Note 12/15/05: See the updated version of this page!
(since the Article 231 image is a top google result, Prof. Marcuse spruced up this page in 2005)

Signing of the Versailles Treaty

by Carlos Magana (authors page), Dec. 2003

World War I ended in 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. Symbolically, it was the same place where Otto von Bismarck had celebrated the French defeat in 1871 by proclaiming a German Empire, after the Franco-Prussian war that finalized the unification of the German state and signaled the rise of Germany’s military power. The treaty was finalized by the victors in late April and handed to the German representatives on May seventh. The German populace believed that the treaty was unfair. The Germans tried to have changes done to the treaty, but their efforts were futile. The allies threatened with the continuation of hostilities and the starvation blockade unless the Germans signed: "…in 1919…not only refused to accept the German reservations, but gave twenty-four hours within which to sign without conditions, in default of which the troops would march" (Dawson, 82). German’s military commanders, fully aware that the German military could not form any strong defense, advocated the signing of the treaty. The treaty was signed by Germany on June, 28, 1919.

There was immediate condemnation of the Versailles Treaty by the German populace. The German state was not expecting to lose the War. When the dust settled and the harsh reality of defeat was made clear, the German people were dumbfounded. It was a military defeat, but also a psychological defeat for the German state. "…the German people were expecting victory and not defeat. It was the acknowledgement of defeat, as much as the treaty terms themselves, which they found so hard to accept" (Henig, 27). The terms which caused the most resentment in Germany were the loss of territory, the war guilt placed solely on Germany, the deliberate effacement of the German military and the demands of reparations.

German Loss of Territory

The loss of territory meant an effacement of the German empire that Otto von Bismarck had established under the Prussian Monarchy. The reality of defeat and the fragmentation of the German empire were humiliating to the Germans. Germany lost 13.5 % of its territory under the terms of the treaty. Close to seven million German citizens were placed under the jurisdiction of a foreign nation:

map of Europe in 1920

Map of Europe in 1920, from book

France: France took Alsace and Lorraine and the German coal mines in the Saar Region for fifteen years. The Saar region was a highly industrialized region.

Poland: the state of Poland was recreated. Poland took most of West Prussia and much of the Posen province. Upper Silesia was ceded to Poland, but later returned to Germany under a plebiscite. The Polish Corridor was made of land that belonged to Germany before WWI.

Belgium: Small areas of Eupen, Malmèdy, Moresńet, St. Vith

Denmark: Northern Schelswig was ceded to Denmark under article 27 of treaty.

Czechoslovakia: border area near Troppau (present day Opava)

The League of Nations took control of the free city of Danzig and the allies took control of the Rhineland for fifteen years. The Rhineland was demilitarized under article 180 of the Versailles Treaty. It was considered the industrial heart of Germany and the source of its military power. Germany also lost its colonies and large merchant vessels.

War Guilt Clause


Versailles Treaty article 231
Versailles Treaty War Guilt Clause

At the conclusion of the war, Germany was demonized due to the destruction that WWI had caused. All people affected by the war wanted Germany to be punished. It is erroneous to place the full burden of the war on Germany, "Belief in the unique guilt of the Kaiser for the horrors of the World War was unanimous" (Birdsall, 4). The politicians wanted Germany to accept moral responsibility for the war and all the consequences thereof, after realizing that Germany would not be able to pay reparations as high as 33 million. The politicians arrogantly believed they could appease their states by forcing the Germans to admit to a moral responsibility, since it became clear that Germany would not be able to pay high reparations. The accord was reached on April 7, 1919 and adopted as article 231 of the Versailles Treaty:

"The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the damage to which the allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies" (Birdsall, 254).

The political consequence of Article 231 was far reaching. Article 231 was termed the ‘War Guilt Clause.’ "This clause, more than any other in the entire Treaty of Versailles, was to cause lasting resentment in Germany…" (Henig, 19). The guilt clause resulted in German humiliation and rage. Most sectors of German society did not understand why all the blame was placed on the German state.

Dismemberment of German Military Force

The Allied forces were concerned with weakening Germany militarily. Numerous restrictions were placed on Germany’s military. Germany was forbidden to possess submarines and naval aircraft. Under the treaty Germany was limited to:

When Germany realized that they would not be keeping their Navy, it was decided that it was better to "…sink the fleet on June 22, 1919, when it became clear that, whatever was decided, the ships would not be allowed to return to Germany" (Henig, 17).

Similarly the German Army was to be limited:

The restrictions placed upon Germany were taken bitterly by the Germans. They argued that so many restrictions made them vulnerable to attack. The great German army had been dismantled and that was another humiliating factor of the Versailles Treaty. The Germans had venerated their military superiority since the German wars of unification.

German Reparations

Reparations were another factor that led to the German resentment regarding the treaty. France and Britain, both wanted to receive reparations for the damage caused by Germany during the war. At first it was not agreed on the price that Germany should pay, financial reparations as high as 30,000 million were argued during the deliberation of the treaty. A question however lingered, how was Germany to pay such sums if the war had crippled her economy? To resolve this issue, it was agreed that Germany should only be responsible for civilian damage. The sum was set at 6,000 million, which was still very high due to the depreciated German economy.

France above all was the one who wanted to maintain Germany weak. France wanted to repay war debts with German capital. In 1923, the French invaded the Ruhr. In December 1922, the Reparations Commission declared that Germany had defaulted in its deliveries of timber. The French military invasion of the Ruhr spurred German nationalistic sentiments of hostility towards the French. Instead of giving the reparations, the German authorities encouraged the workers to strike. The result was a period of hyperinflation. The German mark, which had been under pressure since 1919, began to depreciate and eventually became worthless. Germans were desperate and were ready to support extremists such as Hitler and the Nazi Party:

"The invasion of the Ruhr in 1923 had been the most serious consequence. Within Germany…diminished the support for the Weimar government. Extremist parties on the right and left were given a boost, because of the alarm at the prospect of complete economic collapse and social disorder. Many historians argue that the invasion of the Ruhr paved the way for Hitler’s subsequent rise to power" (Henig, 35).

Hitler’s Views Concerning the Versailles Treaty

Hitler was very upset when Germany surrendered in November 1918 and firmly believed that Jewish politicians had stabbed Germany in the back. Germans hated the Versailles Treaty and viewed the June 28, the signing of the treaty as a day of dishonor for the German state. Hitler’s main objective and argument was that he was going to make Germany great again. He argued that in for Germany to regain its status of greatness, he Versailles Treaty had to be abolished. Hitler begun by proclaiming that he was going to liberate the German people of the dictated treaty.

Extracts from the Nazi Party Programme 1920

Hitler in essence promised the German people the effacement of the Versailles Treaty. In doing so he paved the way to World War II. The German people argued that it was a dictated treaty, due to the fact that Germany had no say and this caused immense bitterness. Hitler’s popularity, in large part was due to his outspoken denunciation of the treaty. He promised that he was going to reunite all Germans under the fatherland once again. The German populace was in a state of distraught. Hitler used their sentiments to come to power. He began to disregard the Treaty of Versailles when he took Germany out of the League of Nations. Germany starts rearming in 1933. Hitler bolstered that by 1940 Germany would be fully prepared for war. He occupies the Rhineland in 1936. To fulfill his promise of reuniting all Germans once again, Hitler first unites with Austria in what is termed the Anschluss. The union of Austria and Germany was forbidden by the treaty. He then negotiates with the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, to and obtains Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia. By 1939, Hitler has literally abolished the dictated treaty and World War II begins in 1939 with the invasion of Poland.

Hist 33d course page
Hist 33D Projects
1920s Main Page
Versailles Treaty
Economy of the 1920s
Two views of Hitler
about the authors