Treaty of Versailles 100th Anniversary

Episode: Treaty of Versailles 100th Anniversary
Host: Mat McLachlan
Broadcast Date: June 27, 2019
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Hello everyone. Welcome to a little short bite of history. We have got lots of podcasts coming at you thick and fast lately. I hope you’re enjoying them. There’s just so much stuff going on. There’s so much great stuff I want to bring you which is why we’re just doing podcast after podcast so I hope you’re enjoying them.

This is a pretty special week. This week marks the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in France in 1919. Now this was the treaty that officially ended the First World War and brought peace to Europe after years and years of conflict in the First World War, and this week it was one hundred years since that treaty was signed and I think that Treaty of Versailles gets a little bit overlooked. It was a very important document and it gets a little bit overlooked, the importance, the significance for Europe, for world history from that time onwards, but also for Australia too because Australia played a pretty important role in some of these things that went on during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s dig into this history. It’s really quite fascinating. It sounds like it’s gonna be dry and boring. it sounds like it’s gonna be a bunch of politicians sitting around a room talking about documents and there are elements of that in it of course, but the ramifications of this document, what it meant for world history, what followed on immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles absolutely incredible and a fascinating chapter of history.

So what the hell was the Treaty of Versailles? What are we even talking about here? If you know your World War 1 history, you’ll know that the First World War ended on November 11, 1918.  That was when they signed the armistice which ended the fighting. All the troops went home or began to go home. they stopped fighting, they stopped shooting to each other, the guns fell silent and that was the date we remember as the end of the First World War when the killing and the dying stopped, but what we should also remember about wars, in spite of all the chaos and the destruction that goes on behind the scenes, there are always politicians and laws and treaties and formalities that have to be observed, so after November 1918 when the fighting had stopped, all the countries that have been involved in the First World War came together and they spent six months negotiating the terms for peace in Europe, and this was really important because they had to decide how monies would be distributed how territory would be distributed.

Lands had been invaded and captured and conquered and changed hands. They had to decide how those should be sorted out. They really had to decide on a new world order now that the German Empire had been defeated, that the Axis powers had been defeated. What were the Allies going to do to impose some sort of order on the world, and so they came together in Paris and these were the Paris peace treaties, and they spent six months negotiating the terms for peace in Europe and this had huge ramifications, their decisions that they made that day.

So we’re gonna dig into those a little bit deeper, but let’s talk about what actually happened on the 28th of June when they signed the peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles. There were 32 countries that signed that peace treaty which officially ended the First World War and the signing took place in the Grand Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris, and this is a major tourist attraction. Most of you who’ve been to Paris would have been to the Palace of Versailles. It was the homes of the kings of France for centuries. Beautiful, beautiful palace on the outskirts of Paris and in the Grand Hall of Mirrors this incredible room was where these signatories all came together under with lots of pomp and circumstance. Thousands of people were jammed into this small room to witness this signing and interestingly out in the grounds there were probably 50,000 people in the beautiful gardens of the Palace of Versailles.

They had all assembled for this historic moment, and one of the key features of this palace in the gardens are these beautiful fountains. There’s dozens of them scattered throughout the gardens. those fountains had been turned off when war was declared in 1914 as a symbolic gesture that the fountains had been turned off and would not start again until peace rang out across Europe, and then at the moment that this document was signed at the 28th of June 1919, for the first time since 1914, all of the fountains came back to life together. It was a wonderful symbolic moment and the crowd cheered. It was quite a quite an emotional moment for those people who’d been there, particularly the French people who’d seen their country go through so much over the preceding years of war. So this wonderful moment when this document was signed and peace came to Europe, bells rang out across towns and cities. Peace had finally been declared in Europe, but what would that peace look like?

That was the really important question. The first part of this whole equation about how Europe would look in the future is with the redistribution of land, and land that the Germans had occupied during the war was given back to countries and Poland was given parts of Germany, and Alsace-Lorraine went back to France so there was a lot of swapping around of territory. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed so the work that went on in the Balkans and throughout the former Ottoman Empire down to Turkey and through that region was immense. the redistribution, the reshuffling, the forming of new nations, independence for other nations – that could be a separate podcast just discussing what went on in that area of the world – but in Europe, in particular Western Europe there was a redistribution of lands that Germany had occupied. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed, so redistribution of lands there. So the physicality of Europe changed a lot. Borders were changed, new nations formed, Germany suffered and lost a lot of territory that it had gained during the First World War, so a redistribution of territory was a key feature of this peace treaty.

But the other thing that was really important that had huge ramifications and is quite famous is the reparations that Germany had to pay. Now this concept basically means that Germany was forced to accept official responsibility for starting the war. They were tagged as the principal aggressor in the war. Germany was held responsible for the war and therefore the way that they would compensate the rest of Europe was to pay money to them, and so these huge reparations were imposed on the Germans, and we should remember that there was very good reason for needing reparations because big areas of Europe had been completely destroyed. There was an area of France and Belgium known as the Zone Rouge – the Red Zone. This was the area where towns and cities and infrastructure had been completely destroyed. Destroyed beyond repair. They had to be completely rebuilt and so German Deutschmarks would pay for the reconstruction of these parts of Europe.

But there was another element to it as well, and that is that Britain and France in particular had borrowed huge sums of money to wage this war against Germany, mostly from America and so they now had huge debts that they owed the Americans, and they had to find some way of paying them back. They didn’t want to put up taxes and tax their own citizens especially after this horrific war they’d just been through, and so they went to the Germans and said you pay us money. That’ll be compensation for us and we’ll use that money to pay off these war debts. Germany herself was in a lot of debt. Germany had borrowed immensely to wage this war and the Germans, not wanting to wage an unpopular war, had not raised taxes during the First World War, so consequently Germany had a huge number of debts as well and was in a very poor economic state at the end of the First World War.

the big beneficiary out of all this ironically was America because America was independent and was not participating in the war in the early stages of the First World War, and so therefore as one of the world’s only major powers that wasn’t participating in the war, America was lending money hand-over-fist it to everyone who wanted it – the British, the French, the Russians, the Germans – so America had done very well out of this so America therefore played a very big role in the rebuilding of Europe after the first world war. So we’ll talk a little bit more about the implications of the reparations but understand at this stage that the Germans were forced to pay huge amounts of money. At one stage it looked like they were going to be billed fifty billion US dollars! Now that is an astronomical amount of money. That would be in the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in today’s money, close to a trillion dollars it would probably be, so an astronomical amount of money the Germans are expected to pay. They never did pay that amount of money back, but even the amount they had to pay was very damaging for the economy, especially trying to rebuild after the Great War.

So as I said, 32 signatories signed at the document. The Germans signed first even though their signatures appeared last in the document. the Americans signed, the British signed, and importantly a number of smaller nations including Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa and Canada, we signed as well as independent countries, not as part of the British Empire, and so this was really a very interesting time for those dominions as we were called that we were given a seat at the table, and this really had some very important implications for our history in Australia because this was the first time that Australia was being recognized as an important nation, an important independent nation and being invited to participate on the world stage. Australia had really punched above our weight during the First World War. We had sent nearly four hundred thousand men to Europe to fight in that war. Sixty-one thousand had been killed. For a small nation we’d paid a very heavy price for participating in the First World War, and we were rewarded by being given a seat at the table during the peace negotiations and we were represented by our Prime Minister Billy Hughes, bit of a firebrand, the old Billy. A great character, well worth reading about Billy Hughes. Absolutely astonishing character, but he fought very strongly for things that Australia felt were important, and some of these things would have very big implications for Australia in the years to come, and to give you the perfect example of that, during the First World War, the territory of New Guinea just to the north of Australia was a German colony, and Australia’s first operation of the war was not in Gallipoli but was actually in German New Guinea against the Germans, and check out our podcast from a couple of weeks ago about the Battle of Bita Paka. That was Australia’s first operation of the First World War and that podcast is called Heroes before Gallipoli, so go back and listen to that to hear the story of Australia’s first operation in German New Guinea of the First World War.

basically what happened is during the war, once we established control of German New Guinea and took it over, when the peace negotiations came around after the war Australia put forward the notion that we should be allowed to maintain control of New Guinea and a number of other territories in the Pacific since we had captured them from the Germans, but there was another ally who also had their eyes very firmly on those prizes in the Pacific and that was ironically Japan, because Japan was on our side during the first world war. When the first Australian troops sailed from Western Australia to head to the Middle East and then eventually on to Europe, they were accompanied by Japanese ships. The Japanese supplied a lot of naval forces during the First World War and were very much on our side during the First World War, and Japan as part of the peace negotiations was also included as one of the nations who would sign the peace treaty at Versailles, Japan put forward a claim that they wanted certain territories in the Pacific to fall under their control and one of the ones they wanted was German New Guinea, so a tug of war was taking place between the Australians and the Japanese over who would control New Guinea effectively. It was going to be a mandated territory of one of these countries, and the British in fact supported the Japanese. They wanted to hand New Guinea to the Japanese, but Billy Hughes the Australian Prime Minister was adamant that Australia would not sign any document that gave control of New Guinea to the Japanese. He recognized that as our closest neighbor, it was important that Australia had control over the defense and the protection of our own borders. We wanted a buffer in the Pacific against the Japanese and other potential threats in this part of the world.

So Billy Hughes was adamant. Australia will not sign this document unless we have control of New Guinea and eventually everyone at the table came around to his way of thinking. The Japanese were not impressed at all. They wanted New Guinea but it was handed over to Australia and became a mandated territory of Australia as it remained right up until the Second World War. Now this is crucial for Second World War history, because just imagine if Japan had had control of New Guinea since 1919. Imagine the forces that would be built up there. The base that they could have created, the influence they could have had on the Pacific in the lead-up to the Second World War, so the Treaty of Versailles was absolutely essential for Australia’s interests because it granted control of those territories to Australia, and therefore gave us that buffer which was so important only 20 years later when the Second World War broke out. So two aspects of the Treaty of Versailles very important for Australian history. Those specific gains that we made in the Pacific, but also simply the fact that Australia was now being recognized as a strong, independent, important nation on the world stage and that was the first time that had occurred.

What other implications did the Treaty of Versailles have? This idea of the reparations, for the last hundred years, it’s been argued did the reparations that were imposed on Germany and the economic misery that came with that, did it lead directly to the Second World War because Germany’s economy absolutely collapsed after the First World War under the weight of all this debt, and for a long time people have said the reparations were the direct cause of that, that it was just too much economic pressure on Germany. They were never able to sustain it and therefore their economy collapsed and that led to the Second World War.

Historians have been debating that more recently though, and more evidence has come to light that suggested even without the reparations, Germany was going to be in a very bad way economically, and the suggestion is now that the reparations perhaps weren’t as onerous as they may have seemed at the time, and the reason for that is that Germany’s economy was already broken by the First World War. You imagine a situation where they’d suffered six million casualties – two million killed, four million wounded – so a huge chunk of their livelihood had disappeared with the young men being killed, wounded on the battlefields around the world. In addition, they borrowed so much money to wage this war. They just borrowed and borrowed and borrowed to pay the huge bill that was required to wage this war, so their economy was always going to be very, very shaky. They did not manage their economy very well at all after the First World War, but then added to that, this idea as well that they had to pay billions of dollars in reparations and you can see that Germany was in a very difficult position and it’s not surprising that their economy completely collapsed.

Inflation went through the roof and all the social unrest and the problems that came off the back of this is what led to the rise of the Nazis of course, because when you’re in these trying times and desperate times, people look to outrageous figures who claim that they can change their lot and the Nazis came forward on this platform that we will dismantle this incredibly unfair Versailles Treaty and we will rebuild Germany the way it should have been rebuilt after the First World War. So this was the platform the Nazis came in on and so the reparations did play a big part in that, that they gave the Nazis an opportunity to say this is unfair. Europe doesn’t treat us well and we will change things if you give us power.

So interestingly, the moral implications of the reparations were probably more important than the economic ones, and by that I mean the humiliation that was loaded upon Germany at this time, the shame the Germany felt, the embarrassment of having to pay the bill for this war was a device used by the Nazis to gain power. It gave the Nazis a perfect focal point to demonstrate why they could do better to the German people, to demonstrate why the German people need change. If the reparations didn’t exist, it would’ve been harder for the Nazis to get this message across about how they’d been treated unfairly in Europe, and how they were the only people that could change things.

So the reparations probably had a greater impact for this moral position than they did for the economic ones in the rise to power of the Nazis, but regardless of the reasons, the Treaty of Versailles, the reparations, that 20 years between the wars led directly to the Second World War and the Nazis building up, and really interestingly about the reparations is they were based on a complicated series of bonds and loans and repayments and interest. It was all interrupted by the Second World War because of course Hitler wasn’t all too pleased to be paying back this money, so Hitler stopped the payments. When Germany came out of the war and the new Germany was formed, West Germany actually picked up the bill again and continued paying and then they paid off the principal amount of the reparations after some renegotiations, but it was determined that the interest on those loans and those bonds would not have to be paid until Germany reunified.

So in 1990 when Germany came together as one nation again, they began paying back the interest that they owed to the rest of Europe and they continued paying that money for many years and it wasn’t until 2010 that they made the very last interest payment. So effectively, the reparation payments that were imposed in 1919 were not paid off by the Germans until 2010. I think that’s absolutely extraordinary! Less than a decade ago, the Germans were still paying the bill from the First World War. Just an extraordinary time, and so that’s what the Treaty of Versailles says to me. That’s why it’s important. It has ramifications through the ages. It echoes through the halls of history. The implications of these treaties, the decisions that were made were impacting people for decades and decades, and nearly a century later were still impacting people. Just a fascinating time of history. The Treaty of Versailles – go look it up. Read more about it. There’s lots of great information about it online. It is so much more than dusty old men filling in dusty old forms, and having boring negotiations over the negotiating table.

A fascinating chapter of history, really important implications for world history for decades to follow, so go and check it out, and in the meantime listen to this podcast. Listen to other great podcasts.

Thank you for tuning in. we’ve got lots of great stuff coming up. we’re going to do a special series on the moon landings. It’s going to take place in July so look out for that one because it’s the 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon. Lots of great stuff coming up. We hope to see you on one of our tours. Visit our website at and until the next podcast, thanks for listening.

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