Last November 11 the world solemnly noted that 100 years had passed since the end of the Great War – later to be known tragically as the First World War – it in fact only marked the armistice, which ended the fighting but not the actual conflict. It took six months of prolonged and complex negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to establish a treaty that officially ended the war.
While known as the Treaty of Versailles, most of the negotiations took place in Paris, with many “Big Four” meetings held at the Quai d’Orsay. The French palace only served as the location for the signing of the treaty – in part for symbolic reasons. It was in the palace’s Hall of Mirrors where the German Empire, which combined the Kingdom of Prussia with other German states, was proclaimed in January 18, 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.
On June 28, 1919 in the same Hall of Mirrors the Treaty of Versailles was signed, formally ending World War I. The day was notable for it was five years to the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated, an event that led to the horrific war.
“June 28, 1919 is a day people don’t really pay attention to as the end of the First World War,” explained Jonathan Casey, director of archives at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.
“We have Veterans Day, which of course means a lot of things, but the actual day of the signing of the treaty is notable too,” Casey told ClearanceJobs. “There is a commemoration every year in France on this day, and we’re recognizing the importance of the treaty this year at the museum.”
Armistice vs. Treaty
November 11 is of course the day when the guns fell silent – as was noted at the time, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. After more than four years of fighting millions were dead and there were deep cuts into the heart of Europe that would remain open wounds and scars for more than a generation – eventually leading to a second and more horrible World War.
But what the signing of the armistice didn’t do was to actually end the war, even if it ended the fighting.
“That is an important distinction,” said Casey. “We have a similar situation now with Korea. So you have to understand the difference and that is why the situation can be so precarious in Korea. One is simply an end of the state of hostility, while the other is what should be a lasting peace that can lead to international relations.”
In Europe in 1918 it was only the end of fighting, not an actual peace; and as noted it took six months to finalize the terms. Given the situation in Germany in those months it was unlikely that the conflict could have resumed.
“Realistically there wasn’t a chance,” added Casey. “The German Army would not have backed a return to fighting. Things had changed radically, and the Kaiser (Wilhelm II) was forced out and the entire system had changed.”
Moreover, with the revolution in Russia and near revolution in Germany, the nation was in no shape to fight an external war.
“The German politicians wanted to save their nation,” said Casey. “But at the same time the Germans were not in a position to negotiate either.”
The U.S. and Versailles
One reason that the Treaty of Versailles and its date of June 28 might not have much meaning in the United States could simply come down to the fact that the U.S. wasn’t actually an official signatory of the treaty. While President Woodrow Wilson claimed “at last the world knows America as the savior of the world,” the Republican-controlled Senate under Henry Cabot Lodge had other ideas.
Most Republicans, as well as many Irish and German Democrats, opposed the treaty and the U.S. Senate never built the two-thirds collation needed to pass it.
“The U.S. didn’t ratify the treaty,” said Casey. “We signed it, but it didn’t go into effect.”
It was only when Republican President Warren G. Harding took office that Congress passed the Knox-Porter Resolution that brought about a formal end of the war between the United States and the Central Powers including Germany. That was signed into law by President Harding on July 2, 1921, followed by the U.S.-German Peace Treaty of 1921, which was signed on August 25, 1921.
Two similar treaties were signed with Austria and Hungary the same month.
“Things changed and we wanted to move on,” added Casey.
Harsh Terms or Not Harsh Enough?
For the past 100 years the terms of the Treaty of Versailles have been debated. It has been argued that those terms led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and paved the road to the Second World War.
One of the provisions of the treaty that was both important and controversial is that it required “Germany (to) accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” that the war resulted in. Article 231 later became known as the War Guilt clause – which some historians have argued fostered resentment in Germany.
Germany remained intact as a nation, but it was forced to disarm, make ample territorial concessions, including all of its overseas colonies, and pay reparations to the Allies. In 1921 the total cost of those reparations was assessed at $132 billion marks – roughly $442 billion current U.S. dollars!
Germany faced significant repercussions, but it was allowed to remain a nation – unlike Austria-Hungary, which was broken up into several states including Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while territory was merged with Serbia to form Yugoslavia. Territory from Hungary was ceded to Romania; while parts of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia allowed for the restoration of Poland.
The argument that Germany was forced to make a “Carthaginian Peace” and that the terms were too harsh does need to be understood in that context.
“The Germans did win the war in the east, having defeated Russia in 1917,” said Casey. “And in the treaty with Russia they gained a lot of territory.”
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed on March 3, 1918, ceded hegemony over the Baltic States, which were to become essentially German vassal states, while much of the Russian Empire’s eastern territories were ceded outright to Germany and its allies. As noted by one historian, the German terms were so harsh that even the German negotiator was shocked. That treaty was annulled by the armistice.
Moreover, while some historians may view the Treaty of Versailles as too harsh it should also be remembered that some Allied leaders, such as French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, felt Germany was being treated with too much leniency.
In the world of business it is said that a good deal is when all parties are left somewhat unhappy, and in some ways that could describe the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was neither pacified nor conciliated and yet it wasn’t left permanently weakened. Instead, it likely left a nation eager for revenge and another go.
“The biggest lesson is don’t be too harsh, and don’t push reparations that will force a country into a corner,” said Casey. “But at the time it was the right treaty, and really it wasn’t too harsh.”
The bigger issue really said Casey is that it wasn’t enforced.
“The Allies after the war lacked the willpower to enforce the treaty and to keep Germany in line,” he told ClearanceJobs.
It was a mistake that wasn’t made after the Second World War.
“The United States stayed in Europe, and that is a big reason why there wasn’t a Third World War,” Casey added. “That was the point of NATO at first. We were there to first keep Germany down and then the Russians out. But the lesson of Versailles is that if you have a treaty you must enforce it if it has any meaning to do what it is supposed to. You have to be fair, but enforce it. Any treaty will always seem harsh to the loser.”