How We Sold Our Soul–The Treaty Of Versailles

The Articles in the Category cover a vast range of history not only in our country but in the world as well. The category is entitled “How We Sold Our Soul”. In many cases our history has hinged on compromises being made by the powers at be. They say hind-sight is 20/20, which is why I am discussing these land mark decisions in this manner. The people that made these decisions in many cases thought they were doing the right thing. However in some instances they were made for expediency and little thought was given to the moral ramifications and the fallout that would result from them. I hope you enjoy these articles. The initial plan is to discuss 10 compromises, but as time progresses I am sure that number will increase.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919 at the Palace of Versailles in Paris at the end of World War I, codified peace terms between the victorious Allies and Germany. The Treaty of Versailles held Germany responsible for starting the war and imposed harsh penalties in terms of loss of territory, massive reparations payments and demilitarization. Far from the “peace without victory” that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had outlined in his famous Fourteen Points in early 1918, the Treaty of Versailles humiliated Germany while failing to resolve the underlying issues that had led to war in the first place. Economic distress and resentment of the treaty within Germany helped fuel the ultra-nationalist sentiment that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, as well as the coming of a World War II just two decades later.

The Fourteen Points  

In a speech to Congress in January 1918, Wilson laid out his idealistic vision for the post-war world. In addition to specific territorial settlements based on an Entente victory, Wilson’s so-called Fourteen Points emphasized the need for national self-determination for Europe’s different ethnic populations. Wilson also proposed the founding of a “general association of nations” that would mediate international disputes and foster cooperation between different nations in the hopes of preventing war on such a large scale in the future. This organization eventually became known as the League of Nations.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points are summarized below:

1. Diplomacy should be public, with no secret treaties.

2. All nations should enjoy free navigation of the seas.

3. Free trade should exist among all nations, putting an end to economic barriers between countries.

4. All countries should reduce arms in the name of public safety.

5. Fair and impartial rulings in colonial claims.

6. Restore Russian territories and freedom.

7. Belgium should be restored to independence.

8. Alsace-Lorraine should be returned to France and France should be fully liberated.

9. Italy’s frontiers should be drawn along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

10. People living in Austria-Hungary should be granted self-determination.

11. The Balkan states should also be guaranteed self-determination and independence.

12. Turks and those under Turkish rule should be granted self-determination.

13. An independent Poland should be created.

14. A general association of nations must be formed to mediate international disputes.

When German leaders signed the armistice ending hostilities in World War I on November 11, 1918, they believed this vision articulated by Wilson would form the basis for any future peace treaty. This would not prove to be the case.

The Paris Peace Conference 

The Paris Peace Conference opened on January 18, 1919, a date that was significant in that it marked the anniversary of the coronation of German Emperor Wilhelm I, which took place in the Palace of Versailles at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Prussian victory in that conflict had resulted in Germany’s unification and its seizure of Alsace and Lorraine provinces from France. In 1919, France and its prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, had not forgotten the humiliating loss, and intended to avenge it in the new peace agreement. 

The Terms of the Versailles Treaty

The “Big Four” leaders of the victorious Western nations—Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France and, to a lesser extent, Vittorio Orlando of Italy—dominated the peace negotiations in Paris. Germany and the other defeated powers, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, were not represented at the conference; nor was Russia, which had fought as one of the Allied powers until 1917, when the country’s new Bolshevik government concluded a separate peace with Germany and withdrew from the conflict.

The Big Four themselves had competing objectives in Paris: Clemenceau’s main goal was to protect France from yet another attack by Germany. He sought heavy reparations from Germany as a way of limiting German economic recovery after the war and minimizing this possibility. Lloyd George, on the other hand, saw the rebuilding of Germany as a priority in order to reestablish the nation as a strong trading partner for Great Britain. For his part, Orlando wanted to expand Italy’s influence and shape it into a major power that could hold its own alongside the other great nations. Wilson opposed Italian territorial demands, as well as previously existing arrangements regarding territory between the other Allies; instead, he wanted to create a new world order along the lines of the Fourteen Points. The other leaders saw Wilson as too naive and idealistic, and his principles were difficult to translate into policy.

In the end, the European Allies imposed harsh peace terms on Germany, forcing the nation to surrender around 10 percent of its territory and all of its overseas possessions. Other key provisions of the Treaty of Versailles called for the demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, limited Germany’s army and navy, forbade it to maintain an air force, and required it to conduct war crimes trials against Kaiser Wilhelm II and other leaders for their aggression. Most importantly, Article 231 of the treaty, better known as the “war guilt clause,” forced Germany to accept full responsibility for starting World War I and pay enormous reparations for Allied war losses.

Criticism of Versailles Treaty

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, sparking the outbreak of the war. Though the treaty included a covenant creating the League of Nations, an international organization aimed at preserving peace, the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped ensure that peace would not last for long.

Germans were furious about the treaty, seeing it as a diktat, or dictated peace; they bitterly resented the sole blame of war being placed at their feet. The nation’s burden of reparations eventually topped 132 billion gold Reichsmarks, the equivalent of some $33 billion, a sum so great that no one expected Germany to be able to pay in full; in fact, economists like John Maynard Keynes predicted the European economy would collapse if it did.

Keynes was only one prominent critic of the Treaty of Versailles. The French military leader Ferdinand Foch refused to attend the signing ceremony, as he thought the treaty didn’t do enough to secure against a future German threat, while the U.S. Congress failed to ratify the treaty, and later concluded a separate peace with Germany; the United States would never join the League of Nations.

In the years following the Treaty of Versailles, many ordinary Germans believed they had been betrayed by the “November Criminals,” those leaders who signed the treaty and formed the post-war government. Radical right-wing political forces—especially the National Socialist Workers’ Party, or the Nazis—would gain support in the 1920s and ‘30s by promising to reverse the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty. With the onset of the Great Depression after 1929, economic unrest destabilized the already vulnerable Weimar government, setting the stage for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s fateful rise to power in 1933.

Germany’s World War I Debt Was So Crushing It Took 92 Years to Pay Off

After the Treaty of Versailles called for punishing reparations, economic collapse and another world war thwarted Germany’s ability to pay.

t the end of World War I, Germans could hardly recognize their country. Up to 3 million Germans, including 15 percent of its men, had been killed. Germany had been forced to become a republic instead of a monarchy, and its citizens were humiliated by their nation’s bitter loss.

Even more humiliating were the terms of Germany’s surrender. World War I’s victors blamed Germany for beginning the war, committing horrific atrocities and upending European peace with secretive treaties. But most embarrassing of all was the punitive peace treaty Germany had been forced to sign.

The Treaty of Versailles didn’t just blame Germany for the war—it demanded financial restitution for the whole thing, to the tune of 132 billion gold marks, or about $269 billion today.

How—and when—could Germany possibly pay its debt?

Nobody could have dreamed that it would take 92 years. That’s how long Germany took to repay World War I reparations, thanks to a financial collapse, another world war and an ongoing debate about how, and even whether, Germany should pay up on its debts.

Allied victors took a punitive approach to Germany at the end of World War I. Intense negotiation resulted in the Treaty of Versailles’ “war guilt clause,” which identified Germany as the sole responsible party for the war and forced it to pay reparations.

Germany had suspended the gold standard and financed the war by borrowing. Reparations further strained the economic system, and the Weimar Republic printed money as the mark’s value tumbled. Hyperinflation soon rocked Germany. By November 1923, 42 billion marks were worth the equivalent of one American cent.

Inflation in Germany
During a period of hyperinflation in 1920s Germany, 100,000 marks was the equivalent one U.S. dollar.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Finally, the world mobilized in an attempt to ensure reparations would be paid. In 1924, the Dawes Plan reduced Germany’s war debt and forced it to adopt a new currency. Reparations continued to be paid through a strange round robin: The U.S. lent Germany money to pay reparations, and the countries that collected reparations payment used that money to pay off United States debts. The plan was heralded as a victory—Charles Dawes, a banker who later became vice president under Calvin Coolidge won a Nobel Prize for his role in the negotiations.

How the Treaty of Versailles and German Guilt Led to World War II

World War II


Weimar Republic

But the Weimar Republic still struggled to pay its debts, so another plan was hashed out in 1928.

The Young Plan involved a reduction of Germany’s war debt to just 121 billion gold marks. But the dawn of the Great Depression ensured its failure and Germany’s economy began disintegrating again. 

In an attempt to thwart disaster, President Herbert Hoover put a year-long moratorium on reparation payments in 1931. The next year, Allied delegates attempted to write off all Germany’s reparations debt at the Lausanne Conference, but the U.S. Congress refused to sign on to the resolution. Germany was still on the hook for its war debt.

Soon after, Adolf Hitler was elected. He canceled all payments in 1933. “Hitler was committed to not just not paying, but to overturning the whole treaty,” historian Felix Schulz told the BBC’s Olivia Lang. His refusal was seen as an act of patriotism and courage in a nation that saw the reparations as a form of humiliation. Germany made no payments during Hitler’s rule.

New inductees of the Wehrmacht taking oath on August 25, 1936. The growth of Hitler’s armies was in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

But Germany wasn’t destined to win the war, and the Third Reich ended with Hitler’s suicide in April 1945 and Germany’s official surrender a few days later. By then, the country was in chaos. Millions of people had been displaced. Over 5.5 million German combatants, and up to 8.8 million German civilians, were dead. Most of Germany’s institutions had crumbled, and its populace was on the brink of starvation.

The Allies exacted reparations for World War II, too. They weren’t paid in actual money, but through industrial dismantling, the removal of intellectual property and forced labor for millions of German POWs. After the surrender, Germany was divided into four occupation zones, and in 1949 the country was split in two. Economic recovery, much less reparations payments, seemed unlikely.

By then, West Germany owed 30 billion Deutschmarks to 70 different countries, according to Deutsche Welle’s Andreas Becker, and was in desperate need of cash. But an unexpected ray of hope broke through when West Germany’s president, Konrad Adenauer, struck a deal with a variety of western nations in 1953. The London Debt Conference canceled half of Germany’s debt and extended payment deadlines. And because West Germany was required to pay only when it had a trade surplus, the agreement gave breathing room for economic expansion.

Soon, West Germany, bolstered by Marshall Plan aid and relieved of most of its reparations burden, was Europe’s fastest-growing economy. This “economic miracle” helped stabilize the economy, and the new plan used the potential of reparations payments to encourage countries to trade with West Germany.

Still, it took decades for Germany to pay off the rest of its reparations debt. At the London Conference, West Germany argued it shouldn’t be responsible for all of the debt the old Germany had incurred during World War I, and the parties agreed that part of its back interest wouldn’t become due until Germany reunified. Once that happened, Germany slowly chipped away at the last bit of debt. It made its last debt payment on October 3, 2010—the 20th anniversary of German reunification. 

Failed Peace: The Treaty of Versailles, 1919

What “everyone knows” about the infamous treaty ending World War I is wrong!

Although we typically think of November 11, 1918, as the end date of World War I, that day only marked the start of an armistice ending the actual fighting, not the official termination of the war. To bring about a formal conclusion to the Great War, the victorious Allied Powers (led by Britain, France,  the United States and Italy) had to complete peace treaties with each of their opponents in the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire).  

The most important of these treaties was the Treaty of Versailles ending the war with Germany that was produced by the Paris Peace Conference and signed June 28, 1919. Yet even before the treaty was signed, it sparked criticism and controversy. And when World War II erupted 20 years later, the treaty was maligned and blamed for causing the political, economic and military conditions that led to the 1939-45 global conflict.

In the decades since, generations of historians have written countless books and other works creating what “everyone knows” about the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: The overly punitive treaty, imposed as “victors’ justice” on helpless Germany by the triumphant Allies, was chiefly responsible for making World War II inevitable. Its “war guilt” article humiliated Germany by forcing it to accept all blame for the war, and it imposed disastrously costly war reparations that destroyed both the post-World War I German economy and the democratic Weimar Republic. The treaty, therefore, ensured the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Moreover, the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the treaty caused the collective security organization, the League of Nations, to fail because the United States was not a member. Furthermore, no less an authority than French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the World War I supreme Allied commander, apparently agreed with this assessment, famously complaining in 1919, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years!”

Yet while the Treaty of Versailles did result in a failed peace and another world war only two decades later, its real failures are not what we have been led to believe for over 90 years. When we examine the facts, it becomes clear that what “everyone knows” about the infamous treaty is simply wrong.


From January 18 to June 28, 1919, 32 delegations representing 27 countries met in Paris to produce the Versailles Treaty officially ending the Allies’ war with Germany. Despite the large number of countries involved, the conference was dominated by the “Big Four” major Allied Powers: the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of international diplomacy would not be shocked to learn that during the conference each of the Big Four representatives pursued his own agenda, which included goals that frequently conflicted with those of his counterparts.

President Woodrow Wilson decided to personally represent the United States at the conference, yet it is hard to imagine anyone more naively idealistic about the true nature of international relations. (See Special Feature, “War and Diplomacy,” July 2010 ACG.) Wilson was a bona fide intellectual and social “progressive,” but he often seemed insufferably self-righteous and his view of how nations conducted international relations was, at best, a triumph of hope over experience – he was convinced that “good will” among world leaders would overcome supposedly petty national interests and cynical balance of power politics. Wilson’s idealistic worldview is best captured in his “14 Points” statement, announced in January 1918, calling for free trade, freedom of the seas, open agreements between nations, the promotion of democracy and self-determination among peoples worldwide, and the establishment of the League of Nations to ensure territorial integrity and to maintain world peace.

Although the Big Four European members used Wilson’s 14 Points as enticing propaganda to help convince Germany to surrender in 1918, they represented colonial powers that hardly considered global “democracy and self-determination” in their national interests. Self-determination was applied in the Versailles Treaty when it suited the European members’ interests, but was ignored when it did not. Wilson found that to persuade his more pragmatic European allies to agree to his cherished League of Nations, he had to compromise on most of his other points.

France was represented by its “Tiger,” Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Since Germany had invaded France twice in the previous four decades in wars fought on French soil (in 1870 and 1914), Clemenceau’s principal goals were ensuring his country’s security against future German aggression, to include permanent demilitarization of the Rhineland (Germany west of the Rhine River) and restrictions on German military forces, and requiring Germany to pay reparations for the civilian damages wrought by its brutal, exploitative, four-year occupation of northern France and Belgium. During the occupation of northern France – an area containing nearly 60 percent of the country’s steel manufacture and 40 percent of its coal production – the Germans had confiscated and shipped back home what they wanted, and when they evacuated the region near the end of the war, they sabotaged much of what they had left behind. Clemenceau’s insistence that the German invaders be required to pay for the civilian damages they had caused in France and Belgium became the principal justification for the Versailles treaty’s war reparations articles.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had held the post since 1916, represented Great Britain. Although he was considered the epitome of 20th-century liberalism and a social reformer, he proved ruthless enough to maintain Britain’s naval blockade that strangled Germany of vital food supplies for eight months after the November 1918 armistice. Tens of thousands of German civilians died of starvation or malnutrition-related illnesses before Britain finally lifted the blockade once Germany signed the Versailles treaty. Lloyd George largely accomplished his main goals, which were eliminating Germany’s High Seas Fleet as a threat to the Royal Navy and maintaining the British Empire. He even added to Britain’s colonial empire when it (along with France, Belgium and Japan) assumed “mandates” (colonies in all but name) over colonies the treaty stripped from Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Britain acquired Iraq, Palestine and Jordan in the Middle East and four former German colonies in Africa.

The major goal of Italy’s representative, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, was “loot” in the form of increased territory for his country. Bribed by the Allies with promises of territorial gains, Italy entered the war in 1915 against Austria-Hungary and in 1916 against Germany. Thus Orlando was in Paris to collect, but Italy’s dismal battlefield record had hardly put him in a position to make demands. Orlando stormed out of the conference in April when it became clear that Italy would not receive all the territory it wanted.

The treaty signed June 28, 1919, in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors comprised 440 articles in 426 pages (English text and French text on facing pages), plus annexes and maps. Its several parts notably included part I establishing the League of Nations; part II creating Germany’s postwar boundaries (Germany lost 13 percent of its territory and all of its colonies); part V imposing military restrictions on Germany’s armed forces; and part VIII specifying war reparations to be paid principally to France, Belgium, Britain and Italy for civilian damages caused by the German invasion and occupation.

After decades of propaganda and mythmaking, however, it is time to set the record straight by revealing what the Treaty of Versailles did not do.


First and foremost, a stake should be driven once and for all through the heart of the most egregiously false claim about the Treaty of Versailles – that Germany was unfairly saddled with heavily punitive, disastrously costly war reparations that destroyed its postwar economy, caused crippling hyperinflation and doomed the democratic Weimar Republic. In fact, requiring defeated nations to pay reparations to the victors was a long-standing feature of treaties ending European wars. This penalty was not suddenly invented at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to punish Germany; rather, it was simply “business as usual.” Germany had typically imposed similar penalties on countries it had defeated, including demanding billions of marks from Russia in the heavily punitive March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. (See “Treaty of Brest-Litovsk,” p. 45.) Significantly, Germany had forced France to pay billions in “indemnities” after its victory in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War – and German forces continued occupying part of France until payment was made. The French promptly paid in full, even though the cost was equal to 25 percent of their national income.

The next important point is two-fold: First, the reparations Germany was required to pay were for civilian damages caused by its invasion and occupation of Belgium and northern France. Second, the Allies calculated the amount based on Germany’s ability to pay, not on the actual cost of repairing those damages – which was much greater. The claim that the Versailles treaty required Germany to pay “the entire cost of the war” is completely false, as verified in Article 232, which stated that Germany was to pay “compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property during the period of belligerency.”

Another revealing fact is that the figure Germany supposedly was required to pay for reparations – a hefty 132 billion marks – was intentionally misleading. The Allies never intended Germany to pay such a huge sum. It was only included in the treaty as “spin” – an effort to fool the (principally French) general public into thinking that Germany was going to be severely punished economically for its war depredations. As historian and economist Sally Marks, among others, has pointed out, the actual figure the Allies intended Germany to pay, and which they had calculated Germany could pay, was a more modest 50 billion marks. In fact, during treaty negotiations, the Germans had offered to pay 51 billion!

Yet Germany never paid even that much lower figure. Between 1920 and 1931 (when Germany suspended reparations payments indefinitely) it paid only 20 billion. But even this figure is misleading, since only 12.5 billion of it was paid in cash. The remainder was paid “in kind” through deliveries of coal, chemicals, lumber and railway assets. Moreover, the 12.5 billion in cash was from money Germany acquired through loans from bankers in New York. Germany not only received far more money in U.S. loans (27 billion) than it paid out in cash for reparations, in 1932 it also defaulted on these loans after paying back only a small percentage.

In effect, except for a few billion “in kind” payments, Germany paid no war reparations out of its own pocket. What “everyone knows” about Germany being crippled by war reparations therefore is a myth. French economist Etienne Mantoux surely was right when he wrote, “Germany was not unable to pay reparations, it was unwilling to pay them.”


Closely related to the “crippling and punitive” war reparations myth is the claim that the reparations were the cause of the disastrous hyperinflation that ruined Germany’s economy between 1921 and 1924. Yet as noted, from 1920 to 1931, Germany, with the help of U.S. loans, paid only a small fraction of the reparations it was supposed to pay – hardly enough to ruin its economy.

The roots of Germany’s post-World War I disastrous hyperinflation stem from the beginning of the war when the Kaiser and his ministers decided how they would finance the costly conflict. Instead of imposing taxes to pay for the war, they decided to fund it by borrowing. The effect of this decision was to begin a steady devaluation of the German mark against foreign currencies. Germany’s solution to the problem – unwisely continued by the postwar Weimar government to solve its own economic woes – was to print more money. Predictably, this caused inflation, and as more money entered circulation, inflation rates increased.

The trigger that moved postwar Germany’s increasing inflation rates to the level of disastrous “hyperinflation” was the way the Weimar government chose to respond to the 1923 French occupation of Germany’s Ruhr industrial region after Germany continually defaulted on its reparations payments. The Weimar government encouraged and abetted “passive resistance” – such as work stoppages and strikes – to the French occupation and paid German workers for their cooperation by printing vast amounts of money. The result of this deliberate policy decision by Weimar politicians was to send inflation rates skyrocketing into “hyperdrive.” By November 1923, a loaf of bread cost Germans 3 billion marks, a pound of meat cost 36 billion, and a glass of beer was 4 billion.

Although the Weimar government conveniently blamed “war reparations” for causing the hyperinflation crisis, Germany was in fact paying no reparations at the time. Germany’s hyperinflation and economic catastrophe during the Weimar Republic years was due to its politically motivated economic policies, not “crippling” reparations payments to the Allies.

Moreover, the claim that hyperinflation led directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis flies in the face of reality. Revaluation of the German mark in 1924 stabilized the German economy, and by 1927 – years before Hitler’s rise to power – it was one of the world’s strongest (although Germany did later suffer economically in the global Great Depression, which between 1930 and 1933 created conditions Hitler exploited).


Perhaps the most contentious part of the Treaty of Versailles is Article 231, the so-called “war guilt” clause that has been egregiously mis-nicknamed and habitually misrepresented. Neither “guilt” nor “war guilt” is mentioned in the article, yet German politicians – first those in the Weimar Republic and later Hitler and the Nazis – used these terms to demonize the treaty in their efforts to sidestep Germany’s obligations. Although German propagandists in the 1920s and 1930s created the story that the treaty forced Germany to accept the humiliating “war guilt” clause assigning it blame for the entire war, historians have continued to echo this propaganda ever since. In fact, the German “war guilt” propaganda was so effective that during the 1920s many in the populations of Allied countries – particularly Britain – began accepting the idea, which helped sap the Allies’ will to rigorously enforce the treaty’s provisions.

When read by itself, Article 231 does appear to make the Germans’ “war guilt” claim seem plausible: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” However, it is vitally important to place the article within the proper context of the treaty. It is the preamble to part VIII, regarding reparations, and not a “standalone” section solely intended to blame Germany for the war – which, if that had been the Allies’ intention, surely would have merited its own section. Clearly, the authors of the article, American diplomats Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles, merely intended it to establish Germany’s acceptance of its responsibility to pay the reparations for the civilian damages its military had wrought, as laid out in the subsequent articles (232-247) of part VIII.

Both Davis and Dulles were shocked when German politicians chose to interpret Article 231 as Germany taking full blame for World War I. Indeed, the exact same text was used in the Allied treaties with both Austria and Hungary, and neither of those nations ever considered that the language implied any “war guilt” on their part. Only German politicians – both for their own domestic political reasons and as a means to gain international sympathy – chose to interpret Article 231 as unfairly placing blame for the entire war on Germany.

Article 231, when correctly read in conjunction with Article 232 immediately following it, actually limits Germany’s responsibility for the war by requiring Germany to pay only for civilian damages caused by its invasion and occupation of Belgium and northern France. And, as noted, even that was further limited to what the Allies calculated Germany could pay.

Yet German propagandists in the Weimar and Nazi eras eagerly promoted what they termed the “war guilt lie” – which right-wing politicians often linked with the equally false claim that “the German army was stabbed in the back” – to gain domestic and international support for their efforts to avoid compliance with the Versailles treaty provisions. But the term “war guilt lie” more accurately should be applied to what the propagandists succeeded in making us believe all these years – the myth that the Treaty of Versailles unnecessarily humiliated Germany by forcing it to accept total blame for World War I.


The last enduring myth regarding what “everyone knows” about the Treaty of Versailles is that the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the treaty doomed the League of Nations to failure since the United States was not a member of the global security organization. Yet that claim assumes that the league would have been successful at preventing another world war if the United States had been a member. In fact, due to serious flaws in its concept, organization and procedure for settling international disputes or stopping aggression, the League of Nations could hardly have prevented predatory nations from doing whatever they wanted, whether or not the United States was a part of it.

Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations, as set out in the last of his 14 Points and codified as part I of the Versailles Treaty, was a “general association of nations established to afford mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity of all nations great and small.” The pillars of the league were collective security, disarmament and settlement of international disputes through arbitration. Yet this was based on voluntary participation by league members – essentially relying on “good will.” The League of Nations had no standing military force to back up any decision it made, and if a nation disagreed with the league’s decision, it could simply “opt out” – as Nazi Germany (1933), Imperial Japan (1933) and Fascist Italy (1937) eventually did when they withdrew from the league after it tried to oppose their aggression.

The league’s only recourse was to try to impose international sanctions on an offending nation. But since these could be economically detrimental to the nations imposing them, this procedure ran counter to the national interests of many league members, whose response was typically to ignore the sanctions. Most often, league members preferred to deal individually with other nations, essentially reverting to traditional “balance of power” bilateral international relations. Increasingly, as the 1930s wore on the league became irrelevant in international affairs. Those who embrace the long-standing myth that the United States doomed the league to failure never seem to explain how U.S. membership in the league could have overcome the inherent fatal flaws in its organization and procedure.

Moreover, as Henry Kissinger noted, the general mood in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s (non-entanglement in European affairs), the abysmal shape of America’s military forces from 1919 until after 1939, and the inability of any American representative to the league to commit the United States to action without prior legislative approval would “not have made a significant difference” to what actually transpired.

Finally, one need only point out that the League of Nations’ successor organization, the United Nations – of which the United States is a founding member – has not been particularly successful at preventing wars and global conflict over the course of its existence.

After exposing the egregious but long-standing myths about the Treaty of Versailles, it is important to examine the real failures of the much-maligned treaty.


First, the Treaty of Versailles was not tough enough on Germany. In fact, as historian Correlli Barnett claimed, the treaty was “extremely lenient in comparison with the peace terms that Germany … had in mind to impose on the Allies” had Germany won the war. Barnett characterizes the Versailles treaty as “hardly a slap on the wrist” compared to the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany imposed on defeated Russia. Germany’s claim, which countless historians have parroted, that the Versailles treaty was overly harsh and too punitive against Germany is, as Kissinger noted, “self-pitying nonsense.”

Even Marshal Foch’s oft-cited quote about the treaty being only “a 20 year armistice” is flagrantly misleading when presented out of context, as it often is. Foch was not criticizing the treaty as being too hard on Germany but was actually making the opposite point – that it was not punitive enoughHe was lamenting that the treaty did not ensure that Germany’s armed forces and strategic position were permanently weakened, principally through perpetual French occupation of the Rhineland.

Second, despite the fact that Germany lost 13 percent of its territory and all of its colonies, it actually emerged from World War I in an overall more favorable strategic position than when it started the war. Germany’s colonies, essentially “prestige possessions” to bolster Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego, were an unnecessary drain on its economy. The Allies did Germany a favor by taking them away. The European territory Germany lost – principally a slice in the east to help form independent Poland, and Alsace and Lorraine in the west, which Germany had taken from France in 1871 – was not vital to German industry, which, unlike the industry in northern France and Belgium, had avoided wartime destruction. The eastern territory that was lost helped establish a buffer zone between Germany and the rising power in the East, the Soviet Union, while Germany’s other borders, save that with France, abutted a collection of weak new nations replacing the stronger ones that had bordered prewar Germany. Given Germany’s larger population and, after 1927, more robust economy than its European rivals, within a decade after World War I ended, Germany’s strategic position was greatly enhanced over what existed in 1914.

Perhaps the Allies’ gravest failure in the Versailles treaty was allowing Germany to voluntarily comply with the provisions, since Germany had no incentive to fulfill the obligations to which it had agreed. A closely related failure is that of Allied will to enforce the treaty. With isolationist America essentially “opting out” of the task, and the demoralized, increasingly pacifist British population suddenly getting a collective guilty conscience when it fell for German propaganda, it was left to France to try to enforce the treaty. Except for some half-hearted attempts – notably the 1923 occupation of the Ruhr industrial region in a vain attempt to get Germany to stop defaulting on reparations – France proved incapable of going it alone. In Germany’s clash of wills with its former World War I opponents, Germany won.

In effect, Germany simply ignored its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. Although much has been made by historians about the military restrictions imposed on Germany – the dissolution of the German General Staff, limiting the size of the German army to only 100,000 men, armaments prohibitions, etc. – none of these restrictions were ever rigorously enforced, and Germany began violating them immediately. It was the democratic Weimar Republic in the early 1920s, not Hitler in the mid-1930s, that hid the treaty-banned German General Staff behind the façade of the innocuous-sounding “Truppenamt” (Troop Office) bureaucracy; Weimar politicians and military leaders who negotiated in the 1920s secret training facilities in Russia where German tank tactics and equipment, later to become “blitzkrieg,” were developed; Weimar officials who colluded with German military leaders to avoid the Versailles treaty restrictions, clandestinely training combat pilots; and the Weimar government that in 1932, a year before Hitler took power as chancellor, announced that Germany would no longer abide by the military restrictions imposed by the Versailles treaty.

Finally, and most tragically, one thing the Treaty of Versailles did not fail to do was to give German politicians – from Weimar democrats to Hitler’s Nazi thugs – a useful propaganda tool when they twisted the facts and lied about what was actually in the treaty to support their political agendas. Unfortunately, those lies and myths have become what “everyone knows” about the Treaty of Versailles.


Not only was the Versailles Treaty an abject failure and was instrumental in causing World War II. The peace treaties that followed caused a major disruption throughout the world as four major empires fell apart and the map of the world was re-drawn. We are still dealing with the repercussions from the decisions made in 1919. I have included a discussion of this subject in the addendum section. The league of Nations was formed by the peace treaties and that proved to be a failure as well and did nothing to stop the following world war. Very little money was actually paid in reparations by Germany, because their economy was not devastated by the first world war, rampant inflation devastated the country. Eventually the stock market crashed and that pretty much ended any chance of Germany being able to make any additional payments. The allies had to have known that the amount of reparations placed on Germany was unrealistic, they however did so mainly as a form of punishment against the Axis pawers, Germany in particular. The remaining European powers sold their souls in an effort to realize a large payday from a beleaguered Germany. All they were to realize was the pressure of the German Boot on their throats 20 odd years later.

Resources, “Treaty of Versailles.” By editors;, “Germany’s World War I Debt Was So Crushing It Took 92 Years to Pay Off: After the Treaty of Versailles called for punishing reparations, economic collapse and another world war thwarted Germany’s ability to pay.” By ERIN BLAKEMORE;, “How the Treaty of Versailles and German Guilt Led to World War II: From the moment the leaders of the victorious Allied nations arrived in France for the peace conference in early 1919, the post-war reality began to diverge sharply from Wilson’s idealistic vision.” By Sarah Pruitt;, “Failed Peace: The Treaty of Versailles, 1919.” By Jerry D. Morelock;


How the Treaty of Versailles and German Guilt Led to World War II

From the moment the leaders of the victorious Allied nations arrived in France for the peace conference in early 1919, the post-war reality began to diverge sharply from Wilson’s idealistic vision.

When Germany signed the armistice ending hostilities in the First World War on November 11, 1918, its leaders believed they were accepting a “peace without victory,” as outlined by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points. But from the moment the leaders of the victorious Allied nations arrived in France for the peace conference in early 1919, the post-war reality began to diverge sharply from Wilson’s idealistic vision.

Five long months later, on June 28—exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo—the leaders of the Allied and associated powers, as well as representatives from Germany, gathered in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles to sign the final treaty. By placing the burden of war guilt entirely on Germany, imposing harsh reparations payments and creating an increasingly unstable collection of smaller nations in Europe, the treaty would ultimately fail to resolve the underlying issues that caused war to break out in 1914, and help pave the way for another massive global conflict 20 years later.

The Paris Peace Conference: None of the defeated nations weighed in, and even the smaller Allied powers had little say.
Formal peace negotiations opened in Paris on January 18, 1919, the anniversary of the coronation of German Emperor Wilhelm I at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. World War I had brought up painful memories of that conflict—which ended in German unification and its seizure of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from France—and now France intended to make Germany pay.

The “Big Four” leaders of the victorious Allied nations (Woodrow Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France and, to a lesser extent, Vittorio Orlando of Italy) dominated the peace negotiations. None of the defeated nations were invited to weigh in, and even the smaller Allied powers had little say. Though the Versailles Treaty, signed with Germany in June 1919, was the most famous outcome of the Paris Peace Conference, the Allies also had separate treaties with Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey, and the formal peacemaking process wasn’t concluded until the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923.

Government Officials Drafting the Terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Government Officials Drafting the Terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The treaty was lengthy, and ultimately did not satisfy any nation.
The Versailles Treaty forced Germany to give up territory to Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Poland, return Alsace and Lorraine to France and cede all of its overseas colonies in China, Pacific and Africa to the Allied nations. In addition, it had to drastically reduce its armed forces and accept the demilitarization and Allied occupation of the region around the Rhine River. Most importantly, Article 231 of the treaty placed all blame for inciting the war squarely on Germany, and forced it to pay several billion in reparations to the Allied nations.

Faced with the seemingly impossible task of balancing many competing priorities, the treaty ended up as a lengthy and confusing document that satisfied no one. “It literally is an attempt to remake Europe,” says Michael Neiberg, professor of history at U.S. Army War College and author of The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise History (2017). “I’m not one of those people who believes the treaty made the Second World War inevitable, but I think you could argue that it made Europe a less stable place.”

In Wilson’s vision of the post-war world, all nations (not just the losers) would reduce their armed forces, preserve the freedom of the seas and join an international peacekeeping organization called the League of Nations. But his fellow Allied leaders rejected much of his plan as naive and too idealistic. The French, in particular, wanted Germany to pay a heavy price for the war, including loss of territory, disarmament and payment of reparations, while the British saw Wilson’s plan as a threat to their supremacy in Europe.

Black Thursday brings the roaring twenties to a screaming halt, ushering in a world-wide an economic depression.

Aside from affecting Germany, the Treaty of Versailles might have caused the Great Depression.
Many people, even at the time, agreed with the British economist John Maynard Keynes that Germany could not possibly pay so much in reparations without severe risks to the entire European economy. In his later memoir, U.S. President Herbert Hoover went so far as to blame reparations for causing the Great Depression.

But though most Germans were furious about the Treaty of Versailles, calling it a Diktat (dictated peace) and condemning the German representatives who signed it as “November criminals” who had stabbed them in the back, in hindsight it seems clear that the treaty turned out to be far more lenient than its authors might have intended. “Germany ended up not paying anywhere near what the treaty said Germany should pay,” Neiberg says, adding that hardly anyone had expected Germany to be able to pay the entire amount.

And despite the loss of German territory, “there were plenty of people who understood as early as 1919 that the map actually gave Germany some advantages,” Neiberg points out. “It put small states on Germany’s borders, in eastern and central Europe. It eliminated Russia as a direct enemy of Germany, at least in the 1920s, and it removed Russia as an ally of France. So while the treaty looked really harsh to some people, it actually opened up opportunities for others.”

The war guilt clause was more problematic. “You have to go back to 1914, when most Germans believed they had entered the war because Russia had mobilized its army,” explains Neiberg. “To most Germans in 1919, and not just those on the right, blaming Germany specifically for the war made no sense. Especially when they did not put a war guilt clause on Austria-Hungary, which you could reasonably argue were the people that actually started this.”

The League of Nations
The first informal meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

New European borders, the League of Nations and Germany reparations.
Taken as a whole, the treaties concluded after World War I redrew the borders of Europe, carving up the former Austro-Hungarian Empire into states like Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. As Neiberg puts it: “Whereas in 1914, you had a small number of great powers, after 1919 you have a larger number of smaller powers. That meant that the balance of power was less stable.”

The Versailles Treaty had also included a covenant for the League of Nations, the international organization that Woodrow Wilson had envisioned would preserve peace among the nations of Europe and the world. But the U.S. Senate ultimately refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty due to its opposition to the League, which left the organization seriously weakened without U.S. participation or military backing.

Meanwhile, Germany’s economic woes, exacerbated by the burden of reparations and general European inflation, destabilized the Weimar Republic, the government established at the end of the war. Due to lasting resentment of the Versailles Treaty, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party and other radical right-wing parties were able to gain support in the 1920s and early ‘30s by promising to overturn its harsh provisions and make Germany into a major European power once again.

The Versailles Treaty made World War II possible, not inevitable.
In 1945, when the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and Soviet Union met at Potsdam, they blamed the failures of the Versailles Treaty for making another great conflict necessary, and vowed to right the wrongs of their peacekeeping predecessors. But Neiberg, like many historians, takes a more nuanced view, pointing to events other than the treaty—including the United States not joining the League of Nations and the rise of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union—as necessary elements in understanding the path to the Second World War.

“In my own personal view as a historian, you need to be really careful directly connecting events that happened 20 years apart,” he says. “A different treaty produces a different outcome, yes. But you shouldn’t draw inevitability. It’s part of the recipe, but it’s not the only ingredient.”

How World War I Changed Map of the World

Four empires collapsed during World War I – the German Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austria-Hungary Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. After the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, the victorious Allies redrew the maps of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East to replace these fallen empires.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917. Nine months later, in January 1918, President Wilson articulated ‘Fourteen Points’ as the basis for negotiating a peace settlement. This speech detailed his concept of a fair and equitable peace to all parties. The British and French were concerned about the Fourteen Points. Having incurred several million casualties and severe financial hardship, they were not that interested in a generous settlement for Germany. Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau was reported to have commented that “God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gives us fourteen.” Wilson felt that a harsh treaty would risk future war, stating in his ‘Peace Without Victory’ speech: “Victory would mean peace forced upon a loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished… It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which term of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.” Time would prove him correct as many historians believe that the harsh Treaty of Versailles was one cause of World War II.

Several of Wilson’s points dealt with territorial issues including the provision of independent countries for each of the main ethnic groups in Europe. These concepts were accepted by the Allies and included in the Treaty of Versailles with Germany; the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary and the Treaty of Saint-Germain with Austria.


 Much changed in Europe after World War I.

Austria-Hungary was divided into several countries:

Yugoslavia (Originally called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) – this country included Serbia and Montenegro along with the Croatian areas of Austria-Hungary
The boundaries of Romania were expanded based on ethnic considerations to include as many Romanians as possible within its borders.

Poland was created from portions of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. The Polish corridor was provided to grant Poland access to the Baltic Sea. As a result, the German province of East Prussia was divided from the rest of the country.

Three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia came into existence after World War I. However, these were not part of the post-war treaties. Instead, each country used the chaos following the Russian Revolution and end of World War I to declare independence. Stalin annexed these countries in 1940 following the outbreak of World War II. They remained part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, when the Baltic nations once again became independent.

Several of these border changes were issues leading up to World War II. Many ethnic Germans ended up within Czechoslovakia in an area called the Sudetenland. Hitler used this as an excuse in 1938 to precipitate a crisis which eventually led to appeasement by Neville Chamberlain in the Munich Agreement of that year. The Polish corridor provided Poland access to the sea and separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Many Germans lived there also. Hitler used this as a pretense to invade Poland in 1939, starting World War II.


German colonies in Africa were forfeited at the end of the War.

These colonies were converted into League of Nations ‘Mandates’ and split between the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and South Africa. The mandate system was intended to provide temporary supervision until the countries were ready to govern themselves as independent nations. Most did not achieve independence until after World War II.


Germany had a sphere of influence on the eastern coast of China, the Shandong province. Both China and Japan were members of the Allies opposing the Germans. The Treaty of Versailles awarded Shandong to the Japanese even though it was part of mainland China. As a result, China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. This clause was one reason the U.S. Senate opposed and ultimately did not approve the Treaty.

German colonies in the Pacific, including Samoa and New Guinea, became League of Nations Mandates administered by the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. They achieved independence after World War II.

Middle East / Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was broken up into several pieces including modern day Turkey. The secret ‘Sykes–Picot Agreement’ of 1916 between England and France split the remaining Ottoman Empire between them. The French were granted a mandate over an area that eventually became Lebanon and Syria. The British were granted mandates over land that later became Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

These borders still cause trouble to this day.  They did not always account for religious, tribal and ethnic differences. Iraq is unstable with Shia and Sunni Muslims mixed with Kurds, who themselves are split up into several countries. The boundaries of Israel have been the subject of several wars and ongoing negotiations. The Syrian Civil War is a multi-sided conflict between several different groups. Lebanon also experienced a lengthy Civil War between different ethnic and religious groups contained within its boundaries including Christians, Druze, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.  

Break up of the Soviet Union

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s several other border changes occurred. Czechoslovakia split peaceably into two countries, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Yugoslavia underwent a violent breakup becoming Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Finally, Moldova, to the east of Romania, was formed out of the former Romanian territory.


The cataclysm of World War I greatly shaped the borders of the world today. Our hope is that any future border changes are the result of peaceful negotiations not armed conflict. There are examples of recent peaceful border modifications such as the transfer of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China or the return of the Panama Canal zone to Panama. Unfortunately, violent border changes are also occurring such as the annexation of Crimea by Russia or the war in the Sudan resulting in the creation of South Sudan. We hope that diplomacy can resolve future disputes without resorting to force to keep the world from experiencing another cataclysm.

How We Sold Our Soul Postings