Previous page Page 5 of 5  
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The approach of war
After the war
     Paris and Versailles
     Other treaties
     The League of Nations
     The human cost

Bookmark and Share
Paris and Versailles: 1919

The delegates to the peace conference gather in Paris and hold their first full session on 18 January 1919. The terms to be imposed upon Germany are not agreed until May. The treaty is finally signed at Versailles, on 28 June 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors - the very room, so profoundly symbolic of triumphalist French power, which has been sullied by the proclamation here in 1871 of the German empire.

In most respects the terms follow Wilson's Fourteen Points (though distorted by an animosity towards Germany) and the broad outlines of the armistice. Historic national frontiers are restored except where the higher principle of self-determination is deemed to prevail (plebiscites in border regions between Germany and Poland are used to define new boundaries).


Germany's land and sea forces are to be permanently reduced to a very limited size, and she is to be allowed no air force at all. Her pre-war pride, the great High Seas fleet, is to be transferred to the Allies (a decree frustrated in a splendid act of defiance by the German sailors themselves who on 21 June 1919, under the very eyes of the British, manage to scuttle every one of the fifty German warships held in Scapa Flow).

The German empire is to be dismantled and all its colonies redistributed among the victorious powers under mandates from the League of Nations. And finally, under consideration by the delegates in Paris, there is the contentious matter of reparations.


Germany cannot complain at the principle of reparation, for in 1871 she imposed a vast indemnity on France after a brief war blatantly engineered by the Germans themselves. But in Paris there is profound disagreement as to the proper level of payment. The USA, Britain and Italy argue for a more moderate imposition than France and Belgium (the main sufferers) are inclined to demand.

Eventually, in 1921, the commission set up for the purpose assesses Germany's obligation at $33 billion. Of this some $21 billion is eventually paid, becoming a profound source of German grievance. The economic burden does not prove quite as crippling as is often implied. But the injury to a nation's pride is of a different order.


Other treaties: 1919

The delegates to Paris also need to settle peace treaties between the Allies and their other enemies. During the following year four such treaties are signed in various locations in or near the capital city.

The first, at St Germain on 10 September 1919, is with Austria - regarded, for the purposes of the treaty, as the much reduced rump of the pre-war Austro-Hungarian empire. On the principle of self-determination, enshrined in Wilson's Fourteen Points, there is international acceptance of the three new nations proclaimed in 1918 in Budapest, Prague and Zagreb. The treaty is mainly concerned with drawing the borders between Austria and these three newcomers (Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the future Yugoslavia).


In two regions the wishes of the majority of the local inhabitants are consciously disregarded. One is South Tirol, where the German-speaking population is brought within Italy to fulfil the promise made by the Allies in 1915.

The other group to become now a linguistic minority is in the long run far more significant. It is the 3.5 million German-speaking inhabitants of the Sudetenland. They have been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, so their historical link is with Vienna rather than Berlin. They wish therefore to become part of a new German-speaking nation centred on Austria, even though they share a long border with Germany and only a very short one with Austria, from which they are largely separated by the territory of Czech-speaking Bohemia. But it is decided in Paris that they will become, against their will, Czech citizens.


One of the three new nations, Hungary, has been part of the enemy, so a separate peace treaty is required. It is a long time in the pipeline because of the instability of the political situation in postwar Budapest, but finally a document is signed in the Trianon Palace at Versailles on 4 June 1920. It greatly reduces Hungary from its historic frontiers, with many border regions assigned to Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia (still known at this stage as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes).

A treaty with Bulgaria is signed at Neuilly on 27 November 1919, assigning Bulgarian territory in the west to the future Yugoslavia and in the south to Greece. The ceding to Greece of western Thrace, and with it access to the Mediterranean, is Bulgaria's most serious loss.


These treaties leave matters unresolved in relation to only one Central Power, the Ottoman empire. Owing to the vast rambling extent of the Ottoman territories, these discussions prove the most protracted.

When a treaty is eventually signed, at Sèvres on 10 August 1920, its terms are harsh to Turkey. The empire is entirely dismantled, with all the middle eastern provinces previously under Turkish control now made the responsibility of France and Britain as mandated territories. Inroads are even made on the Turkish heartland, Anatolia itself.


In May 1919 the Allies authorize the Greeks to occupy Smyrna (or Izmir) on the Anatolian coast. They immediately do so, and are pressing further into Turkish territory by the time the treaty of Sèvres is signed.

The results of this folly are a new Greco-Turkish war, a new nationalist government in Istanbul and a reconvened peace conference at Lausanne in November 1922. The replacement treaty, signed in Lausanne on 24 July 1923, rationalizes Turkey's frontier with Greece. The border becomes, as it remains today, the Aegean coast from the Maritsa river in eastern Thrace to the southwestern tip of Anatolia.


The League of Nations: 1919

The earliest and most high-profile achievement of the Paris peace conference is the establishment of the League of Nations. During the four-year carnage of the war, public opinion in many nations has been turning towards the utopian dream of an international organization strong enough to prevent the repetition of such a disaster. Before the end of 1914 a book by H.G. Wells provides the popular notion that this will be the war to end war.

Famous for his imaginative visions of the future, Wells is quick off the mark with The War that will end War. In it he sees the conflict (not as yet sunk into the blood-stained sludge of trench warfare) as the prelude to a future world state.


Early in 1915 the term 'League of Nations' is coined to describe this future form of international cooperation. Societies are formed, particularly in Britain and the USA, to discuss and promote the idea. In January 1918, with President Wilson's formulation of his Fourteen Points, the concept acquires a high international profile.

The idea has widespread appeal - so much so that the first decision taken by the delegates to the Paris peace conference in 1919 is the establishment of the League of Nations. A document entitled the Covenant of the League of Nations is published in draft form in February. An amended text is adopted in April by a unanimous decision of the conference.


The Covenant is intended to be part of the eventual peace agreement, so it comes into effect only with the signing of the treaty of Versailles. The organization is to be based in Geneva, capital city of Europe's most consistently neutral country. An existing building on the north shore of the lake is selected as temporary headquarters.

From 1929 construction begins of an imposing Avenue of Peace, leading up from the lake to a custom-built Palace of the Nations. This imposing structure is not completed until 1937, by which time it is painfully evident that the League has failed in its central purpose.


The main forums of the League are the assembly (to which each member nation sends one or more delegates) and the council. In the early years the council is intended to have as permanent members the five major Allied powers (France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, United States), who will be joined by four rotating temporary members selected by the assembly. The expectation is that Russia and Germany will in due course take their place as permanent members.

To Woodrow Wilson's profound disappointment, this scheme is frustrated by the absence of the United States. Opposition to Wilson in the senate, and a deep-rooted US instinct for isolationism, mean that the necessary majority is never achieved to ratify the Covenant. The US seat remains empty throughout the life of the League.


The League has some early successes in settling international disputes, and the long-term plan seems to be on course when Germany joins in 1926. But the resignation of Germany in October 1933 after Hitler's rise to power, and of Japan in March of this same year, is a clear indication that the international community is now faced by tensions beyond the powers of the League to resolve.

The discredited League is formally disbanded in April 1946. By then the United Nations is already in existence. The new organization, with its assembly and security council, adopts very closely the structures of its predecessor. So in spite of the disasters of the 1930s, the idealism of 1919 can be said at the very least to have lasted out the century.


The human cost: 1914-1919

No war in history up to this point has brought such a high cost in human life. The nature of trench warfare, with the infantry trapped under the almost permanent bombardment of heavy artillery in encounters lasting for months, means that men may die at any moment, often when themselves inactive, as well as being exposed to the sudden bursts of violent danger which have previously been the characteristic of battles.

These conditions, over four years, result in a death toll of serving personnel usually estimated in the region of 8 million.


The figure is extremely vague, because this has been a war in which casualties are hard to count. It is a war characterized by the rotting unrecovered bodies which litter the pounded earth of no man's land; by the rows of plain white crosses marking the graves of the unidentified dead; and by the profound emotion evoked by the concept of the Unknown Warrior, whose tomb can be found under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and is the first to confront every visitor entering Westminster Abbey in London.

The broad estimates for the main combatant nations are 1.8 million German dead, 1.7 million Russian, 1.55 million French, 1 million from the Austro-Hungarian empire, 900,000 from Britain and her empire, 650,000 Italians, 117,00 from the USA. And these figures do not include civilians.


Civilian deaths are even harder to calculate, since the deprivations of war take their toll surreptitiously. Seven million people world-wide is the figure usually quoted, with victim groups such as the Armenians featuring largely in this total.

These calculations bring the total number of deaths caused by the war to around 15 million. And to add to the devastation of an entire generation (for the military deaths are almost exclusively of young adults), nature delivers a devastating new blow in the autumn of 1918. In the last two months of the war an influenza pandemic breaks out, bringing death in vast numbers to troops and civilians alike.


There are 1 million US soldiers in Europe that autumn. One in fifteen of them die of flu (a total of 62,000). In Britain 150,000 people are killed by the disease within a few weeks. The figures can be duplicated anywhere in the world, with the Indian subcontinent being particularly hard hit.

The war cannot be directly blamed, though a severely weakened European population is perhaps less able to resist (a global pandemic in 1889-90 has a similar rate of infection but far fewer deaths). Influenza deals a massive additional blow in an already shattered world. Figures for the number of deaths within a few months range from 12 to 20 million (with estimates of 6 to 12 million in India alone).


The winter and spring of 1918-19 also bring the threat of further human cost in the future, as a result of the treaty taking shape in Paris during these months. The reparations imposed on Germany, her virtual and indefinite disarmament, the permanent neutralization of a strip of her entire western region bordering the Rhine – all these slights, and the accompanying moral opprobrium, provided fertile ground in which resentment might fester and an aggressive nationalist spirit be nurtured.

The war may have ended badly for Germany. But the opportunities offered by the peace are not lost on Adolf Hitler, a corporal who has seen front-line service throughout the war and has been decorated in August 1918 with an Iron Cross (first class).


Previous page Page 5 of 5