The Treaty of Versailles

In January 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson looked forward to the prospects of a peace treaty and outlined his Fourteen Points, which included free trade, disarmament, national self-determination, decolonization and the formation of a League of Nations that was dedicated to the maintenance of peace. His European allies were less disposed towards clemency, and the actual terms imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 1919–21 January 1920) were punitive, creating a powerful sense of victimhood that the Nazis were able to fully exploit.

In all, 32 nations were represented at Versailles, but the peace talks were dominated by the US, France, Britain and – to a lesser extent Italy. Versailles was the centrepiece treaty, but there were four other treaties that dealt with eastern and southeastern Europe and Ottoman Turkey (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Trianon, Neuilly and Sèvres). Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine to France; Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia; West Prussia and Silesia to Poland; and Eupen-Malmédy to Belgium. The Rhineland was demilitarized and occupied, and Saarland placed under French control. Schleswig’s future allocation was made subject to plebiscites (the north would opt for Denmark, the South reverted to Germany), and all Germany’s colonies were parcelled out between the victorious allies. Germany’s navy and air force were slashed, its army capped at 100,000 and decapitated of its leadership, and its heavy industry hobbled. The final ignominy was Article 231, the “war-guilt” clause, which held Germany to be solely responsible for the war and imposed massive reparation payments.

The impact on eastern Europe was especially drastic. The Treaty massively reduced the spheres of influence of two empires, German and Russian, and affected the dissolution of two more, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans. In the resultant Great Power vacuum, a welter of new nation-states sprang into being. Along the western borders of the nascent Soviet Union (USSR), a string of uprisings concluded in 1920–21 with the formal recognition of the independence of Finland and the Baltic states. Germany’s wartime ally, Austria Hungary, fared even worse than Germany as it ceased to exist by the end of the war on 11 November 1918. Increasing internal pressures from the various distinct ethnic groups within the empire, along with the Triple Entente’s realization that their victory was inevitable, led to the position of Emperor Charles I becoming gradually more untenable as the war progressed. A number of new states were formed from Austria-Hungary’s former territories. Hungary, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia all resorted to armed conflict to further irredentist territorial claims.

As the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, representatives of the southern Slavs convened a national council in Zagreb in 1918, but differences of view rapidly emerged. Both Croatia-Slavonia and Montenegro hankered after independence, fearing domination by Serbia (the sole pre-existing independent state, and on the victorious side in the war). However, both Dalmatia and Bosnia quickly allied with Serbia and Croatia-Slavonia, fearing punitive territorial claims from Italy, quickly caved in. The Kingdom of Croats, Slovenes and Serbs (KCSS) was born. Going into the Treaty of Versailles, KCSS had two key advantages; their troops were in possession of the territory they claimed and US President Woodrow Wilson was a fervent advocate of self-determination. At Versailles, and under four ensuing treaties, KCSS acquired Vojvodina, Prekomurje and Medjimurje from Hungary and four border enclaves from Bulgaria. However, at Rapallo, it ceded Zara and Lagosta to Italy.

The Armistice of Mudros, marking the Ottoman Empire’s exit from World War I, was concluded between the British and Ottoman representatives on 30 October 1918 and the British, in tandem with the French, activated plans for the empire’s dismemberment. This was set out in the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. With this template, Britain and France partitioned the Ottoman Middle East into protectorates under their control. Mudros ordered the demobilization of the Ottoman armed forces, placed their ports and railways at the Allies’ disposal, and granted them the right to armed intervention in Anatolia ‘in case of disorder’. In the following May, the Turkish War of Independence began.

A particularly vicious war was fought between Greece and Turkey, with civilian massacres perpetrated by both sides. In 1919 Greek forces had been allowed to occupy Smyrna after citing fears that its Christian population was under threat and by 1920 had extended their occupation to western Anatolia. In the same year the Treaty of Sèvres was signed by the Ottoman Empire, which officially allocated territory to Greece. This was soon annulled by the Turkish revolutionaries, At the First Battle of Inonu on 9 January 1921, the Turkish achieved their first success, and from this point, momentum began to shift against the Greeks. The Turks gained the upper hand whilst European support for Greece dwindled.

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