A Peace to End All Peace

January 19, 2016

97 years ago today, representatives of several nations first gathered in Paris for the aptly-named Paris Peace Conference, the negotiations that would bring World War I to an official end and address complaints and demands for redress.  Normally peace talks are interesting to no one save politicians and historians – they are notably absent from our favorite political thrillers and the Risk rulebook – but the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the resultant Treaty of Versailles were so historically important to what came after that it makes them, in retrospect, absolutely fascinating. 


First things first.  Thirty-two nations participated in World War I, and twenty-seven nations were present at the talks.  However, only four nations controlled the conference and made the decisions which would then be ratified by other attendees: Great Britain, France, and the United States.  And Italy was there.  Even more lopsided was the fact that the big loser in the conflict, Germany, was not present.  “But wait!” you say, “How could they have come up with a fair resolution if Germany wasn’t allowed to be present to defend itself? That’s like having a criminal trial where the defense isn’t even allowed in the room!”


You’re a very smart person.


Representatives of the "Big Four" at the Conference.  From left to right, David Lloyd George (Great Britain), Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Italy), Georges Clemenceau (France), and Woodrow Wilson (United States). 


Each nation had differing goals going in to the talks.  Briefly:


1) America, as the latecomer to the war, had suffered less and had less at stake than the other nations present.  President Woodrow Wilson was determined that his “Fourteen Points,” a statement of principles for world peace, be ratified.  These included such tenets as freedom of navigation, reduction of armaments, self-determination, and Wilson’s number one priority, the formation of a League of Nations where countries could meet to discuss and resolve their issues peacefully.  There were a great many Germans and people of German descent living in the US, so America didn’t want to make Germany suffer unduly or to destroy Germany. 


2) Britain wanted to weaken Germany, but not to the point where Germany could not resist and hold back Communist Russia.  Therefore its goals were more moderate than France’s, as you will see.  However, Britain did want to maintain its military dominance of the seas, so it wanted to reduce the size of Germany’s navy as much as possible (in comparison to Great Britain, this meant little more than sinking three buoys and one paraffin-sealed life raft…).  It also was desirous of heavy war reparations and a territorially weakened Germany.  It was fairly neutral towards the idea of Wilson’s League of Nations, since British representatives believed that it would be little more than a waste of time.


3) France had, in many ways, borne the brunt of German aggression, so their goals were as much about retribution as they were about future peace, security, and all of those good things.  France was determined that there be a clause in the final treaty placing the blame for the war on Germany and her allies.  It also wanted war reparations to be as costly to Germany as possible.  France demanded that the German military be reduced in size as much as possible, and threw its support behind any suggestions that would weaken Germany, including significant loss of German territory.  It was absolutely against the League of Nations, as French representatives believed it would just become a “talking shop” which would then allow Germany to get away with future offenses.  In light of today’s C-SPAN coverage of the UN, this seems more and more prescient.


4).  And Italy was there.


Detail from William Orpen's painting "The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919."  Italy was definitely in attendence.


After months of arguing, the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the hostilities between Germany and the Allied Powers, was signed in June of 1919.  Wilson got his League of Nations (though irony of irony, America never joined it).  Germany, on the other hand, got an absolute shellacking.  Amongst other things, the Treaty stated the following:

  • Germany would accept full guilt for the war and would be required to pay the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of reparations to the Allied powers.

  • Germany would lose all of its colonial territories, as well as several territories in Europe, such as Alsace-Lorraine, which was given to France.  Overall, and not including its colonies, it lost 10% of its land, 12.5% of its population, 16% of its coal industry and nearly half of its iron industry.

  • Germany was to be allowed an army of no more than 100,000 men, no air force at all, would not be allowed to participate in the arms trade, and would have to surrender most of its naval vessels for decommissioning.

Based on these results, the French were clearly the most successful diplomats in the room.  Historians now believe that Woodrow Wilson was probably suffering from the Spanish Flu during his time at the conference, which may have affected his participation… but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.


Imagine the reaction of the German delegation when they arrived in Paris in the spring of 1919, only to be faced with this list of demands and conditions.  In fact, you don’t need to just imagine it; Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau’s response was, “We know the full brunt of hate that confronts us here. You demand from us to confess we were the only guilty party of war; such a confession in my mouth would be a lie.”  However, since Germany was forbidden to participate in the Conference, the German government’s official protest that the Treaty was unreasonable and clearly in bad faith was symbolic at best. 


Germany signed the Treaty only hours before the deadline after some desperate calculations revealed that the country could not stand against a renewed onslaught from the Allied Powers.  Germans of all stripes denounced and despised the Treaty of Versailles.  They referred to the Treaty as the “Diktat,” or “Dictate,” as the terms were forced upon the country. Conspiracy theories raced around the German countryside that Germany had been in a position to win the war, but had been sold out, either by corrupt politicians, socialists, communists, or Jews.  One politician named this the “the stab in the back.” 


The German economy was in no state to bear the cost of the war, and at least partially as a result of the war reparations, the economy nearly collapsed in the 1920s, undergoing a period of hyperinflation wherein bank notes became so useless that they were used as toilet paper, and wherein employees of various jobs were paid and given a break each day at mid-day so that they could run and buy food before their wages de-valued yet again and again.  It got to the point where, in restaurants, people paid for their meals right after ordering, because by the time they finished eating, it would have cost more.


A German woman during the height of hyperinflation feeding a stove with bank notes, as they would burn for longer than the firewood they could buy. 


Naturally, Germans viewed the Treaty as a national embarrassment.  Resentment grew.  And then a charismatic politician, the same who had coined the phrase “the stab in the back,” came along, and he was willing to rail against it openly:

“With the armistice begins the humiliation of Germany… So long as this Treaty stands there can be no resurrection of the German people; no social reform of any kind is possible! The Treaty was made in order to bring 20 million Germans to their deaths and to ruin the German nation.”

­-Adolf Hitler, 17 April 1923


If you were a German citizen in the 1920s, your soldiers had never experienced a clear defeat and did not understand how they had lost the war; you had become entrenched in the war when all of the parties had eagerly declared war on each other, but you alone were held responsible; your nation was barred from the peace talks and your voice was not heard.  Twenty-seven nations had gathered together in closed rooms in Paris and gone out of their way to actively destroy your country.  Your land was taken, your people humiliated, your ability to grow your economy hamstrung, your GDP stolen for reparations, and your pride on the international stage obliterated.  And then, a political activist walked up to a microphone and said what now appeared to be a logical conclusion: that maybe there really is a conspiracy against you.

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