Signed 96 years ago by Germany and the Allied Powers, the Treaty of Versailles brought an official end to the First World War, halted by ceasefire on 11th November 1918.
The treaty, named for the Palace of Versailles where it was signed, set out the terms of Germany’s acquiescence to the Allies. The treaty imposed 3 articles on Germany:
- The War Guilt clause; Germany must accept responsibility for damages and losses incurred as a result of the war and caused by the Germans’ aggression and that of their allies. 132 billion Marks (roughly equivalent to £400 billion in 2015) was the eventual total assessed in 1921.
- Military restrictions; the clauses were intended to make the Reichswehr (German Armed Forces) incapable of offensive action and to promote international disarmament. Demobilisation of soldiers down to a level of 100,000 in a maximum of 7 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions. Forbidden from manufacturing or stockpiling chemical weapons, armoured cars, tanks and aircraft. The navy was allowed to retain only 6 pre-Dreadnought battleships, 6 light cruisers, 12 destroyers, 12 torpedo boats, and was forbidden from manufacturing or utilising submarines. An air force for either service was also outlawed. The Rhineland, a strip of land in the Northwest of Germany along the Rhine River, was demilitarised to create a buffer zone between Belgium, France and Germany.
- Territorial changes; Germany was stripped of some 25,000 square miles of territory and subsequently lost almost 7 million people. The treaty forced Germany to relinquish its gains in the Brest-Litvosk Treaty following the Russian surrender and give up the city of Danzig to the League of Nations. All German colonies were to be renounced and converted into League of Nations’ mandates under the control of Allied states like Britain and France.
Reactions to the treaty were almost universally negative. Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, failed to meet the expectations of the French people and resigned from office during the 1920 elections. British officials believed the French had been too greedy and vindictive, with Ramsay Macdonald, a Labour Party MP, remarking in 1936 that he was pleased the treaty was “vanishing” as Hitler’s Germany re-occupied the de-militarised Rhineland. The United States failed to pass the treaty through Congress, did not ratify it, and chose not to join the League of Nations.
Germans loathed the treaty, referring to it as the “Diktat” or dictated peace, “take it or leave it”. The first democratically elected head of government, following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, refused to sign it and resigned. His successor, following advice that the German Army could not resume hostilities if the Government were to reject the treaty, recommended that the National Assembly sign the treaty.
German hostility towards the treaty was the catalyst for the subsequent rise of the Nazis. The competing interests of the British, French and American nations resulted in the treaty neither pacifying, conciliating, nor permanently weakening Germany. When Hitler flagrantly disregarded the treaty by building, tanks, aircraft, battleships and re-occupying the Rhineland, he did it to thunderous applause from his fellow Germans. His popularity was a sign of the national mood and paved the way for events to come that would plunge the world into another 6 years of brutal war.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the Allied armies during the First World War, said of the Treaty of Versailles: "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years". How accurate his assessment would prove to be.