How did the Treaty of Versailles establish peace?


Different Judgements


Criticisms,   Mitigation,   Praise

The Last Word (Margaret MacMillan)


The peacemakers at Versailles hoped to make the Great War 'the war to end all wars'.   The Peace of Versailles, however, has been hugely criticised.


The Germans, of course, hated it:


The criminal madness of this peace will drain Germany's national life-blood.   It is a shameless blow in the face of common-sense.   It is inflicting the deepest wounds on us Germans as our world lies in wreckage about us

from a speech made by a German MP in the Reichstag in 1919.



But so did many other people.   John Maynard Keynes, a young member of the British delegation, angry that his suggestions about reparations had been ignored, published a damning account of the Conference: The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919).   His argument was that the burden of reparations would ruin Germany. 


Another young member of the British delegation was similarly negative.   Harold Nicolson, author of the book Peacemaking 1919, wrote:


The historian, with every justification, will come to the conclusion that we were very stupid men...   We arrived determined that a Peace of justice and wisdom should be negotiated; we left the conference conscious that the treaties imposed upon our enemies were neither just nor wise.

Harold Nicolson

The historian William Keylor suggests that Nicolson's impressions were made significantly more pessimistic because, at the time of the Conference, his wife was having a lesbian affair - at that time, a great scandal and humiliation.






This impression of a failed Peace has been the overwhelming judgement of historians ever since.


The Peace of Versailles was an unsatisfactory compromise with little chance of ensuring an enduring peace.   Each of the 'Big Three' had different aims which had to be modified in order to reach an overall agreement and the Germans were not even allowed to take part in the negotiations.   Germany was humiliated, the French didn't feel completely secure, the British had wanted the re-establishment of trade more than anything else and the Americans had had to give up on their ideals of self determination where Germany was concerned.   All this was a recipe for disaster in my opinion.

A private communication to from Carole Faithorn

Carole Faithorn studied History and Economics at the University of London . Now retired, she was formerly Head of History at an 11-18 Catholic Boys school in Avon, England.



Many modern teachers believe that it failed to secure peace and ruined the future:


The Treaty of Versailles was flawed to the extent that instead of preventing future wars it made a future war inevitable.

State of Michigan, USA, sample core curriculum, Social Studies lesson plan 8

The lesson plan, in a section: Application Beyond School, suggests that studying the treaty of Versailles will help students understand that ‘every action and choice has a consequence, and different actions and different choices result in different consequences. This is true both for individuals and for nations. Students also learn that some actions make other actions inevitable.


The Treaty of Versailles was the basic cause of the Second World War, the holocaust and the Cold War.   Why?   Because it was a treaty made without thought of fairness or consideration as to what its effects might be.   Instead the treaty created an alien system of democracy that was never more than stable and which because of the constitution's flaws allowed  Germany to be torn apart by extremist political parties like the Communists and worse Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.   In effect it put Germany in a situation it couldn't get out of, with unworkable political systems and economic and social problems just waiting to explode (hence the Nazis and their scapegoating of Jews became much easier).   Had the treaty been fair and balanced it's likely Germany would never have become embroiled in starting a Second World War, nor would the madman Hitler have come to power and so the Holocaust would never have happed.   Could this have been predicted?   Lloyd George was sure the Treaty of Versailles would lead to a Second World War and he was right.

A private communication to from Dave Wallbanks (2004)

Dave Wallbanks studied history at Bradford University, and PGCE at Newcastle and is now history Curriculum Leader at an 11-16 Community College in the North of England.


The Treaty of Versailles was to ultimately lead Europe to a Second World War due to the direct fact that the Big Three' ultimately had different goals in terms of achieving peace.   What is clear from the terms of the Treaty is that France had one main aim, revenge, whereas the USA wanted money and Britain, it could be said, wanted a more fair resolution that would prevent future conflict.   What they all failed to take into account was that in order for a plan, a treaty or an arrangement to be successful everybody has to have the same aims and goals.   This goes some way to explaining why the Treaty of Versailles was not the success that it could have been.

A private communication to from Nichola Boughey (2004)
Nichola Boughey gained a BA Hons in Economic and Social History at the University of Liverpool (1997-2000) and is now a History Teacher at Weatherhead High School, Wallasey


The Treaty of Versailles was an aberration.   The Allies couldn't agree amongst themselves what to do with the defeated Germany and ended up accepting a document that was agreed begrudgingly by some of the major nations involved in its construction.   Something created so quickly and in an environment as hostile as the immediate aftermath of the bloodiest war of all time was bound to be filled with clauses created more through fear and anger than forgiveness, compassion and a desire for rebuilding relationships and really ensuring long lasting peace. .

A private communication to from Dan Moorhouse (2004)
Dan Moorhouse studied History at De Montfort University and is now Head of History at a school in Bradford.


As one of my GCSE students put it, brilliantly:


The Peace of Versailles was like a big stick of dynamite, and Hitler was just like the little boy with the match.

Daniel Harris

Daniel is a GCSE History student.


And the historian Norman Lowe made this thought-provoking aside:


The Germans did have some cause for complaint...   However, Germany was still the strongest power in Europe economically, so that the unwise thing about Versailles was that it annoyed the Germans yet did not render them too weak to retaliate.

Norman Lowe, Mastering Modern World History (1982)

Mastering Modern World History was a GCSE History revision book.



The Cambridge historian Jay Winter describes the Conference as a place where many countries and politicians came to try to get what they could:


The peace negotiations in Paris were like a grand bazaar where all kinds of merchants come and spread their wares – what they have to offer, what they want to buy, what they feel is theirs by right.

Jay Winter, Cambridge University


This, strangely, is almost exactly how Lenin described it:


What then is the Treaty of Versailles?     It is an unparalleled and predatory peace, which has made slaves of tens of millions of people, including the most civilised.   This is no peace, but terms dictated to a defenceless victim by armed robbers.

Lenin, in a speech to Political Conference of Workers, Soldiers and Villagers in October 1920



Other Socialist and Communist historians have seen the Treaty - to a greater or lesser degree - as a capitalist plot to destroy Russia:


The Versailles Peace Treaty was designed to perpetuate the repartition of the capitalist world in favour of the victor countries, and to establish a system of relationships between countries aimed at strangling Soviet Russia and suppressing the revolutionary movement throughout the world.

Endnote gloss by the Stalinist editor of a Plan of a Speech by Lenin to the TU Conference (1921).

A modern Marxist historian comments on this statement: 'The editors were over-focused on the Russia, making Russia the center of their universe.   These guys were probably writing under Stalin's eye'. 


The victorious imperial powers in the Great War - England, France and the USA... were in competition for world trade - Britain based upon the Sterling currency, USA on the Dollar and France on gold.   Industrialists in all three made huge profits out of four years of slaughter, and the push towards bigger monopolies carried on in earnest.   Only socialism stood in the way of the capitalists.

       The common concern for the rulers of the 'Big Three' was not fear of a wounded Germany, but the spectre of working-class rebellion at home, encouraged by the 1917 Revolution in Russia.   A crippled Germany was not in the interests of the USA in particular, due to her dominant geographical position in Central Europe.   A co-operative and pro-capitalist Germany could act as a bulwark, or even an aggressor towards the new socialist state in the East.
       The main aim of Versailles was to crush working-class movements in Germany by fostering nationalistic feelings and the sham of liberal-democratic capitalism.

A private communication to from Dafydd Humphreys (2004)

Dafydd Humphreys teaches in South London



Contributors to the worldwide web still overwhelmingly see the Treaty as a 'bad thing' - though some of them show great ignorance of the facts, and you may wonder by what right they give their opinions:


Versailles treated Germany like a rabid dog.   Far from "realistic", Versailles was a greedy and vengeful treaty that had no place being in the (then) modern world…

Tyler Jones, March 9, 1991

Tyler Jones studied computer science at Northeastern University , Boston , USA , and is an expert on Language-related resources on the Web.


1. irishgit , on 3/7/2004 10:44:00 AM, said:
Not so much a bad idea as poor execution.   The high ideals that some participants (notably Wilson) brought to the table were drowned in a lust for punitive revenge agains the Central Powers.   This helped set the stage for the next round of struggle and horror twenty years later.


2. Anonymous , on 1/19/2004 11:06:00 AM, said:
This treaty was a total disaster.   Due to the fact that it basically eliminated Germany's army, that country grew hungry for power, and eventually came the rise of the Nazis, and World War II.   The Treaty of Versailles, while it may have seemed like a good idea at first, led to the rise of fascism.


3. abichara1882 , on 11/12/2003 9:45:00 PM, said:
The period after the first World War was the perverbial fork in the road of the 20th Century.   The choice was simple: build a collectively constructive, post-imperialist world order or go for the victors spoils.   The Treaty of Versailles was a very bad treaty that really only benefited the French and the British.


4. Enkidu , on 11/12/2003 6:46:00 PM, said:
One of the most stupid actions of the century.   A catastrophe, unmitigated and monstrous.   A perfect example of what comes from the impulse to retaliation and revenge.   While it may have felt "good" and even "just" to the victorious Allies, the death of 55 million people in the Second World War followed inexorably from this terrifying document.  

All from a web-forum discussing Ratings and Reviews of the Treaty of Versailles.


To be honest the Treaty of Versailles was not needed. It was something that England, and especially France wanted.   WW I could have ended with a simple agreement for all the armies to return home.

Comment on the 'faqfarm' web-forum by ‘John Reynolds’

The rest of the comments by this contributor reveal that he knew little about either the period or the Treaty of Versailles.


The signing of the Treaty of Versailles was the beginning of another chapter of world history.   

A chapter of irony, blood and sorrow.   A chapter of paths forgotten, and the price of treading down such paths.   Paths, made of fire.

Article contributed by Thomas Smith to

The contributor seems to have been a student at Michigan Technology University







Not all writers, however, are totally hostile.   There are some writers who - whilst agreeing that the Treaty of Versailles failed - point out that there are some mitigating factors that we need to take into account:


Basically, I think one can say the Treaty was harsh, but understandable...   The allied governments were under the pressure of their own public which demanded the Germans to pay for it all.

Wolfgang Mommensen, historian, University of Dusseldorf


World War II was the product of a number of causes, and any attempt to blame Wilson and friends for provoking a second and even more horrible war is both incomplete and unfairly hindsighted.   As many historians point out, though the Treaty of Versailles was comprehensively harsh on Germany, it was not predestined to fail as a solution for peace.   In fact, from 1924 until 1931 there was a period of relative stability in European relations…   

         I personally tend to side with those historians who, while not hesitating to state that matters could have been handled more prudently, do not condemn the Big Three or the Treaty...   Public opinion in France, Britain and the U.S. convincingly supported harsh consequences for the belligerent Germans, and that public opinion constituted a substantial constraint on the Big Three.   Finally, the negotiators had to move quickly through a long agenda of issues, in order not to delay any further the establishment of a resolution to the fragile European predicament.   

       Given these constraints and the general exhaustion of Europe after such a long war, the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not the best one could hope for, but it seems to have been the best compromise possible.

Jaron Sandy, Personal Conclusions about the Treaty of Versailles and Its Effects (1999)

A final class project (1999) for a course on "How We Get Into Wars" at the University of Virginia School of Law. Its goal was to explore whether and to what extent the Treaty ending the "Great War" was consistent with the internationalist principles that Wilson had strongly advocated before the end of the fighting.


Compared to the treaties which Germany had imposed on defeated Russia and Rumania in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles was quite moderate...   The Treaty of Versailles was not excessively harsh on Germany, either territorially or economically.   However, the German people were expecting victory not defeat.   It was the acknowledgement of defeat as much as the treaty terms themselves, which they found so hard to accept.

Dr. Ruth Henig, historian, LancasterUniversity


Severe as the Treaty seemed to many Germans, it should be remembered that Germany might have fared much worse.   If Clemenceau had had his way, the Rhineland would have become an independent state, the Saar would have become part of France, and Danzig would have become part of Poland.

The British historian W Carr, A History of Germany (1972)


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 lukewarm in support... and it became increasingly difficult to apply the terms fully.   But it is easy to criticise after the event.   Gilbert White, an American delegate at the Conference, put it perfectly when he remarked that given 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'.

Norman Lowe, Mastering Modern World History (1982)

Mastering Modern World History was a GCSE History revision book.







Few writers have found anything to praise about the Treaty.   Much of the praise is muted.


This writer, for example, praises what he sees as a 'genuine' (but 'imperfect' and 'ineffective') attempt at 'multiculturalism':


The boundaries drawn in 1919 represented "the closest approximation of an ethnographic map of Europe that has ever been achieved."   And it must not be forgotten – although it has been by most – that a genuine effort was made to safeguard the rights of those ethnic minorities that were caught within the frontiers of states dominated by other national groups. In short, here was a commitment  – however imperfect, and however ineffective as it turned out – to what we would today call "multiculturalism."

William R. Keylor, A Re-Evaluation Of The Versailles Peace (1995)

A presentation at the Great War Society seminar at Bethesda, USA.    Dr. William R. Keylor is chairman of the Department of History and professor of international relations at Boston University.


And some historians are prepared to praise the Treaty in the circumstances:


Nothing about the treaty of Versailles – its origins, its drafting, or the responses it elicited – submits to rational explanation.   The treaty makes sense only if we view it as part of the frightful time from which it emerged.

       When we review the conflicting perceptions of reality separating victor from defeated, only pure, blind luck could have led to a lasting peace in 1919.   Albert I of Belgium has been credited with the most sensible verdict on the peace conference of 1919: "What would you have?"   He is quoted as having said. "They did the best they could."   And they did.   From our point of vantage we can be generous and thank them for giving us the League, and the precedent of popular consultation on issues [i.e. 'plebiscites'] that had not been attended by democratic ritual before.   World War II overshadowed these modest gains, but it did not invalidate them, and in its wake, some of the mistakes of 1919, at any rate, were not repeated.   What would you have?   This is the laborious way in which mankind occasionally makes progress.

Written in 1989 by Dr Hans Schmitt of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies

at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


EP Thompson famously agued that historians should take care to ‘avoid the enormous condescension of posterity’; we should make judgements on the actions of people of the past on their terms rather than ours.   

       If we extend this philosophy to the peacemakers of 1919 then we can argue that they did a remarkably good job.   Three European empires had collapsed, economies were devastated, millions of people were homeless or victims of disease and nationalist and communist revolutions were breaking out all over Europe.   The peacemakers had to act quickly to save their world and in this they were remarkably successful.

  A private communication to from Richard Jones-Nerzic (2004)

Richard Jones-Nerzic studied History and Politics at the University of Wales, Swansea, and was for a time Head of Humanities at the International School of Toulouse, France.   His heroes include Karl Marx and Socialist songwriter Billy Bragg.


The Treaty of Versailles was an amazing feat.  In six months three old men created a new Europe from the ruins of the old.  It was not perfect; it could not prevent World War 2, only a crushing defeat for Germany in the first could have done that.  Self-determination was restricted to Europe.   Yet in a devastated and newly complex continent no better attempt could have been made.   Beset by conflicting demands the peacemakers left their mark.
       Look at a map of modern Europe - not so different from a map of 1920 is it?   Not bad for a such a despised treaty.

A private communication to from Neil Stonehouse (2004)

Neil Stonehouse studied History at Liverpool University and completed his MA at Bristol University. 

He is now Leader of Wear Valley District Council.





The Last Word


The Peace of Versailles established two wonderful new and amazing ideals:


  1. self-determination

  2. the League of Nations


and though at the time these were perhaps practically-unachievable dreams, THE DREAMS, ONCE EXPERIENCED, NEVER WENT AWAY.  


In the long-run the principle of self-determination led to the dismantling of the British Empire, and the setting-up of a Scottish and a Welsh Assembly!   And when the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, it was their stated aim not to stay as conquerors, but to help the peoples of those countries to set up their own, democratic governments.


Meanwhile, the League of Nations has become the United Nations, and we still aspire to a world where nations settle their differences by negotiation, not by war.  


Self-determination and the United Nations dominate the international politics of the world we live in.   It is hard to calculate how much we owe to the peacemakers for these two ideas.  


Recent writers, therefore, have been moving towards the opinion that the Treaty of Versailles established peace in as good a way as anyone could have wished given the circumstances at the time, that the peacemakers tried to be fair and to compensate the victims without destroying the defeated countries, and that they have been unfairly blamed for the mistakes and failures of the politicians who came later.  


The expert on the Treaty of Versailles is Margaret MacMillan (who was interviewed on PBS about the Treaty in May 2004), and - as the great-granddaughter of Lloyd George - it is appropriate that she should have the last word about the Treaty.   This is her considered verdict :


The Last Word

The Treaty of Versailles, which the Allies signed with Germany at the end of the First World War, has had a bad reputation ever since.  John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, thought it was stupid, vindictive and short-sighted and most writers of history and the public have followed his lead ever since.  Many people have blamed the treaty for driving Germany into misery, for creating the circumstances which led to the rise of Hitler, and ultimately for producing another World War in 1939.  But historians must keep on looking at the evidence and re-evaluating the past and the time has come to take another look at that treaty.  It is my own view--and a number of historians who have been working in this area for some years--that the treaty was not all that bad.  Germany did lose the war after all.  Reparations apparently imposed a heavy burden but Germany only paid a portion of what it owed.  Perhaps the real problem was that the treaty was never really properly enforced so that Germany was able to rebuild its military and challenge the security of Europe all over again.

A private communication to from Margaret MacMillan (2004)

Margaret MacMillan gained her PhD at Oxford University, and is currently Professor of History and Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, Canada.   Her 500-page book on the Treaty -- Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World (2001) -- won the BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize and has been described as 'magnificent', 'enthralling', and 'detailed, fair, unfailingly lively', as well as 'splendidly revisionist'.