The Treaty of Versailles formally ended World War I. It was drafted during the Paris Peace Conference and officially signed on June 28, 1919. This date marks five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, which triggered the war.
During the conference, the national leaders called the “Big Four” played a dominant role. They included David Lloyd George, the prime minister of the United Kingdom; Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of France; Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States; and Vittorio Orlando, the prime minister of Italy. Notably, the defeated nations—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey—had no say in shaping the treaty.
Clemenceau’s primary aim was to shield France from future German aggression. On the other hand, Lloyd George prioritized the reconstruction of Germany to revive it as a strong trading partner for Great Britain. Meanwhile, Orlando sought to expand Italy’s influence and elevate it to a major power. As for Wilson, his vision was to establish a new world order based on his Fourteen Points, which called for the establishment of an international peacekeeping organization, international disarmament, open diplomacy, the explicit disavowal of war, and independence for formerly colonial territories.
Front cover of the Treaty of Versailles publication in English
The Allies imposed tough peace terms on Germany. As a result, Germany had to surrender about 10 percent of its territory and give up all overseas possessions. The treaty’s war guilt clause held Germany fully responsible for starting World War I, and they were obligated to pay $33 billion in reparations for the damage caused to the Allies during the war. However, this huge sum seemed impossible to collect without risking the collapse of the European economy.
To ensure Germany’s military wouldn’t pose a threat, the treaty placed several restrictions. The German army was limited to only 100,000 men, and the general staff was disbanded. Moreover, Germany was forbidden from manufacturing armored cars, tanks, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas. A significant portion of Germany, extending west of the Rhine and up to 30 miles (50 km) east of it, was designated as a demilitarized zone to maintain peace and security in the region.
The image of the “Big Four” leaders at the Paris Peace Conference on May 27, 1919. From left to right: David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson.
After the Treaty of Versailles, ordinary Germans felt betrayed by the leaders who signed the treaty and formed the post-war government, calling them the “November Criminals.” This discontentment opened doors for radical right-wing political forces, notably the Nazis, to gain support during the 1920s and ’30s. The Nazis promised to undo the humiliation caused by the Versailles Treaty.
In 1929, the Great Depression struck, bringing economic unrest that further weakened the already vulnerable government in Germany. This created the perfect conditions for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, a pivotal moment in history.
Words of wisdom
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” —Jack Kerouac
“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” —Isaac Asimov
“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.” —Marie Curie
“Resist much, obey little.” —Walt Whitman