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What Was the Treaty of Versailles?

Updated on January 29, 2016
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Caroline is a content, an amateur historian, and a narrative genealogist. She earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Northwestern University.

Allied leaders at Versailles.
Allied leaders at Versailles.

The Treaty of Versailles was the final peace treaty of World War I, which ended the war between Germany and the Allied forces. The treaty was signed June 28, 1919, more than six months after the final armistice of World War I, on November 11, 1918.

Signed near Paris, in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace de Versailles, the former palace of the French monarchy, the final treaty involved more than 5 months of arguments and discussions and hundreds of diplomats and politicians from Great Britain, France and the United States (the "Big Three"). World War II and the rise of Hitler are often viewed as consequences of the harsh terms and demanded war reparations included in this treaty.

World War I troops in France.
World War I troops in France.

Background Behind the Treaty

World War I (also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars) spanned the years 1914-1918 and drew in more than 35 countries and two continents (Europe and Africa) before its final cease fire. It was the first "modern" war, involving for the first time, tanks, aircraft, chemical weapons and wireless communications.

With horse-drawn cannons clashing with aerial bombardments and mustard gas fired on trenches of men, the casualties were astronomical. World War I remains the deadliest recorded war in world history. More than 16 million service personnel and civilians were killed and more than 21 million were injured.

The First World War left Europe in shambles, with whole towns turned to rubble, portions of cities ruined and the countrysides pock marked and desolate. The young adults became known as the Lost Generation, referring to the percentage of young men killed, left disabled or permanently shell shocked.

In addition to war casualties, the Spanish influenza killed another 25 million people during 1918, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 threw Russia into chaos and turmoil. World War I, in effect, ushered out the Victorian Age and dramatically introduced the world to the 20th century.

In this setting, an original 27 nations, including the Big Three, convened to hammer out terms which the Germans needed to accept to end the war. With took many cooks in the kitchen, the delegates were eventually weeded down to those representing the big three, whose political leaders at the time were David Lloyd George (Prime Minister, Great Britain), Woodrow Wilson (President, United States) and Georges Clemenceau (Prime Minister, France).

Conflicts Between the Big Three

In addition to representing all 27 countries in the Treaty negotiations, each of the Big Three countries had its own agenda, which led to months of arguments and deliberations.

Wilson, an intellectual re-elected in 1916 with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War", was personally shocked by the ability of modern civilizations to render so much death and destruction on each other. A peaceful man dedicated to education reform, he had a vision of world peace and freedom that he had published as his "Fourteen Points" in January 1918. Some of these points included worldwide membership in the League of Nations, the international reduction in arms and armed services, and the end of secret treaties.

Because the U.S. had entered the war later and on a different continent, it had not suffered as great of losses as other Allied (or Entente) forces and was not as intent as other nations on the destruction of Germany. Wilson urged a treaty that would punish but not exact revenge, leading to eventual European reconciliation.

Despite his integral part in the development of the League of Nations, Wilson also represented a nation that wanted no more to do with European wars and was instead interested in continuing an isolationist policy.

Clemenceau and France's delegates represented a nation destroyed by war. The leader and his citizens were of one mind: that Germany be severely punished for the war. They pushed for a treaty that so stripped Germany of power that it could never start a war again.

George, of a Britain, represented a people stunned by significant loss of life, although its lands were not ravaged like France's. George both wanted a punished Germany but was also looking ahead at the containment of communism and trade opportunities. As he and his delegation view the future, a totally impotent Germany would not be able to help contain communism to Russia, nor would it be a viable trade partner.

Treaty of Versailles political cartoon.
Treaty of Versailles political cartoon.

The Terms of the Treaty of Versailles

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were divided into legal, territorial, financial, military and general provisions.


  • Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was to stand trial for war crimes
  • German War Guilt: Article 231 put all of the blame for the war on Germany and its allies, all of whom were to be help accountable for the all damage inflicted on the Allies and their populations.

Territorial Terms

  • Most of Posen and West Prussia: given back to Poland
  • Alsace-Lorraine: returned to France after 50 years in German possession
  • Northern Schleiswig: given back to Denmark
  • Hultschin: given back to Czechoslovakia
  • Eupen-Malmedy: given to Belgium
  • Memel Territory: given to France
  • The Port of Danzig became the Free State of Danzig
  • Rhineland & Saarland: Placed under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years
  • German African colonies: divided between France, Belgium and Britain

Military Restrictions

  • Germany's military was reduced to 100,000 men and conscription was ended. No tanks, armored cars, chemical gases or armed aircraft.
  • German navy limited to 6 battleships, 6 cruisers, 12 destroyers, 12 torpedo boats and no submarines
  • Import and export of weapons was banned and a restriction placed on the manufacturing of weapons

Financial Terms

Most of the treaty dealt with financial issues (War Reparations) related to Germany's responsibility for the war. The total sum for which Germany was held responsible was 226 billion Reichsmarks, which was reduced in 1921 to 132 billion Reichsmarks (about US$438 billion in 2010 dollars). Reparations were to be paid over 59 years (calculated from an 1871 treaty imposed on France by Germany, which was based on an 1807 treaty imposed on Prussia by Napoleon I).

Part of these reparations were to be repaid through industrial product, including coal, steel, patent rights and agricultural yields. For instance, coal-bearing territories were transferred to France and Belgium in response to Germany's destruction of those countries' coal mines during the war. Other territories that remained under German control were ordered to deliver millions of tons of coal to the European allies for a period of years.

According to the Daily Telegraph ("First World War officially ends "First World War officially ends" 2 October 2010), Germany made its final reparation payments in 2010.


Finally, the Treaty of Versailles provided for the creation of the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization.

Division of Germany and territories according to the Treaty of Versailles.
Division of Germany and territories according to the Treaty of Versailles.

Ratification & Consequences

Germany had two options: Sign the Treaty of Versailles or be invaded by Allied forces. Ratified by Great Britain, France and Italy, the treaty was not ratified by the U.S.

After all of Wilson's work, the U.S. Senate voted against ratification based on their reluctance to join the League of Nations. Defeated, Wilson suffered a permanently debilitating stroke and served out his term as an invalid. It wasn't until 1921, under President Warren Harding, that the Knox Porter Resolution was passed, formally ending the First World War for the United States.

By punishing Germany so severely economically and not stripping its military powers completely, the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for Germany to allow such a lunatic as HItler to rise to power.

In fact, the French people, not feeling Germany had been weakened enough, failed to re-elect Clemenseau. French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch believed the military restrictions on Germany were too lenient and stated, "This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years." [R. Henig, Versailles and After: 1919–1933. Routledge, 1995]

Foch was correct. The German people despised the treaty and especially hated the German Guilt Clause. They believed the reparations to be unfair demands on a severely weakened industry and economy. As a result of the treaty, a string of violations began that ultimately led to World War II.


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