3.6.5 National Interests and the World War I Peace Settlements 1

Should nations pursue national interest?

Big Ideas:

  • National interest, foreign policy, and nationalism affect each other.

  • Nationalism and ultranationalism are significant during times of conflict.

The Human and Financial Costs of World War I

In 1918, after four years of fighting, the Central Powers (Germany, Austra-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) were no longer able to continue. A series of failed German army advances, a chronic shortage of soldiers from mass desertions and mutinies, and rising nationalist tensions in Prussia all contributed to the end of World War I. The eventual entrance of the United States into the war on the side of the Allies (Britain and France) was the final straw for Germany. An armistice was reached between the Allies and Germany at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, bringing WWI to a close.

World War I, the "war to end all wars", had been very costly in manners both human and financial. View the tabs below to see the extensive costs of WWI.

All these men were killed during the Somme Offensive 1915.
© Library of Congress
  • Dead and disabled soldiers: Millions died and hundreds of thousands of men were maimed in combat and could not return to work in their home countries. The two pie graphs below show military deaths from the Entente Powers (made up of the Allied nations, left) and the Central Powers (right).

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  • Broken families: During the first half of the 1900s, men usually provided the only source of family income. Thousands of families in every combatant country had lost their means of support when husbands and fathers were either killed or severely wounded in action.
  • Massive war debt: The European Allies (France, Britain, and Italy) owed billions of dollars for war supplies, mostly to the United States. Germany and Austria were also billions of dollars in debt and their economies were shattered.
  • Damaged land: The war had been fought mostly in eastern France. Much land in this region was unusable because of thousands of unexploded munitions (artillery shells) and artillery shell craters. Occasionally, unexploded artillery shells from World War I are found in France today.
  • Property damage: Many cities, towns, villages, and farms were destroyed in the war zone in France.
  • Economic downturn: European countries experienced mass unemployment and slow economic recovery after the war.

Paris Peace Conference, 1918 to 1919

Leaders from the victorious Allies (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) met outside France's capital city of Paris to negotiate a peace treaty. The purpose of the treaty was to establish the conditions for stable and lasting peace in which the various sides feel their interests are addressed satisfactorily.

The treaty negotiations were held in the Palace of Versailles, the palace of the French monarchy during the Ancien RĂ©gime (recall Louis XVI and the French Revolution). The result of the Paris Peace Conference was the Treaty of Versailles. At the Paris Peace Conference, there was disagreement between the United States and the European Allies about what was to be done with Germany. Many Allied nations were more concerned with their national self-interests and revenge than they were with actually preventing another war. Note that Germany was not allowed to be a part of the peace negotiations because the Allies alleged Germany was responsible for starting the war (although Austria-Hungary actually started the armed conflict). The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were dictated to Germany without their involvement or input.

The "Big Four", as they were known during the Paris Peace talks, are pictured to the left.

From left to right:
  • British Prime Minister Lloyd George
  • Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando
  • French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau
  • American President Woodrow Wilson

The Demands of the "Big Four"

During the Paris Peace Conference, all nations involved wanted to ensure a war of this scale would never happen again. However, some national interests included punishing Germany for their involvement in fueling World War I. View the tabs below to learn each country's national interests during the Paris Peace Conference.

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The United States had entered World War I in April 1917, three years after the war had begun. As a result, it had far fewer casualties and financial burdens than the other nations. In fact, the US had loaned money to the other Allied nations (in the form of arms and equipment), and many American industries had actually made money on the war.

American President Woodrow Wilson's interests were focused on internationalism. He wanted to ensure peace and prevent the repetition of the nationalist practices that had led to World War I. He presented his Fourteen Points, and intended to push these through at the Peace Conference. Wilson wanted the principle of self-determination, that nations should have their own sovereignty, to guide negotiations. Wilson promoted the idea of a League of Nations as an international organization of cooperation.

President Wilson’s attitude toward Germany was that revenge should not be the basis of a peace treaty. Germany should not be punished too harshly, otherwise Germany could eventually seek revenge against the Allies. He wanted Germany to enter his new League of Nations as an equal partner.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points

Although the victorious European Allies seemed to want revenge on Germany, President Wilson (right) of the United States wanted a peace settlement that would not be overly harsh to Germany. Wilson believed a harsh World War I peace settlement filled with vengeance would only lead to more European conflict. Wilson gave a speech to the United States Congress on January 8, 1918, in which he outlined what he believed were key points to be addressed if future conflict in Europe was to be avoided. He wanted to see the following.

  • Self-determination for the new nations emerging after World War I
  • Open diplomacy (that is, no secret deals) among European nations
  • The creation of an organization or association where nations would work together to solve problems (the League of Nations)

Are you interested in reading further? For a full text of President Wilson's speech, click here.

Public Domain

British citizens had experienced great loss of family and friends during World War I. They blamed Germany, and they wanted their government to make Germany pay. The British government thought the Rhineland (an important resource and industrial area of Germany) should be controlled by the Allies to ensure Germany paid its war damages.

Prime Minister Lloyd George (right), however, was concerned about what Germany would do in the future if it was treated too harshly. Add humiliation to an overly harsh peace settlement, and Germany could become a dangerous foe once again.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George tried to balance the two extremist viewpoints of the United States and France during negotiations, but the British public demanded revenge, reparations, and German colonies. Giving in to British voters, George declared, "We shall squeeze the orange [Germany] until the pips squeak."

Take a look at an orange, and search the definition of a "pip". What do you believe British Prime Minister Lloyd George meant with his quote "We shall squeeze the orange [Germany] until the pips squeak"? How does this quote reflect Britain's national interests?

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French citizens had a long-standing anger against Germans. There had been a French-German rivalry for years, especially over the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine on the German-French border. France felt humiliated when Germany took these provinces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. They wanted Germany to be harshly punished such that Germany would never be able to wage a war again.

French Prime Minister Clemenceau and the French people were of the same mind: destroy Germany. Clemenceau wanted reparations from Germany, especially because most of the war had been fought in France. Prime Minister Clemenceau wanted to make Germany pay for all the damage France suffered during the years of WWI fighting, including 20 000 square kilometres of farmland, 300 000 houses destroyed, and 1.3 million livestock lost. His national interests also included control of the Rhineland (Germany’s main industrial area) by France and return of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine.

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Italy began the war as an ally of Germany in the Triple Alliance. But, as a way of weakening Germany, Britain invited Italy to secret talks in London in 1915. At the talks, Italy was promised territories from Austria-Hungary if it would side with the Allies. Italy's primary national interest in the Austro-Hungarian territories was control and colonial expansion. Italy declared war on Germany in 1915 after agreeing to the promises in the secret Treaty of London. Italy came to the table expecting the treaty to be honoured.

Italian Prime Minister Orlando (above, right) also wanted a 'fair share' of the war spoils (land, reparations, and colonies) in addition to what Italy had already been promised. The other Allies largely ignored Italy’s demands and Italy left the peace talks mostly unsatisfied.

The Dominions were self-governing and sovereign nations that were part of the British Empire. These Dominions included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. All Dominions had automatically gone to war on Britain’s side when World War I broke out in 1914. Note that Canada’s full legal name at the time wasThe Dominion of Canada.

Canada was in a unique position during the peace talks. Canada had entered the war as a dominion of Britain. The red ensign flag (left) was the Canadian flag between 1868 and 1921, and thus it was Canada's flag at the end of World War I.

But, the Canadian forces had demonstrated (in many ways) their pride in Canada, which gave them the will to fight. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment in the many battles waged because, for the first time, all Canadian forces fought together and won. Vimy Ridge is viewed by Canada as a Canadian, not a British, victory. The nationalism directed mainly toward Britain had propelled Canada into World War I, but nationalism among Canadians changed the focus to Canada itself. Canadian soldiers and citizens soon considered themselves Canadians first. At the peace conference in Paris, Canada sat at the table representing itself.

Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden (left) was the Prime Minister of Canada throughout World War I, and during the peace talks, he insisted Canada be given a place other than as a Dominion of Britain. Due to Borden’s insistence, Canada had a larger role in world affairs from that point on. Unlike the European delegations, Canada did not seek more land, reparations, or revenge against Germany. What Canada gained at the Paris Peace Conference was international recognition and an increase in national pride. Great Britain signed the final peace treaty for itself and for the Dominions, although the Canadian delegates and those of the other Dominions added their names and signatures below the British signatures.

© Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
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