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