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What is the Treaty of Versailles? - Answers

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What is the Treaty of Versailles?

Infographic on Treaty of Versailles, which was signed to end World War I

The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28th, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles in France, brought an end to World War I. The Treaty took effect on January 10th, 1920.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed between four major nations – France, Britain, Italy along with its allies, and Germany and other nations that were part of the Central Powers.

The treaty had 15 parts and 440 articles covering three main aspects:

  • Territorial settlement of land taken away from Germany
  • Military curtailment of Germany
  • Financial and economic compensation to allied nations

Over 25,000 sq. miles of German territory was taken away and reallocated to other countries.

The key terms of the Treaty

  • Germany was not invited to the newly formed League of Nations
  • The demilitarization of Rhineland with no access to German forces. Areas west of Rhine and 30 miles east of it were declared a demilitarized zone
  • Germany was forced to give up all rights over Prussian Moresnet – Eupen Malmedy area in favor of Belgium. Large part of Schleswig handed to Denmark. Memel handed to Lithuania
  • The State of Czecho-Slovak recognized as independent
  • Coal-rich Saar region handed to France for 15 years. Alsace-Lorraine region handed back to France
  • Germany restrained from uniting with Austria
  • Creation of Poland. Poland was handed Posen along with parts of land between Germany and East Prussia
  • The city of Danzig (Gdansk) declared free city; to be administered by the League of Nations
  • Large parts of German territory handed to France and Great Britain
  • Germany was made to give up control over most of its colonies in China, Pacific, and Africa
  • German military size was curtailed with army restricted to 100,000 men; German Navy allowed to maintain six battleships, and no submarines; not allowed to maintain any Air Force
  • Germany was named the aggressor and held responsible for starting World War I and the resulting damage to life and property
  • War Guilt clause forced Germany to pay compensation to the allies. Amount set at 132 billion gold marks ($31.4 billion, at the time)

Why was the Treaty of Versailles necessary?
World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1919. Germany, supported by Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria, was seen as the aggressor by France, Britain, Italy, and Japan, and supported at a later stage by the United States. The U.S. was reluctant to join the war in Europe and only after two and a half years of trying to negotiate peace among the warring nations, finally joined the war on April 6th, 1917.

Four years of active fighting took a heavy toll on all countries fighting the war. Most of Europe was devastated with both sides suffering major casualties on the civilian and military side.

The major leaders of the Allied Powers that negotiated the Treaty of Versailles

  • Davis Lloyd George of the United Kingdom
  • Georges Clemenceau of France
  • Vittorio Emanuel Orlando of Italy
  • Woodrow Wilson of the United States

The genesis of World War I
It was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, on their visit to Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, that triggered political reactions at home and among other European nations leading to World War I.

In 1914, Germany was already a major economic and military power in Europe. When Austria-Hungary pronounced the ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia, Russia began mobilizing its troops. Germany opposed the Russian mobilization, and on August 1st, 1914, declared war on Russia.

Outnumbered by the Germans on the Eastern Front, Russia appealed to France to join the war being an ally of the Triple Entente agreement. France had its reasons for joining the war; in 1870, France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and had to cede Alsace-Lorraine region to Germany. France wanted it back and responded by joining the war.

Since France was strongly fortified on its borders, Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg on the way to France. Belgium was a neutral country, and its invasion drew the United Kingdom into the war. By November 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the war in support of the Central Powers.

In 1915, despite being a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy joined the war on the Allied side, and in 1916, Romania too joined the Allies.

In all this time, the allied powers led by France and Britain appealed to the United States to join the war, but the U.S. was reluctant to be drawn into a war that it considered to be a European problem.  Besides, the United States was a major supplier to Germany, France, and Britain and was not keen to impact its commercial interests by joining either side.

German submarines were indiscriminately attacking merchant ships transporting goods across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe and caused concern and anger in America. But it was the sinking of the American ship RMS Lusitania along with 128 American sailors that finally drew the United States to declare war on Germany and Central Powers, on April 6th, 1917.

Casualties among the warring sides

Allied Powers

  • Russia: 1,700,000 killed and several thousand wounded. Although France, Britain, Belgium, and Italy bore the major brunt of the war, the maximum loss of lives was on the Russian side
  • France: 1,400,000 killed and 2,500,000 wounded. The heavy toll on France was to have a major impact on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles
  • Britain: 750,000 killed and 1,500,000 wounded
  • Italy: 600,000 killed and several thousand wounded
  • United States: 116,000 killed and several thousand wounded. The late entry of the US ensured the loss of American lives was lower than other allied nations
  • Belgium: 50,000 killed and several thousand wounded

Central Powers

  • Germany: 2,000,000 killed and several thousand wounded. At the start of the war, Germany did not anticipate such a major loss of lives and its impact on internal politics.
  • Austria-Hungary: 1,200,000 killed and several thousand wounded
  • Turkey: 325,000 killed and several thousand wounded
  • Bulgaria: 100,000 killed and several thousand wounded

Why was Germany unhappy over signing the Treaty of Versailles?
Every nation that fought the war had its reasons and politics, and this had its impact on the final negotiations that led to the drafting of the Treaty. Germany’s main contention was that it agreed to hold peace talks on the basis of the fourteen points suggested by President Woodrow Wilson.

Germany was totally opposed to the final terms of the treaty that was presented to them only a few days before they were forced to sign. They opposed the War Guilt clause that demanded a compensation amount that was beyond Germany’s capacity to pay, the massive loss of territory, and severe curtailment of its forces. The German pride was dented.

The events leading up to the treaty  
By 1918, Germany faced domestic discontent against the war. The German army suffered major losses and faced desertion. Back home, frequent industrial strikes and the Spanish flu, which killed thousands, took their toll on the German will to fight any further.

In October 1918, they appealed to President Woodrow Wilson to negotiate peace and were willing to accept his Fourteen Point Plan, as the basis for an armistice.

France, Britain, Italy, and Japan initiated the Paris Peace Conference to end the war. Russia was kept out as they had signed an independent treaty with Germany. Japan later withdrew from the negotiations.

Germany was not part of the negotiations and came to know the terms of the Treaty just before the signing. They strongly rejected the harsh terms that called upon them to pay for “War Guilt.” Under the Treaty, Germany was to part with major territory and pay compensation that was impossible for the country to raise. The Allied powers gave Germany an ultimatum – sign the Treaty, or the Allies would invade Germany. Germany had no choice but to sign the Treaty.

It would lay the ground for what became Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ultimately lead to World War II.

Highlights of 14 Points proposed by President Woodrow Wilson

  1. Open diplomacy between nations instead of private meetings in addressing international relations and disputes.
  2. Freedom of navigation and access to seas, beyond territorial waters, at all times.
  3. Removal of trade restrictions and introduction of fair trade conditions.
  4. Self-regulated disarmament to be introduced based on national security needs.
  5. Control of colonies to be based on equal weightage to local population sentiment and the government claiming control.
  6. Evacuation of all Russian territory and granting Russia the right to choose its own political and development path.
  7. Belgium to be completely evacuated and its freedom restored.
  8. All captured French territory to be evacuated and restored, including restoration of Alsace-Lorraine region to France.
  9. Italian territory to be marked based on recognizable lines of its nationality.
  10. People of Austria-Hungary to be given the right of self-determination and autonomous development.
  11. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro to be evacuated; Serbia to be given free access to the sea; Balkan states to have the freedom to determine their relations based on historical allegiance; International guarantees to be given to Balkan states for political and economic self-determination.
  12. Turkish areas under the Ottoman Empire to be given sovereignty; other communities under Turkish control to be free for autonomous development; Dardanelles to have free access of passage for all nations.
  13. The Independent state of Poland to be created.
  14. All nations to mutually agree in providing security guarantees for political and territorial sovereignty of all nations.

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