The End of World War One and the Paris Peace Conference
author Liviu Sadovschi, June 2016
World War I was the most terrifying carnage humanity had ever known. At the end of the 52 months of war, the statistics were shattering: over 9 million lives lost, with probably the same number of people suffering from some kind of illness or disability after the battles.
World War I was the most terrifying carnage humanity had ever known. At the end of the 52 months of war, the statistics were shattering: over 9 million lives lost, with probably the same number of people suffering from some kind of illness or disability after the battles.

Material losses were estimated at almost 400 billion dollars: buildings, factories, houses, farms, churches and even entire villages and towns had been completely destroyed. In France alone, 750,000 families had lost their homes due to the war.

The European economy had collapsed. Many nations had accumulated enormous war debts and had no means of repaying them after the end of the war. This situation was to the economic advantage of the United States of America. This country became the principal financier of the world, consolidating its position as the strongest economy in the world.

The death and destruction produced by the war left a lasting impression on all those involved. Man had created weaponry with a power for destruction so large that the survivors of the war never wanted to live through such an experience again. The destruction and absolute chaos of the war made many people doubt everything they had ever known or believed.

Questions, fears, anxieties and doubts came to light during the years after the war, revolutionising fields such as art, religion, psychology and philosophy. Europe was dizzy and confused like a boxer after the end of a terrible match. People were faced with the difficult task of putting their lives in order. It was clear to everyone that things would never be the same as before the war. The Great War had changed everything: the economy was ruined, politics had changed, and the European map had been redrawn.

Some of the greatest multinational empires disappeared. Tsarist Russia, which at one point ruled 200 peoples and nationalities, disappeared. The great scale of human and material loss made the survival of the Romanov Empire impossible. The collapse of Tsarist Russia led to the genesis of the first communist state, after the so-called “October Revolution”, which was actually a Bolshevik coup.

Together with Soviet Russia, independent states such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland were created or reconstituted out of the ruins of the Tsarist empire.

Basarabia, the ancient Romanian territory located between the Prut and Nistru rivers, which had been annexed by Tsarist Russia, was reunited with its motherland, Romania, after initially proclaiming its independence.

The proud Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary, was the first of the Great Powers to initiate hostilities in World War I. In a strange irony, it was also the first to try to find a way to leave the war honorably, in order to save itself from imminent destruction.

Two fundamental causes led to the disintegration of the Dual Monarchy: the aggravation of domestic problems, determined by the fight for autonomy and independence of the nine oppressed peoples; and the actions of the enemy Great Powers, which encouraged nationalist movements.

The presentiment felt by the leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that they had arrived in a dangerous stage, on which the existence of the empire depended, was put into action through an important peace proposal. The new leader of the empire, Carol I, had taken the place of Franz Joseph, deceased. Carol released a manifesto in which he expressed his desire to do all that was in his power to stop the horrors and sacrifices of the war.

The Bolshevik coup multiplied fears in the west that there would be a power vacuum in Europe after the end of the hostilities. The eastern front succumbed, with Soviet Russia and Romania signing armistices with the Central Powers. This context significantly influenced the evolution of the position of the Allied Powers in relation to Austria-Hungary.

The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, did not place the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire amongst the immediate goals of Great Britain. The American president, Woodrow Wilson, in his ‘14 points’, mentioned: “the people of Austro-Hungary, whose place amongst the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured...”

This somewhat conciliatory approach to the Dual Monarchy changed radically, even though the Allied Powers were convinced of the necessity of the historical disappearance of Austria-Hungary. The Triple Entente realized that the peace proposals put forward by the Austro-Hungarian Empire could not be taken seriously. This country had not been able to distance itself from German politics.

Great Britain and France came to the conclusion that Russian influence in Eastern Europe did not necessarily need to be replaced with that of the dual monarchy, but rather with that of the new national countries coming into being in this area. Austria-Hungary fell not primarily because of decisions made in Paris, London or Washington, but rather due to actions carried out by the different nationalities within the empire.

Wilson’s speech on Independence Day must be mentioned in this context. Slovakia was part of the Czechoslovakian state, and Transylvania was about to unite with Romania. Robert Lansing, the US secretary of state, assured the Romanian government in Iasi of American sympathy with the Romanian cause.

The speech given by the American president Woodrow Wilson before the US Congress was called ‘The 14 points’. These were a peace proposal, validated by the American legislature and addressed both to the conquerors and the conquered.

‘The 14 points’ can be classified according to two fundamental criteria. The first group of articles were obligatory for all the countries, imposing open diplomacy, freedom of navigation on the seas, general disarmament, the removal of commercial barriers, the impartial resolution of colonial disputes, the reinstatement of Belgium, the evacuation of Russian territories and the establishment of the League of Nations. Open diplomacy forbade the practice commonly used by countries, of negotiating and signing secret agreements. The evacuation of Russian territories was an obligatory demand, since German troops occupied a large part of western Russia, in modern-day Ukraine.

The American president expressed his ‘anti-imperialist’ belief and even a certain sympathy towards the Germans: “We have no jealousy of German greatness, and there is nothing in this program that impairs it”.

The essence of the Wilson idealism can be seen from the following paragraph: “An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak.”

The other group of articles contained six regional decisions: Alsace-Lorraine would be returned to France, autonomy would be granted to the nationalities from the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire, Italy’s frontier would be adjusted, the Balkans would be evacuated, the Dardanelles would be opened as an international passage, and an independent Poland would be created, with access to the sea.

Germany had obtained victory on the eastern front, through the armistices signed with Russia and Romania. The offensive begun on the western front was one step away from success. Towards the end of the war, Germany controlled a vast territory, from Belgium to Ukraine. For these reasons, it didn’t want to negotiate a reasonable peace plan. Their foreign policy only changed when Allied troops came close to Germany’s borders.

The Germans were victorious after signing armistices with Russia and Romania. Germany was a conqueror in the East and hoped to make the finishing blow in the West.

Germany decided to treat Wilson’s vision with a lack of interest, even though it was much more generous than anything the French or even the British would have offered them.

The German military leadership still hoped to gain victory, especially on the eastern front.

The unification of the military leadership of the Entente under the command of Ferdinand Foch, the blocking of the German advance and the Allied counter-offensive gradually dispelled all chances of victory for the Central Powers.

Towards the end of the war, the Germans decided to accept the Wilson peace program, which had by then undergone certain modifications. Accepting the conditions of the armistice, the leaders of the new German Republic spoke about a ‘just’ peace.

It was not only Wilson who wanted to be mediator - the Germans themselves hoped to have him as their arbiter. In spite of its defeat, Germany still dreamed of maintaining its status as a Great Power in international relations.

Although the terms of the armistice were quite harsh, and the Germans were somewhat disappointed, they accepted it. They had illusions about the role Wilson would play at the next peace conference.

The principles of political realism triumphed. Britain no longer had permanent friends or enemies. The only eternal things were the interests of Great Britain, said Lord Palmerston. Even so, England and France could not ignore the ascension of the United States. They owed the USA considerable sums of money, in the form of war loans.

The reactions of the ‘Allies’, whom the USA had associated with, to Wilson’s peace plan, were interesting. The American proposals stirred concern in Paris and London. Some of them even generated hostility.

Consulting the populations of colonies about their fate was seen as a source of instability for the great cities. These had more Indians, Muslims or IndoChinese, than French or English.

The so-called ‘open diplomacy’ could not be to the liking of the French or British diplomats. Most treaties and agreements had been secret up until then, negotiated and signed by a restricted group of diplomats or politicians.

Disarmament down to a minimum level, to ensure internal order, was bound to worry France, which feared that Germany would want revenge.

The leaders from Paris and London, although they had many reservations about the Wilson peace plan, were in an impossible situation. They could not reject it, since they knew the Americans would be the decisive factor in the balance of victory. In this situation, they accepted the plan, with the condition that there would have to be further discussions, clarifications and remarks, meaning unending postponements.

A League of Nations, lacking the instruments or means through which to impose its principles and rules, could only be an impossible idealism which, as would be proven, could not maintain peace in the world. This is where the famous clashes and dysfunctions of the Paris Peace Conference had their origin.

‘Freedom of navigation’ could not favor the country which had been ‘the ruler of the waves’. ‘Commercial freedom’ favored the only great economic and commercial power which had not been affected in any significant way by the war: the United States.

The Paris Peace Conference was the most representative multilateral international meeting ever held until that date. Delegates from more than 30 countries participated. The initiators of the Versailles Treaty were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Vienna Congress.

President Wilson went to Paris to participate in the peace conference as leader of the United States delegation. The French premier, Georges Clemenceau, represented a nation determined to punish the Germans, who had lost the war. England’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, had come to Paris with intentions closer to those of Clemenceau than to those of Wilson. Together with these three, setting the game rules at Paris, was the prime minister of Italy, Vittorio Orlando.

Relations between France and the United Kingdom were not the most friendly. Great Britain would have liked a France confident enough in its own strength, however not led by the desire for revenge, but generous with Germany. The French wanted to show their independence and self-confidence by rejecting the British political ideas.

At the peace Conference, Wilson wanted to stand on a neutral position, mediating between the European Great Powers, the conquered and the conquerors. Actually, the Americans were the only ones who regretted the end of the war. A prolonging of the confrontation would have accentuated the dependence of the European Allies on the US.

The main concern of the Great Powers was to obtain absolute control of everything that happened. From the Wilson perspective of open diplomacy, the Great Powers could not exclude the small countries from decision making. Thus, these states must be given a role, but not a decisive one.

The real power would be held by the Conference Council, in reality a cabinet of the Great Powers. The Council of the Ten met 72 times, but this body functioned with great difficulty. It did not settle anything decisively. There was a real risk of the conference coming to a stalemate, which meant that the ‘Big Three’ or the ‘Big Four’ had to enter the stage. The ‘Council of the Four (minus the Italian premier Orlando who had left Paris in protest) had to adopt fundamental decisions at great speed.

A big problem was organization. The Great Powers did not have a common vision of the kind of Europe they wanted to build. In spite of the appearances of the compromise they arrived at, the actual situation was different. Neither Great Britain, France nor the USA approached the peace conference with a detailed plan. Between the three Great Powers, the only ones that really mattered, there was no common language.

The ethnic map of Eastern Europe was a complicated and irregular mosaic, in which there was widespread migration of populations between regions. If national self-determination was to be the guiding principle in creating and legitimizing the new borders, which criteria were needed to determine nationality? Which nationalities should decide their own fate and which should not have this right? Woodrow Wilson and the other great leaders did not have clear answers to these questions.

In the impressive decor of the Mirror Room in the Versailles Palace, the first and most important peace treaty was signed between the Entente Powers and Germany. The location of this important event was not a coincidence. Here, almost half a century earlier, Bismarck’s Prussia had obtained total and humiliating victory over the France of Napoleon the Third. France was on the rise again. It had managed to get its revenge on Germany.

Hindenburg declared that armed resistance was impossible. The National Assembly ratified the treaty with 237 votes for and 158 against. After ratifying the treaty, the German government declared: “We bowed to force, and can no longer resist”. The decision of the National Assembly was communicated to Clemenceau 19 minutes before the end of the armistice. Four days later, the treaty was signed by Germany.

The Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany accept total responsibility for the war, whether this was fair or not. Overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment and the heavy burden of the clauses of the treaty, the German delegation signed the act which brought their country to its knees. The treaty imposed by the Entente was received with stupefaction, revolt and indignation by public opinion in Germany.

In a parallel with Wagner’s dramatic opera, ‘The Twilight of the gods,’ Germany’s situation was compared by contemporaries to the events befalling the hero Siegfried, who was stabbed in the back by enemies from within. The same metaphor, of Germany being stabbed in the back, can be found in the memoirs of Kaiser Wilhelm the second, who was convinced that those who stabbed Germany in the back were none other than revolutionary Zionists.

The Treaty of Versailles was a voluminous and complex document, with over 450 articles. It included the problem of frontiers and safeguards which must be taken against Germany.

Germany was losing relatively important territories in Europe and other continents. Alsace-Lorraine was returning to France. The Eupen, Moresnet and Malmedy districts were incorporated into Belgium. Nord Schleswig returned to Denmark. A strip of western Prussia and Posen went back to Poland, becoming the so-called ‘Polish corridor’. Danzig, known as Gdansk to the Polish, the main port of western Prussia, would become a free town, under the administration of the League of Nations.

The Rhineland, the territory between the French-Belgian-French border and the Rhine, together with the territory on the right of the Rhine, with a width of 50km, would be demilitarized. Germany and its allies were considered entirely responsible for the outbreak of war. According to article 231, those countries were obliged to pay ‘war reparations’.

In the last year of the conflict, the German army systematically destroyed mines, factories and public buildings, including hospitals, in their retreat from Belgium and France. These actions by Germany radicalized the attitude of the Allies. Even Wilson, the pacifist, had become convinced of the necessity of making Germany pay reparations for the destructions it had caused and for it to be completely disarmed. The amount of the reparations were not specified in the Treaty of Versailles. They were announced later, after many disputes and divergences. The total was of 132 billion marks in gold, equivalent to 33 billion dollars or 6,6 billion pounds sterling.

The region known as Saar, an important coal deposit, would be under the administration of the League of Nations for the next 15 years. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, taken by Germany from Russia through the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, became independent. The ‘Anschluss’ agreement between Germany and Austria was forbidden. Germany’s African colonies were taken away. These became ‘mandates’ under the supervision of the League of Nations.

Germany must respect some very restrictive military clauses, such as: an army of 100,000 soldiers, of which only 5,000 could be officers, recruited voluntarily, with obligatory military service being forbidden. They were not allowed to hold offensive arms, such as: tanks, armored cars, military aviation and submarines, with the exception of 6 military ships.

Germany and its allies had been defeated, but not destroyed. Berlin had asked for peace and signed an armistice. The Allies could have continued the war, invaded German territory and produced enormous material damage to the principal author of the catastrophe.

The Treaty of Versailles with Germany was the most important deal of the Paris Peace Conference for Central, Eastern and South-eastern Europe. Still, the treaties signed with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey were also significant.

Through the Treaty of Saint-Germain, Austria ceded to the new Czechoslovak state two strong industrial provinces with a population of approx. 10 million: Bohemia and Moravia. Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina were included in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later called Yugoslavia. Northern Bukovina went back to Romania. Galicia was included in the Polish state. South Tyrol, Trentino, Istria and Trieste went to Italy.

The Treaty of Trianon authorised Hungary’s loss of Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia to Czechoslovakia, of Croatia and Slovenia to Yugoslavia and of Transylvania and a good part of the Banat region to Romania.

Although they may seem very severe at first glance, these transfers of territories and populations from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire were made by applying democratic principles. They were made based on the principle of national self-determination, a principle proposed by Wilson. Even though the new borders were not and could not be perfect, they represented real progress towards fulfilling national ideals.

The peace conference only officialized what was already happening: the birth of new countries, the rebirth of others, territorial expansion for others, declarations of unity, military occupations, etc. There were very few territorial transfers going against the principle of national self-determination. Exceptions include the Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia, the Ukrainians from Poland and the Hungarians in Romania.

Bulgaria signed the Treaty of Neuilly, according to which it lost its new territories, confirming its losses in the Balkan wars. The new Bulgarian state no longer had a coastline on the Aegean Sea. Most of Macedonia went towards forming the new Yugoslav state. Southern Dobruja remained in Romania. Thus, one million Bulgarians were now living outside the national borders.

Turkey lost a lot of territory. Eastern Thrace, many islands in the Aegean Sea and Smirna, called Izmir by the Turks, went back to Greece. Antalya and Rhodes went to Italy. France controlled Sicily. Syria and Lebanon were taken over as territories under the rule of the League of Nations. Palestine, Iraq and the Transjordan became territories under the mandate of Great Britain. A vast territory in eastern Anatolia would be included in the Armenian state.

The Treaty of Sevres, signed by Turkey, contained a series of territorial measures which led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The treaty also contained punitive measures for the Turks, blamed for old and more recent evils.

A new international status was declared for the straits of Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Navigation through these straits would be free during peace and war for all commercial and military vessels, regardless which flag they were sailing under. This decision made navigation through these straits the same as navigation through international waters. These waters could not be under blockade and could not be the site of any acts of war, except those authorized by the League of Nations.

The treaty was rejected and a military conflict was begun with Greek, French and Armenian troops. This war ended with a Turkish victory, which led to painful repercussions for the Greeks. They had to suffer a forced exchange of populations, which was actually more of an ‘ethnic cleansing’.

These huge territorial losses, especially the loss of the Izmir region to Greece, seen as an eternal enemy by the Turks, together with the fact that the Great Powers of Europe were carving out influence for themselves in the entire Turkish region, produced a Turkish nationalist movement. The leader of this movement was Mustafa Kemal, who became a great hero of the Turkish nation.

The immediate fallout of these dramatic events was the annulment of the Treaty of Sevres and its replacement with the Treatment of Lausanne. Through this, Turkey retook possession of Eastern Thrace and the Izmir area, also taking control of the entire Anatolia region. Thus, a precedent was created in the history of international relations. Turkey was the first country which, although defeated in World War I, succeeded in revising the policies concerning itself.

Although it was the most important international reunion until that point, the most democratic and the most representative, the Paris Peace Conference was not a complete success. This was due to the conflicts and lack of cohesion in the Allied camp. These countries did not manage to reach a common platform concerning a new international order.

Another reason was the way in which the defeated countries were treated, especially Germany. The harsh articles concerning Germany sparked strong resentment in both camps. The dissatisfaction of the population, and also of the political class, were felt during the whole of the inter-war period.

France was left without safeguards for national security. The USA and Great Britain were no longer pillars of strength in the political and military architecture France had built to counterbalance Germany’s desire for revenge.

Italy felt betrayed, because it did not obtain the whole of the territory it had been promised when it entered the conflict. Russia was completely ignored. The victors of the war and the peace makers did not want to negotiate with the new Bolshevik power.

The Paris peace system built after the Great War was, as suggested by certain new titles about the peace conference, similar to ‘a peace without victory’ or ‘an unfinished peace’. It was viewed as a compromise between Americans and Europeans, between Anglo-Saxons and French, between Germans and their conquerors. Europe was divided between countries which wished to renegotiate peace and those trying to maintain it. This fragile equilibrium did not even last for two decades.

The Paris Peace conference reflected Wilson’s influence, especially in the articles concerning the League of Nations. The United States of America did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles. It never joined the League of Nations. In the end, the Americans signed a different peace treaty with Germany. This was almost identical to the Treaty of Versailles, except that the first part, the Pact of the League of Nations, was completely missing.

Germany was temporarily weakened, although after a short time it became strong enough to contest the Versailles system. In spite of all the harsh clauses imposed on Germany, considered by some to be unjust and humiliating, this defeated country still managed to conserve its political unity. In a few years, it found its former rhythm and transformed itself into a great power.

Through the edifice built in Paris, the generous principle of self-determination of nationalities triumphed. New countries were born, others completed their territory, as in the case of Romania through the Great Union. These treaties and wider consequences of the war radically affected the history of Europe for the next 70 years. The fact that the Great War was a kind of watershed in European history became almost immediately evident in Russia, where a new communist state, characterised by Ronald Reagan as “an empire of evil”, was raised on the social and political ruins of the conflict that had caused such immense destruction.