Personal Conclusions about the Treaty of Versailles and Its Effects

    The principle underlying all of Wilsonís Fourteen Points (and stressed particularly at the end of the speech) was the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities; yet in the Versailles Treaty, it is difficult to argue that the Allies constructed a just peace.  Indeed, despite five months of arduous negotiations leading up to the settlement, history has decidedly judged the Treaty as being too harsh on a nation already disillusioned by its years of autocratic rule and perplexed as to the reason it itself had not won the great war.  Some historians go so far as to place partial (and sometimes substantial) blame on the Treaty and its negotiators for the subsequent outbreak of World War II in 1939.  Those historians are correct to the extent that Hitler used Versailles as a battle cry to rally support for his militaristic ambitions, and part of his success was certainly due to the fact that the Treaty had destroyed the German people's self-pride and confined them to the role of a villain in world affairs.  As Hitler vowed to overthrow that status quo and return Germany to its rightful place as a strong nation and world leader, the guilt-ridden Germans placed all their hope in him as the savior who could liberate their consciences from the pain of Versailles and allow them to once again experience the feeling of nationalistic pride.[1]  From the Allied perspective, it must also be noted that some important leaders came to see the Treaty as too severe a punishment.  A French adviser to Clemenceau dared to call it a twenty-year truce,[2] and he was not alone in the belief that Germany would one day endeavor to extricate itself from the shackles of Versailles (this may partially explain the policy of appeasement toward Hitler during the late 1930s, possibly an Allied belief that Germany was entitled to throw off some of the burdens from the Treaty, believing that Hitler would be stop at that).  Finally, John Maynard Keynes, a noted economist of that day, criticized the severe financial burdens and cessions of territory within the Treaty as a threat to the financial equilibrium of the continent.[3]

    However, to the Allies' defense, World War II was the product of a number of causes, and any attempt to blame Wilson and friends for provoking a second and even more horrible war is both incomplete and unfairly hindsighted.  As many historians point out, though the Treaty of Versailles was comprehensively harsh on Germany, it was not predestined to fail as a solution for peace.  In fact, from 1924 until 1931 there was a period of relative stability in European relations.[4]  Many events took place during the subsequent two decades that the Big Three could not have foreseen, but which came to have a negative impact on the peace they had negotiated.  For example, the United States returned to its pre-war isolationist ways and refused to join the League of Nations (although it must be noted that Wilson's ineptitude in negotiating with the Senate played a big role in that failure); the world was thrown into the Great Depression in the early 1930s, which caused internal turmoil around the globe, ending the spirit of internationalism created by the League of Nations; and Germany and Japan fell under the control of right-wing, militaristic leaders who were determined to provoke war to aggrandize their power ... just to name a few.  If any of these events had occurred differently, the world may have been spared the tragedy of World War II.

    Of course, one may still appropriately argue that the Big Three could have negotiated a more forward-looking resolution to the global conflict, setting a precedent for self-sacrifice in the greater interest of a durable peace.  While this would have been preferable (at least in theory, irrespective of whether it would have been more effective in the long run), some scholars are now beginning to view the Treaty as the best compromise that could have been reached given the existing circumstances in early 1919.  I personally tend to side with those historians who, while not hesitating to state that matters could have been handled more prudently, do not condemn the Big Three or the Treaty, due to the inherent constraints of the situation.  The Allies gathering to create a peace settlement after the Great War had experienced enormous losses, both economically and especially in the number of casualties they suffered (indeed, Wilson's perspective on Germany would undoubtedly have been even more retributive had the United States suffered the same amount of casualties as the French or British).  It is not hard to understand the indignancy of the Big Three at all those lives needlessly lost during the war, and although the Treaty focused primarily on only one cause (German aggression), it was clear that the Germans had sufficiently rattled their saber with such carelessness to merit the ire of the Allies.  Moreover, blaming the Allied leaders for their retributive justice seems misplaced when it was so evident that democracy was functioning as it was intended.  Public opinion in France, Britain and the U.S. convincingly supported harsh consequences for the belligerent Germans, and that public opinion constituted a substantial constraint on the Big Three.  Finally, the negotiators had to move quickly through a long agenda of issues, in order not to delay any further the establishment of a resolution to the fragile European predicament.  Given these constraints and the general exhaustion of Europe after such a long war, the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not the best one could hope for, but it seems to have been the best compromise possible.

    To place the Treaty in context, the question of how to create a lasting peace between hostile nations (or worse, a world at war) is never a simple one, and at the time, it was a novel one, for not only was this the first conflict involving a whole continent of nations in a dreadful war of attrition, but it was probably the first time in history that a serious attempt was made to prevent any future war.  So the negotiators were clearly journeying through uncharted waters.  Furthermore, even some modern attempts to stifle aggression have been unsuccessful.  U.S. President Bush led a international coalition against Saddam Hussein that resulted in decisive military victory, but the aggressive and disruptive tactics of the Iraqi President have not subsided.  And most recently, though the world continuously observed the atrocities in Bosnia spearheaded by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic from 1993 to 1995, the resolution to that terrible war did not meaningfully restrain Milosevic, as evidenced by the Serbian crimes committed in Kosovo in 1998.  These cases may be slightly different in that they involve what are typically considered evil presidents governing otherwise normal and non-aggressive peoples.  Nonetheless, these cases serve as examples that quenching aggression and creating a durable peace were not only difficult to achieve in 1919, but throughout time.

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  Personalities of the Big Three


1.    See generally, Wertheimer, Germany Under Hitler, World Affairs Pamphlets, No. 8, 1935.
2.    Stokesbury, "A Short History of World War I," 1981, p. 323.
3.    Gelfand, "The American Mission to Negotiate Peace:  An Historian Looks Back," inThe Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 8, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 191.
4.    Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, "Introduction," inThe Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 3.