Europe’s Attempted Lasting Peace – The Treaty of Versailles

As the Great War drew to a close, the victorious allies sought a lasting peace that would end the horrors of World War I and ideally limit the possibility that such a total war could ever be repeated. The question of what to do about the aggressor nations, however, remained and agreement over peace terms and settlements proved difficult.  The Treaty of Versailles carried the hopes and dreams of a peaceful European continent but in two decades it failed, leading to the next great conflict and horrors yet unimagined by the victors of WWI.  Although the Treaty signed at Versailles did succeed in granting relative peace in Europe for two decades, the peace was a tenuous one – the terms of the treaty imposed on the defeated Germany bred lasting resentments that would grow into the conflict that would become World War II.

When Woodrow Wilson drafted his Fourteen Points as a suggestion for the armistice between Germany and the Allied Nations at the end of WWI, it is doubtful that he could have imagined the end result that the Treaty of Versailles became.  The Prime Ministers of France, Great Britain, Italy and President Wilson were the “Big Four” of the Paris Peace conference, between these powers existed a great divergence of opinion on what should be done about the defeated Germany and what cost Germany’s aggression would have on its future.  While President Wilson desired a lasting peace based on reconciliation as explained in his Fourteen Points, France seemed to desire lasting peace by crippling Germany through vengeance and reparations.[1][2]  While President Wilson explicitly stated in his Fourteen Points that (the United States) “does not wish to injure her (Germany) or block in any way her legitimate influence or power” through either continued armed conflict or hostile trade arrangement, rather that Germany be afforded “a place of equality among the peoples of the world”.[3]   Wilson went on to state that “it is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms…whether they be strong or weak”.[4]  Unfortunately for Germany, however, being viewed with equality was hardly what the terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles afforded them.

The Treaty of Versailles, in stark contrast to the ideals and vision of President Wilson, in many ways still viewed Germany as a dangerous, hostile enemy.  Germany was forced, by the terms of the treaty, to accept full responsibility for WWI, and retribution in the form of reparations was demanded.[5]  Germany, who assumed that the eventually treaty would be based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, was understandably resentful at the end result they ultimately received.[6]  Not only was the treaty presented to them with virtually no discussion or diplomatic negotiation, the German delegation was kept isolated behind barbed wire – effectively dehumanizing them and making the victors appear superior to the vanquished.[7]  With the threat of increased hostilities looming over the heads of the German delegates, the treaty was signed by virtual threat of force rather than willing diplomatic measures, ensuring increased resentment of the German leadership and their people, and increasing the sense of nationalism and outrage over the perceived injustice in the way they were treated.[8]

By denying the German request for an independent inquiry into war crimes of all involved nations it demanded that Germany “accept the responsibility for causing all the loss and damage” throughout the war. It also imposed enormous sums of reparations, military disarmament and territorial annexations – none of which were properly enforced in the inter-war period.  The Treaty of Versailles virtually assured another armed conflict.[9][10]  As noted by Marshal Foch, a French politician at the signing of the treaty “This is not peace; it is an armistice for 20 years.”[11]  Although the Treaty of Versailles could undoubtedly have been harsher, the measures to which Germany was forced to agree under threat of resumed hostilities gave the delegates little choice but to comply, but that compliance came at a horrific cost in 1939 as Germany began WWII in many ways seen as an attempt to renegotiate the treaty by force of arms in retribution for the way they felt they were treated at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

 

[1] Woodrow Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, World War I Document Archive, web, available from http://www.gwpda.org/1918/14points.html, accessed 26 October 2016.

[2] James J Atkinson, Europe Between the Wars, University of Notre Dame, web, available from http:/jimmyatkinson.com/papers/the-treaty-of-versailles-and-its-consequences/, accessed 3 November 2016.

[3] Wilson

[4] Ibid.

[5] Felix Gilbert and David Clay Large. The End of the European Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), pp. 162.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, pp. 161.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Peace Treaty of Versailles: Articles 231-247 and Annexes, Reparations, The World War I Document Archive, web, accessible by http://www.gwpda.org/versa/versa7.html, accessed 26 October 2016.

[10] Catherine Lu, “Justice and Moral Regeneration: Lessons from the Treaty of Versailles,” International studies Review, Volume 4. No. 3. (2002): 3-25.

[11] Ruth Henig, Versailles and After: 1919-1933 (London: Routledge, 1995.

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