after the conference had officially ended, but these two instruments may be regarded as part of the same peace settlement.

The Treaty of Versailles, in its major provisions, embraced the following areas: the Covenant of the League of Nations, territorial arrangements affecting Germany’s frontiers and its former colonies, German disarmament, and reparations. Throughout the opening months of 1919, President Wilson had insisted on the incorporation of the Covenant of the League of Nations into the treaty as the best means of safeguarding the peace, and the covenant was incorporated into the treaty as the first twenty-six articles. In the section of the treaty dealing with territorial arrangements, Germany experienced substantial losses along its western and eastern frontiers. Its western boundary was reduced by the return of Alsace-Lorraine, taken after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, to France, and by the cession of small territories to Belgium. Clemenceau, however, did not secure his demand for the creation of a Rhineland buffer state; instead the treaty set up the Rhineland as a perpetually demilitarized area to be occupied by an inter-Allied force for a period of fifteen years.

The Saar, in similar fashion, was surrendered to international control for the same length of time. At the end of this period, the people of the Saar could decide by plebiscite whether they wanted to join France or Germany. In the east, Germany was obliged to recognize a new, independent Polish state to which it had to cede substantial portions of Prussian territory in order to give the Poles an outlet to the sea. The German city of Danzig now became a free state under the protection of the League of Nations. Plebiscites were to be held for ethnically mixed German-Polish areas; some of these districts voted to remain with Germany, others voted to join with Poland; Germany was also strictly forbidden from annexing Austria. Outside Europe, Germany had to surrender all its colonies in Africa and Oceania, most of which were declared mandates or protectorates of the League of Nations and assigned to France, Great Britain, Japan, and other countries. These states were to be responsible to the League of Nations for the welfare of their mandates.

Germany was accorded equally demanding treatment in the areas of disarmament and reparations. The German military and naval forces were reduced substantially. The army was not to exceed one hundred thousand men, all of whom were to be volunteers, serving for long periods, in order to preclude the establishment of a large reserve. Germany’s vaunted General Staff was disbanded. Limitations were placed on the production of war matériel. The German navy was reduced to a mere token force that could not include any submarines. The treaty also forbade Germany to maintain an air force.

In the section of the treaty dealing with reparations, the famous Article 231 or “war guilt” clause required Germany to acknowledge responsibility for starting the war and for all the damage caused by it. The Allies, after much haggling among themselves, finally agreed that Germany should pay only for actual damages, the Allied costs of war being excluded except in the case of Belgium. No definitive comprehensive sum was fixed in the treaty, but by May 1, 1921, Germany was to pay in case or kind the sum of five billion dollars. The Allies soon found that a Germany deprived of much of its former mineral-rich territory could not begin to meet their reparation demands. The war guilt clause and the issue of reparations contributed to the bitterness with which Germans regarded the Treaty of Versailles and made them highly receptive to the criticisms of it leveled by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930’s.


The place of the Treaty of Versailles in history has always been controversial. Certainly the treaty was severe, reflecting the bitterness generated in the Allied camp by a long war that had taken millions of lives, left countless others ruined with wounds of the body or wounds of the spirit, and had completely devastated parts of several countries. Nevertheless, the treaty also represented a settlement that mirrored the military balance of power at the time and did more to draw reasonable national boundaries than any similar pact that had preceded it. Two major guarantors of the peace settlement, Great Britain and France, found their task difficult because of their frequently conflicting foreign policies. A greater difficulty for them rested in the fact that the United States and Russia never officially recognized the treaty and therefore played no role in upholding the peace settlement.

The United States, whose leading statesmen had contributed so much to the Treaty of Versailles, although not uninvolved in European and world affairs or even in cooperation with the League, tended to be less centrally engaged as a non-League member than other governments, as the isolationist impulse manifested itself during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Bolshevik Russia, which had not taken part in the drafting of the treaty that was at least implicitly directed against her, promoted the cause of worldwide revolution of the proletariat, a direct challenge to the stability and order that the framers of the Versailles treaty pursued. Despite these handicaps, Great Britain and France, with the qualified support of Italy, did manage to uphold the Treaty of Versailles until 1935, when they began to give way in appeasement to the demands of Hitler’s Germany for revision of the treaty. The Allies, it is true, shirked their obligations in not standing up to Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, but then Germany proved unwilling to honor the precepts of international law as it stood when Germany invaded the neutral state of Belgium in 1914. In historical perspective, the Treaty of Versailles was a better peace settlement than its critics claimed in the 1930’s, but it also caused resentments that led the way to a second general war in Europe in 1939. Versailles, Treaty of (1919)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Versailles treaty
Diplomacy;Versailles treaty
Paris Peace Conference (1919)

Further Reading

  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A well informed and thoughtful analysis of Woodrow Wilson’s role in shaping the Treaty of Versailles and the response to the pact in the U.S. Senate.
  • Dockrill, Michael, and John Fisher, eds. The Paris Peace Conference, 1919: Peace Without Victory? New York: Palgrave, 2001. Collection of essays dealing with all aspects of the Paris Peace Conference. Two essays focus specifically on the terms of the Versailles treaty. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Floto, Inga. Colonel House in Paris: A Study of American Policy at the Paris Peace Conference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Looks at the role of Wilson’s closest adviser and the impact of his contribution to the development of the peace treaty.
  • Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. In chapters 9 through 11, Heckscher recounts Wilson’s role in the formation of the League of Nations and his fight for ratification of the Versailles treaty.
  • Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Places the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles in the context of Wilson’s wartime diplomacy and the relations with other European nations.
  • Mayer, Arno J. Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. A provocative study that emphasizes the impact of Bolshevik Russia on the deliberations in Paris. A very thorough treatment of key aspects of the Peace Conference.
  • Nordholt, Jan Willem Schulte. Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. A Dutch scholar takes a critical look at Wilson’s attitude toward the peace treaty and the League. Very useful for a European perspective on the events of 1919.
  • Stone, Ralph A. The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970. A scholarly study of sixteen senators who fought the treaty.
  • Tillman, Seth P. Anglo-American Relations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Deals with the crucial problem of how the United States and Great Britain viewed the consequences of the war and the best way of maintaining peace in the future.
  • Tomuschat, Christian. “The 1871 Peace Treaty Between France and Germany and the 1919 Peace Treaty of Versailles.” In Peace Treaties and International Law in European History: From the Late Middle Ages to World War One, edited by Randall Lesaffer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. An essay comparing the Treaty of Versailles to an earlier French-German peace treaty; concludes a collection of essays on the major preceding European peace treaties, which are also useful to place the Treaty of Versailles in perspective.

World War I

Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities

League of Nations Is Established

International Labor Organization Is Established

Treaty of Rapallo

France Occupies the Ruhr

Dawes Plan

Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany