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Lessons from Versailles: Isolationism, Victory, and Repercussions

Posted By IRC, Monday, September 25, 2017
Updated: Monday, July 10, 2017

When World War One finally ended on the November 11, 1918, more than 38 million military and civilian casualties had been reported between both sides, making this war one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. As a result of the war, the governments of four European powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russian, and Ottoman Empire) collapsed. The Allied Powers, led by Great Britain, France, and the United States, spearheaded the Paris Peace Conference. The Treaty of Versailles declared that Germany was responsible for starting the war and for causing all of the war’s destruction. Because the treaty was extremely (but not effectively) coercive, the Treaty of Versailles was destined to fail and should not have been expected to last more than twenty years.

Coming into November of 1918, both the Allied and the German armies were completely exhausted and ready for an armistice. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson offered his Fourteen Points as groundwork for a peace settlement after the war was over. The Germans, knowing fully well that they were very nearly exhausting their military in terms of personnel and supplies, decided to sue for peace on the terms of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The armistice was signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, and all fighting ceased.

Going into to the peace talks, the German government was under the impression that the Allies would honor Wilson’s Fourteen Points, as that was what they had advertised to the Germans in order to get them to stop fighting. However, once the German envoy arrived in Paris, they found that the British and French had instead planned for an unconditional surrender on the part of the Germans, as well as severe reparation payments, extremely limited military, and demilitarization of the industrial areas of Germany.

Due to the unclear communication, and the resultant punitive settlements the Germans agreed to, the German people felt betrayed for years after the war. After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, both the United States and United Kingdom resigned to very isolated positions in the international system. The United States Congress also failed to ratify the treaty to join the League of Nations. With neither the US nor UK wanting to involve themselves in European affairs, France was left as the sole enforcer of the Treaty of Versailles.

Building off of the animosity that stemmed from the miscommunication by the Allies and the French occupation, Adolf Hitler was able stroke the nationalistic fervor that was rising in Germany. By now, the credibility of the Treaty of Versailles was beginning to wear off, to the point where it was completely ignored.

After reviewing the Treaty of Versailles, the Supreme Allied Commander, Ferdinand Foch, proclaimed: “This is not a peace. This is an armistice for twenty years.” Foch’s words proved to be prophetic as the Second World War began 20 years and 64 days after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The treaty was flawed from the beginning, demanding impossibly high reparations and humiliating Germany on the international stage. The French lacked the true capability and credibility to effectively enforce the treaty, which as a result was eventually ignored. It was too late for Europe once the British and French actually started to worry about Germany. Luckily, the Allies learned from the mistakes of the Versailles Treaty and were able to end World War II effectively and maintain peace for more than 75 years.




Peter Fortunato is a sophomore at the University of Miami Ohio, pursuing a Bachelor degree in both International Studies and Statistics, and minoring in Spanish.

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