Impact of World War I
World War I was one of the most destructive wars in modern history. Nearly ten million soldiers died as a result of hostilities. The enormous losses on all sides of the conflict resulted in part from the introduction of new weapons, like the machine gun and gas warfare, as well as the failure of military leaders to adjust their tactics to the increasingly mechanized nature of warfare. A policy of attrition, particularly on the Western Front, cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
No official agencies kept careful accounting of civilian losses during the war years, but scholars suggest that as many as thirteen million non-combatants died as a direct or indirect result of the war. The conflict uprooted or displaced millions of persons from their homes in Europe and Asia Minor. Property and industry losses were catastrophic, especially in France, Belgium, Poland, and Serbia, where fighting had been heaviest.
The "Fourteen Points"
In January 1918, some ten months before the end of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson had written a list of proposed war aims which he called the “Fourteen Points.” Eight of these points dealt specifically with territorial and political settlements associated with the victory of the Entente Powers, including the idea of national self-determination for ethnic populations in Europe. The remainder of the principles focused on preventing war in the future, the last proposing a League of Nations to arbitrate international disputes. Wilson hoped his proposal would bring about a just and lasting peace: a “peace without victory.”
When German leaders signed the armistice in the Compiègne Forest on 11 November 1918, many of them believed that the Fourteen Points would form the basis of the future peace treaty, but when the heads of the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy met in Paris to discuss treaty terms, the European contingent of the “Big Four” rejected this approach.
Treaty of Versailles
Viewing Germany as the chief instigator of the conflict, the European Allied Powers decided to impose particularly stringent treaty obligations upon the defeated Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, presented for German leaders to sign on May 7, 1919, forced Germany to concede territories to Belgium (Eupen-Malmédy), Czechoslovakia (the Hultschin district), and Poland (Poznan [German: Posen], West Prussia and Upper Silesia). The Germans returned Alsace and Lorraine, annexed in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War, to France. All German overseas colonies became League of Nation Mandates, and the city of Danzig (today: Gdansk), with its large ethnically German population, became a Free City. The treaty demanded demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, and special status for the Saarland under French control. Plebiscites were to determine the future of areas in northern Schleswig on the Danish-German frontier and parts of Upper Silesia on the border with Poland.
Perhaps the most humiliating portion of the treaty for defeated Germany was Article 231, commonly known as the "War Guilt Clause," which forced the German nation to accept complete responsibility for initiating World War I. As such Germany was liable for all material damages, and France's premier Georges Clemenceau particularly insisted on imposing enormous reparation payments. Aware that Germany would probably not be able to pay such a towering debt, Clemenceau and the French nevertheless greatly feared rapid German recovery and the initiation of a new war against France. Hence, the French sought in the postwar treaty to limit Germany's potential to regain its economic superiority and to rearm. The German army was to be limited to 100,000 men, and conscription proscribed; the treaty restricted the Navy to vessels under 10,000 tons, with a ban on the acquisition or maintenance of a submarine fleet.
Moreover, Germany was forbidden to maintain an air force. Finally, Germany was required to conduct war crimes proceedings against the Kaiser and other leaders for waging aggressive war. The subsequent Leipzig Trials, without the Kaiser or other significant national leaders in the dock, resulted largely in acquittals and were widely perceived as a sham, even in Germany.
The newly formed German democratic government saw the Versailles Treaty as a “dictated peace” (Diktat). Although France, which had suffered more materially than the other parties in the “Big Four,” had insisted upon harsh terms, the peace treaty did not ultimately help to settle the international disputes which had initiated World War I. On the contrary, it tended to hinder inter-European cooperation and make more fractious the underlying issues which had caused the war in the first place. The dreadful sacrifices of war and tremendous loss of life, suffered on all sides, weighed heavily not only upon the losers of the conflict, but also upon those combatants on the winning side, like Italy, whose postwar spoils seemed incommensurate with the terrible price each nation had paid in blood and material goods.
For the populations of the defeated powers—Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria—the respective peace treaties appeared an unfair punishment, and their governments, whether democratic as in Germany or Austria, or authoritarian, in the case of Hungary and Bulgaria, quickly resorted to violating the military and financial terms of the accords. Efforts to revise and defy the more burdensome provisions of the peace became a key element in their respective foreign policies and proved a destabilizing factor in international politics.
The war guilt clause, its incumbent reparation payments, and the limitations on the German military were particularly onerous in the minds of most Germans, and revision of the Versailles Treaty represented one of the platforms that gave radical right wing parties in Germany, including Hitler's Nazi Party, such credibility to mainstream voters in the 1920s and early 1930s. Promises to rearm, to reclaim German territory, particularly in the East, to remilitarize the Rhineland, and to regain prominence again among the European and world powers after such a humiliating defeat and peace, stoked ultranationalist sentiment and helped average voters to overlook the more radical tenets of Nazi ideology.
The burdensome reparations, coupled with a general inflationary period in Europe in the 1920s, caused spiraling hyperinflation of the German Reichsmark by 1923. This hyperinflationary period combined with the effects of the Great Depression (beginning in 1929) to undermine the stability of the German economy, wiping out the personal savings of the middle class and spurring massive unemployment. Such economic chaos did much to increase social unrest, destabilizing the fragile Weimar Republic.
Finally, the efforts of the Western European powers to marginalize Germany through the Versailles Treaty undermined and isolated German democratic leaders. Particularly deleterious in connection with the harsh provisions of Versailles was the rampant conviction among many in the general population that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by the “November criminals”—those who had helped to form the new Weimar government and broker the peace which Germans had so desperately wanted, but which ended so disastrously in Versailles. Many Germans forgot that they had applauded the fall of the Kaiser, had initially welcomed parliamentary democratic reform, and had rejoiced at the armistice. They recalled only that the German Left—Socialists, Communists and Jews, in common imagination—had surrendered German honor to an ignominious peace when no foreign armies had even set foot on German soil.
This Dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back legend) helped further to discredit German socialist and liberal circles who felt most committed to maintain Germany's fragile democratic experiment. The difficulties imposed by social and economic unrest in the wake of World War I and its onerous peace terms worked in tandem to undermine pluralistic democratic solutions in Weimar Germany and to increase public longing for more authoritarian direction, a kind of leadership which German voters ultimately and unfortunately found in Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party.
After such a devastating war, the victorious Western Powers imposed a series of harsh treaties upon the defeated nations. These treaties stripped the Central Powers of substantial territories and imposed significant reparation payments. Seldom before had the face of Europe been so fundamentally changed. As a direct result of the war, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires ceased to exist.
The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye of September 10, 1919, established the Republic of Austria, consisting of the truncated, German-speaking regions of the Habsburg state. The Austrian Empire ceded crown lands to newly established successor states like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, renamed Yugoslavia in 1929. It also relinquished the South Tyrol, Trieste, Trentino, and Istria to Italy, and Bukovina to Romania. An important tenet of the treaty barred Austria from compromising its newly formed independence, which effectively barred it from unification with Germany, an aspiration long desired by "Pan-Germanists" and an aim actively advocated by Austrian-born Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
The other portion of the Dual Monarchy, Hungary also became an independent state: under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon (June 4, 1920), Hungary ceded Transylvania to Romania; Slovakia and Transcarpathian Rus to the newly formed Czechoslovakia; and other Hungarian crown lands to the future Yugoslavia.
The Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sèvres on August 10, 1920, ending hostilities with the Allied Powers; but shortly thereafter a Turkish War of Independence began. The new Republic of Turkey, established in its aftermath, signed a superseding Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, effectively partitioning the old Ottoman Empire.
Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Gläser, editors. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1998.
Henig, Ruth B. Versailles and After, 1919–1933. London: Routledge, 1995.
MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2002.