100 years since the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I

Paris (AFP) –


At 3:50 pm on June 28, 1919 crowds erupted in joy and salvos of celebratory gunfire rang out: the Treaty of Versailles had just been signed. World War I was finally over.

Signed at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, the text set out 440 punishing articles that crippled Germany economically and morally.

Although the treaty was intended to leave the war's aggressor too weak to pose a new threat, its harsh terms eventually led the world into another global conflict just 20 years later.

- Victors cheered -

The fountains at France's former royal residence were in operation for the signing ceremony for the first time since war broke out in 1914.

The crowd of soldiers and civilians gathered outside the vast palace cheered the leaders of the victor nations as they arrived: France's Georges Clemenceau, Britain's David Lloyd George and America's Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

The Big Three had dominated the peace talks that opened in Paris in January, two months after Germany capitulated and signed an armistice in November 1918.

The negotiations had been difficult, with Clemenceau less open than his US and British allies to compromise and insisting, "Germany will pay."

Berlin was not invited, informed only in May of the harsh terms of a settlement that blamed Germany for a conflict that had bled Europe dry.

On June 17 the Allies gave Germany five days to agree or face renewed fighting. Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann resigned in protest but the new government had to accept.

- 'Business-like' -

The signing ceremony was in the palace's Hall of Mirrors, where the German Empire was proclaimed in 1871, on the defeat of France.

It was programmed for the exact same day five years previously that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated -- the event that sparked World War I.

On entering the crowded room, Clemenceau went up to a group of French soldiers whose faces had been badly mutilated in the conflict.

"You have suffered a lot, but here is your reward," he reportedly said, gesturing towards the table in the centre of the room where the documents were waiting to be signed.

The event was "business-like" and over in 37 minutes, The New York Times reported.

After being opened, "there was merely a succession of delegates advancing to the table on which the conventions had been laid and signing their names."

There were 27 delegations representing 32 powers.

First to step forward to sign were the two German representatives, led by Foreign Minister Hermann Mueller.

"Mueller's face and neck were flushed crimson, and it was evident that both Germans felt keenly the position in which they were placed," the New York Times said.

The Allies followed, starting with Wilson.

"Hardly was the ink on the final signature dry when the old palace of Versailles ... shook from the concussion of the guns in the park outside that announced in salvos that the Germans had capitulated," the newspaper said.

- Punishing terms -

The terms were crippling for Germany, which had to accept a "war guilt" clause that made it responsible for paying out war damages.

The treaty redrew the map of Europe, Germany losing around 15 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population along with all its colonies.

The country was split by the Danzig corridor, which fell under Polish rule, and the regions of Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France.

Its coal-rich Saarland, bordering France, was placed under an international mandate for 15 years. The adjoining Rhineland was demilitarised.

Military service was abolished and German ground troops were limited to 100,000 men, its navy also restricted and an air force forbidden.

The treaty also created the League of Nations -- the precursor to the United Nations -- although Germany was initially excluded.

- Humiliation, anger -

Germany was humiliated, the harshness of the treaty causing shock and anger among its people.

The reparations demanded by the Allies set in 1921, were around 132 billion German gold marks (more than $30 billion at the time), although this was later reduced.

But Germany struggled to pay and descended into economic chaos and hyperinflation.

The resentment fuelled nationalism and provided a breeding ground for the rising Nazis, whose leader Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 refusing to continue paying the reparations.

Europe would soon be at war again.