Friends of history, board games, and history in board games! Last year, I started a series called „Century of German History“ covering Germany’s turbulent 20th century. For every decade, I picked one crucial event (that happened in the year ending in a 9), placed it into the wider context, and illuminated it with exactly one board game. Now those of you who counted might have noticed that I didn’t finish this series in 2019. One event was missing – that of 1919. You might blame that on my laziness, but I swear, this time, that’s not true. The defining event of 1919 is the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I – and I wanted to cover that with the upcoming Versailles 1919 (Geoff Engelstein/Mark Herman, GMT Games). However, while I was ready for Versailles 1919, Versailles 1919 was not ready for me yet. Now, the game is about to go to the printers, and I can write about this intriguing design which made it to my list of most anticipated historical board games to be released this year. We’ll talk about the powers involved in the peacemaking at Versailles, the process of negotiations, and what became of it.
The Powers and their Goals
The Allied and Associated Powers which defeated the Central Powers in World War I had entered the war in different ways and for different reasons. Consequently, they aimed for different goals at the Versailles peace conference:
France, led by prime minister Georges Clemenceau, was the most irreconcilable enemy of Germany. The overarching French goal was to ascertain security from its more powerful neighbor – before the war, France had had only about half the population and industrial output of Germany. For that end, France sought territorial changes: Not only did France aim to regain Alsace-Lorraine which Germany had annexed after the war of 1870/71, but also to establish the Rhine as the eastern border of France (meaning an annexation of the German-speaking Rhineland). This had been a goal of French governments as different as those of the First Republic, Napoleon, and the „bourgeois king“ Louis Philippe. Additionally, France sought Anglo-American security guarantees to make sure the country would not have to stand alone against Germany in a potential future conflict.
The United Kingdom, led by prime minister David Lloyd George, had experienced a massive break with many of its policy traditions during World War I. The war had brought a large, conscription-based army, immense military spending, and a deep involvement in continental affairs. Consequently, Britain sought a way out of all of that: The peace to come should not require to be enforced by Britain (and rather by Germany), it should reimburse the British for their past expenses by extracting reparations from Germany, and limit future expenses by putting limits on the armaments of the nations. Both reparations and the self-enforcement of the treaty by Germany required Germany to have some degree of economic prosperity.
The United States, led by president Woodrow Wilson, had seen an even more dramatic break from its traditional policy of isolationism outside of the Americas. Wilson wanted to re-shape American foreign policy toward the US being an active force for liberal values of democracy and capitalism, which were to ensure American prosperity and freedom at home. More pragmatically, the United States had been the major supplier of credit to the Allied nations – and America wanted its money back after the war.
Italy, under prime minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, was by far the weakest of the great powers – or, seen a bit more maliciously, the strongest of the minor powers. The Italians had entered the war on the promise of territorial expansion in Tyrol and the Adriatic and now wanted to see these promises carried out.
Germany – or any other of the defeated Central Powers – was not present at the negotiations.
The Business of Negotiating Peace
Before the war was even won, president Wilson took the policy lead with his 14 Points – based on a liberal global economy and national self-determination. By the time the Allies and the Central Powers agreed on an armistice, the leaders of the – newly democratic – Germany expected a peace on the basis on the 14 Points. They would be disappointed. The Allies followed the French suggestion of having an initial conference (among the victorious Allies only) on what to do with Germany, and then decide on the future world order later.
So the Allies met in January 1919 at Versailles, a suburb of Paris. From January to March, the „Council of Ten“ (made up of the heads of government and the foreign ministers of the four aforementioned powers plus Japan, the rising power in the Asia-Pacific region) was the conference’s main body for decision-making – or, rather, for not making decisions. Not only was the council far too bloated to be efficient, Japan was also largely disinterested in the European affairs which made up most of the council’s time.
Therefore, the other four powers started over again. Japan, whose issues were taken care of, was removed from the council, as were the foreign ministers – and now the Council of Four could begin its business. For some time in spring, it was effectively only a Council of Three – Italy temporarily withdrew from it when the other powers would not give in to its territorial demands. (The move would turn out to damage Italian interests more than anyone else’s.) This time, the council did produce decisions at a tremendous pace (which, therefore, were often hastily made). For example, in the single session of April 22, 1919, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson discussed
- Alsace-Lorraine (to be ceded to France)
- the withdrawal of Italy from the council
- the fate of Syria and Palestine, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and occupied by Britain during the war
- the demilitarization of the Rhineland
- Danzig, a city with a mostly German population, which was, however, to become the main port for the new Republic of Poland and
- the situation in Archangel (Russia), where an international expeditionary corps was fighting for the White movement against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.
The heads of government continued to make decisions at this breakneck speed through spring. The completed document was presented to the German envoys in the way of Hobson’s choice. Their attempts at having parts of the treaty altered failed. It was signed on June 28, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which had sparked the crisis from which the war had resulted. The treaty would prove a continuing source of resentment in Germany and tainted the democratic statesmen who had signed it as traitors to their nation – even though the alternative, taking up fighting again, would have been utterly unfeasible.
The issues resulting from the collapse of Germany’s allies were dealt with in separate treaties, named after the respective Paris suburbs where they were negotiated:
- Treaty of Saint-Germain (Austria)
- Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine (Bulgaria)
- Treaty of Trianon (Hungary)
- Treaty of Sèvres (Ottoman Empire)
The Treaty of Sèvres fell apart first – as Greece (emboldened by the Allied great powers) tried to carve out a larger piece of Asia Minor for herself – but was beaten back by Turkish forces. After their military success, the Turks could re-negotiate the terms in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which would prove the longest-lasting treaty, as it was negotiated with less haste than the others and was not unilaterally forced on the country subject to it.
A New World Order?
Mapmakers had quite a job to do after the Versailles peace conference. That included various changes to Germany’s borders as well: Alsace-Lorraine, West Prussia, parts of Upper Silesia, Posen, Eupen-Malmedy, and Northern Schleswig were all ceded. The beneficiaries were France, the new Republic of Poland, Belgium, and even Denmark, which had been neutral in the war. The 14 Points‘ principle of national self-determination was only selectively applied – plebiscites were held in some regions, but not in others, some regions with a German ethnic majority were ceded, whereas German Austria was explicitly prohibited from joining Germany. Overseas, the decision was simple: All of Germany’s colonies were given as mandates to Britain, France, and the Union of South Africa.
Reparations were a tricky matter for the Allies: Britain and France both wanted to extract money and material from Germany, but for different ends. Britain sought to strengthen itself after the exertions of the war, whereas France wanted to weaken Germany to remove any threat which might come from there. Germany was required to be prosperous for the former, but poor for the latter. The United States, which wanted the European Allies to thrive so that they could repay their war loans, sided with Britain. In the end, no exact amount or payment schedule was set at Versailles – that was left to future agreements. Reparations therefore remained a source of bickering between the Allies and Germany until the Nazis took power. The repayment of World War I reparations was taken up again after the reunification of Germany in 1990, with the last rate having been paid as recent as 2010.
Reparations were paid from Germany to the Allies to compensate them for damages done in the war. But is that not what happens in a war? Had the Allies not also done damage to Germany, without having to pay reparations later? – The Allies resolved this matter by including a statement on the outbreak of the war in the Treaty: Article 231, the „War Guilt Clause“, stated that the guilt for the outbreak of the war had been Germany’s alone. In addition to providing the pragmatic grounds for the reparation demands, the War Guilt Clause was also felt to be necessary on a more spiritual level: After four years of material deprivations and human sacrifice, the Allies felt a deep-seated need to display moral superiority to give those devastations a purpose.
In addition to these case-specific agreements, the Allies – especially Woodrow Wilson – also attempted to build the structures of a new global order. One pillar for that was to be an association of the sovereign nations in the world – the League of Nations. The League was meant to be a forum of international cooperation and arbitration to check future aggression. Among the other building blocks for a new world order was the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the first international agreement on labor standards, including the eight-hour day and the right to collective bargaining.
The Shadow of a Peace Treaty
For many historical conflict games, it’s easy to say who „won“ historically. The Allies defeated the Axis in World War II in Europe before July 1945, so they fulfilled their victory condition inUnconditional Surrender (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games). But who „won“ historically in Versailles 1919? None of the Allied powers was entirely successful at Versailles. All of the four main decision-makers got into domestic trouble over the treaty: Lloyd George was unable to link the treaty to the policies of the Liberal Party he headed. The Liberal Party has never won an election in Britain since then, and to this day, Lloyd George has been the last Liberal prime minister. Clemenceau’s party lost over half their seats in parliament in the elections shortly after the treaty was signed. When he ran for the presidency of France in 1920, he was defeated. Orlando’s decision to temporarily leave the negotiations at Versailles dealt a blow to his standing, and he was ousted from office before the treaty was even signed. Wilson, who had spent much time crafting the policies to go into the treaty, and little time advocating for them, saw Congress refuse to ratify the treaty. The United States never became a member of the League of Nations for which Wilson had fought so passionately.
The Treaty of Versailles does not enjoy the best reputation. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to lay blame for the German discontent and revisionism about the treaty and the role it played in the rise of the Nazis on the treaty and those who negotiated it. This line of thought is informed by contemporary scathing accounts on the treaty like that of John Maynard Keynes who attended the negotiations in his capacity as a British Treasury official. Usually, these accounts contrast the post-war world to an idealized version of the world before 1914. Yet the pre-war world was not as ideal as these accounts paint it – in fact, its essential dysfunctionality grounded in the lack of any institutions to keep the peace (like Concert of Europe in the early to mid 19th century) was only masked. Once the various masks were taken off (Bismarck’s diplomacy which saw European stability as essential to German national interest, the powers‘ abstinence from an arms race) or came to their limits (deflecting the expansionism of the great powers to Africa and Asia), Europe was shaken by repeated security crises of which the one which birthed World War I was only the last. The peacemakers did not succeed entirely, but the task they faced was enormous.
Lastly, to wrap up this series called „Century of German History“: As you will have noticed, the Germans featured only marginally in this post, not as historical subjects but as objects of the treaty they had to accept for lack of viable alternatives. That may serve as a sober reminder that we are not always in charge of our own destiny.
If you want to revisit any of the older posts in the series, you can check them out here:
- The Berlin Crisis (1959)
- The Ecology Movement (1979)
- The Kosovo War (1999)
- The Division of Germany (1949)
- The Naval Arms Race (1909)
- World War II (1939)
- Willy Brandt and Deténte (1969)
- The Fall of the Weimar Republic (1929)
- The Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)
An excellent introduction is Sharp, Alan: The Versailles Settlement. Peacemaking in Paris, 1919, St. Martin’s Press, New York City, NY 1991.
For a more detailed account on the individuals who negotiated the treaty, see MacMillan, Margaret: The Peacemakers. The Paris Conference of 1919 and its Attempt to End War, Murray, London 2001.
If you’re interested in the immense repercussions of the treaty, look no further than Sharp, Alan: The Consequences of Peace. The Versailles Settlement: Aftermath and Legacy 1919—2010, Haus Publishing, London 2010.
The most famous contemporary account of the peace is Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which you can read online here.