The 28th June saw both the trigger and the definitive end of the First World War. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had a direct effect on the outbreak of war, while the Treaty of Versailles was signed on exactly the same date five years later in 1919.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand offers one of the most popular counter-factual debates in history: What if the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne had not been shot dead by the Serbian nationalist terrorist group the Black Hand? What if the driver of the Archduke’s car had taken a different route? What if the gunman Gavrilo Princip wasn’t standing outside Schiller’s Delicatessen at that exact time? This final point is covered in a bonus HistoryPod in which I discuss a key urban myth regarding the assassination.
The fact is that the violent death of Franz Ferdinand directly led to the outbreak of war as it caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. The network of pre-war alliances led to the conflict quickly involving all the major powers of Europe.
The fact that the Treaty that officially ended the war was signed five years to the day of the assassination was coincidence. Firstly the complex negotiations had taken six months to complete, meaning the final Treaty wasn’t handed to the German delegation until the 7th May. Furthermore, having studied the 440 Articles of the Treaty with no opportunity for discussion, the German delegation rejected it as unfair. It was only when the Allies threatened to restart the war that the government reluctantly signed.
On the 7th March 1936, the German Army under control of Adolf Hitler violated international agreements by remilitarising the Rhineland. Although Germany had retained political control over the area following the Treaty of Versailles, it had been banned from stationing armed forces there. France reacted with horror, but they didn’t take any action.
The Rhineland area of Germany, which lay on the border with France, had been banned under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles from containing armed forces within a 50km-wide strip. This had later been confirmed by Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in the Locarno Treaties of 1925. However, by 1936 Hitler had come to power and had begun to break the terms of Versailles by increasing the number of German weapons beyond the agreed limits and reintroducing conscription.
The Western powers had failed to respond to these moves with anything more than diplomatic grumbling, so Hitler felt emboldened to further test the limits of the Versailles settlement. After France and Russia signed the 1935 Franco-Soviet Pact, Hitler chose to send three battalions, or approximately 22,000 German troops, into the Rhineland on the morning of the Saturday 7th March in what he claimed was a defensive move against ‘encirclement’. His own generals were expecting retaliation from France, and Hitler had even ordered an immediate withdrawal if the French army made a move. But it didn’t – France refused to act without the support of Britain, which had been severely weakened by the impact of the Great Depression, distracted by the unfolding Abyssinia Crisis, and sympathised – to an extent – with the German desire to defend its own border.
On the 3rd March 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between Russia and the Central Powers. The treaty ended Russia’s participation in the First World War and was negotiated by the new Bolshevik government.
By the winter of 1917 the Russian economy was in tatters as a result of the strain of maintaining the war effort. Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in February, but the subsequent Provisional Government was overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution later that year after they continued to fight alongside the Entente Powers.
The Russian Bolsheviks vehemently opposed the war and received some support from Germany in their efforts to seize power. For example they had allowed Vladimir Lenin to return from exile in Switzerland to lead the revolution against the Provisional Government.
After seizing power Lenin appointed Leon Trotsky as Commissar of Foreign Affairs, but peace negotiations with the Central Powers were fraught with difficulties: the situation was so bad that, in mid-February, Trotsky declared ‘neither war nor peace’. He intended Russia to stop fighting, but not sign a peace treaty: this incensed the Germans who responded by restarting their advance into Russia in Operation Faustschlag. Concerned by the speed of the German attack, Lenin threatened to resign if Russia didn’t accept the new peace terms delivered on the 23rd February.
The Treaty was a humiliation for Russia: she lost approximately one million square miles of land including fertile farmland, natural resources and industry, as well as approximately a third of the entire Russian population. The Treaty was cancelled as part of the Armistice with Germany on the 11th November 1918.
On the 10th January 1920, the Treaty of Versailles came into effect. Although it had been signed in June the previous year, the terms weren’t activated until the 10th January – which as well as instigating the punishment of Germany also meant that the League of Nations was officially founded as the Covenant of the League was now in operation.
The League was set up on the urging of US President Woodrow Wilson, who included it as one of his Fourteen Points. His desire was to create “A general association of nations formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” It was therefore the first worldwide organisation established with the explicit aim of securing world peace. It intended to do this through collective security, disarmament, the promotion of international trade, and the improvement of social conditions.
Six days after its establishment on 10th January 1920, the League’s first Council meeting took place. The United States were notably absent, as opposition in the Senate meant that USA did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Although there were many reasons for the United States not ratifying the Treaty, a key factor was opposition to Article X of the Covenant which stated that League members would come to each other’s defence if they were attacked.
The League therefore began with 42 members, of which 23 remained members until the League was dissolved in 1946. It was replaced by the United Nations which, coincidentally, held its first General Assembly on the 10th January 1946.
On the 8th January 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he outlined his principles for world peace, known as the Fourteen Points. Keen to distance the United States from nationalistic disputes that fuelled European rivalries, he sought a lasting peace by securing terms that avoided selfish ambitions of the victors.
Three days earlier, on the 5th January, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had outlined British war aims at the Caxton Hall conference of the Trades Union Congress. It was the first time any of the Allies had shared their post-war intentions and, as a result Woodrow Wilson considered abandoning his own speech since many of the points were similar. However, he was persuaded to deliver the speech anyway.
The Fourteen Points were greeted with some reluctance from France in particular. Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, is said to have remarked that, “The good Lord only had ten!” as a comparison to the Ten Commandments. However, the Fourteen Points speech became an instrument of propaganda that was widely circulated within Germany. Consequently it later served as a basis for the German armistice that was signed later that year.
However, France’s vastly different intentions meant that, when the time the Paris Peace Conference began on the 18th January 1919, there was significant tension between the negotiators. The fact that Wilson himself was physically ill meant that he was less able to argue for peace terms that reflected the Fourteen Points against Clemenceau – the Tiger – and his demands to cripple Germany. Consequently many Germans felt incredible anger over the final terms of the Treaty.
On the 11th November 1918, fighting on the First World War’s Western Front ended when representatives from the Allies and Germany signed the Armistice of Compiègne. Named after the location in which it was signed, the armistice was agreed at around 5:00 a.m. in a railway carriage that was part of Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch’s private train. Designed to come into effect at 11:00 a.m. Paris time, the armistice was extended three times before the Treaty of Versailles finally came into force on the 10th January 1920.
President Woodrow Wilson of the USA had outlined his war aims in the Fourteen Points that he announced in a speech in January 1918. These provided a framework for peace, and were a key factor in encouraging Germany to enter negotiations.
By the end of September, the German High Command had realised that the German cause on the Western Front was doomed. The Kaiser was informed of the situation on the 29th September, and by the 5th October the German government had contacted President Wilson of the United States to begin preparations for negotiating an armistice. However, the two sides didn’t come together until the 8th November because Britain, France and Italy were unwilling to enter discussing based on the 14 Points. By this point the German Revolution was about to result in the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The negotiation wasn’t really a negotiation: the German delegation was presented with the terms and had no option but to sign. The railway carriage in which they did so was later used by Hitler for France’s surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940.
Germany and Russia signed the secret Reinsurance Treaty that ensured they would each remain neutral if the other went to war with a third European power.
Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary had entered into a second Three Emperors’ Alliance in 1881. Like the one before it, the agreement was designed by the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to isolate France from potential allies and avoid rivalry between his two neighbours over territory in the Balkans.
Continuing tensions between Austria-Hungary and Russia over this region led to the agreement’s collapse in 1887 and forced Bismarck to find another way to maintain French diplomatic isolation.
Germany had already formed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879, so the Reinsurance Treaty was created to ensure Russia continued to side with Germany. In return Germany agreed to a Russian sphere of influence in Bulgaria and the Black Sea.
By the time the treaty came up for renewal in 1890, Wilhelm II had become Kaiser of Germany. He insisted that Bismarck resign the Chancellorship in March that year, and argued that his personal relationship with Tsar Alexander III would be enough to avoid any future problems with Russia. Bismarck’s successor Leo von Caprivi was also unwilling to seek a renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty, meaning that it lapsed.
Without the treaty to tie St Petersburg to Berlin, the Russian government began to forge closer relations with France. France’s improving diplomatic situation was formalised in the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. This opened up Germany to the possibility of a war on two fronts, making the failure of the Reinsurance Treaty a contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War.
The Treaty of Trianon was signed between Hungary and most of the Allies of the First World War.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire had begun to collapse by the autumn of 1918, and the Hungarian Prime Minister declared the termination of the joint state on 31 October. Austria signed the Treaty of St. Germain on 10 September 1919 in which it recognised Hungary’s independence.
The Treaty of Trianon went on to strip Hungary of nearly three-quarters of its territory. Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia received the vast majority of this land and population. The border changes meant that over 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves living in a different country. Furthermore, the Treaty specified that one year after the date of signing these people would also lose their Hungarian nationality.
The territorial changes had a dramatic effect on Hungary’s economy. Large parts of the country’s former infrastructure and industry lay outside the new borders, while the loss of the coastline meant that it was both difficult and expensive to engage in international trade. Unemployment skyrocketed, while industrial output declined.
The treaty also placed severe limits on Hungary’s military which was forbidden from possessing an air force, tanks, and heavy artillery. The army was limited to 35,000 soldiers and conscription was banned, exacerbating the already mounting unemployment.
The social, economic and political effects of the treaty later led the historian and former British Ambassador to Hungary, Bryan Cartledge, to describe it as ‘the greatest catastrophe to have befallen Hungary since the Battle of Mohacs in 1526’.
On the 16th April 1922, former First World War enemies Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Rapallo. Both countries had been excluded from the League of Nations, and this acted as a catalyst for the pact.
The Western powers were startled by the agreement. When Germany drew up the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, Russia had been forced to sign away large swathes of land. The Treaty of Rapallo meant the two countries abandoned all territorial and financial arguments stemming from Brest-Litovsk and, instead, to “co-operate in a spirit of mutual goodwill in meeting the economic needs of both countries”.
The Treaty of Rapallo was particularly important for Russia, as it was the first international recognition of the Bolsheviks as the official government. However, it was the military clauses – most of them secret – that were most valuable to both sides. German factories producing military goods were able to move to Russia, effectively bypassing the Treaty of Versailles limits on German weaponry. Furthermore the two armies conducted joint training exercises deep inside Russia, which enabled the German army to continue to use technology banned by Versailles such as tanks and war planes.
Russia benefited from this agreement as well. They were able to see Western European military technology, and work with German engineers who shared techniques that were to be the bedrock of Stalin’s Five Year Plans.
The Rapallo Treaty alarmed the Western Powers, but the danger was short-lived. By the middle of the 1920s, Germany under Stresemann had begun to improve relations with them as a result of the Locarno Treaties, meaning a close relationship with Russia was less vital.
On the 13th January 1935, the Territory of the Saar Basin voted to reunite with Germany. Having been administered by the League of Nations for 15 years following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the overwhelming plebiscite result of over 90% in favour of reunification surprised many observers.
In 1918 the Saar Basin was a heavily industrialised area, boasting a large number of coal mines. Following the Treaty of Versailles the area was occupied and governed by France and Britain under the auspices of the League of Nations. France was also given exclusive control of the coal mines. However the Treaty called for a plebiscite to decide the long-term future of the Saar region after a period of fifteen years.
By the time of the plebiscite Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany, which had led a number of Nazi opponents to move to the area since it was the only part of Germany free from their rule. They were keen for the area to remain under the League’s administration, but maintaining the status quo was unpopular with ordinary Germans.
Meanwhile the Nazis began an intensive pro-Germany campaign led by propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. As early as 1933, complaints that the Nazi campaign amounted to a “reign of terror” had been noted by American political scientists Sarah Wambaugh, one of the members of the commission overseeing the plebiscite. Although the Nazis did tone down their tactics by the end of 1934, the League of Nations provided a peacekeeping force to monitor the plebiscite.
Voter turnout plebiscite was 98%, with 90.8% voting to re-join the German Reich.