The Treaty of Versailles
From Facing History and Ourselves:
Holocaust and Human Behavior, Chapter 3
When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson vowed that this would truly be “the war to end all wars.” He argued that the war would have been fought in vain if the world returned to the way it was in 1914. The President revealed his goals in a 1918 speech. In it, he listed fourteen points essential to achieving lasting peace. In his view, the most important was the final one. It called for a “league of nations,” where nations would resolve differences around a table rather than on a battlefield.
Wilson based his proposals on a single principle: “It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation, no part of the structure of international justice can stand.”
Wilson also believed that frustrated nationalism had caused the war. Thus he reasoned that if each ethnic group in Europe had its own land and government, there would be less chance of another war. He called the idea self-determination. As a result, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires all disappeared. In Europe, each was divided into independent nations. The victors did not even consider applying that principle to the rest of the world. When the Japanese asked that a statement opposing racial discrimination be written into the treaty, the idea was rejected. When a young Vietnamese nationalist known as Ho Chi Minh asked to address the allies, the victors refused to let him speak. Europe’s map might be redrawn but not the maps of Asia or Africa. Both continents would continue to be ruled by Europeans.
Many Europeans were more interested in punishing the Germans than in preventing another world war. After all, the United States had been at war for just one year. Its European allies had been fighting for over four years. David Lloyd George of Britain demanded that Germany pay for the trouble it had caused; Vittorio Orlando of Italy insisted on a share of Germany’s colonial empire. And France’s Georges Clemenceau required not only the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine but also assurances that his nation would be safe from future German aggression. Therefore the treaty contained the following articles:
80. Germany will respect the independence of Austria.
81. Germany recognizes the complete independence of Czechoslovakia.
87. Germany recognizes the complete independence of Poland.
119. Germany surrenders all her rights and titles over her overseas countries.
159. The German military forces shall be demobilized and reduced not to exceed 100,000 men.
181. The German navy must not exceed 6 battleships, 6 light cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 12 torpedo boats. No submarines are to be included.
198. The Armed Forces of Germany must not include any military or naval air forces.
231. Germany and her Allies accept the responsibility for causing all the loss and damage to the Allied Powers.
233. Germany will pay for all damages done to the civilian population and property of the Allied Governments. [The figure was later set at $33 billion].
428. To guarantee the execution of the Treaty, the German territory situated to the west of the Rhine River will be occupied by Allied troops for fifteen years.
431. The occupation forces will be withdrawn as soon as Germany complies with the Treaty.
Not surprisingly, Germans felt betrayed by the treaty. One German newspaper, Deutsche Zeitung, denounced it with these words. “In the place where, in the glorious year of 1871, the German Empire in all its glory had its origin, today German honor is being carried to its grave. Do not forget it! The German people will, with unceasing labor, press forward to reconquer the place among the nations to which it is entitled. Then will come vengeance for the shame of 1919.”1 That view was widely shared. Even
German Communists opposed the agreement. A number of non-German observers and some historians also considered the treaty too harsh. Others noted that it was not nearly as vindictive as the one Germany forced on Russia just a year earlier. When Wilson arrived in Paris, he was cheered. By the time the Treaty of Versailles was completed in May of 1919, his popularity had dimmed not only abroad but also at home. Many Americans felt that Europe’s problems were not their concern. They preferred isolation to a continuing involvement in world affairs. So, despite Wilson’s
pleas, the United States did not join the League of Nations. The League also began its work without Germany and the USSR. Both were viewed as “outlaw” nations. As a result, the League was an international peacekeeper that failed to include three key nations.
- What does the word vindictive mean? Was the Treaty of Versailles vindictive? The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk?
- Before the war ended, Woodrow Wilson said, “I am convinced that if this peace is not made on the highest principles of justice, it will be swept away Germany in the 1920s 121 by the peoples of the world in less than a generation.” What is a “just peace”? Why is it difficult to hold on to? What aspects of society work against peace? Why was it so hard to make peace in 1919? To keep the peace? What would it take to achieve a lasting peace today?
- In small groups, evaluate the Treaty of Versailles. What criteria did your group use to make its evaluation? What criteria did the victors use? The Germans? What similarities do you notice? What differences seem most striking?
- Reading 3 described how Erzberger and the other signers of the armistice agreement came to be characterized as the “November criminals” who “stabbed Germany in the back.” How do you think the terms of the treaty affected that view? How does a nation experience shame?
- A democratic leader once said that it is impossible to lead if no one is following. What do you think he was saying about leadership in a democracy? Suppose leaders had put aside their political differences and worked out a treaty based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Would their people have accepted such a treaty?
- Woodrow Wilson believed that the war was caused by “frustrated nationalism.” He maintained that the best way to reduce the chances of another war was through “self-determination.” Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, feared “self-determination” would have the opposite effect. In a letter to Wilson, he asked, “Will it not breed discontent, disorder and rebellion? The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!” What is frustrated nationalism? Self-determination? Was the former the cause of the World War I? Was the latter a way to prevent another war? Support your opinion with evidence from current events.
- Study a map of Europe before and after World War I. List the differences between the two maps. How do you account for differences? To what extent is self-determination reflected in your list of differences?
- The fighting in the Balkans in 1992 prompted columnist A. M. Rosenthal to write, “Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Macedonians, Muslim or Christian, come out of a world where for centuries loyalties were built on the importance of separateness. The separate clan, tribe, family and village gave protection. The histories and fantasies of the individual group gave meaning and texture to life. The separateness created fear of others, which was intensified when the outsider was too close, a neighbor. Leaders used the fears to build their own power – feudal dukes once, now onetime Communist bosses like President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia are building new power on old separations.”9 Are his comments true of world leaders after World War I? Are they true of other leaders in today’s world? What is he suggesting is the proper role of a leader? Do you agree?
- Professor Henry Friedlander argues that the Germans were more disturbed about losing the war than they were about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. This argument is developed in his videotaped lecture, “The Rise of Nazism,” available from the Facing History Resource Center and summarized in Elements of Time, page 341.