A bitter peace – An Irishman’s Diary on the Treaty of Versailles

The German delegation that left Berlin in late April 1919 for the Paris Peace Conference was oblivious to the fate that awaited them.

Despite the horrifying slaughter of the previous four years, which Germany itself had done so much to pre-empt and then prosecute, the 180-strong party of negotiators, translators and secretaries trusted in the US president Woodrow Wilson that they would get a fair hearing.

Wilson had loudly proclaimed his 14 Points for the postwar settlement in January of the previous year. Had he not stated that self-determination would be at the heart at the new world order? This mean that lands where German speakers were a majority would be safe irrespective of any punitive demands the victorious Allies might ask for. Or so the Germans believed.

The delegation had underestimated the sheer, visceral loathing that many in France had for Germany in the wake of the first World War. The French lost 1.4 million dead out of a population of 40 million. A sickle-shaped swathe of the country from Lille to the Swiss border had been under German occupation for more than four years. The country was also humiliated during the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 and had lost Alsace-Lorraine, the lost provinces which were coloured in black on the maps displayed in French classrooms. It was “le tache noire” or black stain of French life.


The French president Georges Clemenceau shared his people’s desire for revenge.

The walrus-like Clemenceau, then 78 and in failing health, was determined to exact his revenge on Germany even if it killed him, and the conference nearly did. On February 19th, 1919, just a month after it started, he was shot by an anarchist, Émile Cottin. The bullet hit the elderly statesman between the ribs and remained there for the rest of his life.

To compound his dyspeptic disposition, he had bad eczema which he covered up by wearing gloves. He also suffered from insomnia. Hell hath no fury like an old man in a hurry. It is no wonder that he found the prissy, high-minded Wilson a bit of a bore. “His 14 points,” Clemenceau loudly harrumphed, “God himself was content with 10 commandants”.

As the train entered French territory, the portents were not good. The train slowed down to 15 km/h as it passed through devastated territory in Belgium and France. The delegation could discern German prisoners of war working in the fields. They were placed there deliberately.

The treaty was presented to the Germans on May 7th and it was made clear it was not up for negotiation. Germany was to lose large swathes of the old Prussian Reich and some of East Prussia was to be separated from the rest of the country by what became known as the Polish corridor.

Alsace-Lorraine and the Saarland were to become French, the former permanently; the latter to be subject to a plebiscite. Belgium acquired territory from Germany, as did Denmark. Germany’s overseas colonies were to be divided up among the victorious powers or become subject to a League of Nations mandate.

Germany’s mighty military was to be reduced to a token militia and the country forced to pay reparations, the sum of which was so outlandish, there was no possibility of repayment.

Worst of all, as far as the Germans were concerned, they were to be held accountable for starting the war.

The so-called war guilt clause which blamed the war solely on the “aggression of Germany and her allies” was an affront to the German self-image of a country which had acted defensively in mobilising after its eastern neighbour Russia had mobilised first.

Foreign minister Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau delivered the response at the Trianon Palace. He gave a long-winded, exculpatory speech in a monotone in which he sought to minimise German war guilt. It was stunningly tone-deaf, according to those present. Wilson remarked: “This is the most tactless speech I have ever heard. The Germans are really a stupid people. They always do the wrong thing”.

There was consternation in Germany over the terms of the treaty and most did not want to sign. The Germans sought to buy time by making reasoned arguments, point by point, against the treaty.

The Allies threatened a resumption of hostilities and posted 42 divisions on the German border to concentrate minds. The German government fell on June 19th over opposition to the treaty. The succeeding one agreed to it under duress.

There was only one place that the Treaty of Versailles could be signed as far as Clemenceau was concerned and that was the Hall of Mirrors. The French had signed a humiliating armistice and the German Empire was declared in 1871 in the same room.

The signing date was set for June 28th. The German delegation entered the room, packed as it was with peacemakers on one side and the media on another.

The punitive surroundings made the American delegation feel sorry for them. It was out of keeping with the modern era they were seeking to create, Wilson’s chief adviser Edward House noted. “I wish there might have been an element of chivalry which was wholly lacking”.

Not for the first time new world optimism was confounded by the ancient enmities of the old world.

The Treaty of Versailles is now regarded as a harsh peace, but as the historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out in her brilliant book Peacemakers, Six Months That Changed the World, it was no worse than what Germany would have imposed upon the Allies had it won the war.

It was also better than the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which the Germans had imposed on Soviet Russia in 1918. It was the Great Depression, the weakness of Weimar Democracy and the rise of Adolf Hitler which led to the second World War, she believed, and she concluded: “The Treaty of Versailles is not to blame”.