On 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Prinzip (1894-1918), a rogue
Bosnian-Serbian nationalist, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914), heir to
the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This event way off in backwater Sarajevo touched off a sequence of
actions that led to the outbreak of World War I. There followed four years
of ghastly warfare that brought about the wholesale destruction
of an entire generation of young men.
Although U.S. President Woodrow
Wilson (1856-1924) initially affirmed a policy of American
neutrality in the European conflict, the United States eventually did enter the war in 1917. Once
that happened, Wilson saw the
need for a new type of peace treaty to prevent any future war. In his war
address to Congress in April 1917, Wilson spoke boldly of the need for the self-determination
of peoples and nations, of a peace treaty without territorial acquisitions,
and of a future that guaranteed the rights of man and that ensured a world safe for democracy.
Eventually, Wilson settled on the idea of a League of Nations as the tool to accomplish these goals, and he elaborated
his proposal in the Fourteen
which he presented to Congress on 8 January 1918. Of course, the
devil is in the details, and implementing the idea of a League on
Nations proved to be a bit problematic for Wilson after the war was
When Germany agreed to and signed an armistice
in November 1918, it did so on the basis of Wilson's Fourteen Points. This,
however, caused confusion because France and Great Britain, as America's
wartime allies, had made no commitment to undertake any negotiations on the basis of Wilson's
points. This was not immediately an issue in the armistice
negotiations, because Germany was in no shape to continue the war. The
disagreement over terms and the peace process, however, became manifest in
the negotiations for a final peace treaty during the Paris Peace Conference when Germany was excluded from the negotiations.
Peace Conference began in early 1919 as a triumphal gathering of allied diplomats--again, representatives
of the defeated powers were not invited--much like past major European diplomatic conferences such as the Congress
of Vienna in 1815 or the Berlin Conference (aka Congo Conference) of 1885.
In the protracted diplomatic discussions at Versailles,
Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister (1863-1945),
Clemenceau, the French Premier (1841-1929), and Vittorio
the Italian Prime Minister (1860-1952), all compromised their
initial bargaining positions in a way that left each subject to bitter
recrimination from their contemporaries and condemnation from future
For example, Wilson abandoned much of his original principles when he
supported territorial acquisitions, but he did so quite inconsistently.
For instance, he supported Italy's claims in the Trentino, but not
Italian claims in Fiume. Lloyd George, similarly, agreed to divide up
the German colonial empire but was more cautious with respect to German
in Europe. Clemenceau did oversee
the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France and did get a demilitarized
in the Rhine River valley, but he did not obtain the Rhine River as the
Almost immediately after the signing of
the Treaty of
Versailles, the diplomatic situation changed dramatically.
The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and then Wilson fell ill and was unable to continue his work.
The British began having second thoughts about the severity of the treaty and their commitment to Europe,
and the French became overly pre-occupied with their security
in Europe and were unwilling to assume any other obligations.
Many later historians and contemporary
analysts pointed directly to the "problems" caused by the treaty as the cause for the rise
Mussolini (1883-1945) and the fascist movement in Italy and Adolf
Hitler (1889-1945) and national socialism in Germany. Indeed, it has often been claimed that the Versailles Treaty
merely started the chain of events that became a "road to war" (World War II). In reality, that was
far from the case. The Versailles document (and all of the subsequent treaties), despite shortcomings, did provide
a workable peace, if the diplomats had been willing to continue to work within the
context of the treaty.