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The Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Versailles

The Conference and Treaty | Repercussions

President Wilson, the Conference and Treaty

Republicans in November 1918 captured both the US House of Representatives and the Senate. The US public favored a rapid return home of American troops in Europe and the hanging of Germany's former king, Wilhelm. President Wilson was preparing to go to Paris to join with other leaders in creating the settlement that would turn the armistice into a formal settlement of the war. And Republicans were making the settlement a partisan political issue. They were against Wilson acquiring glory at Paris. Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was disappointed that Wilson had not included him in his entourage going to Paris, and no Republican had been working with Wilson on foreign policy.

Wilson enjoyed prestige abroad. Massive numbers of people were giving Wilson's pronouncements more attention than they were the utterances of their own leaders. They saw Wilson not only as a victor but also respected him for being an idealist and a moral force. They failed to realize that Wilson's idealism was at odds with their views. Many in the Allied nations still hated Germany. They wanted revenge and to "make Germany pay for the war."

The Paris Peace Conference began in January, with representatives attending from twenty-seven nations. Many Germans hoped that because Germany was now a democracy it would be treated with a modicum of fairness. The world needed reconciliation and renewed economic ties – renewed integration. President Wilson favored reconciliation. But the peace conference began without Germany having been invited to speak for its interests.

The representative at Paris for Britain was Prime Minister David Lloyd-George. He had recently announced his opposition to a peace that would ruin Germany, but at Paris he echoed the vindictive sentiments of the British public. He said he wanted Wilhelm to be hanged. He also wished to see Germany made impotent as a naval power. He called for stripping Germany of its colonies in Africa and the Pacific. And he joined the British public in wanting to make Germany pay for the war.


Premier Clemenceau of France wanted assurances that Germany would not march again into France. He helped create the settlement of bitterness that contributed to just that.

Friedrich Ebert

Germany's Social Democrat
chancellor, then president,
Friedrich Ebert

France wanted assurances that Germany would not march again into France. Germany had done so in 1871 and again in 1914. In 1871 France had declared war before the Germans attacked. In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm had stopped his armies headed for France until he realized France was going to war against Germany, and France had begun an offensive headed for Berlin while German troops were still marching through Belgium. The French concern about a German invasion would have been served by their determination not to initiate a war against Germany and also by considering the effects of their policy on German politics. A democratic Germany was not about to launch another war against France. That would be done by a super-nationalist regime in Germany that wanted revenge. Reconciliation was in France's interest. Instead, the French delegation to the conference took the position that the war was all Germany's fault. And the leader of the French delegation, Premier Georges Clemenceau, was convinced that no agreements on paper would compensate France for the dangers of a German invasion. Germany had twice the population of France and was more advanced industrially. As a remedy, Clemenceau proposed dividing Germany into a number of independent states and weakening Germany economically. He wanted to take from Germany the Rhineland – although the Rhineland was clearly a land of Germans. And Clemenceau and the French wanted Germany to pay for the war, including damages to French property and pensions to French war widows and orphans.

Italy wanted the rewards it had been expecting for having entered the war: lands at the expense of what had been the empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks – regardless of ethnic distributions. And Italy wanted the port of Fiume, not minding that this would be punishing South Slavs (yugo-Slavs)

President Wilson had leverage at Paris. Europe was dependent on food supplies from the United States, and Wilson had troops in Europe that he could threaten to withdraw. Wilson could have threatened to make a separate peace with Germany. Wilson did threaten to walk out in opposition to the French proposal to divide Germany into independent states, but he was not inclined to threaten his Allies. Wilson was eager to please. He wanted to cooperate and compromise so he could create his dream: the League of Nations.

President Wilson wanted a League of Nations whose members were to respect and help preserve the territorial integrity and political independence of all other League members – aimed most importantly at preserving the security of France against Germany. The League planned at the conference was to establish a court to settle conflicts submitted by member states. The production of arms and munitions were to be kept below a level desired by League members. And League members were to be obliged to maintain fair and humane conditions for their people.

Wilson tried to reassure France by promising military aid if France were the victim of an unprovoked attack by Germany. But this needed the approval of the US Senate – as did the entire treaty – and Clemenceau was probably aware that such approval might be difficult to obtain.

The Settlement

The deliberations at Paris were signed as a treaty in a ceremony just outside Paris, at Versailles, on 28 June 1919, and became known at the Treaty of Versailles. It included no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe: nothing that would help stabilize Europe economically. The treaty put limits on Germany's military strength. The German army was to be cut to 100,000, with no General Staff. Germany was to have machine guns with which to put down revolution and a few boats to guard its coast, but it was to have no airforce, navy, tanks or heavy guns. Germany's Rhineland was to remain permanently disarmed. And France was to occupy Germany's Rhineland and Saar regions for fifteen years.

The treaty altered the map of Europe. It took territory from Germany and placed ten percent of Germany's population outside of the newly created German boundaries. Alsace and Lorraine were to be transferred from Germany back to France. A chunk of territory that was traditionally German (Western Prussia) was detached from Germany and given to a newly created Poland. The German port city of Danzig (Gdansk) was detached from Germany and made a free city to be governed by a commission appointed by the League of Nations. A corridor was established between Danzig and Poland that split East Prussia from the rest of Germany, and in Danzig the Poles were given control over customs. The city of Memel, which had been in East Prussia and largely German in culture and population (with some Lithuanian inhabitants) was removed from East Prussia, placed under the administration of the League of Nations, and eventually it would be given to Lithuania. The treaty denied Germany its colonies in China, the South Pacific and Africa.

For propaganda purposes, the treaty included a clause that described Germany alone as responsible for the war. And the treaty proclaimed that Wilhelm was to be tried in a special court – an Allied tribunal – for "the supreme offense against international morality and sanctity of treaties."

The treaty disbanded the Habsburg Empire. Hungary was to become an independent entity, and a state called Czechoslovakia was created. Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro were to join Serbia, creating the new state called Yugoslavia. Austrian Tyrol was given to Italy. And Austria – a predominately German land – was forbidden to unite with Germany.

The collective dullness in thought that had contributed to the absurdities of the Great War had extended to the peace treaty. The shift in boundaries deprived Germany of fifteen percent of its rye and wheat potential, and Germany had lost twenty-seven percent of its hard coal production in the shift of territory to Poland. The treaty demanded more coal from Germany than Germany could give while meeting its own minimal needs. Where the Rhine River separated Germany and France, France was to have the only right to water for irrigation and power. Germany was to be allowed to import but not to export -- and to be limited in the duties it could impose on imports from Allied and other powers. Unable to export, Germany, an industrial power, would not be able to earn the money it needed to import raw materials for its industries or to import the food it needed to feed its people. Wilson, moreover, had given into the demand that Germany pay huge sums of cash for years as reparations to France and Britain. A British delegate to the conference, John Maynard Keynes, resigned from his delegation in protest. He denounced the treaty as ruinous for Germany and as damaging the international economic structure of Europe. The health of Germany's economy, he pointed out, was important to Europe as a whole, Germany before the war having been the best customer of many European nations and the second and third best customer of some others, including France.

Keynes was later to describe Wilson as able at making speeches but as a "blind and deaf Don Quixote"  who allowed swifter men at the conference table to maneuver him "off his ground." In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he described Wilson's "thought and temperament" as "essentially theological not intellectual" and his mind as "slow and unadaptable."

Pope Benedict XV was disappointed with the settlement. He had been opposed to a dictated peace and described the treaty as a "consecration of hatred" and a "perpetuation of war." 


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