Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Great War: Evaluating the Treaty of Versailles

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and French Premier Georges Clemenceau

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and French Premier Georges Clémenceau.

Credit: From the EDSITEment resource Great War Primary Documents Archive.

Although at the postwar peace talks President Woodrow Wilson wished above all to prevent future wars, the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I, is widely considered to have contributed to the rise to power of the Nazi party in Germany. Was the Treaty of Versailles a legitimate and justified attempt by the victorious powers to ensure that Germany would never again pose a military threat? Or did the Treaty, as the Nazis and many other politicians in Germany claimed, place an unfair and unnecessarily punitive burden on Germany? Was the supposed unfairness of the Treaty a significant contributor to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany—or was it merely a convenient rhetorical tool for German politicians to exploit? If the unfairness of the Treaty were indeed a cause of fascism in Germany, how do we explain the rise of fascism in Italy (which fought on the side of the allies in World War I) or the existence of fascist movements in Britain, the Netherlands, and other Western democracies in the 1930s?

By studying a variety of primary sources, maps, and supporting documents concerning the post-war peace process, students will develop a context for evaluating whether the treaty was a viable, fair one, and for considering some of the complex questions this issue raises about the historical causality and responsibility. The lesson fits within a larger unit on World War I, and some prior knowledge of the causes and events of the war is assumed.

Guiding Questions

  • What were the aims and motives of the victorious powers in drawing up the Treaty of Versailles?
  • Was the Treaty a fair one? Was the German response justified?

Learning Objectives

  • To learn the motives and aims of the Treaty of Versailles
  • To learn the terms that the Treaty imposed on Germany
  • To consider how each country's unique wartime experience may have shaped its aims at the Peace Conference; to examine the different motives and aims of the United States and other allies such as France
  • To learn about Germany's reaction to the Treaty of Versailles
  • To discuss whether the terms of the Treaty were fair
  • To discuss whether the Treaty contributed to the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany

Preparation Instructions

  • Review Hitler's April 17, 1923 speech, available here as a downloadable PDF, denouncing the treaty.
  • Review Articles 42–50 and 231–235, and skim Articles 159–213, of the Treaty of Versailles; the text is from the EDSITEment resource Great War Primary Documents Archive. Another webpage containing the text in its entirety, The Versailles Treaty, is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed from Internet Public Library, which has a page specifically devoted to World War I History.
  • Review background information on the treaty and the German reaction, available through two resources from the History Department at Colby College, and reviewed by the Center for the Liberal Arts, an EDSITEment resource: "Germany's Responsibility for the War" and "The Weimar Republic: the Treaty of Versailles."
  • Read background information on the treaty's place in the subsequent rise to power of the Nazis, available at the EDSITEment resource U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: "Treaty of Versailles, 1919." The article points out that the Treaty was a useful rhetorical device for the Nazis and other right-wing parties, which could brandish it as evidence of the traitorous actions of democratic parties that had accepted the terms of the treaty. The article also makes the point that in the years following 1921, the date the Treaty took effect, the Treaty was altered in Germany's favor, and that "with the occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, all military restrictions (which had already been violated before Hitler's accession to power) became null and void."
  • Maps of Europe before, during, and after World War I are available through the Department of History at the United States Military Academy. The Map Library contains these contrasting maps: Europe in 1914 and Europe in 1919; The World in 1914 and The World in 1919.
  • Besides teaching students about the contents of the Treaty of Versailles, this lesson raises challenging questions about historical causality and responsibility. Students have an innate sense of what is and isn't fair and may have strong feelings about the fairness (or not) of the Treaty. Provided in the Introduction, and in activity 5, are some questions for discussion that may help your students think about—or rethink—the implications of the positions they take in activity 5.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Motives for the Treaty: the Trauma of World War I

Begin by sharing with your students the enormous and unprecedented human costs of the Great War. This will give them a context for considering the motivations of the allied powers in imposing the Treaty of Versailles, and for judging whether or not the terms of the Treaty were justified. By comparing the numbers of casualties and total troops mobilized, students will also have a basis for understanding the differing positions taken by the countries that drew up the Treaty.

Begin by examining death and casualty tolls from France and the United States, respectively. For a brief look, students may use the Diagram: Deaths by Countries in Thousands at the Great War Primary Documents Archive. For a more in-depth look, with information not only on deaths, but on total casualties and total mobilized men, have students look at the diagram Casualties: First World War, produced by the Spartacus Educational Network in Great Britain, a link from Center for the Liberal Arts. Have students note not only the total deaths and casualties, but also particularly the percentage of casualties relative to total mobilized. Also have students examine photographs of destruction along the western front in France. The three sets of Before and After photographs from the Great War Primary Documents Archive will probably suffice, although you may also wish to have students include some or all of the following: Ruins of Vaux, Ruins of Arras Cathedral, and Ruins of the Arras Hotel de Ville. What level of destruction do these pictures indicate? What are some emotions evoked when viewing these images? What happened to the originally charming and vibrant Village of Esnes? Why is it significant that major civic buildings such as the Courthouse (Palace of Justice), cathedral, and City Hall (Hotel de Ville) were destroyed? Can you envision what these buildings and towns may have looked like before the war? How long do you think it would take to rebuild these buildings and communities? How much do you think it would cost? Can a community ever really recover from such destruction? Ask students to speculate, based on this information, how France's goals for the postwar settlement might differ from U.S. goals. What might France fear? What would France probably want with respect to Germany? Why? Would those desires be reasonable? Why or why not? Why might the U.S. be able to take a more idealistic perspective?

Activity 2. Drawing Up the Treaty: France and the United States

Next have students read excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech to Congress from the Great War Primary Documents Archive. Specifically, first have students read the last two paragraphs of Wilson's speech (the part before the actual enumeration of the points). What does Wilson say are the goals of the United States? What is his hope for the world and for the postwar talks? Then have students read the first paragraph right after the enumeration of the Fourteen Points. What is Wilson's stated attitude toward Germany? How would this attitude differ from France's? Again, in the context of the information from activity #1 above, why might the U.S. be more inclined than France to take an idealistic perspective?

Activity 3. Optional activity: A Treaty of the Victors

Have students write out a list, based on their knowledge, of what they believe would be the most important respective postwar goals for France, Germany, and the United States. Each country should have at least 5 items, ranked from most important to least important. (You may wish to start students out with one or two items, such as have Germany pay for the war or establish a peace-keeping body.) Break students into groups of three, each of whom represents one of these countries, and have students spend approximately 20-30 minutes attempting to negotiate an agreement centered around these goals. When time is up, discuss the process and share the various results. Were there any common goals? Were compromises made? Which country was most pleased with how the negotiations turned out? Most displeased? On balance, did each country feel it had achieved its most important goal? Were there any particular impasses or impediments to agreements?

Be sure to inform students that in reality, Germany was not represented at the settlement talks. Later in the lesson, after considering the real treaty, ask how Germany's presence might have altered the peace process. (An alternative activity would be to do the above activity with only France and the United States represented; this has the advantage of being closer to the historical reality.)

Activity 4. The Terms of the Treaty
  • Now have students begin to consider the actual terms of the peace treaty with respect to Germany. First have students analyze before and after maps of Europe and the world. (See Preparing to Teach section for several options for maps to use in this activity.) How much European land did Germany lose? Which regions specifically? To which countries did this land go? What land worldwide was lost by Germany? To which countries did this land go?
  • Students should then read Sections III and IV (Articles 42-50) of the treaty for the terms pertaining to the Rhineland and the Saar Basin; these articles are in the treaty section Political Clauses For Europe. (Preparing to Teach section above for links to the treaty.) Have students locate these regions on a map. Why were these clauses probably inserted? What benefits did these clauses give France? Was it reasonable to establish the demilitarized Rhineland buffer zone? How would the terms regarding the Saar Basin affect the German economy? How would Germany probably react to these terms?
  • Next have students read the treaty for the terms pertaining to Germany's military, in the treaty section Military, Naval and Air Clauses. What were the terms for Germany? What sovereign powers did Germany lose? How might these clauses have satisfied France? How would Germany probably react? Have students discuss whether it is reasonable to disarm a former enemy belligerent.
  • Students should then read the treaty for the terms pertaining to Germany's war guilt and reparations, in the treaty section Reparations. First discuss the infamous "war guilt clause," Article 231. Why does it single out Germany and not the other Central Powers? Based on their knowledge (again, it is assumed that students will have already spent time learning the causes of the war), is this clause accurate? Does Germany warrant more responsibility than other countries? Do the Allies bear any responsibility? As preparation, for this discussion, you may wish to have students read the aforementioned background essays that discuss the extent of German guilt. (See Preparing to Teach section for links to these essays.) Then discuss the sections on reparations, especially Articles 232-235. How much was Germany to pay? How might this affect the German economy?
Activity 5. The German Response
  • Have students read the German Reply Memorandum to the treaty, written by the German Foreign Minister Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, available here as a downloadable PDF. Explain that Germany was allowed to fashion a reply to the treaty draft, but its terms were summarily rejected by the Allies. What objections does Germany raise to the treaty? Are these objections valid? Should the Allies have modified the treaty in any way to address these points?
  • Now have students read Hitler's April 17, 1923 speech, available here as a downloadable PDF, denouncing the treaty. (Ideally students will already be familiar with the circumstances behind the Weimar Republic. If not, explain to students that the German Kaiser abdicated at the close of World War I, to be succeeded by a democratic republic known as the Weimar Republic. It was representatives of the Weimar Republic who signed the Versailles Treaty.) Discuss his speech. Why is Hitler so vitriolic concerning the Weimar Republic? What does he blame the Weimar Republic for? What other goals does he link to the elimination of the treaty? What imagery does he use? What actions is he alluding to at the end? How might this speech appeal to the emotions of the listener? Consider how the treaty may have contributed to the rise of Nazism, and by extension, World War II. Would Hitler have been able to give such a powerful speech or to find a receptive audience if the treaty had been different?
  • Was the German response to the Treaty of Versailles justified? Have students take a stand on whether the treaty was fair or unfair, with specific evidence to justify their ideas. This may be done through discussion, debate, or a written assignment.

Once students have had a chance to consider their positions on this question, discuss with your class some of the larger issues of causality and responsibility that are raised by this exercise. Some questions are: What are our sources for gauging the German response? Can we trust them? Might German politicians in the 1930s have had something to gain by exploiting the bitterness of defeat? If we believe that the terms of the treaty were unfair, does this mean that the allies bear responsibility in some fashion for subsequent developments in Germany? That the German response was justified?

You may also want to discuss questions raised in the Introduction about other explanations for the appeal of fascism in Germany. Antisemitism was sometimes framed in terms of the supposed "unfair" advantages that Jewish bankers and merchants had taken of hardworking Germans (you can read more about antisemitism and the rise of fascism in Germany at the Holocaust Learning Center, a resource from the U.S. Holocaust Museum).

Extending The Lesson

  • Have students research other postwar settlements, such as the peace terms of the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars, and compare them to the Treaty of Versailles. Some sample questions to consider: What were the victors' goals at the Congress of Vienna? Were they different than the goals of the victors in 1919? Was the 1815 settlement a harsh one toward France? What happened to the government of France after the Napoleonic Wars, and how did this compare to what happened to the government of Germany? What territorial adjustments were made after the Napoleonic Wars, and how did these adjustments compare to the 1919 adjustments? The Congress of Vienna settlement is widely credited with keeping Europe out of a continent-wide war for 100 years (in fact, until World War I!). Why might it have been so successful at keeping the peace, whereas the Versailles settlement collapsed after only two decades? Students should conduct their own research for this expansion activity, but following are some basic background sites for students to begin with (all are linked to the EDSITEment resource, Internet Public Library): "Europe in Retrospect: International Order and Domestic Strife," produced by Britannia Encyclopedia Online; and "Congress of Vienna," a student essay from Chico High School in Chico, California.
  • Hold a discussion/debate or give a written assignment exploring what, if any, are the victor's obligations after a war is over. To what extent should a defeated wartime enemy be punished? Is harsh punishment practical? Worthwhile? legitimate?
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Authors
  • Karen Lambert (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media