Friday, 28 June 2019

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28 June 1919: The Treaty of Versailles was signed on this day.  On the afternoon of 28 June 1919 two German Ministers, Johannes Bell and Hermann Müller stepped forward inside the magnificent Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles to sign a document placed before them to formally bring to an end the Great War and hopefully establish Peace in Europe once again. The Conference had opened on 18 January 1919. The date and setting were significant. On that day and in the same place in 1871 Wilhelm I had been proclaimed Emperor of a united Germany, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. 

The tranquillity of the continent had been shattered by the assassination five years to the day beforehand [28 June 1914] when the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie had been shot dead on the streets of Sarajevo  in Bosnia. Within weeks most of Europe was at War that was to claim the lives of millions of her People.

But it was a bitter pill for the German delegates to swallow as their signatures were viewed as a humiliation by their own People. Germany had started the War as the most powerful Empire in Europe and was a powerhouse of Industry & Armaments. By 1919 she was on her knees. Under the terms of the Treaty she was to be shorn of lands and provinces she considered hers by Right of Conquest and Blood. Lands and People were taken by the French, Belgians, Danes and Poles. Not only that but Germany had to reduce her once mighty Army and Navy to the status of a paltry 100,000 men home force and basically a flotilla of boats to guard her coastline. She was denied the use of tanks, submarines, or an Air Force of any kind.

By far the biggest humiliation though was the imposition of a huge level of reparations for the damage her armies had inflicted on the lands of the Allies that they had occupied during the War. The notorious Article 231 of the Treaty established German War guilt for starting the War and on the foundation of that principle a punitive level of reparations were deemed to be due to the Allied Powers from Germany*

Article 231
"The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."

This really stuck in the throat of the German Delegates and back home where there was outrage and anger at such harsh terms. The Germans had been led to believe [or chose to believe] that under the US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Point Plan for Peace that the Rights to self determination of all peoples would be respected and that they would get a reasonably honourable deal. But the opposition of France in particular knocked this one on  the head as they wanted Revenge for the damage to their Country caused by Germans during their Occupation of northern France for over four years. All the major Allied Powers [bar Russia] that had fought Germany signed the Treaty, the USA, the British Empire, the Republic of France, the Kingdoms of Italy and Belgium etc, followed by the lesser powers who took part in the War.

However one Country that had struck for its Freedom during the War in 1916 and indeed had seen many of its countrymen fighting with the Allies & that had shed so much of their blood for the ‘Freedom of small Nations’ on the battlefields of France and Belgium & further afield was absent - and that was the newly declared Irish Republic. It was not for want of trying as the Irish Cabinet had already dispatched a little delegation of its own to Paris to try their luck at pressing the Allied Powers about upholding the Principle of self determination.

On February 22 1919 Sean T. O’Kelly, [T.D. and Ceann Comhairle of the 1st Dáil Éireann] addressed a letter to the President of the Peace Conference M. Clemenceau [President of France] and to every delegate to the Conference in Paris. He brought to their notice the claim of the Government of the Irish Republic for international recognition; he requested the conference to receive its delegates and allow them the earliest opportunity:
‘To establish formally and definitely before the Peace Conference and the League of Nations Commission, now assembled in Paris, Ireland’s indisputable right to international recognition of her independence and the propriety of her claim to enter the League of Nations as one of its constituent members’
The Irish Republic by Dorothy Macardle pages 259-260.

O’Kelly distributed copies to all the delegates assembled in Paris but it was to no avail and Irish demands were brushed aside. However the cat as it were was out the bag and was not for turning. Wilson had opened a Pandora’s Box that National self determination was the cornerstone of International Affairs. Specifically Point 14 of his Plan:

XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

28 June 1919 was thus  a seminal moment in the History of Europe and indeed of the World. Germany had been wounded but was not crushed and the bitterness of the terms of the Treaty led to a thirst for revenge on its perpetrators - a legacy that was come back and haunt Europe in the decades to come. Further afield the concept of National self determination came to be seen as a Global Principle that all the European Great Powers would eventually be held accountable to. And they were.

* The final payment was made on 3 October 2010, settling German loan debts in regard to reparations.

Painting: the signing of the Treaty of Versailles 28 June 1919 by William Orpen.

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