The Treaty of Versailles



Diplomatic Goals at the Paris Peace Conference

The “Big Four” (United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy) made all the major decisions of the Paris Peace Conference, although they disagreed on several points.

Learning Objectives

Identify the key goals of the parties present at the Paris Peace Conference

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • World War I was settled by the victors at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
  • Two dozen nations sent delegations and there were many nongovernmental groups, but the defeated powers were not invited.
  • The “Big Four,” who made all the major decisions, were President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, George Clemenceau of France, and of least importance, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.
  • Each major power had its own agenda coming to the Conference and not every aim was represented in the final treaties.
  • The Americans’ vision was set out in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which emphasized free trade, self-determination, and the founding of a League of Nations to support territorial and political independence of member nations.
  • British aims at the conference were focused on securing France, settling territorial disputes, and maintaining their colonial holdings.
  • Having witnessed two German attacks on French soil in the last 40 years, France’s main concern was to ensure Germany would not be able to attack them again, so they pushed to weaken Germany militarily, strategically, and economically.
  • Italy was motivated by gaining the territories promised by the Allies in the secret Treaty of London.

Key Terms

  • Woodrow Wilson: An American politician and academic who served as the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Leading a Congress in Democratic hands, he oversaw the passage of progressive legislative policies unparalleled until the New Deal in 1933. The Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, Clayton Antitrust Act, and Federal Farm Loan Act were some of these new policies. His second term was dominated by American entry into World War I.
  • David Lloyd George: British Liberal politician and statesman. As Chancellor of the Exchequer (1908–1915), he was a key figure in the introduction of many reforms that laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. His most important role came as the highly energetic Prime Minister of the Wartime Coalition Government (1916–22), during and immediately after the First World War. He was a major player at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that reordered Europe after the defeat of the Central Powers.
  • George Clemenceau: A French politician, physician, and journalist who served as Prime Minister of France during the First World War. A leader of the Radical Party, he played a central role in the politics of the French Third Republic. He was one of the principal architects of the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Nicknamed “Père la Victoire” (Father Victory) or “Le Tigre” (The Tiger), he took a harsh position against defeated Germany, though not quite as much as the President Raymond Poincaré, and won agreement on Germany’s payment of large sums for reparations.
  • Vittorio Orlando: An Italian statesman known for representing Italy in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with his foreign minister Sidney Sonnino. He was also known as “Premier of Victory” for defeating the Central Powers along with the Entente in World War I. He was a member and president of the Constitutional Assembly that changed the Italian form of government into a republic.

Paris Peace Conference

The Paris Peace Conference, also known as Versailles Peace Conference, was the meeting of the Allied victors after the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central Powers following the armistices of 1918. It took place in Paris during 1919 and involved diplomats from more than 32 countries and nationalities, including some non-governmental groups, but the defeated powers were not invited.

The “Big Four” were President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, George Clemenceau of France, and of least importance, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. They met informally 145 times and made all the major decisions, which in turn were ratified by the others.

The conference opened on January 18, 1919. This date was symbolic, the anniversary of the proclamation of William I as German Emperor in 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, shortly before the end of the Siege of Paris. This date was also imbued with significance in Germany as the anniversary of the establishment of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701. Delegates from 27 nations were assigned to 52 commissions that held 1,646 sessions to prepare reports with the help of many experts on topics ranging from prisoners of war to undersea cables to international aviation to responsibility for the war. Key recommendations were folded into the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, which had 15 chapters and 440 clauses, as well as treaties for the other defeated nations.

A photograph of David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States standing on a sidewalk outside a building during the Paris Peace Conference.

The Big Four: “The Big Four” made all the major decisions at the Paris Peace Conference (from left to right, David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.)

American Approach

Wilson’s diplomacy and his Fourteen Points essentially established the conditions for the armistices that brought an end to World War I. Wilson felt it was his duty and obligation to the people of the world to be a prominent figure at the peace negotiations. High hopes and expectations were placed on him to deliver what he had promised for the post-war era. In doing so, Wilson ultimately began to lead the foreign policy of the United States toward interventionism, a move strongly resisted in some domestic circles. Wilson took many domestic progressive ideas and translated them into foreign policy (free trade, open agreements, democracy, and self-determination). One of his major aims was to found a League of Nations “for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

Once Wilson arrived, however, he found “rivalries, and conflicting claims previously submerged.” He mostly tried to sway the direction that the French (Georges Clemenceau) and British (Lloyd George) delegations were taking towards Germany and its allies in Europe, as well as the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East. Wilson’s attempts to gain acceptance of his Fourteen Points ultimately failed after France and Britain refused to adopt some specific points and its core principles.

In Europe, several of his Fourteen Points conflicted with the other powers. The United States did not encourage or believe that the responsibility for the war that Article 231 placed on Germany was fair or warranted. It would not be until 1921 that the United States finally signed separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

In the Middle East, negotiations were complicated by competing aims, claims, and the new mandate system. The United States hoped to establish a more liberal and diplomatic world, as stated in the Fourteen Points, where democracy, sovereignty, liberty, and self-determination would be respected. France and Britain, on the other hand, already controlled empires, wielded power over their subjects around the world, and still aspired to be dominant colonial powers.

British Approach

Maintenance of the British Empire’s unity, holdings, and interests was an overarching concern for the British delegates to the conference, with more specific goals of:

  • Ensuring the security of France
  • Removing the threat of the German High Seas Fleet
  • Settling territorial contentions
  • Supporting the League of Nations with that order of priority

Convinced that Canada had become a nation on the battlefields of Europe, its Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, demanded that it have a separate seat at the conference. This was initially opposed not only by Britain but also by the United States, which saw a dominion delegation as an extra British vote. Borden responded by pointing out that since Canada had lost nearly 60,000 men, a far larger proportion of its men compared to the 50,000 American losses, at least had the right to the representation of a “minor” power. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, eventually relented, and convinced the reluctant Americans to accept the presence of delegations from Canada, India, Australia, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa. They also received their own seats in the League of Nations.

David Lloyd George commented that he did “not do badly” at the peace conference, “considering I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.” This was a reference to the very idealistic views of Wilson on the one hand and the stark realism of Clemenceau, who was determined to see Germany punished.

French Approach

The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, controlled his delegation. His chief goal was to weaken Germany militarily, strategically, and economically. Having personally witnessed two German attacks on French soil in the last 40 years, he was adamant that Germany should not be permitted to attack France again. In particular, Clemenceau sought an American and British guarantee of French security in the event of another German attack.

Clemenceau also expressed skepticism and frustration with Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “Mr. Wilson bores me with his fourteen points,” complained Clemenceau. “Why, God Almighty has only ten!” Wilson won a few points by signing a mutual defense treaty with France, but back in Washington he did not present it to the Senate for ratification and it never took effect.

Another alternative French policy was to seek a resumption of harmonious relations with Germany. In May 1919 the diplomat René Massigli was sent on several secret missions to Berlin. During his visits, Massigli offered on behalf of his government to revise the territorial and economic clauses of the upcoming peace treaty.

The Germans rejected the French offers because they considered the French overtures to be a trap to trick them into accepting the Versailles treaty “as is,” and because the German foreign minister, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, thought that the United States was more likely to reduce the severity of the peace terms than France. It proved to be Lloyd George who pushed for more favorable terms for Germany.

Italian Approach

In 1914 Italy remained neutral despite its alliances with Germany and Austria. In 1915 it joined the Allies, motivated by gaining the territories promised by the Allies in the secret Treaty of London: the Trentino, the Tyrol as far as Brenner, Trieste and Istria, most of the Dalmatian coast except Fiume, Valona and a protectorate over Albania, Antalya in Turkey, and possibly colonies in Africa or Asia.

In the meetings of the “Big Four,, in which Orlando’s powers of diplomacy were inhibited by his lack of English, the others were only willing to offer Trentino to the Brenner, the Dalmatian port of Zara and some of the Dalmatian islands. All other territories were promised to other nations and the great powers were worried about Italy’s imperial ambitions. Even though Italy did get most of its demands, Orlando was refused Fiume, most of Dalmatia, and any colonial gain, so he left the conference in a rage.

There was a general disappointment in Italy, which the nationalist and fascist parties used to build the idea that Italy was betrayed by the Allies and refused what was due. This led to the general rise of Italian fascism.

Japanese Approach

The Empire of Japan sent a large delegation headed by former Prime Minister, Marquess Saionji Kinmochi. It was originally one of the “big five” but relinquished that role because of its slight interest in European affairs. Instead it focused on two demands: the inclusion of their racial equality proposal in the League’s Covenant and Japanese territorial claims with respect to former German colonies, namely Shantung (including Kiaochow) and the Pacific islands north of the Equator (the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, the Mariana Islands, and the Carolines). The Japanese delegation became unhappy after receiving only half of the rights of Germany, and walked out of the conference.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points

The Fourteen Points was a statement of principles used for peace negotiations following the end World War I, outlined in a January 8, 1918, speech to the United States Congress by President Woodrow Wilson.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the key themes of the Fourteen Points

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • U.S. President Woodrow Wilson initiated a secret series of studies named The Inquiry, primarily focused on Europe and carried out by a group in New York that included geographers, historians, and political scientists. This group researched topics likely to arise in the anticipated peace conference.
  • The studies culminated in a speech by Wilson to Congress on January 8, 1918, in which he articulated America’s long-term war objectives.
  • The speech, known as the Fourteen Points, was authored mainly by Walter Lippmann and projected Wilson’s progressive domestic policies into the international arena.
  • It was the clearest expression of intention made by any of the belligerent nations and was generally supported by the European nations.
  • The first six points dealt with diplomacy, freedom of the seas, and settlement of colonial claims; pragmatic territorial issues were addressed as well, and the final point regarded the establishment of an association of nations to guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of all nations—a League of Nations.
  • The actual agreements reached at the Paris Peace Conference were quite different than Wilson’s plan, most notably in the harsh economic reparations required from Germany. This provision angered Germans and may have contributed to the rise of Nazism in the subsequent decades.

Key Terms

  • idealism: In foreign policy, the belief that a state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of its foreign policy. For example, an idealist might believe that ending poverty at home should be coupled with tackling poverty abroad. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was an early advocate of this philosophy.
  • Fourteen Points: A statement of principles used for peace negotiations to end World War I. The principles were outlined in a January 8, 1918, speech on war aims and peace terms to the United States Congress by President Woodrow Wilson.
  • the Inquiry: A study group established in September 1917 by Woodrow Wilson to prepare materials for the peace negotiations following World War I. The group, composed of around 150 academics, was directed by presidential adviser Edward House and supervised directly by philosopher Sidney Mezes.
  • Stab-in-the-back myth: The notion, widely believed in right-wing circles in Germany after 1918, that the German Army did not lose World War I on the battlefield but was instead betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially the republicans who overthrew the monarchy in the German Revolution of 1918–19. Advocates denounced the German government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as the “November Criminals.”

The Fourteen Points was a statement of principles used for peace negotiations to end World War I. The principles were outlined in a January 8, 1918, speech on war aims and peace terms to the United States Congress by President Woodrow Wilson. Europeans generally welcomed Wilson’s points, but his main Allied colleagues (Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy) were skeptical of the applicability of Wilsonian idealism.

The United States joined the Allied Powers in fighting the Central Powers on April 6, 1917. Its entry into the war had in part been due to Germany’s resumption of submarine warfare against merchant ships trading with France and Britain. However, Wilson wanted to avoid the United States’ involvement in the long-standing European tensions between the great powers; if America was going to fight, he wanted to unlink the war from nationalistic disputes or ambitions. The need for moral aims was highlighted when after the fall of the Russian government, the Bolsheviks disclosed secret treaties made between the Allies. Wilson’s speech also responded to Vladimir Lenin’s Decree on Peace of November 1917 immediately after the October Revolution, which proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war, called for a just and democratic peace that was not compromised by territorial annexations, and led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918.

The speech made by Wilson took many domestic progressive ideas and translated them into foreign policy (free trade, open agreements, democracy, and self-determination ). The Fourteen Points speech was the only explicit statement of war aims by any of the nations fighting in World War I. Some belligerents gave general indications of their aims, but most kept their post-war goals private.

Background and Research

The immediate cause of the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917 was the German announcement of renewed unrestricted submarine warfare and the subsequent sinking of ships with Americans on board. But President Wilson’s war aims went beyond the defense of maritime interests. In his War Message to Congress, Wilson declared that the United States’ objective was “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.” In several speeches earlier in the year, Wilson sketched out his vision of an end to the war that would bring a “just and secure peace,” not merely “a new balance of power.”

President Wilson subsequently initiated a secret series of studies named the Inquiry, primarily focused on Europe and carried out by a group in New York that included geographers, historians, and political scientists; the group was directed by Colonel Edward House. Their job was to study Allied and American policy in virtually every region of the globe and analyze economic, social, and political facts likely to come up in discussions during the peace conference. The group produced and collected nearly 2,000 separate reports and documents plus at least 1,200 maps. The studies culminated in a speech by Wilson to Congress on January 8, 1918, in which he articulated America’s long-term war objectives. The speech was the clearest expression of intention made by any of the belligerent nations and projected Wilson’s progressive domestic policies into the international arena.

The Speech to Congress

The speech, known as the Fourteen Points, was developed from a set of diplomatic points by Wilson and territorial points drafted by the Inquiry’s general secretary, Walter Lippmann, and his colleagues, Isaiah Bowman, Sidney Mezes, and David Hunter Miller. Lippmann’s draft territorial points were a direct response to the secret treaties of the European Allies, which Lippman was shown by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Lippman’s task according to House was “to take the secret treaties, analyze the parts which were tolerable, and separate them from those which we regarded as intolerable, and then develop a position which conceded as much to the Allies as it could, but took away the poison…It was all keyed upon the secret treaties.”

In the speech, Wilson directly addressed what he perceived as the causes for the world war by calling for the abolition of secret treaties, a reduction in armaments, an adjustment in colonial claims in the interests of both native peoples and colonists, and freedom of the seas. Wilson also made proposals that would ensure world peace in the future. For example, he proposed the removal of economic barriers between nations, the promise of self-determination for national minorities, and a world organization that would guarantee the “political independence and territorial integrity [of] great and small states alike”— a League of Nations.

Though Wilson’s idealism pervades the Fourteen Points, he also had more practical objectives in mind. He hoped to keep Russia in the war by convincing the Bolsheviks that they would receive a better peace from the Allies, to bolster Allied morale, and to undermine German war support. The address was well received in the United States and Allied nations and even by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin as a landmark of enlightenment in international relations. Wilson subsequently used the Fourteen Points as the basis for negotiating the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war.

American political cartoon, 1919. It depicts Wilson holding his 14 points on a piece of paper and label "judge," looking over the "European Baby Show," which is a row of babies labeled with the various nations of WWI.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points: Wilson with his 14 points choosing between competing claims. Babies represent claims of the English, French, Italians, Polish, Russians, and enemy. American political cartoon, 1919.

Fourteen Points vs. the Versailles Treaty

President Wilson became physically ill at the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference, allowing French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to advance demands substantially different from Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Clemenceau viewed Germany as having unfairly attained an economic victory over France, due to the heavy damage their forces dealt to France’s industries even duringretreat, and expressed dissatisfaction with France’s allies at the peace conference.

Notably, Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which would become known as the War Guilt Clause, was seen by the Germans as assigning full responsibility for the war and its damages on Germany; however, the same clause was included in all peace treaties and historian Sally Marks has noted that only German diplomats saw it as assigning responsibility for the war.

The text of the Fourteen Points had been widely distributed in Germany as propaganda prior to the end of the war and was thus well-known by the Germans. The differences between this document and the final Treaty of Versailles fueled great anger. German outrage over reparations and the War Guilt Clause is viewed as a likely contributing factor to the rise of national socialism. At the end of World War I, foreign armies had only entered Germany’s prewar borders twice: the advance of Russian troops into the Eastern border of Prussia, and following the Battle of Mulhouse, the settlement of the French army in the Thann valley. This lack of important Allied incursions contributed to the popularization of the Stab-in-the-back myth in Germany after the war.

The Final Treaty

After the war, the Paris Peace Conference imposed a series of peace treaties on the Central Powers, officially ending the war. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles dealt with Germany and, building on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, created the League of Nations in June 1919.

Learning Objectives

Describe the final treaty signed by the belligerants

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The major decisions at the Paris Peace Conference were the creation of the League of Nations; the five peace treaties with defeated enemies; the awarding of German and Ottoman overseas possessions as “mandates,” chiefly to Britain and France; and the drawing of new national boundaries to better reflect the forces of nationalism.
  • The Central Powers had to acknowledge responsibility for “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” their aggression.
  • In the Treaty of Versailles, this statement was Article 231, which became known as War Guilt clause because of the resentment and humiliation it caused many Germans.
  • The Treaty of Versailles also forced Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that formed the Entente powers.
  • The redrawing of the world map at these conferences created many critical conflict-prone international contradictions; these became one of the causes of World War II.

Key Terms

  • Carthaginian peace: The imposition of a brutal “peace” achieved by completely crushing the enemy. The term derives from the peace imposed on Carthage by Rome. After the Second Punic War, Carthage lost all its colonies, was forced to demilitarize and pay a constant tribute to Rome, and could enter war only with Rome’s permission. At the end of the Third Punic War, the Romans systematically burned Carthage to the ground and enslaved its population.
  • Treaty of Versailles: The most important of the peace treaties that ended World War I. It was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
  • White Russia: A loose confederation of Anti-Communist forces that fought the Bolsheviks, also known as the Reds, in the Russian Civil War (1917–1923) and to a lesser extent, continued operating as militarized associations both outside and within Russian borders until roughly the Second World War.

Final Treaties of the Paris Peace Conference

Five major peace treaties were prepared at the Paris Peace Conference (with the affected countries in parentheses):

  • The Treaty of Versailles, June 28, 1919, (Germany)
  • The Treaty of Saint-Germain, September 10, 1919, (Austria)
  • The Treaty of Neuilly, November 27, 1919, (Bulgaria)
  • The Treaty of Trianon, June 4, 1920, (Hungary)
  • The Treaty of Sèvres, August 10, 1920; subsequently revised by the Treaty of Lausanne, July 24, 1923, ( Ottoman Empire /Republic of Turkey).

The major decisions were the establishment of the League of Nations; the five peace treaties with defeated enemies; the awarding of German and Ottoman overseas possessions as “mandates,” chiefly to members of the British Empire and to France; reparations imposed on Germany, and the drawing of new national boundaries (sometimes with plebiscites) to better reflect the forces of nationalism. The main result was the Treaty of Versailles, with Germany, which in section 231 laid the guilt for the war on “the aggression of Germany and her allies.” This provision proved humiliating for Germans and set the stage for very high reparations, though Germany paid only a small portion before reparations ended in 1931.

As the conference’s decisions were enacted unilaterally and largely on the whims of the Big Four, for the duration of the Conference Paris was effectively the center of a world government that deliberated over and implemented sweeping changes to the political geography of Europe. Most famously, the Treaty of Versailles itself weakened Germany’s military and placed full blame for the war and costly reparations on Germany’s shoulders. The humiliation and resentment this caused is sometimes consider responsible for Nazi electoral successes and indirectly, World War II.

The League of Nations proved controversial in the United States as critics said it subverted the powers of Congress to declare war. The U.S. Senate did not ratify any of the peace treaties and the U.S. never joined the League – instead, the Harding administration of 1921-1923 concluded new treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Germany was not invited to attend the conference at Versailles. Representatives of White Russia (but not Communist Russia) were present. Numerous other nations sent delegations to appeal for various unsuccessful additions to the treaties; parties lobbied for causes ranging from independence for the countries of the South Caucasus to Japan’s demand for racial equality among the other Great Powers.

Austria-Hungary was partitioned into several successor states, including Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, largely but not entirely along ethnic lines. Transylvania was shifted from Hungary to Greater Romania. The details were contained in the Treaty of Saint-Germain and the Treaty of Trianon. As a result of the Treaty of Trianon, 3.3 million Hungarians came under foreign rule. Although the Hungarians made up 54% of the population of the pre-war Kingdom of Hungary, only 32% of its territory was left to Hungary. Between 1920 and 1924, 354,000 Hungarians fled former Hungarian territories attached to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

The Russian Empire, which had withdrawn from the war in 1917 after the October Revolution, lost much of its western frontier as the newly independent nations of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland were carved from it. Romania took control of Bessarabia in April 1918.

The Ottoman Empire disintegrated, with much of its Levant territory awarded to various Allied powers as protectorates, including Palestine. The Turkish core in Anatolia was reorganized as the Republic of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was to be partitioned by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920. This treaty was never ratified by the Sultan and was rejected by the Turkish National Movement, leading to the victorious Turkish War of Independence and the much less stringent 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to an end. It was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The other Central Powers on the German side of World War I signed separate treaties. Although the armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the League of Nations on October 21, 1919.

Of the many provisions in the treaty, one of the most important and controversial required “Germany accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” during the war (the other members of the Central Powers signed treaties containing similar articles). This article, Article 231, later became known as the War Guilt clause. The treaty forced Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. In 1921 the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion marks (then $31.4 billion, roughly equivalent to USD $442 billion in 2017). At the time economists, notably John Maynard Keynes, predicted that the treaty was too harsh—a “Carthaginian peace”—and said the reparations figure was excessive and counter-productive, views that have since been the subject of ongoing debate by historians and economists from several countries. On the other hand, prominent figures on the Allied side such as French Marshal Ferdinand Foch criticized the treaty for treating Germany too leniently.

The result of these competing and sometimes conflicting goals among the victors was a compromise that left no one content: Germany was neither pacified nor conciliated, nor was it permanently weakened. The problems that arose from the treaty would lead to the Locarno Treaties, which improved relations between Germany and the other European Powers, and the renegotiation of the reparation system resulting in the Dawes Plan, the Young Plan, and the indefinite postponement of reparations at the Lausanne Conference of 1932.

A painting of German Johannes Bell signing the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, with various Allied delegations sitting and standing in front of him.

Treaty of Versailles: The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors by Sir William Orpen. German Johannes Bell signs the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, with various Allied delegations sitting and standing in front of him.

Historical Assessment

The remaking of the world map at these conferences gave birth to a number of critical conflict-prone international contradictions, which would become one of the causes of World War II. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm claimed that

no equally systematic attempt has been made before or since, in Europe or anywhere else, to redraw the political map on national lines. […] The logical implication of trying to create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states each inhabited by separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population, was the mass expulsion or extermination of minorities. Such was and is the reductio ad absurdum of nationalism in its territorial version, although this was not fully demonstrated until the 1940s.

It has long been argued that Wilson’s Fourteen Points, in particular the principle of national self-determination, were primarily anti-Left measures designed to tame the revolutionary fever sweeping across Europe in the wake of the October Revolution and the end of the war by playing the nationalist card.

The League of Nations

The League of Nations was formed to prevent a repetition of the First World War, but within two decades this effort failed. Economic depression, renewed nationalism, weakened successor states, and feelings of humiliation (particularly in Germany) eventually contributed to World War II.

Learning Objectives

Explain the ideals that underpinned the forming of the League of Nations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The League of Nations was formed at the Paris Peace Conference to prevent another global conflict like World War I and maintain world peace. It was the first organization of its kind.
  • Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration.
  • Unlike former efforts at world peace such as the Concert of Europe, the League was an independent organization without an army of its own, and thus depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions.
  • The members were often hesitant to do so, leaving the League powerless to intervene in disputes and conflicts.
  • The U.S. Congress, mainly led by Henry Cabot Lodge, was resistant to joining the League, as doing so would legally bind the U.S. to intervene in European conflicts. In the end, the U.S. did not join the League, despite being its main architects.
  • The League failed to intervene in many conflicts leading up to World War II, including the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Key Terms

  • League of Nations: An intergovernmental organization founded on January 10, 1920, as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals as stated in its Covenant included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration.
  • Henry Cabot Lodge: An American Republican Senator and historian from Massachusetts best known for his positions on foreign policy, especially his battle with President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 over the Treaty of Versailles. He demanded Congressional control of declarations of war; Wilson refused and blocked his move to ratify the treaty with reservations. As a result, the United States never joined the League of Nations.

The League of Nations was an intergovernmental organization founded on January 10, 1920, as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Other issues in this and related treaties included labor conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. At its greatest extent from September 28, 1934, to February 23, 1935, it had 58 members.

The diplomatic philosophy behind the League represented a fundamental shift from the preceding hundred years. The League lacked its own armed force and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, keep to its economic sanctions, and provide an army when needed. However, the Great Powers were often reluctant to do so. Sanctions could hurt League members, so they were reluctant to comply. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, when the League accused Italian soldiers of targeting Red Cross medical tents, Benito Mussolini responded that “the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.”

After a number of notable successes and some early failures in the 1920s, the League ultimately proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. Germany withdrew from the League, as did Japan, Italy, Spain, and others. The onset of the Second World War showed that the League had failed its primary purpose to prevent any future world war. The League lasted for 26 years; the United Nations (UN) replaced it after the end of the Second World War in April 1946 and inherited a number of agencies and organizations founded by the League.

Establishment of the League of Nations

American President Woodrow Wilson instructed Edward M. House to draft a U.S. plan that reflected Wilson’s own idealistic views (first articulated in the Fourteen Points of January 1918), as well as the work of the Phillimore Committee. The outcome of House’s work and Wilson’s own first draft, proposed the termination of “unethical” state behavior, including forms of espionage and dishonesty. Methods of compulsion against recalcitrant states would include severe measures, such as “blockading and closing the frontiers of that power to commerce or intercourse with any part of the world and to use any force that may be necessary…”

The two principal rchitects of the covenant of the League of Nations were Lord Robert Cecil (a lawyer and diplomat) and Jan Smuts (a Commonwealth statesman). Smuts’ proposals included the creation of a Council of the great powers as permanent members and a non-permanent selection of the minor states. He also proposed the creation of a mandate system for captured colonies of the Central Powers during the war. Cecil focused on the administrative side and proposed annual Council meetings and quadrennial meetings for the Assembly of all members. He also argued for a large and permanent secretariat to carry out the League’s administrative duties.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson, Cecil, and Smuts put forward their draft proposals. After lengthy negotiations between the delegates, the Hurst-Miller draft was finally produced as a basis for the Covenant. After more negotiation and compromise, the delegates finally approved of the proposal to create the League of Nations on January 25, 1919. The final Covenant of the League of Nations was drafted by a special commission, and the League was established by Part I of the Treaty of Versailles. On June 28, 44 states signed the Covenant, including 31 states that took part in the war on the side of the Triple Entente or joined it during the conflict.

The League would consist of a General Assembly (representing all member states), an Executive Council (with membership limited to major powers), and a permanent secretariat. Member states were expected to “respect and preserve as against external aggression” the territorial integrity of other members and to disarm “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” All states were required to submit complaints for arbitration or judicial inquiry before going to war. The Executive Council would create a Permanent Court of International Justice to make judgments on the disputes.

Despite Wilson’s efforts to establish and promote the League, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1919, the United States did not join. Opposition in the Senate, particularly from two Republican politicians, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, and especially in regard to Article X of the Covenant, ensured that the United States would not ratify the agreement. Their objections were based on the fact that by ratifying such a document, the United States would be bound by international contract to defend a League of Nations member if it was attacked. They believed that it was best not to become involved in international conflicts.

The League held its first council meeting in Paris on January 16, 1920, six days after the Versailles Treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations came into force. On November 1, the headquarters of the League was moved from London to Geneva, where the first General Assembly was held on November 15.

Successes and Failures of the League

The aftermath of the First World War left many issues to be settled, including the exact position of national boundaries and which country particular regions would join. Most of these questions were handled by the victorious Allied powers in bodies such as the Allied Supreme Council. The Allies tended to refer only particularly difficult matters to the League. This meant that during the early interwar period, the League played little part in resolving the turmoil resulting from the war. The questions the League considered in its early years included those designated by the Paris Peace treaties.

As the League developed, its role expanded, and by the middle of the 1920s it had become the center of international activity. This change can be seen in the relationship between the League and non-members. The United States and Russia, for example, increasingly worked with the League. During the second half of the 1920s, France, Britain, and Germany were all using the League of Nations as the focus of their diplomatic activity, and each of their foreign secretaries attended League meetings at Geneva during this period. They also used the League’s machinery to improve relations and settle their differences.

In addition to territorial disputes, the League also tried to intervene in other conflicts between and within nations. Among its successes were its fight against the international trade in opium and sexual slavery and its work to alleviate the plight of refugees, particularly in Turkey in the period up to 1926. One of its innovations in this latter area was the 1922 introduction of the Nansen passport, the first internationally recognized identity card for stateless refugees.

The League failed to intervene in many conflicts leading up to World War II, including the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The onset of the Second World War demonstrated that the League had failed in its primary purpose, the prevention of another world war. There were a variety of reasons for this failure, many connected to general weaknesses within the organization, such as voting structure that made ratifying resolutions difficult and incomplete representation among world nations. Additionally, the power of the League was limited by the United States’ refusal to join.

A political cartoon that depicts a bridge made of stones labeled "Belgium," "France," "England," and "Italy," with the middle stone missing and held only by a brace. To the side of the bridge Uncle Sam is lounging on the missing stone labeled "Keystone: USA".

The Gap in the Bridge: The sign reads “This League of Nations Bridge was designed by the President of the U.S.A.” Cartoon from Punch magazine, December 10, 1920, satirizing the gap left by the U.S. not joining the League.