The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, also called the Versailles Conference, was the most important diplomatic meeting of the 20th century. The victorious Allied Powers of World War I dictated the peace terms to the defeated Central Powers, declared explicitly the guilt of Germany for starting the war, and imposed very heavy reparations on Germany so that it would eventually pay all the costs of the war, rearranged the map of Europe to allow some self-determination and create numerous new nations (such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia), and created the League of Nations in order to prevent future wars. The major provisions were included in the Treaty of Versailles, along with several other treaties. The U.S. led by President Woodrow Wilson played a major role at Versailles, but the U.S. Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty and refused to join the League of Nations. Historians give a mixed verdict to the conference. Many believe it sowed the seeds of World War II by mistreatment of Germany, others say it was about as good a result as could have been expected.
The Peace Conference met in Paris from January 1919 to January 1920, finishing its most important work regarding Germany in June 1919. It wrote five major treaties: (1) the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, June 28, 1919; (2) the Treaty of Saint-Germain with Austria, Sept. 10, 1919; (3) the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria, Nov. 27, 1919; (4) the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary, June 4, 1920; and (5) the Treaty of Sèvres with Turkey, Aug. 20, 1920 (which was modified by the Treaty of Lausanne, July 24, 1923).
Woodrow Wilson was the hope of idealists everywhere; even the Germans looked to him for a statesmanlike peace. But the cry for vengeance was strong among the Allies, especially the French. Wilson sought the self-determination of peoples, but there were many overlapping interests and no simple solution was possible. Secret agreements among the Allies, especially promises made to Italy, hindered Wilson's treaty-making, and, idolized though he was by the peoples of Europe, he had to modify his aims to the practical demands of Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Britain, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy.
Thirty-two nations were represented, but Germany, Austria and the Soviet Union were not invited. Each delegation brought specialists who analyzed information on the geography, history, and economic conditions of the various countries whose claims had to be adjudicated. Orlando was dissatisfied with territorial gains given Italy, and walked out of the inner council, which was charged with final decisions. That left the "Big Three," Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, to decide the major terms of the peace.
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty had an unusual structure that would be a warning for future generations. The first 26 Articles of the Treaty set out the Covenant of the League of Nations; the rest of the 440 Articles detailed Germany's punishment.
Wilson compromised on several important points to get his main objective, the League of Nations. He agreed to the disarmament of Germany, although he had sought universal disarmament. But public opinion in the Allied states, fearing Germany, would not agree to their own national disarmament. The German army was limited to 100,000 men; compulsory military training was forbidden; voluntary enlistment was provided for, with a minimum service of 12 years; a limited navy was permitted; and submarines and military airplanes were forbidden. Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria were, in the treaties signed with them, made subject to similar restrictions.
Boundaries in western Europe
Clemenceau and Wilson clashed over the statues of the west bank of the Rhine. France, anxious for security and riches, demanded to annex this area with its rich coal mines and industries. Wilson opposed the French, for their plan conflicted with his proposal for self-determination and no annexations; millions of Germans lived in the area. A compromise was worked out when Wilson agreed to sign a military treaty with France and Britain to guard against German aggression. The Allies were to occupy the left bank of the Rhine for 15 years. The coal mines of the Saar Basin were under control of France; the League of Nations was to administer the territory. The people of the Saar, after 15 years, were to vote to determine their future political status.
Wilson acceded to the Italian demands for territory in the Adriatic, which involved turning over to Italy large numbers of Slavs and Germans. Italy was awarded the entire Trentino region (where the language was German), the city of Trieste, and a large part of Istria, but Fiume was withheld from it on Wilson's insistence.
Colonies into mandates
Wilson proposed that, instead of permitting an actual transfer of the colonies to new owners, the latter should administer them as trustees of the League of Nations. The areas were called "mandated" territories, and the trustees were to report to the league on their administration of them. The Treaty of Versailles took from Germany its colonial possessions and made them mandates under the nominal control of the League and the actual control of Britain, its dominions and France, Belgium and Japan. Britain directly took the mandate over German East Africa and part of the German Cameroons; the British self-governing dominions of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, were given mandates for South-West Africa and the German areas in New Guinea and Samoa. France was given the mandate for most of German Togoland and the Cameroons. Belgium received a mandate for Ruanda-Urundi (Rwanda and Busundi), and Japan got mandates for the German islands in the Pacific north of the equator and Germany's lease on Tsingtao.
Ottoman Empire divided up
The defunct Ottoman Empire was divided into British and French mandates. Secret treaties among the powers had provided for such distribution, but after an uprising among the Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) Pasha, the Allies agreed to a revision of their demands. Syria was given to France; Britain received Mesopotamia, Transjordan, and Palestine; the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean were given to Italy; the Hejaz, an Arabian territory along the Red Sea, was to be independent; it became Saudi Arabia.
Wilson was upset by repeated violations of his principle of self-determination of peoples, but he was particularly angered by Japan's acquisition of Tsingtao (Qingdao) in China. Japan agreed to return it to China in the future and did so in 1922.
Germany (and the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire) were declared to be guilty of starting the war. Reparations were imposed on Germany, and long disputes raged over what should be included in the list of damages to be paid by Germany. The Allies wanted Germany to pay the direct costs of the war plus all future veterans benefits. At first no fixed sum was stated, then in 1921 the figure of $33 billion became the minimum figure. Germany began payments, but negotiated reduced amounts and in 1932 stopped all payments.
The principle of self-determination of ethnic nationalities shaped most of the territorial settlements. A number of new states were created whose nationalistic aspirations, long submerged, were finally realize. Poland, which had been partitioned in the 1790s, was now restored. Indeed, a Polish Republic was already operational at the end of 1918. The Conference pondered how to draw its boundaries; a key decision was a strip of territory, known as the "Polish Corridor," that gave Poland access to the Baltic. This "corridor" cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The new Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, as well as Finland, became independent of Russia.
As the war ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed. It gave way to the new independent states of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and an enlarged Romania; but the boundaries of these states were uncertain. The statesmen at Versailles fixed the boundaries more precisely. The problem was complex because of the intermixture of peoples and their bitter rivalries. The Czechs came off very well, although here as elsewhere the Wilsonian principle of self-determination was largely ignored. Romania was doubled in size with the addition of Transylvania and Hungarian territory. The new nation of Yugoslavia was created out of the old kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro, a portion of Bulgaria, and Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and part of the Banat of Temesvar. Austria was left a small state of 6,500,000 Austrian Germans, one third of whom lived in an impoverished Vienna—a world class city that rules a small country. Hungary became independent with much reduced territory and a population of 8,000,000. Despite the violations of Wilson's principle of self-determination, the map of Europe after the war conformed more to the desires of the various nationalities than did the map of 1914.
Irish nationalists in the U.S. thought Wilson had promised to work for Irish independence if the Irish supported his war effort. At Versailles Wilson made no effort to redeem any such promises, and the Irish Americans felt betrayed. They turned against Wilson and his Versailles treaty.
League of Nations
It was hoped by Wilson, South African General Jan Smuts, British Lord Robert Cecil, and others idealists that a League of Nations would guarantee the security of all nations. There was general agreement as to the advisability of such a league; only its form and powers were in question. The league was created with four operating groups: a secretariat, council, assembly, and an international court of justice. The league set up machinery which could be used by member states to prevent war. It also set up various agencies to deal with other problems. The League went into operation, but could not prevent or end wars.
The Covenant of the League of Nations was part of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany was forced to sign, as the Allies kept up a food blockade with near-starvation conditions inside Germany. The German delegation at first refused to sign because the treaty was not in accord with the Fourteen Points Wilson had proclaimed a year earlier (but which Germany had never accepted). Finally, the German National Assembly, under protest, accepted the treaty on June 23, 1919. The official signing was dramatically staged five days later in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
- 100th Anniversary of Signing the Treaty of Versailles, by Kurt Hyde of The New American, June 28, 2019.
- Albrecht-Carrie, Rene. Italy at the Paris Peace Conference (1938) online edition
- Ambrosius, Lloyd E. "Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush: Historical Comparisons of Ends and Means in Their Foreign Policies," Diplomatic History, 30 (June 2006), 509–43. online at Blackwell Synergy; also excerpt online
- Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective (1990) excerpt and text search
- Andelman, David A. A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (2007) popular history that stresses multiple long-term disasters caused by Treaty. excerpt and text search
- Bailey; Thomas A. Wilson and the Peacemakers: Combining Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace and Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal (1947) online edition
- Birdsall, Paul. Versailles twenty years after (1941) well balanced older account
- Boemeke, Manfred F., et al., eds. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (1998). major collection of important papers by scholars excerpt and text search
- Clements, Kendrick, A. Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (1999) excerpt and text search
- Cooper, John Milton. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001) 454pp excerpt and text search
- Greene, Theodore P. Ed. Wilson at Versailles (1957), shortr excerpts from scholars online edition
- Henig, Ruth. Versailles and After: 1919-1933 (2nd ed. 1995), 100 pages; brief introduction by scholar excerpt and text search
- Keynes, John Maynard, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920) famous criticism by leading economist full text online
- Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (1995) excerpt and text search
- Lederer, Ivo J. The Versailles Settlement--Was It Foredoomed to Failure? (1960) excerpts from scholars online edition
- Levin, Jr., N. Gordon Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution (1968), New Left excerpt and text search
- Link, Arthur S. Wilson the Diplomatist: A Look at His Major Foreign Policies (1957) online edition
- Macmillan, Margaret. Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (2002), also published as Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2003); highly influential study excerpt and text search
- Mayer, Arno J., Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counter-revolution at Versailles, 1918-1919 (1967), leftist
- Newton, Douglas. British Policy and the Weimar Republic, 1918-1919 (1997). 484 pgs.
- Schwabe, Klaus. Woodrow Wilson, Revolutionary Germany, and Peacemaking, 1918-1919: Missionary Diplomacy and the Realities of Power (1985) online edition
- Steiner, Zara. The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) (2007), major scholarly work excerpt and text search
- Walworth, Arthur. Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 (1986) 618pp online edition
- Watson, David Robin. Georges Clemenceau: A Political Biography (1976) 463 pgs. online edition
- This treaty was never ratified by the U.S. Senate
- In 1936 90% voted to rejoin German.
- Italian adventurers, led by poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, seized Fiume and kept it. Italy and the newly created state of Yugoslavia were then left to themselves to settle the question of the disputed territory.
- The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which superseded the Treaty of Sevres, permitted Turkey to retain Eastern Thrace. Armenia was returned to Turkey.