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What is the Treaty of Versailles?

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, marked the end of World War I, imposing heavy reparations and territorial losses on Germany. This pivotal document reshaped Europe's borders and sowed seeds of discontent that would later influence global history. How did its terms shape the 20th century, and what lessons can we draw from its legacy? Explore with us.
Hanna H.
Hanna H.

Signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, France, the Treaty of Versailles was the most recognized of many peace treaties that came out of the Paris Peace Conference. Though the actual fighting in World War I ended on 11 November 1918 when Germany signed an armistice with the allied powers, the formal end to the war didn't come until a peace treaty was signed. The Paris Peace Conference was convened on 18 January 1919 to provide a formal end to the war and determine how the aftermath would be handled. Out of that conference came several peace treaties, also known as the Peace of Paris Treaties. One of those treaties — the Treaty of Versailles — identified Germany as the sole cause of the war, made it give up control of substantial amounts of territory, imposed substantial financial reparations, and significantly reduced its military capacity.

The Treaty of Versailles was completed in April of 1919 — months after the four day Paris Peace Conference was over. It took the Allied leaders several months of arguments, compromise and bargaining before the treaty was presented to Germany for consideration on 7 May 1919.

The German government decided to pay WWI reparations by simply printing banknotes.
The German government decided to pay WWI reparations by simply printing banknotes.

When presented, the treaty included 440 Articles and numerous Annexes. The German government was given three weeks to accept the terms of the treaty, which it had not seen prior to the May delivery. The treaty declared an end to the state of war between Germany and the Allies; and, above all, gave the Allies control over what to do with the Germany and the Central Powers. While Germany had several complaints about, and amendments to, the treaty, the country’s input was almost entirely disregarded.

Signed on June 28, 1919 at the royal palace in Versailles, France, the Treaty of Versailles was the most recognized of many peace treaties that came out of the Paris Peace Conference.
Signed on June 28, 1919 at the royal palace in Versailles, France, the Treaty of Versailles was the most recognized of many peace treaties that came out of the Paris Peace Conference.

One major part of the Treaty of Versailles was that Germany must accept sole responsibility for starting the war. This was known as the “War Guilt Clause.” Due to this acceptance of responsibility, Germany was forced to abide by several harsh and stringent treaty terms, including relinquishing a percentage of German land along with all overseas German colonies and returning all the land it took from Russia.

A product of the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles officially marked the end of World War I.
A product of the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles officially marked the end of World War I.

Germany’s military capacity was also severely limited. Its army was reduced to 100,000 men and its navy was reduced to 15,000 men, six battleships and no submarines. Its air force was dissolved. Western Germany was to be demilitarized, and Germany was forbidden to unite with Austria. This demilitarization lasted until the 1930s when Nazi leaders began to build its strength up for what would become the second world war it would start — World War II.

In addition to reducing its territorial control, and military strength, in accepting the War Guilt Clause, Germany was required to pay substantial reparations. The majority of those reparations went to France and Belgium to repair any damage done to the infrastructure of both countries by the war. The amount of reparations was in the billions, leaving Germany in extreme poverty for over 20 years.

Throughout history, the Treaty of Versailles has been criticized for being overly harsh on Germany. The country suffered extremely difficult financial times as a result of the Treaty, and spent decades trying to fulfill the agreements created. In fact, several historians believe that the Nazi regime and the Second World War were a direct result to the harshness Germany undertook due to the treaty.

Other treaties resulting from the Paris Peace Conference included: The Treaty of Saint-Germain with Austria, 10 September 1919; the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria, 27 November 1919; the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary, 4 June 1920; and, the Treaty of Sèvres with the Ottoman Empire, 10 August 1920.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the main purpose of the Treaty of Versailles?

The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, aimed to establish peace following World War I by officially ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It imposed punitive reparations on Germany, significantly reduced its military capabilities, and redrew the map of Europe to reflect the dissolution of empires and the self-determination of nations, as outlined by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points.

How did the Treaty of Versailles affect Germany?

The Treaty of Versailles had profound effects on Germany. It demanded substantial reparations, with the figure eventually set at 132 billion gold marks (roughly $33 billion at the time), according to the Library of Congress. Germany lost around 13% of its territory and 10% of its population, and its military was severely restricted. These terms led to economic hardship, political instability, and a sense of humiliation, contributing to the rise of National Socialism.

What were the key territorial changes resulting from the Treaty of Versailles?

The Treaty of Versailles redrew the map of Europe, leading to significant territorial losses for Germany. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France, Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium, Northern Schleswig to Denmark, and Hultschin to Czechoslovakia. The Saar Basin was placed under League of Nations administration, and the city of Danzig (Gdańsk) became a free city. Additionally, large parts of eastern Germany were ceded to the newly formed Poland, including the Polish Corridor to the Baltic Sea.

Did the Treaty of Versailles lead to World War II?

While the Treaty of Versailles is not the sole cause of World War II, it is widely regarded as a contributing factor. The treaty's harsh terms fostered economic distress and national resentment in Germany. According to historians, this environment facilitated Adolf Hitler's rise to power, as he capitalized on German grievances, promising to overturn the treaty and restore Germany's former glory, which ultimately led to the outbreak of World War II.

What was the role of the League of Nations in the Treaty of Versailles?

The Treaty of Versailles established the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at maintaining peace and preventing future conflicts. The League was intended to provide a forum for resolving international disputes through diplomacy and collective security. However, the League's effectiveness was limited by the absence of key powers like the United States, which never joined, and its inability to enforce its resolutions, ultimately failing to prevent the aggression that led to World War II.

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    • The German government decided to pay WWI reparations by simply printing banknotes.
      By: awesomephant
      The German government decided to pay WWI reparations by simply printing banknotes.
    • Signed on June 28, 1919 at the royal palace in Versailles, France, the Treaty of Versailles was the most recognized of many peace treaties that came out of the Paris Peace Conference.
      By: Rick Henzel
      Signed on June 28, 1919 at the royal palace in Versailles, France, the Treaty of Versailles was the most recognized of many peace treaties that came out of the Paris Peace Conference.
    • A product of the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles officially marked the end of World War I.
      By: polesnoy
      A product of the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles officially marked the end of World War I.