Paris Peace Conference

Following the defeat of the Central Powers in World War One, the victorious Allies met to discuss the terms of peace. Though the conference included delegates from twenty-seven countries, the representatives from France, Britain, Italy, and the United States, known as the “Big Four,”controlled the meetings—letting the victors lead was a better alternative to having everyone have a say, which would have complicated the agreements. The conference opened on January 18, 1919, and came to an end on January 21, 1920. Though many remember this conference for producing the Treaty of Versailles, which outlined Germany’s punishments, the diplomats came up with five major treaties. Not only did this conference result in the transformation of Europe, but also new countries formed and new organizations developed.

To make sense of the negotiations that took place in France, one must understand a bit of the Great War’s background. France, Britain, and Italy were allies during the first World War. Russia fought as one of the allies until December of 1917, when the Communists who gained control of Russia’s government decided to withdraw from the war. So many people from different countries all over the world became involved as well, mainly due to the fact that the powerful nations involved deployed soldiers from their colonies. This truly was a “world war.” The fighting between the Allies and the Central Powers—which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria—was very even, resulting in a stalemate. The way in which these battles were fought (trench warfare) and the stalemate had a massive impact on the great amount of lives lost in this war. It was not until America joined the battles in 1917 due to Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare that there was any change in the direction of the war, as their involvement boosted the Allies’ victories. The allied counterattacks had a significant impact on the German army, and it was apparent that the war was about to an end. The Allies and the Germans signed an armistice in November of 1918 and the first World War was over.

The representatives from the various countries that attended the Paris Peace Conference contrasted greatly in what their aims were for this meeting. A wide range of issues were discussed, including how to deal with the defeat Central Powers, what to do with prisoners of war, and arms limitations—those who attended the conference agreed that World War I was “the war to end all wars,” and that steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again. Some countries wanted territory while others sought to use this conference as an opportunity to nullify treaties that had previously been imposed on them by Europeans nations. Nonetheless, considering the Big Four had the most say in these meetings, the final documents drawn up obviously corresponded to their desires the most.

The first session of the Paris Peace Conference in the Trianon Palace, January 1919.
Credit: The Guardian

If the smaller countries differed in their desires, the Big Four were no better. Since France witnessed the most destruction in the war, Clemenceau wanted compensation. He harbored a great hatred for Germany—when he first entered politics, France was losing the Franco-Prussian War. Thus, he called for harsh punishments. Lloyd George, too, wanted compensation, specifically for economic reparations, but did not want to punish Germany to the point they would seek revenge. Orlando did not participate as much as the other members of the Big Four. He was only concerned with matters that pertained to Italy. 

Wilson had a different approach at the conference. In his first term as president, Woodrow Wilson promised to keep America out of the war. He had no desire to send American soldiers to aid the British and French—although Americans banks lent a tremendous amount of money to these countries for aid. Wilson’s desire to avoid the war changed by 1916, after Americans voted him for a second term. Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare killed many Americans sailing. The sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner sailing from New York to Liverpool, is one famous example that indirectly contributed the Wilson’s decision to enter the war. Another factor that caused this was the discovery that Germany tried to conspire with Mexico to pursue a war against America if it were decided by the United States that they would become involved with the war in Europe. Because of these factors, along with the pressure from the British and French, it became almost impossible for Wilson to keep his pro-isolationist views and avoid the war.

Being that Wilson eventually did decide to join the war, helping the Allies win the war, the French people treated him like a hero upon his arrival in France for the conference. The French, specifically representative George Clemenceau, assumed that Wilson would allow the French to have revenge on the Germans—their long time enemies—with the treaties, possibly through territorial gains. Wilson, however, did not intend on doing so, and he even criticized European nations on their tendency to impose punishments on the losers after a war. To Wilson, all European combatants were equally responsible for what happened in the war. 

Unlike the other representatives at the conference, Wilson focused on more than just settling the situation in Europe. He sought not just peace in Europe, but international peace. This would be founded upon an organization, which he called the League of Nations. The organization was part of his 14 points, which was a list of his objectives for peace in Europe. Wilson hoped that the League of Nations would prevent a major war from happening again. He also hoped that this would bring an end to colonial empires. This was not out of sympathy for those who were colonized—Wilson was known for not having good race relations. Instead, he figured if the French and British no longer dominated their colonies in Asia and Africa, it would make it easier for America to trade with those countries, thus expanding America’s power all over the world.

The Big Four often met alone to get rid of the burden of having to get all the countries involved to agree, which they got away with considering they ran the conference. These four representatives, however, often disagreed on a lot of issues. Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, for example, wanted control of the Adriatic, which Wilson strongly opposed. Nonetheless, the representatives mostly focused on making it so that a world war would never happen again, and that took time. The only example of a previous conference that these peacemakers had to look upon was the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars. They studied it, examining why it failed, being that those peacemakers too sought to avoid a big war again—however, some would argue that the Congress of Vienna was not a failure in comparison, considering it kept peace for almost 100 years and the Paris Peace Conference was only able to do so for about 20 years before another world war.

Pictured are the delegates of the Paris Peace Conference. Of the five seated, President Wilson is in the center.
Credit: Clio Visualizing History

The Treaty of Sèvres was one of five major treaties prepared at the Paris Peace Conference. This marked the beginning of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and abolishment of Turkish sovereignty. The territory of the Ottoman Empire was divided. Britain gained control of Palestine and Iraq, which gave them a generous amount of oil concessions. France took over Lebanon, Syria, and parts of southern Anatolia. Given to Italy was the coast of Anatolia and the Dodecanese Islands. Some ports were left as “international free zones” and the Dardanelles Straits was made an international waterway. Certain areas were even recognized as their own independent sovereign states, such as Armenia and the Kingdom of Hejaz. Countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire had severe military restrictions placed on them, as their armies reduced significantly, their navies could acquire no more than thirteen boats, and the use of an air force was forbidden. There were also financial punishments, making it so that the Allies had control of Ottoman finances—their imports/exports, the national bank, the national budget, etc. The Treaty would not be fully ratified until 1923 because the Ottoman sultan was overthrown and replaced by rebel Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who rejected the treaty and led the Turkish War of Independence against the proxies of the Allies. After the creation of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish sovereignty was reestablished in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne.

The Treaty of Saint-Germain mainly dealt with Austria. Austria was forced to give up the Sudetenland—with a population of 3 million German-speaking people—which Czechoslovakia received as part of the deal. Italy gained control of some Austrian territory, including Istria, Trieste and Trentino. Austria wanted to have the title of German Austria as the title for the new republic, but the Allies opposed this. Austria’s army reduced and the country was required to pay reparations. Countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire gained independence, including the Kingdom of Serb, Croats, and Slovenes, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary.

The Treaty of Trianon was a treaty of peace between Hungary and the Allies. The Hungarians debated whether or not they should sign the treaty at first, as there was so much to lose. The population of Hungary dropped significantly—by about 2/3—and they lost 1/3 of their land. Like every other country defeated, Hungary too had to pay reparations and faced severe military restrictions placed on them. Hungary also no longer had access to the sea, as those countries now belonged to The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. What mostly triggered the Hungarians was the amount of ethnic Hungarians given to other countries due to territorial loss. To this day, some Hungarians still feel bitter about how the outcome of their peace treaty.

The Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine dealt with Bulgaria. Bulgaria was required to cede various territories: Western Thrace (which cut off their outlet to the Aegean Sea), the western border of Bulgaria (given to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes), and Dobruja (given to Romania). They too had to pay reparations and reduce their military.

The most well-known of the five treaties is the Treaty of Versailles, establishing peace between the Germans and the Allies. Though the Germans also faced the burden of reparations, loss of territory (13%, which included 10% of its population, plus their overseas colonies) and military reduction, unlike the other nations they had to take full blame for the war. This, the part of the treaty known as the “War Guilt Clause,” was the most humiliating part for the Germans. In addition, the Germans were required to conduct war crimes proceedings for “waging an aggressive war” in the Leipzig War Crimes Trials.

Here is a map of Europe before and after the Paris Peace Conference.
Credit: BBC

As expected, Wilson opposed the way in which the Europeans countries punished those defeated in World War One. The losers were only summoned to France once the treaty listing their punishment were and did not have much of a say in the matter. This infuriated those who had lost the war, most notably Germany. The News-Herald posted an article with regards to Germany’s position on Wilson’s 14 points and the way the Allies carried out the conference, with Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Philipp Scheidemann, stating that the Allies were “blinded by selfish policies” and that “Versailles today represents the deepest point in the fall of Germany.” They hoped for terms that would match Wilson’s 14 points that called for a more mild punishment. The Treaty of Versailles is credited for contributing to the rise of Adolf Hitler. The Germans never fully accepted the terms of their treaty, feeling as though they were treated too harshly and unfairly—especially considering how World War One started as a conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Hitler appealed to these feelings of anger, stating in one of his speeches, “If you want to free yourselves…the only way is to have the strength of will to one day tear up the Treaty of Versailles.” This stirred up the German people and created a society that was more than willing to break the peace in Europe and start another war. Thus, while the Allies sought to avoiding creating pretexts for another war, they really did the opposite of that.

As for the effect of the Paris Peace Conference on America, one can say that it did not have much of an effect on the nation. The terms of the treaties more so satisfied the desires of Clemenceau and Lloyd George than it did the other members of the Big Four. The League of Nations, which Wilson was a strong advocate of, did not take hold in America. Members of Congress refused to ratify the treaty, weakening the effect and purpose of the League of Nations, which dismembered in 1946. They essentially wanted America to go back to its isolationist ways and never get involved in European conflicts again. This forced Americans to sit on the sidelines in the years after the first world war, as Nazis came to power and set the stage for an even bloodier war—some argue this could have been prevented had the powerful democracies, including America, chosen to respond to this earlier. 

Many people remember the Paris Peace Conference as a failure due to its inability to prevent another world war, but there were some good aspects of it. Although the organization failed, the League of Nations was the first attempt at a world organization for peace. It also served as the forerunner to the United Nations, which still exists today. The conference also created new countries and separated nations from colonial domination. Some would argue that the disruption of European borders caused any chance of satisfactory settlement to be small, but it would also be appropriate to say that wasn’t the case all around, especially in terms of the empires that existed up until the treaties. For example, the Austro-Hungarian empire included 11 different nationalities, many of whom did not get along and that resulted in constant demonstration for separate nations, which the treaties of the Paris Peace Conference provided them with. Thus, while it is convenient to say that the Paris Peace Conference was not a success in the sense that another world war occurred, the achievements should not be overlooked. 



1. Fuller, Joseph V., & Dennett, Tyler. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: The Paris Peace, 1919, Volume I. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1942.

2. Levin, Norman G. Woodrow Wilson and the Paris Peace Conference. Massachusetts: D.C. Heath & Co, 1972.

3. MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.

4. Smith, Leonard V. Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

5. United Press. “Berlin Seeks to Dicker at Peace Table.” The News-Herald, May 9, 1919.


Useful digital resources:

This is a documentary about the Paris Peace Conference, provided for free by YouTube (published by Mz Sheets).


How to cite this article:

MLA: Glavan, Gloria. “Paris Peace Conference.” Discovering 1919, 15 Apr. 2019,

APA: Glavan G. (2019, April 15). Paris Peace Conference [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Chicago: Glavan, Gloria. “Paris Peace Conference.” Discovering 1919 (blog), April 15, 2019,

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