Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why was the Treaty of Versailles so significant?

Treaty of Versailles
The 'Big Four' at the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was put together at the Paris Peace Conference starting in January 1919. The main signatories of the treaty were Britain (Prime Minister David Lloyd George), the USA (President Woodrow Wilson), France (Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau) and Italy (Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando). These leaders were known as the 'Big Four' and met to decide the fate of Germany after the First World War.

So why is this treaty so significant? To answer this question, it is important to consider a number of issues.

Firstly consider the attitude of each country that attended the negotiations:

Lloyd George - British PM Great Britain flag
Britain (David Lloyd-George)
Georges Clemenceau (French PM) French flag
France (George Clemenceau)
Many in Britain (having seen their husbands, sons and friends killed in the war) were eager for revenge. A popular saying was "Squeeze them until the pips squeak".

However Lloyd-George himself was worried about the dangers of treating Germany too harshly.
Clemenceau was nicknamed "The Tiger". He wanted to make Germany pay for all the damage that France suffered during the years of fighting.

He wanted to punish Germany so strongly that that couldn't even start a war again.
Woodrow Wilson (US President) USA flag
America (Woodrow Wilson)
Orlando (Italian PM) Italian flag
Italy (Vittorio Orlando)
The USA had only declared war in April 1917 and thus experienced far fewer casualties herself. Wilson arrived in Europe with his 'Fourteen Points'. These were his plans to ensure future peace in Europe.

He believed Germany should be treated fairly and that a 'League of Nations' should be set up to settle future disputes between countries.
Italy had declared war on Germany in 1915, changing sides from her alliance with Germany at the beginning of the war. Italy had been promised territory as a reward for changing sides.

Orlando's main aim was to get the extra land for Italy - he wanted his 'fair share' from the spoils of war.

Germany wasn't even invited to the peace treaty. The German Government expected the treaty to be based on Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points.
Clearly agreement was going to be very difficult, as each country felt they knew best. For example: the USA didn't want Italy getting their territory, France wanted an industrial area called the Rhineland, but Great Britain felt it should only be a demilitarized zone (area where any military equipment or soldiers are banned). The final treaty was published in June 1919:

It is important to actually consider what the terms of the treaty said:
A summary of the terms of the treaty includes:
  • Germany had to take full responsibility for the war.
  • Germany had to pay for all the war damage (reparations) - later set at £6.6billion.
  • Germany’s army was reduced to 100,000 men.
  • Germany could have no airforce or submarines, and was limited to six large ships.
  • Germany to loose territory on all sides, & split in two by new nation of Poland.
  • Germany to lose all her colonies.
You can read an overview of the full terms of the treaty here [from Spartacus].
1. How fair was this treaty?
2. Which of the nations would have been the most pleased with the outcome?

The impact of this treaty is the most important thing to consider:
This is the part where you need to think yourself. Remember that this treaty was to prevent another European war ever breaking out again. You know what happened in 1939....
Ordinary Germans were dismayed when they discovered the terms of the treaty. The Government had expected they would get fair treatment, based on Wilson's fourteen points. However, they were in no position to do anything and simply had to agree with the treaty.

Look at the cartoon below [click on it to get a larger image]

The cartoon above was created (incredibly) in 1920. It was titled "Peace and future cannon fodder". There is a small child with a copy of the Treaty behind them. Above the child's head is a comment "1940 class". The leaders of the nations at Versailles are seen walking past, and there is a caption: "The Tiger: Curious! I seem to hear a child weeping!".
1. How old would a child born in 1919 be by 1940?
2. What is this cartoonist suggesting about the Treaty of Versailles?

The final treaty was not popular. Many in Britain and France were angry that Germany hadn't been treated more harshly and that the German Kaiser (King) hadn't been put on trial. Most Germans were humiliated and horrified by the treaty - disgusted at being made to take the blame for the entire war (the War Guilt clause - 231) and having to pay for it.

The bitterness and resentment of the German people could be used to by someone wishing to unite the German people. This is exactly what Adolf Hitler did. This is why many historians suggest that the harshness of treaty of Versailles helped cause the Second World War. This is why the Treaty of Versailles is so significant.
To find out more about the impact and significance of Versailles use these internet links:
Interpretation: Treaty of Versailles [BBC History]
Verdicts on the Treaty of Versailles []
The Treaty of Versailles []
Public Record Office - making Peace [LearningCurve]

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