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)

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)

3/6/1919 At Lloyd George’s behest, the Allies agree on a plebiscite to decide Upper Silesia’s future

The German peace terms in were a compromise between French desires to see Germany weakened and British and American fears of so antagonising Germany that it would seek revenge in a future war. Since then the British in particular have started worrying that they compromised too much. They are impressed by Germany’s counterproposals, which appeal to Wilson‘s Fourteen Points, and begin to wonder whether the peace terms might be ameliorated. In this Britain’s Lloyd George is supported by the wider British Empire delegation, with South Africa’s Smuts saying now that the reparations being sought from Germany are excessive.
Because the peace terms took so long to negotiate, the Wilson is extremely wary of attempting to revise them, while Clemenceau is naturally opposed to any change that would strengthen Germany. Nevertheless, Lloyd George scores a success today, when he persuades the others to accept a plebiscite in Upper Silesia on whether the territory should be part of Germany or Poland. The Poles see Upper Silesia as a natural part of their country, so no one is surprised when Paderewski protests on behalf of the Polish delegation, but Lloyd George is insistent that the Upper Silesians must themselves choose where their future lies. Organising a plebiscite will be a difficult matter, probably requiring the deployment of Allied troops to ensure it is conducted fairly, but Lloyd George sees this as a price worth paying.

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Upper Silesia (Bud’s Big Blue: Upper Silesia)

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)

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)

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)