Paris Peace Treaties failed to create a secure, peaceful and lasting world order

The great hall at Versailles was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which imposed swingeing terms on Germany and blamed it and Austria-Hungary for starting the first World War.

In mid-January 1919, amid revolutionary chaos in much of east-central Europe and a fierce civil war in Russia, the Paris Peace Conference convened to decide on the future international order.

The nature of the peace conference differed in significant ways from the great European peace conference of the previous century: the Congress of Vienna (1814-15).

Most importantly, the defeated – Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire – were not invited to the negotiations in Paris, whereas France had been a central actor in Vienna 100 years before.

Russia – Britain and France’s key ally between 1914 and 1917 – was also not represented in Paris, largely because Britain and France were still actively involved in trying to bring down Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik government by offering logistical and military assistance to its White opponents.

Soon after the opening of the peace conference, it became clear that each of the three key players in Paris – British prime minister David Lloyd George, French president Georges Clémenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson – had their own, and often contradictory, agenda.

Future containment

For France, the future containment of its western neighbour, Germany, was the single most important issue on the agenda.

Clémenceau deliberately decided to open the conference on January 18th, the 49th anniversary of the founding of the German Reich in Versailles after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Finding a solution to the “German problem” that had haunted Paris ever since was considered a matter of both collective security and justice.

During the Great War, 10 French départements had suffered directly from battle or occupation. Even worse, the country had lost a quarter of its male population between the ages of 18 and 27. Clémenceau knew all too well that the overwhelming majority of his people demanded punishment for the perceived main culprit, Germany, and due compensation for France.

For the British – then, as before the war, concerned about the “balance of power” on the continent – the prospect of a potential French hegemony was as alarming as had been the pre-war threat of German dominance.

Germany’s global importance was to be minimised (by taking away its overseas colonies and scuppering the German High Seas Fleet), but not to the extent that overseas trade would cease altogether. Germany had been a major trading partner for Britain before the war and a completely impoverished, potentially even Bolshevik, Germany was simply not in London’s best interest.

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US president Wilson, by contrast, had always maintained that the result of the conference should be a “just peace” without victors and vanquished. The subjects closest to his heart were the implementation of the principal of national “self-determination” and the creation of a League of Nations that would make future wars impossible.

Behind his idealism also lay the ambition to cement the United States’s newly found position of global dominance, both politically and economically. Navigating between the Allies’ conflicting positions was an almost impossible task and everyone involved was fully aware from the start of the deliberations in Paris that the peace treaties were going to be a compromise – not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the victorious Allies.

The victors summoned Germany’s representatives to Versailles on May 7th, 1919, and presented them with the draft treaty, whose conditions were greeted with stunned disbelief by the Germans: Germany lost a tenth of its population (some 6.5 million people) and about one seventh of its territory (roughly 43,000sq km). In the west, Alsace-Lorraine was handed back to France after nearly half a century under German rule.

Overseas colonies

Between 200,000 and 300,000 ethnic Germans left Alsace and Lorraine, either voluntarily or as a result of expulsions. In the east, the creation of a Polish nation-state meant the loss of Posen (Poznan), much of West Prussia, and parts of Upper Silesia.

Danzig, the Baltic port with an overwhelmingly German population, became a “Free City”. In order to give Poland access to the Baltic Sea, as promised in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Allies created a “corridor” of land separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

The treaty also stipulated the permanent loss of the Reich’s overseas colonies (territories with a combined size of 1.6 million sq km) which were redistributed between the victor states under mandates from the League of Nations.

The peace treaty being signed in the hall of mirrors in Versailles, France, June 28th June 1919. Photograph: by Sir William Orpen/IWM via Getty Images
The peace treaty being signed in the hall of mirrors in Versailles, France, June 28th June 1919. Photograph: by Sir William Orpen/IWM via Getty Images

At the centre of contemporary German indignation, however, stood articles 231 and 232 of the treaty, which obliged Germany to accept the sole responsibility for the outbreak of the war in 1914, and in consequence to pay for all damages caused.

One of the earliest critics of the reparations clause was John Maynard Keynes in his book Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), in which he portrayed the Versailles Treaty as a Carthaginian peace, intent on ruining Germany as effectively as Rome had destroyed Carthage in 146BC.

However, what was generally ignored, then and since, was that Germany had actually fared better in Paris than all of the other central powers. In the Treaty of St Germain, signed in September 1919, for example, the German-Austrian rump state was forced to cede South Tyrol to Italy, Southern Styria to the Yugoslavia, and Feldsberg and Böhmzell to Czechoslovakia.

Habsburg Galicia had already been claimed by Poland while Bohemia, with its three million German speakers, had become part of Czechoslovakia. The treaty also stipulated that Austria (along with Hungary) would have to carry most of the old empire’s war debt, as well as paying reparations. German-Austrians who, like their German counterparts, had hoped for Anschluss – the voluntary union of Austria with the Reich – as a realisation of liberal aspirations during the 1848 revolution, were bitterly disappointed.

If Austrians thought they were hard done by, Hungarians had even more reasons to complain. Altogether the country lost two-thirds of its pre-war territory and more than 73 per cent of its population, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Trianon, which – due to political upheaval in Budapest and the Romanian invasion of Hungary – was only finalised in 1920.

Wrecked by four years of war, revolution, and counter-revolution, as well as foreign invasion in 1919, the country was economically in ruins even before it signed the treaty, with production levels in Hungary’s consumer goods industry at about 15 per cent of its pre-war levels.

Compared with Hungary’s staggering territorial losses, Bulgaria’s, the one Balkan nation to have fought alongside the Germans, Habsburgs and Ottomans, were slightly less dramatic, even if the Bulgarians did not see it that way. Similarly to other central powers, the new government in Sofia had initially hoped that the principle of self-determination would be applied after the country’s new borders were settled in Paris, as Bulgarians were in a majority in three areas outside its new notional borders: in the southern Dobrudja along the west coast of the Black Sea, in western Thrace at the top of the Aegean, and in parts of Macedonia.

Gloomiest predictions

The problem was that all three territories were also claimed by other states considered friends of the Allies: Romania insisted on the southern Dobrudja; Yugoslavia claimed Macedonia; and Greece demanded Western Thrace.

When the draft treaty was finally delivered in September 1919, its content surpassed even the gloomiest predictions. In relative terms, the Treaty of Neuilly of November 1919 was certainly harsher than the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany. The treaty forced Sofia to cede a total of 11,000sq km of territory. The treaty also imposed upon Bulgaria a staggering reparation bill of 2,250 million gold francs, to be paid over 37 years. Proportionate to its size and GDP, Bulgaria faced the highest reparations bill of all the central powers. In the eyes of most Bulgarians, the Treaty of Neuilly symbolised the lowest point of their national history. The redrawing of borders left Bulgaria without agriculturally fertile areas and without access to the Aegean Sea – a major issue as trade via ships was vital for the Bulgarian economy.

For Bulgaria’s wartime ally until 1918, the Ottoman Empire, the process of disintegration had begun well before the armistice, with the great retreat of Ottoman forces from its Arab territories. The fate of the Empire now lay in the hands of Britain and France, two countries intent on dividing most of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces between them.

In August 1920, they finally signed a peace treaty with the Sultan’s government. The Treaty of Sèvres, confirmed that the Turks would be left with as little as one third of Anatolia. Greece was allocated Smyrna and its environs, the Armenians received vast areas of eastern Anatolia, stretching from Trabzon to Lake Van, and Kurdistan was to become an autonomous region. The Straits of Bosphorus were placed under international administration.

Post-imperial Turkey would also lose control over its finances as the budget would henceforth be controlled by an Allied commission. No other defeated central power had to subject itself to such a humiliating treaty.

In the event, however, Turkish nationalists under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk continued their fight. By 1922, they had defeated Britain’s main ally in the region, Greece, and forced the West to draw up a new peace treaty with significantly more favourable terms: the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which in many ways constitutes the last of the post-war peace accords after the end of the Great War.

Set against the backdrop of contemporary expectations, the Paris Peace Treaties almost inevitably disappointed everyone and it failed in achieving its ultimate objective: the creation of a secure, peaceful, and lasting world order.

Robert Gerwarth is Professor of Modern History at UCD and Director of the Centre for War Studies. He is the author of the book The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End.