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Aftermath of World War I: The Seeds of Future Conflict Sown

The Treaty of Versailles


Aftermath of World War I: The Seeds of Future Conflict Sown

President Woodrow Wilson

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Previous: 1918 - A Battle to the Death | World War I: 101

The World Comes to Paris

In the wake of the November 11, 1918 armistice which ended hostilities on the Western Front, Allied leaders gathered in Paris to begin negotiations over the peace treaties that would formally conclude the war. Convening in the Salle de l'Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry on January 18, 1919, the talks initially included leaders and representatives from over thirty nations. To this crowd was added a host of journalists and lobbyists from a variety of causes. While this unwieldy mass took part in the early meetings, it was President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy who came to dominate the talks. As defeated nations, Germany, Austria, and Hungary were prohibited from attending, as was Bolshevik Russia which was in the midst of a civil war.

Wilson's Goals

Arriving in Paris, Wilson became the first president to travel to Europe while in office. The basis for Wilson's position at the conference was his Fourteen Points which had been instrumental in securing the armistice. Key among these was freedom of the seas, equality of trade, arms limitation, self-determination of peoples, and the formation of the League of Nations to mediate future disputes. Believing that he had an obligation to be a prominent figure at the conference, Wilson endeavored to create a more open and liberal world where democracy and liberty would be respected.

French Concerns for the Conference

While Wilson sought a softer peace for Germany, Clemenceau and the French wished to permanently weaken their neighbor economically and militarily. In addition to the return of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been taken by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), Clemenceau argued in favor of heavy war reparations and the separation of the Rhineland to create buffer state between France and Germany. Furthermore, Clemenceau sought British and American assurances of aid should Germany ever attack France.

The British Approach

While Lloyd George supported the need for war reparations, his goals for the conference were more specific than his American and French allies. Concerned first and foremost for the preservation of the British Empire, Lloyd George sought to settle territorial issues, ensure the security of France, and remove the threat of the German High Seas Fleet. While he favored the formation of the League of Nations, he discouraged Wilson's call for self-determination as it could adversely affect Britain's colonies.

Italy's Goals

The weakest of the four major victorious powers, Italy sought to ensure that it received the territory that it had been promised by the Treaty of London in 1915. This largely consisted of the Trentino, Tyrol (including Istria and Trieste), and the Dalmatian coast excluding Fiume. Heavy Italian losses and a severe budget deficit as a result of the war led to a belief that these concessions had been earned. During the talks in Paris, Orlando was constantly hampered by his inability to speak English.

The Negotiations

For the early part of the conference, many of the key decisions were made by the "Council of Ten" which was comprised of the leaders and foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. In March, it was decided that this body was too unwieldy to be effective. As a result, many of the foreign ministers and nations left conference, with talks continuing between Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando. Key among the departures was Japan, whose emissaries were angered by a lack of respect and the conference's unwillingness to adopt a racial equality clause for the Covenant of the League of Nations. The group shrank further when the Italy was offered Trentino to the Brenner, the Dalmatian port of Zara, the island of Lagosta, and a few small German colonies in lieu of what was originally promised. Irate over this and the group's unwillingness to give Italy Fiume, Orlando departed Paris and returned home.

As the talks progressed, Wilson was increasingly unable to garner acceptance of his Fourteen Points. In an effort to appease the American leader, Lloyd George and Clemenceau consented to the formation of the League of Nations. With several of the participants' goals conflicting, the talks moved slowly and ultimately produced a treaty which failed to please any of the nations involved. On April 29, a German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, was summoned to Versailles to receive the treaty. Upon learning of the content, the Germans protested that they had not been allowed to participate in the talks. Deeming the treaty's terms a "violation of honor," they withdrew from the proceedings.

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