Last week—28 June 2019—marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles—or to give it its full name, the Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany, and Protocol. This date in 1919 marked the fifth anniversary of the event that sparked the First World War, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The Treaty was the most important outcome of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919–20 and was signed for Australia by Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Navy, Joseph Cook.
The Treaty contains 440 articles covering a wide range of issues—the covenant of the League of Nations, the foundation of the International Labour Organization, the surrender by the Germans of substantial territories, and the payment of reparations being among the most important. Article 231 forced the Germans to accept that Germany and her allies took complete responsibility ‘for causing 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 the aggression of Germany and her allies’.
The Paris negotiations commenced on 18 January 1919 and although the most important issues were decided during the first six months, did not end until 21 January 1920, some days after the founding of the League of Nations and the entry into force of the Treaty. The US, Britain and France had each formed committees before the end of the war to consider what they hoped to achieve out of the peace process, the results of which fed into the Paris conference.
President Woodrow Wilson established an American inquiry during 1917 that led to a set of principles which became known as the Fourteen Points and were delivered to a joint session of Congress on 8 January 1918.
In reality, Wilson’s more idealistic vision was to run afoul of the European (and Australian) desire for territory and revenge, and aspects of the League of Nations charter were met with opposition in the US Senate. Although there were delegates from 29 countries, the direction of the conference was controlled by the ‘Big Four’—President Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, France’s Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Orlando from Italy.
Originally, the British had intended that the Dominions would fall into line behind them, but this was unacceptable to the countries involved and Australia, Canada, South Africa, India and New Zealand each sent their own delegates. Australia was represented by Hughes and Cook. Hughes took a forceful approach to the negotiations (Wilson called him a ‘pestiferous varmint’ and Hughes returned the dislike, thinking Wilson high on principle but poor on practical application). Hughes strongly supported Germany paying reparation for the full cost of the war (not just damage done by German military action); was skeptical about the supranational character of the League of Nations on the grounds that it would reduce Australia’s sovereignty; argued against a racial equality clause in the League’s charter; and advocated that Australia be granted a mandate over the former German colonies in New Guinea (which he saw as necessary for Australia’s security). Hughes was closely involved in the reparations issue, both as chair of the British Reparation Committee, and as vice-chair of the Allied Reparation Commission.
Despite remaining critical of the treaty process, upon presenting the Treaty to the Australian Parliament in September 1919, Prime Minister Hughes described it as ‘a document of monumental importance, the like of which the world has never before seen’ and ‘the charter of a new world’ which ‘not only makes peace between Germany and the Allied and Associated Powers, but … also reapportions great areas of territory in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa’. In a long, triumphant and unapologetic speech to Parliament, Hughes declared ‘victory is ours—complete and overwhelming’, and emphasised his strong views on reparations:
I took the view then, and I take it now, that Germany should be treated as any other offender against the law, whether it be the law of nations or the law of a country. The German people have committed an offence, nay, a crime, the most bloody and desperate the world has ever known, and they must pay the penalty.
The Germans, along with the other defeated powers and the Russians, were excluded from the negotiations and they were presented with the Treaty only after it was drawn up, and given three weeks to respond. They did so in the form of a letter of protest which read, in part:
We were aghast when we read in documents the demands made upon us, the victorious violence of our enemies. The more deeply we penetrate into the spirit of this treaty, the more convinced we become of the impossibility of carrying it out. The exactions of this treaty are more than the German people can bear.
Article 27 defined Germany’s boundaries with its European neighbours, removing approximately ten per cent of its territory, but the Treaty also had an impact well beyond the borders of Europe. Article 119 compelled Germany to renounce all of its overseas territories in favour of the Allies, which, among other things, helped shape parts of modern Africa as Germany’s former African colonies became League of Nations mandate territories (under Article 22) run by the allied powers.
Reparations were a difficult issue both during the Peace process and for years afterwards. The Treaty (Article 232) accepted that Germany was not in a position to make financial amends immediately and established the Inter-Allied Reparations Commission to recommend an appropriate level of reparations. Reparations were set at 132 billion gold marks (approximately US$33 billion) in different types of bonds. While some of these payments were, in theory, compulsory and others were dependent on the state of German finances, in reality, for reasons both financial and political, the Germans did not fully pay the reparations bill and some issues were still being resolved in 1954 under the Agreement on German External Debts.
In addition to the headline issues, the Conference dealt with a range of other topics. These included prisoners of war, undersea cables, international aviation and a variety of territorial disputes, each of importance to their protagonists.
The punitive nature, both actual and perceived, of all of this was, of course, to bear disastrous fruit in the 1930s.