Chapter 28 The Tragedy of Versailles – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 28 The Tragedy of Versailles

In This Chapter
  • The last of the fighting stops
  • Demobilization and the creation of the Freikorps
  • The Allies hammer out the punitive Treaty of Versailles
  • Wilson orchestrates the League of Nations
  • The U.S. Senate repudiates both the Treaty and the League

With the scratching of pens in a railway car on an obscure siding in France, the Great War ended. At least, the shooting stopped.

Within this very railway car were sown the seeds of a new war, even more terrible. The German military and the Germans who favored the military would never forget that Matthias Erzberger, their nation’s chief negotiator of the Armistice, was a civilian. Soon, right-wing German leaders and would-be leaders (Erich Ludendorff and Adolf Hitler among them) began to call the Armistice a “stab in the back” (in German, Dolchstoss im Rücken). They claimed that the German army, “undefeated in the field,” had been betrayed in the hour of its greatest need. Much as French militarists had looked on World War I at its outbreak as an opportunity to avenge the humiliating defeats of the Franco-Prussian War, so German militarists would drag their people and the peoples of the world into a second great war to avenge this perceived betrayal.

In this chapter, we will see that, harsh as the Armistice was, the Treaty of Versailles that followed it punished Germany even more severely, creating the general German sense of humiliation and hopelessness that ensured a following for those who proposed the all-consuming program of conquest and vengeance that was the second world war.

After the Armistice

On the Western Front, hostilities continued to within minutes of the 11 A.M. Armistice deadline. In remote areas of the front, scattered fighting continued past the eleventh hour, until word of the Armistice reached all corners.

 From the Front Scattered fighting also persisted after the official hour of Armistice as individual officers and men vied for the “honor” of firing the last shot of the war.

Word of the Armistice was slow to reach Germany’s East African colonies, where General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck continued to skirmish with British troops in northern Rhodesia until November 13, when British General Louis van Deventer sent Lettow-Vorbeck a message informing him of the Armistice. The British commander’s message announced that he had ordered a ceasefire and that he expected Lettow-Vorbeck to do the same. General Deventer did not bother to say which side had won the war. Lettow-Vorbeck complied immediately and then formally surrendered in a ceremony on November 25. His was the last German force to lay down its arms in World War I. The British officers present rushed to congratulate Lettow-Vorbeck on the brilliant campaign that he had waged against them since 1914.

German Evacuation

In Europe, 17 German armies, about 3 million men, immediately began the retreat specified in the final Armistice document: Belgium, France, Alsace-Lorraine, and Luxembourg were evacuated, and the troops withdrew to points 20 miles east of the Rhine.

 Words of WarDemobilization is the process by which a nation disbands a military force, typically after the end of a war.

German arms were not merely laid down, but turned over to the Allies. All the U-boats, 5,000 trucks, 2,000 planes, 150,000 rail cars, and rail lines in the formerly occupied areas were surrendered. On what had been the Eastern Front, all troops and German agents were withdrawn from Russia, Austria-Hungary, Romania, and Turkey. The Baltic was thrown open to Allied shipping, and the Black Sea ports were evacuated. The Russian fleet, which Germany had seized pursuant to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was turned over to the Allies.

Still maintaining the discipline of an army, the soldiers of Germany returned to their home soil—then demobilized, shedding uniforms and weapons.

This did not mean that all Germans were now unarmed. Although the official Imperial Army had largely ceased to exist, many of its discharged officers and veterans banded together in “irregular” forces. These groups were known by many names, but collectively they were called the Freikorps, the Free Corps. Their purpose was to fight the Bolshevism that rolled over Germany like a great red wave in the aftermath of the war. Through the 1920s, the Freikorps succeeded in this task by waging a brutal series of street battles and thereby secured the grudging support of the fledgling German Republic, while forming the nucleus of what, under Adolf Hitler, would become a new German army to enforce a new German ideology.

The End of the High Seas Fleet

On November 21, 1918, the once proud German High Seas Fleet of 74 vessels surrendered and was interned at Scapa Flow, the remote British anchorage at the tip of Scotland. Skeleton crews were interned along with their ships, living under tedious and difficult conditions with short rations and coal supplies often insufficient even to heat the crews’ living quarters.

 Voices of Battle “In a fortnight we shall have no Empire and no Emperor left, you will see.”

—Erich Ludendorff, to his wife, after resigning from command, October 26, 1918

The sailors and officers waited through the long process of the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, the war’s definitive peace treaty. On May 7, 1919, they learned the terms of the treaty: The German navy was to be reduced to 15,000 men, 6 small battleships, 6 light cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 12 torpedo boats. All other vessels were to be irrevocably turned over to the Allies. Moreover, the German navy would be permitted no U-boats, and German naval aviation was also banned. Two days after these terms were announced, Admiral Adolf von Trotha, naval chief since December 27, 1918, radioed Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, commander of the interned High Seas Fleet. Trotha informed Reuter that the surrender of the fleet was “out of the question.”

 Words of WarFreikorps was the collective name of German paramilitary groups, privately organized and without government sanction, formed by veterans after the war chiefly to fight the incursion of communist forces in Germany.

As the German naval command stalled for time, the Allied governments issued an ultimatum: Sign the Treaty of Versailles by June 21 (later changed to June 23) or hostilities would be resumed.

At 11:20 A.M. on June 21, 1919, Admiral Reuter’s flagship signaled the fleet to scuttle. Quickly and efficiently, the crews aboard each ship opened valves to let in the sea. They lowered lifeboats, mounting upon them white flags to signify their new status as prisoners of war. Before British vessels could react, 52 of the ships had sunk: 10 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 5 light cruisers, and 32 destroyers. The British managed to save 22 other ships.

Later justifying his action, Reuter claimed that he thought Germany intended to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Nevertheless, Reuter did not implicate his government in his action, but took sole responsibility himself—even though Trotha, his superior officer, had ordered him not to surrender the ships.

 Words of War To scuttle a ship is to purposely sink it in a deliberate act of self-destruction, typically to prevent capture by the enemy.

Sabers rattled as a result of the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet, and there was talk of renewing hostilities. But, in 1919, no one wanted to go back to war. The fact was that the Allies would probably have scuttled most of the fleet in any case. In the end, Britain actually profited from Reuter’s action because most of the vessels were subsequently raised and sold as scrap, the proceeds of which went directly to the English rather than being divvied up among the Allies. Worse, the scuttling losses were added to the monumental reparations bill handed Germany, which was forced to relinquish to the Allies even more ships and port equipment than had been specified originally by the Treaty of Versailles.

 Voices of Battle “There was historic irony in the Kaiser’s naval officers choosing a watery grave for his magnificent battleships in a British harbour. Had he not embarked on a strategically unnecessary attempt to match Britain’s maritime strength, fatal hostility between the two countries would have been avoided; so, too, in all possibility, might have been the neurotic climate of suspicion and insecurity from which the First World War was born. The unmarked graveyard of his squadrons inside the remotest islands of the British archipelago . . . remains as a memorial to selfish and ultimately pointless military ambition.”

—John Keegan, The First World War, 1999

Allies in the Rhineland

After the Armistice, American, French, and British forces advanced into the Rhineland and into Germany as armies of occupation. A force of 240,000 U.S. troops occupied Rhine positions and established a bridgehead 18 miles into Germany at Coblenz. The British established a similar bridgehead at Cologne, and the French did the same at Mainz. These troops were to be ready to resume the war—on German soil—if the Armistice were violated or if the Germans ultimately rejected the final treaty.

Hall of Mirrors

At Paris, on January 18, 1919, the Allies convened a peace conference among themselves, a conference wholly excluding Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey. The terms of peace were to be dictated, not negotiated. Twenty-seven Allied nations participated in the conference, which had as its object the creation of a definitive peace treaty. Of the participants, the four major Allied powers—Britain, France, the United States, and (to a lesser degree) Italy—dominated.

Woodrow Wilson in Europe

The American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference was headed personally by President Woodrow Wilson. As vigorously as he had worked to mobilize his nation for war, Wilson now struggled to bring about a peace that he intended would mean the end of war itself.

Wilson’s intense idealism, his determination that the sacrifice of so much life and treasure would not be in vain, blinded him to domestic political realities. He made no attempt to generate bipartisan support for his treaty plans, the centerpiece of which, pursuant to his Fourteen Points (see Chapter 24, “New Blood”), was to be the creation of a League of Nations, an international deliberative and arbitrative body that would settle disputes between nations without resorting to war. Correctly fearing that Republican isolationists would be opposed to the League, Wilson appointed no Republicans to the peace delegation. As if this omission did not sufficiently alienate Republicans, Wilson made peace and the League of Nations a political issue by appealing to voters to re-elect a Democratic Congress in 1918. That the 1918 contest went to the Republicans, who won majorities in both houses, should have signaled Wilson that he was getting out of touch with the sentiments of his own countrymen.

 Words of War A bridgehead is a forward position seized and held by troops advancing into enemy territory as a foothold for further advance.

The Big Four

On his arrival in Europe, Wilson was given a tumultuous welcome and his leadership was greeted with nothing but expressions of absolute confidence. It soon became apparent, however, that Wilson’s idealism, out of touch with the attitude of the American people, was also worlds apart from what the other three Big Four leaders wanted.

Each in their own way, Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy wanted to conclude a settlement that did little more than simply and severely punish Germany. In contrast, Wilson championed a much more conciliatory settlement based on his Fourteen Points, especially points one through five:

  • An insistence on “open covenants, openly arrived at”—that is, an end to the kind of secret treaties and alliances that had dragged Europe into war
  • Freedom of the seas
  • Removal of economic barriers to international trade
  • Radical reduction of armaments to the lowest point consistent with domestic security
  • Modification of all colonial claims on the basis of the self-determination of peoples

 Words of War The Big Four leaders at the Paris Peace Conference were Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States; Georges Clemenceau, premier of France; David Lloyd George, prime minister of Great Britain; and Vittorio Orlando, premier of Italy.

Eight additional points addressed specific postwar territorial settlements, and the 14th point called for the creation of the League of Nations.

Of the three European Allied leaders, it was French premier Georges Clemenceau who was most at odds with Wilson’s conciliatory idealism. Except for Russia—which played no part in the peace conference—France had suffered most in the war, and Clemenceau not only wanted to secure his nation against future German attack by totally destroying Germany’s ability to make war, but he also meant to exact a generous measure of vengeance. He favored a thoroughly punitive treaty.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Italy’s Premier Vittorio Orlando also had their own peace agendas. Personally, Lloyd George, like Wilson, favored moderation in the treatment of Germany; however, he had been elected on his promise that Germany would be punished. Moreover, he was also concerned that Wilson’s Fourteen Points would interfere with British colonial policy. As for Orlando, his concern focused almost exclusively on ensuring that Italy would receive the territories that it had been promised in 1915 as inducement to join the Allied cause.

 Combatants Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) was second only to Woodrow Wilson as the major force in the peace conference that drew up the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Born in the Vendee, he originally studied medicine, but entered politics instead in 1876 as a member of the Chamber of Deputies (French legislature). He was sporadically in and out of office, but in 1906, as a senator, it was Clemenceau who developed the Entente Cordiale with Great Britain, which was the basis of the alliance in World War I.

Clemenceau declined office at the outbreak of the war, preferring the outsider’s role of criticizing the government’s conduct, policy, and strategy. He became an outspoken public advocate of total victory, although he also expressed his opinion that “Papa” Joffre’s doctrine of massed offensive was insane. By mid 1917, calls for him to form a new cabinet grew increasingly intense, and, in November 1917, he was named premier and wielded nearly dictatorial power, asserting dominance not only over other politicians, but, for the first time in the war, over the military as well.

His conduct at the peace table was as aggressive as it had been during the war. He pushed to secure the borders of France and to reclaim territory lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Most of all he sought to dismember Germany politically, cripple it economically, and emasculate it militarily. Despite some concessions to President Woodrow Wilson, he largely succeeded in achieving these goals, thereby unwittingly creating the desperate conditions that would propel Germany to new conquests and ignite World War II.


For six months, Wilson hammered away at the others. He persuaded Clemenceau to abandon one of his chief demands, that the left bank of the Rhine be detached from Germany and put under permanent French military control, in exchange for British and American promises of future alliance and support. Ultimately, Wilson saw most of the content of his Fourteen Points embodied in the Treaty of Versailles. However, to achieve his purposes, he had had to agree to the punitive terms the other Allies imposed on Germany. This galled Wilson, who nevertheless soothed himself by reasoning that the inclusion of the League of Nations as part of the treaty was worth practically any compromise. In presenting the Treaty of Versailles to his fellow Americans, he called it the best compromise obtainable, for he believed that the League of Nations itself would eventually rectify some of the injustices presently imposed upon Germany.

War to End All War

The Treaty of Versailles was a complex document, the size of a hefty book, consisting of 440 articles. Befitting its status as the document that would formally end the greatest war that the world had fought up to that time and that (some believed) would end all war, the document was taken to the great Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles—the very room in which Otto von Bismarck, following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, had proclaimed the German Empire in 1871.

In the great hall, on the afternoon of June 28, 1919, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the completed treaty was opened for signature. The Allied powers signed, as did Germany and the other Central Powers. Germany’s signature, however, was made under protest against the continuation of the “inhuman blockade” of its ports.

 Words of War A plebiscite is a direct vote by the entire electorate, which is invited to decide an issue by a “yes” or “no” vote.

Fatal Terms

The chief provisions of the treaty included German territorial cessions, German admission of guilt for the war, German disarmament, and an assessment against Germany (and other Central Powers) of harsh monetary reparations. More sweepingly, the treaty put an end to the German empire and dismembered the empire of Austria-Hungary as well. Here were the key provisions:

  • The population and territorial extent of Germany was reduced by about 10 percent.
  • Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France.
  • The Saarland (region of the Saar River) was placed under the supervision of the League of Nations until 1935.
  • Three small northern German areas were given to Belgium.
  • In accordance with a plebiscite in Schleswig, northern Schleswig was taken from Germany and returned to Denmark.
  • The boundaries of Poland were redrawn. Poland was given part of what had been German West Prussia and Poznan (Posen), and a corridor of territory to the Baltic Sea was also carved out for Poland. (In the late 1930s, German recovery of this so-called Polish Corridor would serve as one of Adolf Hitler’s most passionate causes.) Pursuant to a plebiscite, Poland also gained part of Upper Silesia.
  • Austria-Hungary was dismantled, some of its constituents were given independence, and the Balkan states were re-formed as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929). Austria and Hungary proper were set up as separate nations.
  • The port city of Danzig (present-day Gdansk, Poland) was declared a free city, independent of any nation.
  • Germany’s overseas colonies in China, the Pacific, and Africa were taken over by Britain, France, Japan, and other Allied nations.
  • Germany was compelled to sign and acknowledge a humiliating “war guilt clause,” deeming itself the principal aggressor in the war. This was not only spiritually debilitating, but it also made Germany liable for all reparations to the Allied nations.
  • Part VII of the treaty accused Kaiser Wilhelm II of having committed war crimes. He was guaranteed a fair trial, and the Allies reserved the right to bring unspecified others before war crimes tribunals. (Neither the kaiser nor anyone else was tried for war crimes following World War I. Wilhelm had fled to Holland after the war, and the Dutch government declined to extradite him to the jurisdiction of the Allies.)
  • Reparations were called for; however, these had not been computed by the time the treaty was signed. In 1921, they were fixed at $33 billion, a truly staggering sum in those days. All of the Allied signatories understood that payment of such reparations would destroy the German economy forever, which would also have serious consequences for international finances. Nevertheless, bent on revenge, the Allies demanded that Germany pay, and the treaty allowed for punitive actions if Germany failed to make the payments according to a specified schedule.
  • The German army was limited to 100,000 men, and the general staff was abolished.
  • The production of armored cars, tanks, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas was prohibited, and other munitions production was drastically curtailed.
  • Germany west of the Rhine and up to 30 miles east of that river was declared a demilitarized zone.
  • Allied occupation of the Rhineland was set to continue for at least 15 years—and possibly longer.

 Words of War A demilitarized zone is a region declared neutral and in which no troops or armaments are permitted.

The Promise of the League

Woodrow Wilson understood that a coercive, punitive peace was no peace at all. He saw what the other Allied leaders refused to see: If you drive a nation and a people to desperation, they will do desperate things. Yet Wilson forced himself to believe that the inclusion of the Covenant of the League of Nations as part of the Treaty of Versailles would ultimately lift this peace out of the realm of vengeance and coercion and would bring about in the world a reign of international justice.

The 26 articles of the Covenant of the League of Nations set out three principal approaches to preventing war:

  1. Arbitration to resolve international disputes
  2. A program of general worldwide disarmament
  3. The establishment of collective security through guarantees of rights and sovereignty

Sixty-three nations ultimately subscribed to the Covenant and became members of the League. They were represented in an assembly, which held regular sessions annually and additional emergency sessions as necessary. In a grand gesture of international democracy, the Covenant gave each member one vote; however, unanimity was required for all decisions—a stipulation that doomed the League to paralysis.

The League of Nations was a noble experiment that was at first received with hope and praise. Soon its fatal flaws became all too apparent:

  • Including the Covenant as an inseparable part of the Treaty of Versailles compromised the League’s impartiality, making it appear to be an instrument of the victorious Allies.
  • The requirement of unanimity often prevented the League from taking meaningful action.

American Betrayal

The most crippling blow to the League of Nations was the refusal of the Republican-controlled United States Senate to join it.

While Wilson was away in Europe for six months, intensively concentrating on the treaty and the League, he lost touch with the changing mood of America. The people had put both the House of Representatives and the Senate into Republican hands, and the Republicans steered the nation rapidly away from involvement in the affairs of the world and back toward an isolationism that smacked more of the nineteenth century than the twentieth century.

The jubilation that had accompanied victory was now tempered by terror of a worldwide communist revolution. A so-called Red Scare swept Western Europe and, even more intensely, the United States. At the beginning of 1919, U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer ordered a series of raids on the headquarters of radical organizations in a dozen cities, indiscriminately rounding up 6,000 U.S. citizens believed to be “sympathetic to Communism.”

But it was not only the fear of Communism that chipped away at Wilson’s dream for world peace and rational unity. Wilson’s lapse in political savvy—his exclusion of all Republicans from the peace process—prompted Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924) to lead Republican opposition to the League of Nations. Persuaded that the League was above politics, Wilson refused to negotiate with Lodge and the others, and he decided instead to bring popular pressure on the Senate by taking his case directly to the people.

Wilson embarked on a grueling 9,500-mile transcontinental whistle-stop speaking tour. On September 25, 1919, exhausted by war, the heartbreaking labors of making peace, and his battle on behalf of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson collapsed following a speech in Pueblo, Colorado. He was rushed back to Washington, but his condition deteriorated. A week later, he suffered a devastating stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

 Words of WarIsolationism is a national policy of refraining from involvement in political affairs beyond the nation’s borders.

Wilson’s Forlorn Hope

Ill and bitter, Wilson defiantly instructed his followers to accept no compromise on the League. Without the possibility of compromise, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Wilson served out the rest of his term, broken in spirit and health, while his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, actually attended to the day-to-day business of government.

“Not for Us”

Warren G. Harding (1865–1923), the man who succeeded Wilson as president, was the conservative product of the Republican political machine. Unlike Wilson, he was neither an intellectual nor an idealist. He had ridden to the White House on a campaign promise to bring about a “return to normalcy.” In his first speech to Congress, he declared, “We seek no part in directing the destinies of the world . . . [the League of Nations] is not for us.”

 From the Front Rejecting the Treaty of Versailles, the United States concluded separate, simple peace treaties with Germany, Hungary, and Austria in 1921.

Finale—or Act I?

The League of Nations did not immediately collapse without the support of the United States. From time to time, it even managed to resolve a few minor international disputes. However, it failed to meet its first major challenge. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria in September 1931, the League responded by sending a commission of inquiry in 1932, and Japan simply turned on its heel and walked out of the League the following year. The League of Nations was powerless to do anything to compel Japan to return the territory it had seized. Throughout the 1930s, the League failed to act effectively against the aggression of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Ultimately, these aggressor nations made the League irrelevant by withdrawing from it.

The document to which the Covenant of the League of Nations was attached, the Treaty of Versailles, stands as one of history’s great tragic tracts. Designed to prevent Germany from ever rocking the world again, it did nothing less than create the desperate political, economic, and emotional climate that made possible the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Seeking to end war, it made a second world war all but inevitable.

The Least You Need to Know
  • In accordance with the Armistice, Germany evacuated occupied territories and rapidly demobilized, while the Allies occupied bridgeheads within Germany to enforce the Armistice and compel agreement to a definitive treaty.
  • Despite Wilson’s efforts at conciliation, the Treaty of Versailles had as its main objective the punishment and permanent crippling of Germany.
  • The refusal of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the Covenant of the League of Nations sealed the doom of the inherently weak League.
  • The harshly punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles created a political desperation in Germany that provided fertile ground for the growth of the Nazi regime and thereby made World War II all but inevitable.