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The Terms of Peace of the Great War

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Terms of the Peace

The peace conference that would settle the issues of the war convened at Versailles. A powerful symbol of French authority and supremacy, it had been deliberately chosen to intimidate the German delegation. The Germans were humiliated still more by being brought to France by train, along a route that took them through many of the battlefields and forced them to view the devastation for which the world would demand they take sole blame.

For the first time in history, a non-European nation would play a major role in the peace settlements. U.S. troops had been a decisive factor in the last year of fighting and had a level of industrial and economic might that dwarfed all the European nations; additionally, the United States had lost comparatively few troops during the war.

The leaders of the Great Powers were divided in their goals. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson wanted to establish a lasting peace in Europe. Premier Georges Clemenceau of France wanted to humiliate Germany. Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain wanted to achieve a new balance of power, rather than weakening Germany so much that France would take its place as the sole great power on the European continent. Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando wanted to recover certain Italian territory from Austria.

Despite having fought on the winning side, Russia—soon to become the Soviet Union—took no part in the negotiations at Versailles. Far too much mutual distrust existed between Russia and Western Europe on both political and economic grounds. The Russians resented the lack of European support for their new government, while the Europeans considered that the Russians had sold them out by withdrawing from the war and making a separate peace with Germany. Economically, the forces of communism and capitalism were inherent enemies.

Provisions of the Treaty of Versailles

  • Created new nations (Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia)
  • Restored the independence of Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
  • Restored Alsace and Lorraine to France
  • Gave France control of Saarland region until 1934
  • Designated the Rhineland a demilitarized zone between Germany and France
  • Created the League of Nations, an international peacekeeping force
  • Drastically and permanently reduced the German military
  • Forced Germans to admit full responsibility for the war
  • Charged Germany billions of dollars in reparations

Restoring the balance of power and achieving peace involved three measures. The first was to redraw European borders along ethnic lines to achieve self-government by nationality. This had been tried in 1815 with mixed success, since the lines had been rather arbitrary. This time the leaders took more care to accommodate the forces of nationalism; they created several new states, expanded others, and broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Once again, their aims were not entirely successful.

The second measure was to reduce Germany’s strength and increase France’s. Alsace and Lorraine changed hands once again, this time returning to French control. The Rhineland on Germany’s western border would be maintained as a demilitarized zone. Additionally, the Germans were to admit full responsibility for the war, to pay enormous reparations, and to reduce their army and navy to small forces. Although the United States argued against these punitive measures, France insisted on them. The United States argued that they would ruin the German economy for decades to come and that it was not reasonable to reduce the German military to the point where the country could not defend itself. The French argued that Germany was the aggressor nation and thus fully responsible for the war—which had devastated France and murdered an entire generation of its young men. Since Clemenceau refused to compromise on this issue, Wilson reluctantly consented. A storm of protest from the German delegates had no effect. The “war guilt clause,” as it came to be known, would largely contribute to the German aggression of the 1930s and 1940s.

The third measure toward maintaining a balance was President Wilson’s suggestion for an international peacekeeping force. Wilson had recently given a speech in which he laid out “Fourteen Points”—a list of measures that he believed would lead to a lasting peace throughout Europe and the world. The last point on his list proposed an international peacekeeping organization that would protect large and small nations on an equal basis. Members of this League of Nations could discuss conflicts over a conference table and resolve them peacefully, with war becoming a last resort. If one nation behaved aggressively, all other nations would unite against it, effectively putting a stop to attacks.

The League of Nations eventually came about in 1920. Ironically, the United States did not become a member of the League. The American system of government required that Congress approve international treaties; the opposition party refused to approve the League of Nations clause in the Treaty of Versailles on the grounds that it committed the United States to defend any European nation attacked by an outsider.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Great War Practice Test

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