Although the armistice, signed on 11th November 1918, ended the actual fighting of the First World War, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the Peace Treaty, and thus ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. The treaty was signed on 28th June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary were not invited to the negotiations, instead they were only allowed to present a response to the treaty, which they expected to be based on the ‘Fourteen Points’ put forward by US President Wilson prior to the Armistice. Terms of the Peace Treaty were drawn up mainly by the ‘Big Four’ of British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Frances Clemenceau, President Wilson, and Italy’s Prime Minister Vittoria Orlando, with the first three deciding the key decisions. Australia also sent its own delegation under the leadership of Prime Minister William Hughes.
Germany was shocked at the severity of the terms and protested the contradictions between the assurances made when the armistice was negotiated and the actual treaty. One of the most important and controversial required “Germany to accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” during the war. This article later became known as the War Guilt clause. The treaty required Germany to disarm, make ample territorial concessions and pay reparations to the countries that had formed the Allied ‘Entente’ powers.
The Allies, especially the French who had the most to fear from a resurgent Germany on its borders, wanted to make sure that Germany would never again pose a military threat to the rest of Europe, and the treaty contained a number of stipulations to guarantee this aim. The German army was restricted to 100,000 men and the general staff was eliminated; the manufacture of armoured cars, tanks, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas was forbidden; and only a small number of specified factories could make weapons or munitions. All of Germany west of the Rhine and up to 30 miles (50 km) east of it was to be a demilitarized zone. The forced disarmament of Germany, it was hoped, would be accompanied by voluntary disarmament in other nations.
The population and territory of Germany was reduced by about 10 percent by the treaty. In the west, Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France having been in German hands since 1871 and the end of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Saarland was placed under the supervision of the League of Nations until 1935. In the north, three small areas were given to Belgium, and northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark. In the east, Poland was resurrected, given most of former German West Prussia and Poznan plus a corridor to the Baltic Sea between East Prussia and the rest of Germany, and part of Upper Silesia after a plebiscite. All Germany’s overseas colonies in China, in the Pacific, and in Africa were taken over by Britain, France, Japan, and other Allied nations. Included in their lost colonial possessions was German New Guinea. Other lands south of the equator became the Territory of New Guinea, a League of Nations Mandate Territory under Australian administration until 1949 (interrupted by Japanese occupation during the New Guinea campaign) when it was merged with the Australian territory of Papua to become the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, which eventually became modern Papua New Guinea. In 1923, the League of Nations gave Australia a trustee mandate over Nauru, with the United Kingdom and New Zealand as co-trustees.
The cost of the reparations was assessed in 1921 at being 132 billion marks, roughly equivalent to US$442 billion or UK£284 billion in 2019. At the time economists, notably John Maynard Keynes (a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference), predicted that the treaty was too harsh – a “Carthaginian peace” – and said the reparations figure was excessive and counter-productive, views that since then have been the subject of ongoing debate by historians and economists.
In the years after it was ratified the Treaty of Versailles was revised and altered, mostly in Germany’s favour. Many historians claim that the combination of a harsh treaty and subsequent lax enforcement of its provisions paved the way for the upsurge of German militarism in the 1930s. The huge German reparations and the war guilt clause fostered deep resentment of the settlement in Germany, and when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 (a violation of the treaty), the Allies did nothing to stop him, thus encouraging future German aggression. The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to ensure a lasting peace by punishing Germany and setting up a League of Nations to solve diplomatic problems. Instead it left a legacy of political and geographical difficulties which have often been blamed for starting the Second World War.
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