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Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations


During the early months of 1919 the Big Three argued in Paris about the peace settlement. In June 1919 they finally agreed about how Germany should be treated. This settlement was called the Treaty of Versailles.


How far did the Big Three get what they wanted?

The League and self-determination

The peace talks began in January 1919. President Wilson wanted the Conference to set up the League of Nations as one of its first tasks. Britain and France agreed. The rules of the League of Nations were drawn up. These rules were known as the League Covenant. The Covenant was included in the Treaty of Versailles and in all the other peace treaties.


Wilson believed very strongly in self-determination for all peoples. Groups from all over the world made their way to Paris to argue that they should be allowed to set up their own nation-states. People ruled over by the French and British Empires demanded independence. The French and the British were unhappy at this.


Wilson gave way to pressure from his allies. The idea of self-determination was not applied to the world empires of France and Britain. People such as Irish and Vietnamese nationalists, who had gone to Paris hoping for independence, left disappointed.


The mandates

Britain and France wanted control of German and Turkish colonies. The USA wanted these to be run by the League. Finally, a compromise was accepted. The colonies were divided up among the winning powers, but they agreed to look after these territories on behalf of the League of Nations. These lands were to be known as 'mandates' of the League of Nations.


Through the mandates, Britain and France added considerably to their world-wide empires. The German colonies in Africa were divided among Britain, France and South Africa.


German loss of territory

In northern Europe new states were set up in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Germany had annexed the three Baltic states from Russia a year earlier. In keeping with the idea of self-determination these small states now became independent.


Clemenceau was particularly keen to ensure that Poland was large and powerful. He hoped that a strong Poland would weaken the future position of Germany. The new Poland took territory from Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Former German land in West Prussia, Posen and part of Upper Silesia was given to Poland. As a result there was a barrier or corridor of Polish territory that divided most of Germany from the German lands of East Prussia. This Polish Corridor was necessary if Poland was to have access to the sea in line with Wilson's Fourteen Points.


The French wanted the largely German-speaking port of Danzig to be given to Poland. Lloyd George disagreed. Instead Danzig was turned into a 'free city': this meant that it was not part of any state but was controlled by the League of Nations.


Each of the Big Three agreed that Alsace and Lorraine should be returned to France. Wilson had mentioned the return of Alsace-Lorraine in his Fourteen Points. The French also wanted to annex the nearby coal-rich district of the Saarland.


Neither Wilson nor Lloyd George was prepared to give the Saarland to France. Instead it was decided that the area should be run by the League of Nations for 15 years, but during this time the French would have control of its coal-mines.


Clemenceau had also wanted the large and wealthy Rhineland area of Germany to be permanently divided from the rest of the German state. A separate Rhineland would weaken Germany and form a barrier between Germany and France.


The British and the Americans argued that this would be a mistake. The Germans would be so angry that afterwards they would demand revenge. Clemenceau eventually compromised. The Big Three agreed that no German soldiers should be allowed into the Rhineland and that it should be occupied by allied troops for 15 years.


German losses in Belgium and Denmark

Alsace-Lorraine and the Polish Corridor were the largest losses of German territory. In addition. Germany lost the small districts of Eupen, Moresnet and Malmedy to Belgium. The treaty ordered that there should be a plebiscite or vote in North Schleswig to see whether the local people wanted to stay in Germany or join Denmark. The result of the plebiscite was that North Schleswig became part of Denmark.


The French were successful in arguing that there should be strict limits on the armed forces of Germany. The treaty banned Germany from using tanks and armored cars. There was to be no German airforce. The German army was limited to a mere 100, 000 men. The German navy was to be limited to six battleships and there were to be no German submarines.


War guilt and reparations

The treaty made it clear that Germany was guilty of causing the First World War. This was stated in Clause 231 of the treaty. The idea of war guilt was used to justify the payment of reparations.


While the Americans agreed to go along with French ideas about war guilt, they differed wildly in their view of the right level of compensation. The French wanted Germany to pay an enormous $200 billion in reparations the British argued for $120 billion and the American view was that the right figure was $22 billion. In the end the conference failed to agree and set up a Reparations Commission to look into the matter of the level of payment after the Treaty was signed.


Why did Wilson accept the treaty?

The American leader was unhappy with much of the treaty. Many British leaders were also concerned that the treaty was too hard on Germany. They went along with it because they thought the problems of the treaty could be sorted out at a later date. Wilson put much faith in the League of Nations. He thought that this organization would be able to solve any arguments between countries.


The 14 points and the Peace treaties compared:

Achieved in full

7. Germany to leave Belgium

8. Alsace-Lorraine to be returned to France

10. Independence for the peoples of Austria- Hungary

13. Independence for Poland


Partially achieved

9. Italian borders to be settled

11. Invading armies to leave Balkans

14. An effective League of Nations to keep the peace


Not achieved

1. A ban on secret treaties between states

2. Free movement of ships anywhere in the world

3. Free trade between countries without import taxes

4. General disarmament

5. Greater independence for colonies

6. Non-interference in Russia

12. Independence for the non-Turkish people of the Turkish Empire.