Exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that tipped Europe into a world war, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris on June 28, 1919. The armistice signed on November 11, 1918, officially ended the hostilities, but the negotiations between the Allied victors at the Paris Peace Conference lasted six months and involved diplomatic delegations from over thirty-two countries.
US President Woodrow Wilson had delivered a speech in January 1918, in which he laid out his vision for the postwar world. The Fourteen Points elaborated Wilson’s plan for the comprehensive overhaul of international relations. He called for an immediate end to the war, the establishment of an international peacekeeping organization, international disarmament, open diplomacy, the explicit disavowal of war, and independence for formerly colonial territories. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were hugely influential in shaping the contours of the postwar world and in spreading the language of peace and democracy around the world.
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The Treaty of Versailles established a blueprint for the postwar world. One of the most controversial terms of the treaty was the War Guilt clause, which explicitly and directly blamed Germany for the outbreak of hostilities. The treaty forced Germany to disarm, to make territorial concessions, and to pay reparations to the Allied powers in the staggering amount of $5 billion.
Eventhough US President Woodrow Wilson was opposed to such harsh terms, he was outmaneuvered by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. France was the only Allied power to share a border with Germany, and therefore suffered the bulk of the devastation and casualties from the German war machine. The French aimed to weaken Germany to the greatest extent possible.
Although President Wilson was heavily involved in negotiating the treaty, which reflected his vision for the postwar world, isolationists in the US Congress proved a major stumbling block to ratification. The so-called Irreconcilables, mostly Republicans but also some Democrats, opposed the treaty, particularly Article X, which committed member-states of the League of Nations to go to war on each other’s behalf in the event of an unprovoked act of aggression. The Irreconcilables saw this as a violation of US sovereignty and some believed that it would commit the United States to an alliance system that could lead to another war. Due to the opposition of the Irreconcilables, the Treaty of Versailles was never ratified by Congress, and the United States never became a member of the League of Nations.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1934, his government began to violate many of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Not only did Hitler announce a moratorium on all debt payments and cease making reparations, but he began to build up the German armed forces in earnest. Some historians believe that the onerous terms of the treaty laid the psychological and economic groundwork for the rise of the Nazi party, which capitalized on German resentment of the burdens imposed by the Allied powers after the First World War.
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