28/6/1919 The German peace treaty signed in Versailles

Seven weeks ago the Allies presented their peace terms to the Germans. Five days ago the German government finally agreed to accept the terms rather than face an Allied invasion. Today their plenipotentiaries, Herman Müller of the Social Democrats and Johannes Bell of the Centre Party, arrive in Versailles to sign the treaty.

The Allies have decided that the peace treaty will be signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the former royal palace, where in 1871 the German Empire was proclaimed after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Proceedings are opened by Clemenceau, the French premier. He calls on the Germans to sign the treaty, thereby signifying that their country will abide by the peace terms. Müller and Bell do so, making no speech and offering no protest, to everyone’s relief. The various Allied delegations then sign: first Wilson and the Americans, then Lloyd George and the British Empire delegations, then the French, Italian and Japanese delegations, who are in turn followed by representatives of the smaller powers. The whole affair is a piece of diplomatic theatre, so much so that Paul Cambon, France’s ambassador to Britain, feels that the occasion lacked only music and dancing girls.

The treaty contains many provisions that the Germans find distasteful. They are obliged to shoulder the responsibility for starting the war and they must also pay substantial reparations to the Allies. Large swathes of Germany territory is being ceded to Poland, whose corridor to the sea separates East Prussia from the rest of Germany; Danzig meanwhile is to become a free city, effectively a port for Poland. Germany is also losing territory to France (the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, captured in 1871), Belgium and Denmark (which has managed to expand its frontiers despite being neutral in the war). Germany is also to lose all its colonies, which will be divided out among the Allies as mandates, to be run for the benefit of their inhabitants. Meanwhile Germany’s union with Austria is forbidden and it will have to accept a long occupation of the Rhineland.

The treaty also imposes irksome restriction on Germany’s internal organisation. The country’s armed forces are to be limited in size to just 100,000 troops, who are to be long-serving volunteers rather than conscripts. Tanks and aircraft are forbidden to the German armed forces, as are chemical weapons. The navy is to be severely restricted in size and prohibited from possessing U-boats.

The German delegates consider these terms harsh. Some on the Allied side agree with them, with Lloyd George and Wilson in particular worrying that the treaty’s terms are laying the grounds for future wars, as one day a resentful Germany will seek its vengeance. But others, notably Clemenceau and especially Marshal Foch fear that the terms are too lenient, leaving France vulnerable to future attack by a resurgent Germany.

Wilson’s fears regarding the treaty’s harshness are assuaged by the foundation of a new League of Nations. The covenant of this international body has been included in the treaty, whose signatories are to be founding members (apart from Germany, which will only be allowed to join when it has demonstrated its reformed character). Wilson hopes that the League will allow the nations of the world to settle their disputes peacefully, without recourse to war.

The signing of the treaty does not bring an end to the work of the Paris Conference. Peace treaties with Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey remain to be drafted. But Germany was the Allies’ main enemy and with the German peace treaty signed there is a general sense that the conference is moving on to less important matters. Lloyd George and Wilson prepare to leave Paris and return home, with Wilson in particular knowing that selling the treaty domestically will not be easy.
And so in a sense the First World War comes to an end, five years to the day after a Serbian nationalist shot and killed an Austrian archduke.

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The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, by William Orpen (Wikipedia)

Clemenceau, Wilson, and Lloyd George leaving the Versailles palace after signing the treaty (Century Ireland: Germany signs the Peace Treaty in Versailles)

25/6/1919 Bethmann Hollweg invites the Allies to put him on trial in place of the Kaiser

Now that Germany has accepted the Allied peace terms, all efforts in Paris are now focussed on preparations for the signing of the peace treaty, which is to take place in Versailles. But today a communication arrives that provides a curious diversion from this important work. It is from Bethmann Hollweg, the man who was Germany’s chancellor from the start of the war until he was obliged to resign in 1917. Bethmann Hollweg is concerned by reports that the Allies plan to try his master, the former Kaiser, for his role in starting the war. As a man of honour, Bethmann Hollweg writes to propose that he be put on trial in place of Wilhelm.

The Allies do not reply.

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Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, by Max Liebermann (Wikipedia)

23/6/1919 Nation building and war in Ireland

Irish nationalists continue with their struggle to secure the freedom of their country. The Dáil, Ireland’s self-declared sovereign parliament, is working to create the administrative apparatus of an independent state. To fund its operations it has recently announced a bond issue, with bonds purchasable both within and outside the country. Early indications are that the bond issue will be a great success, with large numbers of people in both Ireland and the United State seeking to buy them. The Dáil is also working to create a parallel court system that will bypass the British controlled system of justice operating in the country.

Irish nationalists are working to internationalise the conflict. De Valera, Sinn Féin leader and president of the Dáil government, has travelled to the United States to court opinion there. Ireland’s cause has already excited much American interest, particularly among those of Irish descent. The US Senate has passed a resolution calling for Irish representatives to be heard at the Paris Conference; Britain’s objections have unfortunately prevented the raising of the Irish question there.

Within Ireland the military campaign for Irish freedom is escalating, as are British attempts to repress it. The country is becoming increasingly militarised and acts of violence are becoming more routine. Earlier this month policemen in Dublin were shot (but not fatally) when dispersing a crowd that had gathered to attend a banned memorial concert for James Connolly. Today meanwhile in Thurles, Michael Hunt of the Royal Irish Constabulary is shot and killed in broad daylight in a street thronged with people returning from a race meeting. A district inspector, he is the most senior policeman to have lost his life in the conflict thus far.

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Sinn Féin Court, by Sean Keating (Niall Murray, Twitter)

Michael Hunt (Century Ireland: Policeman murdered on crowded Thurles street)

Men of the South, by Sean Keating (millstreet.ie: the Men of the South)

23/6/1919 Germany caves and accepts the Allied peace terms

In Paris Allied leaders are waiting to see whether Germany will accept the peace terms. Today is the final deadline for Germany’s decision: by 7.00 pm today the war will have started once again or the world will be on the road to peace. Rejection is considered likely, so Foch, the Allied generalissimo, is ready for an immediate invasion of Germany.

In Germany itself however the hardliners who oppose the peace have developed cold feet. The army signals that it supports accepting the terms, with army commanders knowing that it would not be possible to resist an Allied invasion. This seems to be enough to get the peace terms through the National Assembly, with even the right-wingers there supporting a resolution accepting the patriotic credentials of those who support the terms.

The Germans’ note signalling their acceptance arrives in Paris at 5.40 pm. The news is greeted with jubilation. Clemenceau races off to order Foch to call off his advance. The guns of Paris are fired, to let the population now that the war is definitely over and has ended in victory.

Now all that remains is to arrange the ceremony at which the peace treaty will be formally signed.

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The New York Times (The New York Times OTD, Twitter)

23/6/1919 Cēsis: Estonia and Latvia smash the Baltic Freikorps

German leaders are still struggling with the Allied peace terms. Meanwhile in the Baltic, German mercenaries are attempting to establish their own little empire. Initially these Baltic Freikorps were hired by the government of Latvia to help it against Soviet Russia’s Red Army, but the Freikorps have since then overthrown the Latvian government and replaced it with one headed by their puppet, Andreas Needra. Under Goltz, their commander, the Freikorps hope to turn all of the Baltic States into a German colony. Feeling themselves secure in Latvia after evicting the Red Army from Riga, they now prepare an invasion of Estonia, aimed not at further weakening the Soviets but at bringing Estonia under their rule.

Unfortunately the ambitions of the Freikorps prove greater than their ability. The Latvians and Estonians pool their resources and at Cēsis they soundly defeat the Germans. With the Freikorps in retreat, Needra’s government prepares to flee from its capital. With increasing Allied pressure on Germany to rein in the Baltic Freikorps, it looks like Goltz’s dream of empire is now doomed.

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Estonian commanders Karl Parts, Ernst Pödder, and Nikolai Reek (Wikipedia: Nikolai Reek)

22/6/1919 Kemal launches Turkey’s national resistance

In May the Turkish government sent Kemal, hero of the Gallipoli campaign, to oversee the demobilisation of Turkish troops, as required by Turkey’s armistice with the Allies. However Kemal has instead began to form a network of nationalist army officers who are determined to resist the partition of their country. Turkish nationalists are now resigned to the loss of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab lands, but they fear that the recent Greek and Italian landings in western Anatolia signal that the Allies are intent on dividing up the Turkish heartland, something that they find unconscionable.

As the British become aware of Kemal’s activities, they press the Turkish authorities in Constantinople to rein him in. Eventually the Sultan’s government gives in. Today Kemal receives an order to cease his activities and return to Constantinople. But Kemal does not obey. Instead he resigns from the Ottoman army and summons a congress of like-minded nationalists to assemble at Erzurum. In his determination to preserve the Turkish nation, Kemal is now in revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

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Kemal and other nationalists (Wikipedia: Turkish National Movement)

22/6/1919 Germany struggles with the Allied peace terms

The Allies have issued an ultimatum to the Germans: accept the proposed peace terms by tomorrow or face the renewal of war. This has caused a convulsion in the German body politic, where the terms are seen as dishonourable (in particular the requirement that Germany accept responsibility for starting the war) and harsh (notably the reparations that will have to be paid to the Allies). Groener, the army’s quartermaster general, has warned that renewal of the war would be a disaster and that Germany’s total defeat would be inevitable, but Hindenburg, the chief of staff, states that he would prefer “honourable defeat to a disgraceful peace”. Right-wingers and elements within the army’s officer corps support Hindenburg, some even fantasising that it might be possible to prevail over an Allied invasion. Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German foreign minister, meanwhile believes that if Germany stands firm then the Allies’ unity will break and they will be forced to moderate the their terms.

Erzberger is the main advocate for accepting the Allies’ terms. He was the head of the delegation that signed the armistice in November and since then has been Germany’s representative on the commission overseeing the armistice’s operations. Erzberger accepts that the proposed terms are invidious, but he argues that if they are accepted then Germany will be able to put the war behind it and start rebuilding its economy. If the terms are rejected then Germany faces ruin and will end up either being partitioned or succumbing to Bolshevik revolution.

The government is split. President Ebert himself comes close to resigning but is persuaded that duty requires him to stay in place and accept responsibility for the grave decision that must be made. His government falls but today he manages to put a new cabinet together (without Brockdorff-Rantzau). The national assembly authorises him to accept the Allied terms, but with the proviso that Germany rejects responsibility for starting the war. But the Allies are firm. Germany must accept the peace terms by tomorrow, in full and without reservation. If they fail to do so then the war will begin again.

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Matthias Erzberger (Wikipedia)