The First World War (Part 5: Aftermath Of The First World War)




(a) War aims

When the war started, none of the participants had any specific ideas about what they hoped to achieve, except that Germany and Austria wanted to preserve the Habsburg Empire, and thought this required them to destroy Serbia. As the war progressed, some of the governments involved, perhaps to encourage their troops by giving them some clear objectives to fight for, began to list their war aims.

British prime minister Lloyd George mentioned (January 1918) the defence of democracy and the righting of the injustice done to France in 1871 when she lost Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. Other points were the restoration of Belgium and Serbia, an independent Poland, democratic self-government for the nationalities of Austria-Hungary, self-determination for the German colonies and an international organization to prevent war. He was also determined that Germany should pay reparations for all the damage they had done.

American President Woodrow Wilson stated US war aims in his famous 14 Points (January 1918):

  1. abolition of secret diplomacy;
  2. free navigation at sea for all nations in war and peace;
  3. removal of economic barriers between states;
  4. all-round reduction of armaments;
  5. impartial adjustment of colonial claims in the interests of the populations
  6. evacuation of Russian territory;
  7. restoration of Belgium;
  8. liberation of France and restoration of Alsace and Lorraine;
  9. readjustment of Italian frontiers along the lines of nationality;
  10. self-government for the peoples of Austria-Hungary;
  11. Romania, Serbia and Montenegro to be evacuated and Serbia given access to the sea;
  12. self-government for the non-Turkish peoples of the Turkish Empire and permanent opening of the Dardanelles;
  13. an independent Poland with secure access to the sea;
  14. a general association of nations to preserve peace.

These points achieved publicity when the Germans later claimed that they had expected the peace terms to be based on them, and that since this was not the case, they had been cheated.

(b) Differing Allied views about how to treat the defeated powers

When the peace conference met (January 1919) it was soon obvious that a settlement would be difficult because of basic disagreements among the victorious powers:

  1. France (represented by Clemenceau) wanted a harsh peace, to ruin Germany economically. and militarily so that she could never again threaten French frontiers. Since 1814 the Germans had invaded France no fewer than five times. At all costs France’s security must be secured.
  2. Britain (Lloyd George) was in favor of a less severe settlement, enabling Germany to recover quickly so that she could resume her role as a major customer for British goods. Also, a flourishing German economy was vital if reparations were to be paid. However, Lloyd George had just won an election with slogans such as ‘hang the Kaiser’, and talk of getting from Germany ‘everything that you can squeeze out of a lemon and a bit more’. The British public therefore expected a harsh peace settlement
  3. The USA (Woodrow Wilson) was in favour of a lenient peace, though he had been disappointed when the Germans ignored his 14 Points and imposed the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on Russia. He wanted a just peace: although he had to accept British and French demands for reparations and German disarmament, he was able to limit reparations to losses caused to civilians and their property, instead of ‘the whole cost of the war’. Wilson was also in favour of self-determination: nations should be freed from foreign rule and given democratic governments of their own choice.

By June 1919 the conference had come up with the Treaty of Versailles for Germany, followed by other treaties dealing with Germany’s former allies. The Treaty of Versailles in particular was one of the most controversial settlements ever signed, and it was criticized even in the Allied countries on the grounds that it was too hard on the Germans, who were bound to object so violently that another war was inevitable, sooner or later. In addition, many of the terms, such as reparations and disarmament, proved impossible to carry out.


(a) The terms

1. Germany had to lose territory in Europe:

  • Alsace-Lorraine to France;
  • Eupen, Moresnet and Malmedy to Belgium;
  • North Schleswig to Denmark (after a plebiscite);
  • West Prussia and Posen to Poland, though Danzig (the main port of West Prussia) was to be a free city under League of Nations administration, because its population was wholly German.
  • Memel was given to Lithuania.
  • The area known as the Saar was to be administered by the League of Nations for 15 years, when the population would be allowed to vote on whether it should belong to France or Germany. In the meantime, France was to have the use of its coal mines.
  • Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which had been handed over to Germany by Russia by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, were taken away from Germany and set up as independent states. This was an example of self-determination being carried into practice.
  • Union (Anschluss) between Germany and Austria was forbidden.

2. Germany’s African colonies were taken away and became ‘mandates’ under League of Nations supervision: this meant that various member states of the League ‘looked after’ them.

3. German armaments were strictly limited to a maximum of 100000 troops and no conscription (compulsory military service), no tanks, armoured cars, military aircraft or submarines, and only six battleships. The Rhineland was to be permanently demilitarized. This meant that all German territory on the left bank of the Rhine, together with a 50-kilometer strip on the right bank, was to be closed to German troops and was to be occupied by Allied troops for at least ten years.

4. The War Guilt clause fixed the blame for the outbreak of the war solely on Germany and her allies and proposed that the ex-Kaiser should be put on trial for war crimes.

5. Germany was to pay reparations for damage done to the Allies; the actual amount was not decided at Versailles, but it was announced later (1921), after much argument
and haggling, as £6600 million.

6. A League of Nations was formed; its aims and organization were set out in the League Covenant.

The Germans had little choice but to sign the treaty, though they objected strongly. The signing ceremony took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the German Empire had been proclaimed less than 50 years earlier.

(b) Why did the Germans object, and how far were their objections justified?

1. It was a dictated peace

The Germans were not allowed into the discussions at Versailles; they were simply presented with the terms and told to sign. Although they were allowed to criticize the treaty in writing, all their criticisms were ignored except one (see Point 3 below).

Some historians feel that the Germans were justified in objecting, and that it would have been reasonable to allow them to take part in the discussions. This might have led to a toning down of some of the harsher terms. It would certainly have deprived the Germans of the argument much used by Hitler, that because the peace was a ‘Diktat’, it should not be morally binding.

On the other hand, it is possible to argue that the Germans could scarcely have expected any better treatment after the harsh way they had dealt with the Russians at Brest-Litovsk – also a ‘Diktat’.

2. Many provisions were not based on the 14 Points

The Germans claimed that they had been promised terms based on Wilson’s 14 Points, and that many of the provisions were not based on the 14 Points, and were therefore a swindle.

This is probably not a valid objection: the 14 Points had never been accepted as official by any of the states involved, and the Germans themselves had ignored them in January 1918, when there still seemed a chance of outright German victory. By November, German tactics (Brest-Litovsk, the destruction of mines, factories and public buildings during their retreat through France and Belgium) had hardened the Allied attitude and led Wilson to add two further points: Germany should pay for the damage to civilian population and property, and should be reduced to ‘virtual impotence’; in other words, Germany should be disarmed. The Germans were aware of this when they accepted the armistice, and, in fact, most of the terms did comply with the 14 Points and the additions.

There were also objections on specific points:

3. Loss of territory in Europe

This included Alsace-Lorraine and especially West Prussia, which gave Poland access to the sea. However, both were mentioned in the 14 Points. Originally Upper Silesia, an industrial region with a mixed population of Poles and Germans, was to be given to Poland, but this was the one concession made to the German written objections: after a vote among the population, Germany was allowed to keep about two-thirds of the area. In fact most of the German losses could be justified on grounds of nationality.

Where the Germans did have genuine cause for protest was on the question of national self-determination. Right from the start of the peace conference the Allies had emphasized that all nationalities should have the right to choose which country they wanted to belong to. This principle had been applied in the case of non-Germans; but the settlement left around a million Germans under Polish rule, and almost three million in the Sudetenland controlled by the new state of Czechoslovakia. In addition, Austria was a completely German state with a population of some seven million. All these Germans wanted to become part of Germany, but the unification of Germany and Austria was specifically forbidden in the agreement, probably because that would have made Germany larger and more powerful even than in 1914.

4. Loss of Germany’s African colonies

The Germans probably had good grounds for objection to the loss of their African colonies, which was hardly an ‘impartial adjustment’. The mandate system allowed Britain to take over German East Africa (Tanganyika) and parts of Togoland and the Cameroons, France to take most of Togoland and the Cameroons, and South Africa to acquire German South West Africa (now known as Namibia); but this was really a device by which the Allies seized the colonies without actually admitting that they were being annexed.

5. The disarmament clauses were deeply resented

The Germans claimed that 100 000 troops were not enough to keep law and order at a time of political unrest. Perhaps the German objection was justified to some extent, though the French desire for a weak Germany was understandable.

The Germans became more aggrieved later, as it became clear that none of the other powers intended to disarm, even though Wilson’s Point 4 mentioned ‘all-round reduction of armaments’. However, disarmament of Germany was impossible to enforce fully, because the Germans were determined to exploit every loophole.

6. ‘The War Guilt’ clause (Article 231)

The Germans objected to being saddled with the entire blame for the outbreak of war. There are some grounds for objection here, because although later research seems to indicate Germany’s guilt, it was hardly possible to arrive at that conclusion in the space of six weeks during 1919, which is what the Special Commission on War Responsibility did. However, the Allies wanted the Germans to admit responsibility so that they would be liable to pay reparations.

7. Reparations

Reparations were the final humiliation for the Germans. Though there could be little valid objection to the general principle of reparations, many historians now agree that the actual amount decided on was far too high at £6600 million. Some people thought so at the time, including  J. M. Keynes, who was an economic adviser to the British delegation at the conference. He urged the Allies to take £2000 million, which he said was a more reasonable amount, which Germany would be able to afford. The figure of £6600 million enabled the Germans to protest that it was impossible to pay, and they soon began to default on their annual installments. This caused resentment among the Allies, who were relying on German cash to help them pay their own war debts to the USA. There was international tension when France tried to force the Germans to pay.

Eventually the Allies admitted their mistake and reduced the amount to £2000 million (Young Plan, 1929), but not before reparations had proved disastrous, both economically and politically.

The Germans clearly did have some grounds for complaint, but it is worth pointing out that the treaty could have been even more harsh. If Clemenceau had had his way, the Rhineland would have become an independent state, and France would have annexed the Saar.


When Austria was on the verge of defeat in the war, the Habsburg Empire disintegrated as the various nationalities declared themselves independent. Austria and Hungary separated and declared themselves republics. Many important decisions therefore had already been taken before the peace conference met. However, the situation was chaotic, and the task of the conference was to formalize and recognize what had taken place.

(a) The Treaty of St Germain (1919), dealing with Austria

By this treaty Austria lost:

  • Bohemia and Moravia (wealthy industrial provinces with a population of 10 million) to the new state of Czechoslovakia;
  • Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Serbia, which, with Montenegro, later became Yugoslavia;
  • Bukovina to Romania;
  • Galicia to the reconstituted state of Poland;
  • the South Tyrol (as far as the Brenner Pass), Trentino, Istria and Trieste to Italy.

(b) The Treaty of Trianon (1920), dealing with Hungary

This treaty was not signed until 1920 because of political uncertainties in Budapest (the capital); the Communists, led by Bela Kun, seized power but were later overthrown.

  • Slovakia and Ruthenia were given to Czechoslovakia;
  • Croatia and Slovenia to Yugoslavia;
  • Transylvania and the Banat of Temesvar to Romania.

Both treaties contained the League of Nations Covenant. These settlements may seem harsh, but it has to be remembered that much of what was agreed had already happened; on the whole they did keep to the spirit of self-determination. More people were placed under governments of their own nationality than ever before in Europe, though they were not always as democratic as Wilson would have liked (especially in Hungary and Poland).

However, there were some deviations from the pattern; for example the three million Germans (in the Sudetenland) who now found themselves in Czechoslovakia, and the million Germans who were placed under Polish rule. The Allies justified this on the grounds that the new states needed them in order to be economically viable. It was unfortunate that both these cases gave Hitler an excuse to begin territorial demands on these countries.

The treaties left both Austria and Hungary with serious economic problems Austria was a small republic, its population reduced from 22 million to 6.5 million; most of its industrial wealth had been lost to Czechoslovakia and Poland. Vienna, once the capital of the huge Habsburg Empire, was left high and dry, surrounded by farming land which could hardly support it. Not surprisingly, Austria was soon facing a severe economic crisis and was constantly having to be helped out by loans from the League of Nations.

Hungary was just as badly affected, her population reduced from 21 million to 7.5 million, and some of her richest corn land lost to Romania.

Matters were further complicated when all the new states quickly introduced tariffs (import and export duties). These hampered the flow of trade through the whole Danube area and made the industrial recovery of Austria particularly difficult. In fact there was an excellent economic case to support a union between Austria and Germany.


(a) The Treaty of Sevres (1920), dealing with Turkey

  • Turkey was to lose Eastern Thrace, many Aegean islands and Smyrna to Greece; Adalia and Rhodes to Italy;
  • the Straits (the exit from the Black Sea) were to be permanently open;
  • Syria became a French mandate, and Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan British mandates.

However, the loss of so much territory to Greece, especially Smyrna on the Turkish mainland, outraged Turkish national feeling (self-determination was being ignored in this case). Led by Mustafa Kemal, the Turks rejected the treaty and chased the Greeks out of Smyrna. The Italians and French withdrew their occupying forces from the Straits area, leaving only British troops at Chanak. Eventually a compromise was reached and the settlement was revised by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), by which Turkey regained Eastern Thrace including Constantinople, and Smyrna. Turkey was therefore the first state to challenge the Paris settlement successfully.

One legacy of the Treaty of Sevres which was to cause problems later was the situation in the mandates. These were peopled largely by Arabs, who had been hoping for independence as a reward after their brave struggle, led by an English officer, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), against the Turks. Nor were the Arabs happy about the talk of establishing a Jewish ‘national home’ in Palestine.

(b) The Treaty of Neuilly (1919), dealing with Bulgaria

Bulgaria lost territory to Greece, depriving her of her Aegean coastline, and also to Yugoslavia and Romania. She could claim, with some justification, that at least a million Bulgars were under foreign governments as a result of the Treaty of Neuilly.


In conclusion, it has to be said that this collection of peace treaties was not a conspicuous success.

  • It had the unfortunate effect of dividing Europe into the states which wanted to revise the settlement (Germany being the main one), and those which wanted to preserve it. On the whole the latter turned out to be only lukewarm in their support. The USA failed to ratify the settlement and never joined the League of Nations. This in turn left France completely disenchanted with the whole thing because the Anglo-American guarantee of her frontiers given in the agreement could not now apply. Italy felt cheated because she had not received all the territory promised her in 1915, and Russia was ignored, because the powers did not want to negotiate with its Bolshevik government.
  • Germany, on the other hand, was only temporarily weakened and was soon strong enough to challenge certain of the terms. In fact it is possible to argue that Germany was weakened less than her enemies. Much of France, Poland and the Balkans had been ravaged by occupying troops, whereas German territory was virtually untouched. After all, no enemy troops had set foot on German soil and not surprisingly it was soon widely accepted in Germany that their armies had not been defeated. Returning German soldiers were welcomed back as heroes, fresh and undefeated from the battlefield. German industry was able to switch back to peacetime production remarkably quickly, and by 1921 was producing three times as much steel as France. All this tended to sabotage the settlement from the beginning, and it became increasingly difficult to apply the terms fully. Clearly, since Germany was still the strongest power in Europe economically, the great failing of the peace settlement was that it left the Germans with a sense of resentment and grievance, but did not leave them too weak to retaliate and seek revenge. These weaknesses were widely recognized at the time, even among allied delegates at the conference. Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat at the conference, wrote: ‘If I were the Germans, I shouldn’t sign for a moment.’ John Maynard Keynes, a senior British delegate and economic adviser, was so disillusioned with the way things were going that he resigned in protest and came home.
  • But it is easy to criticize after the event; Gilbert White, one of the American delegates, put it well when he remarked that, given the intricacy of the problems involved, ‘it is not surprising that they made a bad peace: what is surprising is that they managed to make peace at all’. With the availability of new sources, many historians find themselves in sympathy with this assessment, and argue that the settlement can now be seen ‘as a workable compromise’, and perhaps the best that could have been achieved under difficult circumstances. True, there were some mistakes, but the peacemakers cannot be blamed for Hitler’s rise to power, and certainly not for the Second World War. For example P. M. H. Bell, in his book Origins of the Second World War in Europe (2007), argues that in the early 1920s, Europe, including Germany, was beginning to recover well from the after-effects of the war. The tragedy was that ‘the outline of a successful European recovery was cut off in its prime by the great depression and its dreadful consequence, the advent of Hitler’.

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