In January 1919, two months after the fighting in World War I ceased, a conference was convened at Versailles, the former country estate of the French monarchy outside Paris, to work out the terms of a peace treaty to officially end the conflict.
Though representatives of nearly 30 nations attended, the peace terms essentially were written by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France and the United States, who along with Italy, formed the “Big Four” that dominated the proceedings. The defeated countries—Germany and allies Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria—weren’t invited to participate.
In the end the Allies agreed that they would punish Germany and attempt to weaken that nation so much that it wouldn’t pose a future threat. Germany’s representatives had no real choice but to accept the terms.
The text of the treaty signed in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors on June 28, 1919 amounted to 240 pages and contained 440 separate articles. The treaty lacked long-term enforcement mechanisms and was further weakened when, despite U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts, the U.S. Congress refused to ratify it in November 1919.
Some have argued that the treaty’s harsh terms actually contributed to conditions that led to Europe plunging into another war just 20 years later.
Here are some of the key provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
Hand Over Territories and Colonies
Articles 45-40 compelled Germany to turn over its coal mines in the Saar Basin to France, although they technically were under control of the League of Nations.
“After a 15-year period, there was supposed to be a plebiscite and residents could choose whether to be German or French,” explains Karl Qualls, a professor of history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When the election finally was held in 1935, 90 percent of them voted to be part of Germany.
Article 51 took the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, which Germany had seized during the 1871 and gave it back to France.
Articles 42-44 and Article 180 forced the Germans to dismantle their fortifications along the Rhine river. Demilitarization of the Rhineland “was a big initiative of France,” says Qualls. “They were trying to prevent Germany from being an aggressive power again, and also weakening them by allowing for an invasion by France as well.”
Article 80 required Germany to respect the independence of Austria.
Articles 81-86 compelled Germany to renounce territorial claims and recognize the independence of Czechoslovakia, a new nation formed from several provinces of former German ally Austria-Hungary, whose western portion had a sizable minority of ethnic Germans.
Articles 87-93 gave what had been German West Prussia and other territory with ethnic German inhabitants to newly-independent Poland.
Article 119 stripped Germany of its colonies in China and Africa, which Qualls explains was a particularly humbling provision. Prior to the war, “if you were going to be a European power, you had to have colonial possessions,” he says.
Limits on Arms, Forces and Equipment
Articles 159-163 reduced the size of the German army, which had reached 1.9 million troops during World War I, to just 100,000, and mandated that the force “shall be devoted exclusively to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of the frontiers.”
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It even specified strict limits on the number of infantry, artillery and engineers, and limited the officer corps to 4,000. The German military was just neutered, basically,” Qualls says.
Articles 164-172 disarmed the German military, limiting the number of weapons and even how much ammunition it could possess. Smaller artillery pieces, for example, were allotted 1,500 rounds, while bigger guns got just 500 shells. Germany could only manufacture new war materiel in a few factories approved by the Allies. The Germans had to turn over vast amounts of equipment, from tanks and machine guns to telephones.
Articles 181-197 reduced Germany’s naval forces to a skeleton force that included just six battleships, six light cruisers, 12 destroyers and 12 torpedo boats, and totally eliminated the submarine fleet that had terrorized ships in the Atlantic.
Articles 198-202 prohibited Germany from having an air force, except for up to 100 seaplanes to work in minesweeping operations. Zeppelins, which had been used to bomb the UK during the war, were banned as well.
War Crimes Trials
Articles 227-230 authorized the Allies to conduct war crimes trials. Article 227 called for a five-judge tribunal to put the abdicated Kaiser Wilhelm II on trial “or a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.”
That never actually happened, because the Netherlands, where Wilhelm had sought asylum declined to extradite him, and he eventually died there in 1941. The Allies did put 17 other Germans on trial on allegations ranging from looting to sinking a hospital ship, according to the International Encyclopedia for the First World War. Some were acquitted, while others were found guilty but generally received light sentences.
$33 Billion in Reparations
Article 231, commonly called the war guilt clause, required Germany to accept responsibility for causing “all the loss and damage” inflicted on the Allies. That provision became the basis for the Allies for demand that Germany pay reparations, which were set by a series of conferences in 1920 at $33 billion (about $423 billion in 2019 dollars).
“I believe that the campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible,” economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1920.
Germany was already in deep financial trouble, due to the former imperial regime’s trick of printing a lot of currency and borrowing heavily to cover its military expenditures. The new German government, struggling under the weight of debt and budget deficits, defaulted on the payments in gold-backed marks that it was obligated to make. France then tried to put on the pressure by occupying the Ruhr, an industrial region in western Germany. That only exacerbated Germany’s economic chaos, and contributed to the hyperinflation that made the nation’s currency virtually worthless in 1923.
German Humiliation, Debt & World War II
Eventually, the United States came up with the idea of lending money to Germany to pay the reparations. In the end, though, the Allies got very little money from Germany, and the reparations were cancelled at the Lausanne Conference in 1932.
“The reparations and dismantling of the German military were humiliating for many Germans, primarily because the German military and press had been lying to the public about the war,” Quall says.
Anger over the imagined betrayal, in turn, helped fuel the rise of populism and nationalism that eventually led to the rise of Hitler, who proceeded to violate the treaty by rearming Germany. Hitler subsequently defied other provisions as well, including re-militarizing the Rhineland and joining into a union with Austria.
After bullying the British and French into abandoning yet another provision of the Versailles treaty by giving in to his territorial demands upon Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Nazi leader was sufficiently emboldened to invade Poland and start World War II in 1939.