The Versailles Settlement--Was It Foredoomed to Failure?

The Versailles Settlement--Was It Foredoomed to Failure?

The Versailles Settlement--Was It Foredoomed to Failure?

The Versailles Settlement--Was It Foredoomed to Failure?


No peace settlement in modern times has stirred greater controversy than the Treaty of Versailles and its related treaties, coucluded at the end of World War I by the victorious Allies with the Central Powers: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. Indeed, the Versailles settlement has come to mean all things to all men: on the one hand, the triumph of democracy, national self-determination, justice, the rule of law and security against militarism; and on the other hand, the triumph of cynicism, calculated vengeance, economic unrealism and oppression of national minorities.

In reality, the Versailles settlement combined elements of idealism and morality, unique in the history of peacemaking, with old-fashioned power politics. It changed the political map of Europe. In so doing, "Versailles" inevitably had its beneficiaries as well as its victims. The former saw it as the fulfillment of national self-determination; the latter as a grievous Diktat. Much has been said for either case. Yet the statesmen of 1919 acted in the belief that they were the first to be governed by principles that would result in fairness for all and an enduring, stable peace.

Peace treaties have by long tradition reflected the imposition of terms, in varying degrees of severity, by victors over vanquished. Force has tended to prevail as the final arbiter of settlements. But losers continued to look to future changes in the ever shifting balance of power for consolation. Wartime defeat and cessions of territory were seldom accepted as final. This pattern can still be observed in the treaty ending the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. The French protested bitterly, but bowed in the face of defeat while nursing in their hearts the spirit of revanche.

When it came time to settle the conflict of 1914-1918, conditions and attitudes had, however, changed. The four-year struggle had been so destructive and widespread that the mere prospect of a future war evoked an overwhelming sense of dread. To forestall such a possibility, Woodrow Wilson, and with him other statesmen, resolved to negotiate a just peace, fair to all sides, in the hope of eliminating the very incentives for war. The elemental passion for revenge and the formula that might makes right were to be set aside in the interests of lasting peace through the application of the principles of national selfdetermination and democracy. The enormous popular response to Wilson and his proclaimed policies gave dramatic evidence of a new public spirit everywhere.

This approach to peace, however, did not remain unchallenged. A number of responsible statesmen and leaders of the victorious powers doubted the wisdom of such a course. They looked for lasting peace only in a treaty which would create a decisive balance of power in favor of the Allies. Because they saw a weak Germany as the best guarantee for international peace and Allied security, they advocated a policy of weakening the Central Powers through annexations and reparations. In 1871 as in 1815, reparations had been exacted as part of the price of defeat; now in 1919, the advocates of a "powerful" peace justified them as compensation for damages inflicted by a guilty aggressor.

In the peace negotiations which opened in January 1919, these two policies inevitably clashed from the very beginning. The controversy soon became public and was freely joined by conference participants, politicians, journalists, laymen and, not long after, by scholars.

To the historian thus falls the difficult but . . .

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