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On This Day: Treaty of Versailles Signed

Last updated: August 8, 2023

On June 28, 1919, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending its involvement in World War I. The treaty subjected Germany to a number of harsh penalties and restrictions that many historians believe contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Treaty of Versailles Ends German Involvement in World War I

Two months after the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers ended fighting in World War I, representatives from more than 20 of the Allies met in Paris for the Paris Peace Conference. The conference would draft four formal peace treaties to supplement the armistices signed by the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

No representatives from the defeated countries were invited to speak for their interests. The treaty with Germany, by far the most important, would be drafted mainly by the “Big Four” Allied leaders: United States President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.

France, which had been invaded by Germany four times since 1814, sought to impose strict penalties on its neighbor to ensure its own safety. Britain took a similar, but softer, stance. The idealistic Wilson pushed for his Fourteen Points, a collection of conditions intended to prevent the outbreak of war.

“The political wrangling became intense,” says EyeWitness to History. “At one point Wilson had to step between Lloyd George and Clemenceau to prevent a fist fight.” Orlando left the conference in protest at one point and returned just two days before an agreement for the treaty was reached on May 7, 1919.

The treaty contained harsh punitive measures against Germany, forcing it to pay billions of dollars to repair war damage in Europe, give up more than 10 percent of its territory and all its foreign colonies, and accept restrictions on its military. But the most contentious part of the treaty was Article 231, known as the “war guilt clause,” which forced Germany to accept all financial and moral responsibility for the war.

Germany was presented with the treaty in May and given until June 23 to accept it or face the possibility of renewed fighting. Though some in the German government were open to continuing the war, the German military was not prepared for it. The Germans had little choice but to accept to the treaty.

On June 28, 1919, the five-year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, representatives from most of the Allied nations gathered in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The significance of the venue was lost on no one; it was “the same imperial hall where the Germans humbled the French so ignominiously” at the close of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, noted The Associated Press.

Drs. Hermann Mueller, foreign minister, and Johannes Bell, centrist deputy, attended on behalf Germany’s Weimar Republic. They were the first to sign the treaty, followed by Wilson and the remaining representatives; within a half-hour, the ceremony was complete.

“So ended one of the greatest occasions in history,” wrote The New York Times. “It was marked by great simplicity, and whatever it lacked in impressiveness was balanced by the quickness and dispatch with which the proceedings were concluded.”

First World provides the full text of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Treaty and the Rise of Hitler

Sources in this Story

  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Paris Peace Conference
  • EyeWitness to History: Signing the Treaty of Versailles, 1919
  • Macrohistory and World Report: The Paris Conference and Versailles Treaty
  • The New York Times (AP): Peace Signed, Ends the Great War
  • The New York Times: The Ceremony Went With Speed
  • Time: Mutter of Versailles
  • (Encyclopedia Britannica): Weimar Republic
  • The BBC: The Rise of Adolf Hitler
  • PBS: The Great War: Versailles Treaty—From the German POV
  • University of Virginia: Miller Center for Public Affairs: American President: Woodrow Wilson
  • The BBC: David Lloyd George
  • (The Columbia Encyclopedia): Georges Clemenceau

The treaty caused great humiliation for the German people, who had expected to win the war. Dr. Muller described the experience of returning to his hotel after signing the treaty: “The very second I laid down my hat and coat, a cold sweat such as I had never known in my life before broke out all over my body—the physical reaction which naturally followed the unutterable psychic strain. And then for the first time I knew that the worst hour of my life lay behind me.”

Post-war Germany was governed under constitutional republic called the “Weimar Republic.” The first major act of the Weimar government was the signing of the treaty, which immediately turned the German populace against it. Crippled by the conditions imposed by the treaty, the ineffectual government could due little to improve the German economy.

Far-right politicians, promising to restore the glory of Germany, gained widespread support. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party soon took control of the government, dissolving the Weimar Republic in 1933 and establishing the Third Reich.

Many historians argue that the Treaty of Versailles played a large role in Hitler’s emergence. The treaty “created in Germany a political climate in which it was exceedingly difficult for a democratic system to develop,” said historian Wolfgang Mommsen to PBS. “Hitler sold the Second World War to the Germans as righting the wrongs of Versailles.”

Key Players: Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau

Woodrow Wilson
The 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson “left an enduring legacy,” writes the Miller Center for Public Affairs. “His transformation of the basic objective of American foreign policy from isolation to internationalism, his success in making the Democratic Party a ‘party of reform,’  and his ability to shape and mobilize public opinion fashioned the modern presidency.”

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George, serving as minister of munitions, secretary of state for war and lastly prime minister during the war, made several significant decisions that aided the Allied victory, according to the BBC. Lloyd George was one of few politicians of the time who believed that the treaty was too harsh on Germany, which could perhaps lead to future war.

Georges Clemenceau
Georges Clemenceau was French premier from 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1920. “Leading the French delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, Clemenceau insisted on Germany’s disarmament and was never satisfied with the Versailles Treaty,” The Columbia Encyclopedia explains. “He was the main antagonist of Woodrow Wilson, whose ideas he viewed as too idealistic. Ironically, he was defeated in the presidential election of 1920 because of what was regarded as his leniency toward Germany.”

Historical Context: World War I

World War I, originally known as “The Great War,” began in the spring of 1914 and raged through Europe until November 1918. The war cost 9 million lives and billions of dollars in damages. World War I demonstrated the magnitude and destructive power of modern warfare.

PBS’ “The Great War” and the BBC’s “World War One” describe the battles and events of the war and provide commentary from noted historians.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History gives detailed accounts of the U.S. Army’s action during the war, along with a prologue explaining the war prior to U.S. involvement.

First World provides a battle-by-battle history of the war.

Related Topic: League of Nations

The Treaty of Versailles established the League of Nations, the world’s first international peacekeeping organization and a precursor to today’s United Nations. Though it was Wilson who insisted on its creation, the United States never joined the League of Nations. According to the BBC, it wasn’t strong enough to maintain peace for long.

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