Today In History: WWI Peace Conference Begins

Today in 1919, world leaders converged in Paris to begin the long negotiation process that would result in the close of World War I. The leaders of the Allied powers – France, the United States, Italy and Great Britain – called most of the shots.

President Woodrow Wilson pursued a policy of “peace without victory,” hoping to ensure a ceasefire with Germany and the other Central Powers without imposing too many punitive measures against them. Others disagreed. Georges Clemenceau of France and David Lloyd George from Great Britain believed that Germany would only be brought to heel if it was punished severely and made weak. In order to ensure the League of Nations got off the ground, Wilson decided to compromise his relatively congenial posture towards Germany.

German representatives were not invited to the peace conference until May. The Versailles Treaty was ready for them, already drafted. They were distraught to find that the Treaty required them to pay enormous reparations and relinquish a large amount of territory, in direct contradiction to Wilson’s overtures of largesse.

One of the more unjust mandates of the treaty was Article 231, which required that Germany publicly accept full responsibility for the outbreak of the War.

The peace conference lasted for six months. The representatives signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. It was the five year anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that set off the War. The Allied powers’ harsh treatment of Germany after World War I played a very large role in the formation of an embittered national sentiment in Germany that set the stage for the rise of the Nazis and the outbreak of World War II.

History has not smiled very broadly upon the Allied powers’ treatment of the Central Powers after the War, or upon Woodrow Wilson. Many have argued that Wilson’s Fourteen Points, lauded as a work of benevolent diplomacy, were intended to temper leftist sympathies in Europe after the October Revolution in Russia, by bolstering nationalism. Many also believe that the Treaty of Versailles is directly to blame for the rise of Hitler.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm said of the Treaty and its extensive restructuring of world politics:

“[N]o equally systematic attempt has been made before or since, in Europe or anywhere else, to redraw the political map on national lines. […] The logical implication of trying to create a continent neatly divided into coherent territorial states each inhabited by separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population, was the mass expulsion or extermination of minorities. Such was and is the reductio ad absurdum of nationalism in its territorial version, although this was not fully demonstrated until the 1940s.”

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