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The Treaty of Versailles

The 1919 Treaty of Paris ended World War I, but imposed heavy penalties on Germany. 


  • The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, and officially ended the war between Germany and the Allied Powers.
  • The controversial War Guilt clause blamed Germany for World War I and imposed heavy debt payments on Germany.
  • The Treaty of Versailles was a major contributing factor in the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ending the First World War: the Paris Peace Conference

Exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—the event that tipped Europe into world war—the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris on June 28, 1919. The armistice signed on November 11, 1918 officially ended the hostilities, but the negotiations between the Allied victors at the Paris Peace Conference lasted six months and involved diplomatic delegations from over thirty-two countries.1
Signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the palace's Hall of Mirrors, June 28, 1919. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
US President Woodrow Wilson had delivered a speech in January 1918, in which he laid out his vision for the postwar world. The Fourteen Points elaborated Wilson’s plan for the comprehensive overhaul of international relations. He called for an immediate end to the war, the establishment of an international peacekeeping organization, international disarmament, open diplomacy, the explicit disavowal of war, and independence for formerly colonial territories. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were hugely influential in shaping the contours of the postwar world and in spreading the language of peace and democracy around the world.2
In addition to negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, the Paris Peace Conference established the League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization tasked with resolving international disputes without resorting to military force.3

Terms of the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles established a blueprint for the postwar world. One of the most controversial terms of the treaty was the War Guilt clause, which explicitly and directly blamed Germany for the outbreak of hostilities. The treaty forced Germany to disarm, to make territorial concessions, and to pay reparations to the Allied powers in the staggering amount of $5 billion.
Although US President Woodrow Wilson was opposed to such harsh terms, he was outmaneuvered by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. France was the only Allied power to share a border with Germany, and therefore suffered the bulk of the devastation and casualties from the German war machine. The French aimed to weaken Germany to the greatest extent possible.4

Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles

Although President Wilson was heavily involved in negotiating the treaty, which reflected his vision for the postwar world, isolationists in the US Congress proved a major stumbling block to ratification. The so-called “Irreconcilables,” mostly Republicans but also some Democrats, opposed the treaty, particularly Article X, which committed member-states of the League of Nations to go to war on each other’s behalf in the event of an unprovoked act of aggression. The Irreconcilables saw this as a violation of US sovereignty and some believed that it would commit the United States to an alliance system that could lead to another war. Due to the opposition of the Irreconcilables, the Treaty of Versailles was never ratified by Congress, and the United States never became a member of the League of Nations.5
An American political cartoon suggesting that Germany was crushed by the giant reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles. New York World, 1921. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1934, his government began to violate many of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Not only did Hitler announce a moratorium on all debt payments and cease making reparations, but he began to build up the German armed forces in earnest.6 Some historians believe that the onerous terms of the treaty laid the psychological and economic groundwork for the rise of the Nazi party, which capitalized on German resentment of the burdens imposed by the Allied powers after the First World War.7

What do you think?

How did Wilson’s Fourteen Points influence the terms of the Treaty of Versailles?
What were the strengths and weaknesses of Wilson’s vision for the postwar world?
Was the Treaty of Versailles a direct cause of World War II? Why or why not?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Couldn't it be a little too early in history to tell if the United Nations has in fact "succeeded" in its goal of preventing World War III? The fear of "entangling alliances" is a legitimate one, and all it takes is ONE major conflict of a NATO member state, in order to draw the USA into a total war that geographically it would have otherwise played no part in...

    Only next time, it wouldn't involve dynamite, bullets, nor gas, nor trenches, but rather weapons of mass destruction and horror. Isn't total global military disarmament preferable to this system of entangling alliances that we have built up today? Thanks to the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and Woodrow Wilson before him).
    (21 votes)
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    • male robot donald style avatar for user Isaac E
      Global disarmament is an idle day dream. While it would be very nice if everybody laid down their weapons and swore off war, it will never, ever happen. War is caused by two people wanting the same thing, or in the worst case scenario, one nation desiring the extermination of another nation. Thankfully, the second scenario is rare, but as long as this world lasts, nations will always covet each others stuff and try to take it by force.
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Michael Freed
    The text says $5b in reparations but the cartoon says $55b. Which is it?
    (11 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Tanya George
    To what extent was the treaty of versailles fatally flawed? was it even fatally flawed?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Saivishnu Tulugu
      The Treaty of Versailles was flawed in many ways as it put the complete blame of the War on Germany. Germany was forced to pay heavy reparations, lost its colonies, and forced to reduce its army. Just think about how unfair this is. Another way it was flawed is it allowed France and the other allies to take some of Germany's colonies and it was a harsh and unnecessary punishment. Thus, in a way, the treaty inevitably lead to the rise of Hitler and World War 2.
      (16 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user hklor2024
    how did the Treaty of Versailles affect France?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Partly it enabled an entire nation to avoid any responsibility for the Great War, and gave it a legal basis to further impoverish a neighboring nation that was having trouble of its own. The treaty could be said to have led to the Second World War, which made France suffer all over again just a couple decades later.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rafia Rahman
    why some people think that treaty of versailles was fair?
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tovonn Smith
    I heard the Treaty of Versailles angered countries like Japan who were on the verge of being a world power, but weren't allowed to talk, because they weren't considered a world superpower yet. Is that true?
    (3 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Conor Lincoln
      True. They were considered a regional power, surpassing stricken China and war torn Russia during this time. In fact, they had conquered the German trading post of Tsingtao (the British equivalent of Singapore and Hong Kong). Kaiser Wilhelm had once said that "I would rather lose Berlin to the Russians than lose Tsingtao to the Japanese." In fact, the Kaiser thought of the Japanese as the "Yellow Peril" and as a superpower. Anyway, Japan invaded the German Bismarck islands (the Carolines) and provided invaluable anti German naval service to Britain in the Pacific. After WWI, the US essentially confronted Britain to say that England would have to choose between allying with Japan and the US. Britain inevitably needed US help as a contingency in both hemispheres. I hope this answers your question! :)
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Eliza Beck
    Was the Treaty of Versailles influenced by Wilson’s Fourteen Points?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky seedling style avatar for user KhaelP
    because of this did this lead to cause WW2?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Aisha Sambou
    How did the Allied Powers react to the over the claims that the treaty of Versailles was too harsh?
    (2 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Austin
      The president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, opposed the harsh conditions, and many parties within the U.S also opposed the Treaty of Versailles altogether, in fear of causing another war. However; France and Great Britain, being in the middle of the war and suffering great amounts of damage to their countries, wanted to weaken Germany as much as possible, so they could not hurt their economy, government, etc. anymore. However; now we know that these very harsh punishments to Germany's economy especially caused the takeover of the Nazis, because the German people wanted a party that would get rid of the punishments made by the Treaty. The breaking of the Treaty was a major factor of the start of WW2.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    In sooth, the Fourteen Points of Wilson made an influential impact on the Treaty of Versailles in terms of peace and revelation of the blueprint. In effect, in order to keep war
    stop, Wilson created an international peacekeeping organization to not have any harm happening. Having a positive effect on the war, the Treaty of Versailles made a contributing factor in ceasing Germany from waging war on other countries, led Germany to disarm. However, it also caused another country to take advantage on Germany. Corresponding to the article, France tried to share a border with Germany. As a result, France weakened Germany to greater extent.
    (4 votes)
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