When Germany signed the armistice in the first world war, they were still (technically) in a decent bargaining position.

  • Germany still had troops in France and Belgium
  • There were no enemy forces in German territory
  • Germany had already won the war on the eastern front
  • German forces were still in relatively good condition
  • Great Britain and France were not motivated for an invasion of Germany, due to pure exhaustion (although the influx of fresh American resources and manpower may have made it technically possible)

Now, I'm not here to argue that Germany could have emerged victorious. They had lost allies, they were starting losing ground, and they were no longer able to reinforce adequately. Had the war been allowed to go on, they would most likely have faced total defeat sooner than the allied powers perhaps expected.

However, considering the points made above, I wonder why the allied powers demanded such harsh peace terms.

Germany was not allowed a place at the bargaining table, and aside from huge war reparations, territorial losses, demilitarisation, and other terms, they were even forced to cede the territories they had already gained in the peace treaty on the eastern front.

Many of you will probably note that this led to the conspiracy theory, Dolchstoßlegende, which concludes that Germany did not lose military, but rather to traitorous elements at home.

Some also argue that the treaty was meant to permanently render Germany useless as a military might, but that it ultimately had the opposite effect (justification to take back what was theirs).

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    Germany did not capitulate, they signed an armistice, and they were in fact in a very bad position as Germany internally was collapsing into civil war. Had the allies known this they would probably not have signed the armistice, but demanded full surrender. Which would have avoided the conspiracy theory, and may even have avoided WWII. Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 18:15
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    That's true. Had they not signed the armistice, they would probably have faced total defeat sooner rather than later. I will edit the text to reflect your points.
    – Nix
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 19:39
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    In addition to the other answers, both France and the UK had amassed very large debts to the US during the war, of similar size to the reparations imposed on Germany. Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 23:14
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    @MatthewFinlay Ah, interesting. However, US President Wilson was afaik against the harsh economical sanctions, as it would hurt the European economy (and in extension, the US). Great Britain also wanted to keep Germany financially stable, as they saw her as a potential trading partner. And in the end it was for naught: Germany had to loan money to be able to pay the reparations, causing explosive inflation.
    – Nix
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 23:30
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    Compared to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Versailles was pretty moderate.
    – sds
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 23:54

6 Answers 6


I think you're asking two questions: why were such harsh conditions imposed, and why did Germany accept.

As for why they were imposed: "Some also argue that the treaty was meant to permanently render Germany useless as a military might […]" — Perhaps not totally, but I think this is the answer. It's what the French wanted, and their security concerns won out over Wilson's ideals in the negotiations. The Maginot Line stands testament to France's fear of another German invasion, and I don't think revenge—or the political necessity of satisfying a public thirst for revenge—can be discounted either.

As for why Germany accepted, this diary entry by Albrecht von Thaer on October 1, 1918 recounts Ludendorff's own assessment of Germany's position at the time.

He said approximately the following: it is his duty to tell us that our military situation is terribly serious. Every day it is possible that there might be a breakthrough on the western front. He has had to report this in the last few days to His Majesty. For the first time, the O.H.L. [Oberste Heeresleitung or Supreme Army Command] was asked by His Majesty, as well as the Chancellor, what the O.H.L and the army is still capable of accomplishing. In agreement with the Field Marshall, he responded: the O.H.L. and the German army are at an end; the war can no longer be won; indeed, a total defeat can probably no longer be averted. Bulgaria has fallen. Austria and Turkey, at the end of their strength, will probably soon fall as well. Our own army is unfortunately already badly infected with the poison of Spartacist-socialist ideas. One can no longer rely on the troops.

By 1918, both sides were developing strategies and tactics which had failed so far to, but held the promise of, breaking the stalemate (co-ordinated tank and infantry attacks, stormtrooper units). The Spring Offensive was Germany's last chance to put these in effect with anything close to the logistical support and number of crack troops they required—in the event, it wasn't enough—and its failure meant that the best Germany had to look forward to was defeat by attrition accelerated by the arrival of the US.

Furthermore, the Treaty wasn't signed until June 28, 1919, about seven and a half months after the ceasefire. During this time the Allies maintained their blockade of Germany, many starved (a source in that article suggests 100,000 civilians, though the Allies made attempts to allow food into Germany), others succumbed to the global influenza pandemic (which, all told, killed more people than the war killed combatants), and the country descended into paramilitary street fighting and revolution.

So Germany never was in a particularly good bargaining position (all they could offer was to abbreviate everyone's suffering), and was by 1919 utterly at the Allies' mercy.

I don't know enough to form an opinion on this, but here is Sally Marks on the historiography of the aftermath of WWI: (superscripts omitted)

For nearly forty years, historians of twentieth-century diplomacy have argued that the Versailles treaty was more reasonable than its reputation suggests and that it did not of itself cause the Depression, the rise of Hitler, or World War II. Their efforts have had little effect, despite Margaret MacMillan’s best-selling Paris 1919. The distorted view of The Economic Consequences of the Peace and J. M. Keynes’s other works still dominates both the Anglo-American historical profession and the English-speaking educated public, though Zara Steiner pointed out in The Lights That Failed that the Versailles treaty was the mildest of the 1919–20 settlements.


After a long, bitter great war, losers are rarely treated as victors. Germany’s military collapse has been downplayed. Last battles count most, and Berlin sought an armistice in hope of regrouping to fight again only when its army neared disintegration. The Armistice of November 1918 was in fact a surrender, but the Allies, without thinking, retained the German term implying only a cease fire. That was the first Allied mistake. The text required a rapid military withdrawal that only the German army could accomplish, which gave it great influence in the nascent German republic. Franco-Belgian yearning for liberation rendered that requirement hard to avoid.


While the Four imposed losses and constraints upon Germany, many of them temporary, they allowed it to remain Europe’s greatest state politically, economically, and potentially militarily, for they never really faced jointly the extent of German power and the possibility of its hostile use. They can be faulted for the ostensible and psychological as well as the real burdens they imposed on Weimar’s democrats; the insufficiency of enforcement clauses; ignoring the risks of imposing a victor’s peace without a united will to enforce it; the treaty’s numerous pinpricks but relative moderation on many key points; their necessary haste and unnecessary disorganization; and leaving Germany dominant on the continent—indeed, when the bonds of Versailles dissolved, more dominant than it had been before. Above all, by the crucial combination of their failure to ensure that Germans understood their military defeat, their consistent avoidance of the big questions, and their neglect of aspects of German power, the victors inadvertently provided the preconditions for what one Weimar official termed “the continuation of war by other means.”

Marks, Sally. "Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty, 1918–1921." The Journal of Modern History 85, no. 3 (September 2013): 632-659.

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    The fact that the treaty was not signed until 1919 is a good point - that left the allies time to realize just how miserable the situation in Germany was. Great analysis, great use of sources. +1 and accept. :)
    – Nix
    Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 10:21

There were massive casualties on all sides, but the French had suffered the largest losses of the major Allies and the sentiment in France was extremely hostile towards Germany.

French PM Clemenceau was adamant that he wanted to cripple Germany's power. As he said to Wilson:

“America is far away, protected by the ocean. Not even Napoleon himself could touch England. You are both sheltered; we are not.”


In the negotiations, Clemenceau was very strident in how punishing the conditions should be, and he had a relatively solid rationale behind him.

Or at least it seemed so. The irony is, of course, that the Treaty helped foment conditions that led to another devastating German invasion of France in WW2.

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    ... but why was France in a position of dictating these extreme terms, which make the treaty inherently unstable?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 23:14
  • @einpoklum they didn't actually get all they want, so there was a semblance of moderation. But the reason they had a lot of weight at the table is largely covered in the answers already here -- they shared a land border with Germany and their losses had been massive. Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 3:02

Through the Early Modern Era there was a long established tradition of tribute being paid by the losing side in a war. As wars became larger, longer, and more devastating through the 19th Century, so the tribute gradually became re-imagined as reparations for the costs of the war won by the victor.

However, to make a long story short, The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were so harsh on Germany because the French and Prussian/German governments had been one-upping each other in war reparation demands since 1807, through 1815, 1871, and finally 1919.


German sought an armistice in 1918. The Allies dictated the terms for the armistice which were very strict and totally one sided, the Germans accepted these terms as they were desperate for an armistice. It was in all but name a surrender, it was quite clear that the peace treaty that followed would d be a diktat, the Germans accepted the terms. The German government was told by the German Military that further resistance was impossible and that ANY terms had to be accepted (the fear was social collapse and red revolt).

The Germans accepted the armstice terms because the Germans felt that they had no other choice and further military resistance was impossible. The Stab in the Back myth is just that propaganda. Germany was totally defeated.

The Armistice Terms were very harsh and one sided in nature and the primary intent of the hard armistice terms in 1918 was to place the Allies in an extremely strong negating position once the actual peace talks began. The expense of maintaining armies was huge and they wished to massive demobilise, the Armistice terms were constructed such that when the peace terms were discussed later the Allies would be even stronger position than they were in 1918, the fact the peace terms in were harsh should have come as no surprise given the armistice terms.

Germany sought an armistice based on Wilson's 14 points, that included nearly all the territorial losses suffered by Germany as part of the final peace treaty, As such the losses were totally expects, and accepted by Germany when it sought the armistice. Alsace-Lorriane, Poland, the Corridor were all in the 14 points.

The Actual reparations was close to a figure that the Germans suggested themselves.


"The Treaty of Versailles (signed in 1919) and the 1921 London Schedule of Payments required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) in reparations to cover civilian damage caused during the war. This figure was divided into three categories of bonds: A, B, and C. Of these, Germany was only required to pay towards 'A' and 'B' bonds totaling 50 billion marks (US$12.5 billion). The remaining 'C' bonds, which Germany did not have to pay, were designed to deceive the Anglo-French public into believing Germany was being heavily fined and punished for the war."

"In January 1921, the Allied Powers grew impatient and established the reparation sum at 226 billion gold marks. The Germans countered with an offer of 30 billion.[39] On 24 April 1921, the German Government wrote to the American Government expressing "her readiness to acknowledge for reparation purposes a total liability of 50 billion gold marks", but was also prepared "to pay the equivalent of this sum in annuities adapted to her economic capacity totalling 200 billion gold marks".[40] In addition, the German Government stated that "to accelerate the redemption of the balance" and "to combat misery and hatred created by the war", Germany was willing to provide the resources needed and "to undertake herself the rebuilding of townships, villages, and hamlets".[41]"

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    You are perfectly right that "stab in the back" was a total lie. You are also right that the armistice was a surrender in all but name. However - it does not logically follow that the peace treaty (unlike the armistice which is a military, not diplomatic, instrument) should have been one-sided and a diktat. Example: France was included in the original Vienna Congress and even after the 100 days it was effectively represented there. By precedent and President Wilson's 14 Points, Germany might have expected a similar treatment. (OTOH, the 1871 treatment of France by Germany stank too). Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 13:55
  • the armistice was a fundamentally political act (driven by military situation) that military solution was no longer available and diplomatic/political solution had to be found with it's hand very very much weaken by it's extremely poor military situation, the armistice was a diktat, the war had cost huge amounts, the Germans would have been equally hard nosed had they won, really why were the surprised? (some of the theoretical treatment like being behind barbed wire was just silly)
    – pugsville
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 6:52
  • Although you are not incorrect, your answer seem to focus on the armistice of 1918, while the question is about the treaty of 1919. However, it's good that you mention the armistice, as I had completely overlooked it myself.
    – Nix
    Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 10:26
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    My point about the Armistice is that it terms were a reasonably good guide to what would come at the peace conference, that the Germans had a fair Idea that they were not going to get easy terms. The the Armistice terms were totally one sided, the Germans agreed because they had little choice, and they knew the peace conference would be a dictated. They were beaten and Knew it.
    – pugsville
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 5:06

Perhaps the reasons the war emerged in the first place can shed some light on why the Peace Treaty was so harsh. I particularly like this informal take on The Economist's blog: "War parallels".

[..] the pre-war diplomatic manouvres resembled a giant exercise in game theory, in which the various governments made decisions on the basis of their assumptions about the motives of the other governments. [emphasis in the original text]


The French were desperate to hang on to the Russian alliance as a counterpoint to Germany, especially as they were unsure about the strength of the British commitment.


If France need to confront Germany, it needed a battle in which the Russians were willing partners, so the French agenda was in a sense subservient to Russian aims; if Germany need to confront Russia, it was better to do it sooner rather than later.

So in my understanding the French were an important catalyst in the events preceding WWI. And their efforts, from the very beginning, were geared towards keeping Germany in check. Little wonder then that the French insisted on the German "war guilt" clause in the Versailles treaty.

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    -1 I am afraid - too facile an analysis... Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 14:02

Germany was perceived as the aggressor and cause of World War I by the Allied powers. It gave a "carte blanche" to its ally Austria, which was about to declare war on Serbia just because the Austrian successor to the throne was killed by a Bosnian Serb. The Germans attacked France executing their "Schlieffen-Plan" which required they march through Belgium which was Allies with Great Britain.

The German situation in late 1918 was rather hopeless on the front - Germany had no ways to counter the tanks, which made trench warfare obsolete, and the United States had brought fresh troops to the war.

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    This is a description of what happened at the start of WW1, not an answer to the question. Other defeated countries were also seen as aggressors and did not receive terms like Versailles - France after the Napoleonic Wars come to mind. You need to explain what was different about Germany in WW1.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 19:14
  • This is an answer to the question. And the question is not "what was different about Germany in WW1" but "why was the treaty of Versaille so harsh". You should see the difference.
    – jjack
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 19:28
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    And merely "being seen as the aggressor and defeated" hardly explains the harshness given historical precedent.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 19:31
  • With no precedent it's easy to overdo things. After the second World War, the conditions were not nearly as harsh.
    – jjack
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 20:09
  • Giving Austria a carte blanche is totally false perception. Austria aka Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy was cut in peaces, and most part if it was given to other countries or new, independent countries were created. Fromm territorial point of view, Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy got out much worse and de facto stopped to exist (unlike Germany, which kind of remained).
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 2:28

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