14/5/1919 Germany mulls the Allies’ unsavoury peace terms

The Allies have presented their peace terms to the German delegation at Versailles. They have in turn communicated the terms back to their government in Berlin, where their perceived harshness causes consternation. The loss of territory, the crippling reparations and the identifying of Germany as being responsible for starting the war all being very upsetting. True, the peace terms are much less harsh than those the Germans imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk or Romania at the Treaty of Bucharest. However, those treaties were the diktats of authoritarian Germany; since then Germany has undergone a democratic transformation and its leaders had believed President Wilson‘s promises that the peace would be guided by his liberal principles, only now apparently to have their faith shattered.

Scheidemann, Germany’s Chancellor, denounces the peace terms. There is talk of rejecting them, but doing so would mean having to restart the war. The German army was on the brink of collapse when the armistice was signed in November 1918 and its situation is worse now, after its demobilisation and the transfer of heavy equipment required by the armistice. But some think nevertheless that honour requires that Germany reject the peace and launch a desperate battle for national survival.

Brockdorff-Rantzau, the foreign minister, is one of the leading proponents of rejection, even if it means that Germany will be invaded. The advocates of resistance believe that they will be able to hold out in eastern Germany even if the west of the country comes under foreign occupation. It falls to Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to dismiss such fantasies. He makes clear to Ebert and Scheidemann that the German army would be unable to mount effective resistance to the Allies. Any attempt to renew the war would lead to Germany’s occupation, dismemberment, and ultimately “the total capitulation of the German people”. The Germans may not like the peace terms, but they will have to go along with them.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia: Ebert–Groener pact)

7/5/1919 Enter the Germans: the Allies present the peace terms to the German delegation


A German delegation has arrived in Versailles to receive the peace terms the Allies have prepared for them. The Germans are headed by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, formerly a career diplomat and now Germany’s foreign minister. For the last few days the Germans have been waiting in the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles, their hotel surrounded by a stockade, allegedly for their own protection (leading to complaints from the Germans that they are being treated “like the inhabitants of a Negro village at an exposition”).

Today the Germans are summoned to Versailles’ Trianon Palace Hotel to formally receive the terms. Clemenceau outlines what defeated Germany will have to accept. Germany is to lose all its colonies. Alsace and Lorraine will be returned to France. The Allies will continue their occupation of the Rhineland for at least fifteen years, after which the region will be permanently demilitarised. Belgium will gain territory at Germany’s expense. Danzig will become a free city. Poland will also gain territory at German expense, including a corridor to the sea that cuts off East Prussia from the rest of the country.

The terms also oblige Germany to maintain only a small, volunteer army, intended only to assist with the maintenance of internal order and lacking heavy artillery, tanks, aircraft and other modern weapons. Germany will also lose its fleet and is prohibited from building new battleships or submarines. Moreover, the Germans will have to pay enormous sums in reparation to the Allies, to compensate them for the injuries they have suffered in the war. The peace terms specifically state that Germany was responsible for starting the war, with this guilt being the basis on which the Allies are demanding reparations.

In his reply, Brockdorff-Rantzau is defiant. He argues that the treaty effectively eliminates German sovereignty and warns that this kind of dictated peace can only sow the seeds of future conflict. His tone and his aristocratic bearing unfortunately create an extremely bad impression on the Allies.

The Germans then retire to their hotel to study the peace terms in detail. They have two weeks in which to furnish their reply.

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Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau (Wikipedia)

6/5/1919 The Paris Conference agrees the German peace terms

Negotiations between the leading Allies have been difficult but now at last they have agreed the German peace terms. Today a plenary session of the conference is summoned to hear and agree them. The terms are a compromise between the French desire to crush Germany and the British and American desire to avoid a harshness that will awaken in the Germans a desire for vengeance. Some of the French still fear that the terms are too generous, with President Poincaré and Marshal Foch both concerned that they leave France vulnerable to a resurgent Germany. But Clemenceau has convinced his cabinet that Germany has been sufficiently weakened that, with the security guarantees offered by the British and Americans, it will no longer pose a threat.

There is still some dissatisfaction with the peace terms. The Chinese delegation complains again about Shantung (awarded to Japan in return for its dropping the League of Nations racial equality proposal) and the Portuguese grumble about how they will not be receiving any reparations from Germany. After walking out of the conference, Orlando and the Italian delegation have now slunk back, taking the opportunity to complain about how much has been decided in their absence. Like Banquo at the feast, Foch pops up again to argue for French annexation of the Rhineland. But the conference agrees the terms. All that remains now is to summon the German delegates and tell them where to sign.

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The conference in session (C.T. Evans History Page: Eddie Jackson)

28/4/1919 Wilson’s dirty deal with Japan

President Wilson‘s great goal in Paris is the establishment of a League of Nations. His hope is that this international organisation will usher in a new age of peace by allowing nations to resolve their conflicts without recourse to war. The other Allies are also sympathetic to the idea of the League, with French leaders hoping that it will effectively provide them with security guarantees against a resurgent Germany.

As work on design of the League has progressed, Wilson has found himself facing a terrible conundrum. The Japanese delegates have indicated that they will be unable to sign the peace treaty if the League’s covenant does not include their proposed racial equality clause. Wilson knows that if the racial equality clause is included then the peace treaty will be rejected by the US Senate. However with Italy having walked out of the conference, he fears the consequences of Japan’s defection. Some deal with the Japanese must be found.

The racial equality clause is not Japan’s only demand. They are also looking for control of the Shantung peninsula in northeastern China. This was the site of the German naval base at Tsingtao, which Japanese forces captured at the start of the war. The problem is that the Chinese understandably want Shantung returned to them.

Opinion within the United States and elsewhere is very sympathetic to Chinese claims to Shantung. But Wilson is in a bind, feeling that he must give the Japanese Shantung in return for their withdrawal of the racial equality proposal. A tacit deal along these lines is struck.

Today at a plenary session of the conference the League’s covenant is adopted. Baron Makino of Japan barely mentions the racial equality proposal and expresses broad support for the covenant. It is at this point that the Chinese delegates begin to realise that they have been betrayed.

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Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)

Tsingtao and Shantung (Wikipedia: Kiautschou Bay concession)

24/4/1919 Crisis in Paris at Italy walks out of the peace conference

Italy joined the Allies in 1915 after the secret Treaty of London promised it considerable territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary: the South Tyrol and the Istrian peninsula, as well as territories along the Dalmatian coast and islands off it. Since then Italian appetites have grown, with Italian opinion now fixated on the need to add the port of Fiume to the spoils of victory.
Developments since the signing of the Treaty of London have not been kind to Italian ambitions. Although large numbers of Italians died in the war, the Italian contribution to the Allied war effort was largely ineffectual and is not seen as having played a major part in securing Allied victory. This makes the other Allies less keen on acceding to Rome’s lust for Adriatic expansion. The emergence of Yugoslavia and the rise of the United States as the leading Allied power have also created problems for Italy. President Wilson‘s ideas of national self-determination mean that it would now be problematic to transfer the Slavic peoples of Dalmatia from Yugoslavia to Italy. Fiume likewise is a bit of a conundrum, as the town centre has an Italian majority but the countryside around it is predominantly Slav.

Orlando, the Italian prime minister, is insistent that Italy must have everything it was promised, as well as Fiume. He rejects any compromise and refuses to accept a proposal whereby Fiume would become a free city. He intimates that Italy will decline to sign the peace treaty if its demands are not met.

Wilson and Lloyd George are increasingly exasperated with Orlando and what they see as Italy’s unrealistic demands. After a fraught meeting over Easter, Wilson decides to appeal directly to the Italian people. Lloyd George and Clemenceau express caution, but Wilson insists and takes out advertisements in the Italian press, warning the Italian public that their leaders are pursuing an unrealistic policy. Ties of kindred and geography require that Dalmatia and Fiume will have to be part of Yugoslavia.

The result in Italy is nationalist uproar. Opinion writers in the Italian press fall over themselves to denounce Wilson in terms that make him go white with anger. In the face of this maelstrom, a climbdown by Orlando is impossible. He instead announces to the other Allies that he is leaving the conference. Lloyd George laughs in his face when Orlando suggests that the conference will be unable to function without Italy. And then Orlando and Sonnino, his foreign minister, leave Paris and return to Rome.

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Map of territories promised to Italy in 1915, as well as territories separately promised to Serbia (Wikipedia: Vittoria mutilata)

Vittorio Orlando (Wikipedia)

13/4/1919 Allied agreement on Germany’s western frontiers

In Paris the leading Allies have finally managed to reach an agreement among themselves regarding Germany’s western frontiers. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost in 1870, will be formally returned to French rule (they have been under French occupation since the armistice and their return to France was taken for granted). Foch‘s proposal to turn the Rhineland into a buffer state or a French protectorate has failed to gain traction, but the Allies have agreed that they will occupy it for 15 years, after which it will be permanently demilitarised.

The coal-rich Saar region on the French frontier was the subject of much fraught discussion, with the French demanding its annexation but the British and Americans being more wary. A compromise here has been reached, with the Allies agreeing that the coal mines will be under French control but the region as a whole administered by the League of Nations. After 15 years a plebiscite will be held to decide whether the region becomes part of Germany or France or else becomes an independent state.

Progress on peace terms is now so advanced that Germany’s representatives can be summoned. There is no intention however that the Germans will be able to negotiate with the Allies: they will simply be presented with the terms and told that if Germany does not accept them then the Allies will renew the war.

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The Saar (in green) and the Rhineland occupation zone (Wikipedia: Occupation of the Rhineland)

11/4/1919 Wilson blocks Japan’s racial equality proposal

Tensions are mounting in Paris, with Wilson and Clemenceau at odds over the future of Germany. Clemenceau wants Germany to be severely weakened, while Wilson wants to avoid future war through a more conciliatory approach that will offer the Germans the prospect of rejoining the family of nations. So poisonous have relations become that the French rejoice when the American president is struck down by a bad cold (which might perhaps be influenza). Wilson meanwhile has taken the step of having a warship in Brest readied to bring him home, in the event that the talks break down.

For now though the Americans and French manage to paper over their difference. Wilson also recovers from his illness. But now he faces new antagonists: the Japanese. As the only major non-white power at the conference, the Japanese are keen to insert a clause into the League of Nations covenant affirming the equality of all races. This is deeply problematic to Wilson, as he knows that any recognition of racial equality will cause uproar in the United States. Other nations are however more sympathetic; when Japan’s Makino presses the amendment to the covenant today, the racial equality clause passes. Nevertheless Wilson rules that the strength of opposition means that it cannot be included in the covenant.

The Japanese do not publicly contest Wilson’s ruling. Privately though they intimate that this affront may mean that they will be unable to sign the final peace treaty.

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Woodrow Wilson and Makino Nobuaki (Wikipedia: Racial Equality Proposal)