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The Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations

In January 1919, the combatant nations gathered in Paris for a peace conference. Five treaties would be negotiated at the conference, one for each of the Central Powers. The most important was the Treaty of Versailles, between the Allies and Germany.

Initially, the conference was led by England, France, the United States, Italy and Japan, but most major decisions were made by the first three powers. Lesser Allies and representatives from colonies and subject territories around the world also came to Paris. The Central Powers were not represented; they would be compelled to accept the terms negotiated by the victors.

Hopes meet reality

The Allied nations had claimed they were fighting for justice and freedom. As a result, many around the world (including the absent Central Powers) hoped that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points would form the basis for the final peace. Wilson had proposed firm but fair terms and a vision of a world ruled by open agreements, reduced armaments, self-government and international cooperation.

However, his allies had other priorities. Britain and France demanded a “war guilt clause” requiring Germany to accept responsibility for the war. France in particular insisted on harsh terms that stripped away Germany’s territory, restricted its military’s size, and required it to pay reparations to compensate the Allied nations.

Britain was less interested in punishing Germany, but was concerned with maintaining its empire. France had its own colonies, and shared this goal. These interests conflicted with Wilson’s ideas about self-government for all peoples. Wilson did get the Allies to agree to establish the League of Nations. This international body was intended to preserve peace by promoting dialogue and preventing disputes, and would enforce its efforts by calling upon the military forces of member nations.

The Germans protested the terms of the treaty, but relented when the Allies threatened to begin fighting again. The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28; treaties with the other Central Powers followed. Austria-Hungary was split in two and many of its minorities were given independence. Bulgaria lost territory as well. The Ottoman Empire was dismantled. All the Central Powers were forced to pay reparations to the Allies.

Seeds of future conflict

France and Britain had achieved most of their goals, and many Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman subjects had secured their independence. However, much of the rest of the world was disappointed by the results in Paris. Italy and Japan felt that they had been ignored, despite their contributions This dissatisfaction would fuel the rise of militarism in both nations. America’s war aims were also not met: the outcome bore little resemblance to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which would weaken his case when he tried to secure U.S. Senate support for the Treaty of Versailles.

For many colonial peoples, the war’s wasteful devastation had already tarnished European civilization. The way that subject territories were ignored at the peace conference further fueled independence movements around the globe. Many former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman subjects were unhappy with the borders the Allies had drawn for their new nations, which often ignored deep ethnic and religious divisions. The resulting unrest led to conflict throughout the 20th century, which continues today -- especially in the Middle East.

Most importantly, the Treaty of Versailles and the way in which it was imposed led to deep and sustained resentment in Germany. Nationalists began spreading a narrative that Germany’s armies had not been defeated, but “stabbed in the back” by its politicians. These sentiments would be exploited by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in their rise to power in the 1930s, and contributed to the start of World War II barely a generation later.

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