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Your guide to the Treaty of Versailles

What was the Treaty of Versailles? When was it signed? Did it lead to the Second World War? We answer some of the key questions about the peace document that marked the end of World War One...

Photo of members of the Versailles Conference
Published: December 14, 2021 at 4:42 pm
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What was the Treaty of Versailles?

Signed on 28 June 1919 – five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event widely acknowledged to have sparked the outbreak of war – the Treaty of Versailles was the peace document that marked the official end of World War I.

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What was the main purpose of the Treaty of Versailles?

Although the German government had agreed to accept US president Woodrow Wilson’s proposals for a fair peace settlement in October 1918, the Allies were determined that Germany should pay “for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea and from the air.”

Who signed the Treaty of Versailles?

Twenty-seven nations were in attendance at the Paris Peace Conference that decided the terms of the Treaty, although Germany and its defeated allies were not allowed to sit at the conference table. The conference was dominated by US president Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and prime minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy – often referred to as ‘the big four’. Hundreds of delegates signed the Treaty, with the signing ceremony taking place in the palace’s magnificent Hall of Mirrors.

May the hand wither that signs this treaty!
German chancellor Philipp Scheidemann

What were the main terms of the Treaty of Versailles?

The final treaty – the result of some five months of negotiations – comprised 15 parts and 440 articles. German armed forces were to be restricted to 100,000 men, six battleships (although no submarines or tanks) and no airforce. The area of western Germany known as the Rhineland, which had been occupied by Allied forces following the Armistice, was demilitarised and German troops forbidden from going within 30 miles of it. Alsace-Lorraine, which had been incorporated into the German Empire in 1871, was returned to France and Germany was forbidden from uniting with Austria.

The Treaty also gave the Polish corridor between Germany and East Prussia, and the farmlands of Posen, both in eastern Germany, to Poland, while Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdańsk) was made a free city under United Nations control. Germany lost all of its colonies in China, the Pacific and Africa under the Treaty – these were given to France, Britain and other Allied nations – and the Saarland was placed under the supervision of the League of Nations until 1935. Germany lost approximately 13 per cent of its pre-war territory and all of its overseas possessions.

What was the War Guilt Clause?

Clause 231 – often known as the War Guilt Clause – was one of the most controversial terms of the Treaty. Although the word ‘guilt’ did not appear, clause 231 forced Germany to accept responsibility for causing World War I and served as a legal basis for Germany to pay reparations. Although the clause was added as a way of getting France and Belgium to agree to a lower sum of compensation, it was viewed as a national humiliation in Germany and bitterly resented.

Did Germany have to pay any money in compensation?

Yes, although the final amount was not settled upon until 1921. The first reparation demands were $63 billion (close to $768 billion today) but this was eventually reduced to $33 billion (about $402 billion today). Germany made its final reparations payment in 2010, nearly 92 years after its defeat.

How did Germany react to the Treaty of Versailles?

The German government signed the Treaty under protest and was bitterly resentful of its terms. Right-wing German parties felt betrayed, referring to it as the Diktat (dictated peace) since they had been forced to accept it; some politicians deemed responsible for the country's poor position were even assassinated. Many felt that the Allies had reneged on the terms agreed at the Armistice in 1918, and the war clause and high sum of reparations in particular fostered deep resentment in Germany. "May the hand wither that signs this treaty", declared German chancellor Philipp Scheidemann, who resigned rather than sign it.

Ultimately, it provided Adolf Hitler an ideal platform from which to garner support for a second world war.

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This article was taken from the March 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed

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