Versailles Peace Treaty (1919)
- World War I to World War II — Treaties, interpretation — Treaties, application — Peace treaties — Disarmament — Belligerence
Published under the auspices of the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law under the direction of Rüdiger Wolfrum.
A. Historical Background
1 From April 1918 it became clear to the representatives of Germany that the Empire faced an unavoidable military defeat. At the end of September the political and military leaders decided to address Woodrow Wilson, the president of the US, in order first to request an armistice and second to make peace. In a speech given to the US Congress on 8 January 1918 Wilson had formulated 14 points that had been developed into a peace programme in the following months (Fourteen Points of Wilson ). Apart from some general points such as freedom of the seas, abolishment of secret diplomacy, disarmament, free trade, and equality in trading conditions, the programme included specific demands, inter alia, the demarcation of territorial boundaries in Europe on the basis of the principle of self-determination, the cession of German territory, and the revocation of Germany’s peace treaties with the former Russian Empire (Brest Litovsk, Peace of ) and Romania. Moreover, Wilson suggested the participation of States in a newly founded League of Nations, which meant nothing less than the creation of a new world peace order that would replace the system of the balance of power that many observers held had shown its dangerous nature in the events leading up to the war. The German request was communicated to the allied governments and received their approval. Based on the Fourteen Points, an inter-allied conference in Paris discussed the terms for an armistice and a peace settlement from 29 October to 4 November 1918. Britain and France succeeded in formulating harsh and far-reaching conditions that aimed at the destruction of the remaining German military capacities. Meanwhile the revolution had started in Germany leading to the abdication of the German monarchies, a provisional federal government, and the establishment of the National Assembly. On 5 November 1918 the conference result was communicated to the German side by a note signed by the US Secretary of State, the Lansing Note. It constituted, with minor changes, the content of the armistice agreement that was eventually signed on 11 November 1918. The armistice was prolonged three times, the last prolongation on 16 February 1919 being for an unlimited period.
B. Peace Conference
2 After the conclusion of the armistice agreement the Allied Powers had to answer the question of how to organize a final peace settlement. On the basis of French proposals and discussions on the venue the US, Great Britain and France eventually found consensus to convene a peace conference in Paris. The conference formally opened on 18 January 1919 and had its last meeting on 10 August 1920. It was responsible for the drafting of the peace treaties with all Central European powers (Peace Treaties after World War I). A few days earlier, on 12 January 1919, the leaders of the Great Powers, the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of France, Great Britain, and Italy; the American President and Secretary of State; as well as two Japanese delegates had first met in order to establish the internal rules and to shape the conference (Conferences and Congresses, International). They constituted the Supreme Council, also called the Council of Ten, the conference’s central decision-making body until March 1919. The smaller belligerent powers were more or less excluded from the inner circle of decision-making and instead were given a role in the proceedings of the plenary conference. It only met eight times and was dedicated to general discussions. The function of a steering committee was executed by the bureau of the conference that resumed the role of a cabinet of the Great Powers. The conference created five general commissions dedicated to accomplishing special peace problems, eg, in economics, finance, aviation, international labour legislation, ports, and waterways. From March 1919 onwards the leaders of the Great Powers, with Italy in a somewhat challenged position, began meeting privately to discuss problems in an informal atmosphere. This Council of Four was complemented by Japan and converted as the conference of the Foreign Ministers into the Council of Five.
3 During the first two months of work it was not officially decided whether there would be negotiations on the peace terms with Germany and the other adversaries. However, from early March it became clear that France had won sufficient support for its initial plans to have two conference phases. In the first phase the peace terms were negotiated among the victorious powers and peace treaties were drafted. In the second phase the conditions of peace were communicated by the Allied and Associated Powers to the enemies whose delegates would only attend the conference during the second phase (Enemies and Enemy Subjects). This relatively short second phase consisted of written consultations and the adoption of the treaties. In the case of Germany the peace terms were communicated to the German delegates on 7 May 1919. The delegation had a fortnight to present their observations in writing. They replied after an extension of the deadline on 29 May 1919. The subsequent exchange of notes lead to negligible changes in the peace terms and on 16 June 1919 a final version was handed to the German delegation in the form of an ultimatum allowing five days for signature, otherwise military activities would resume. The period was later extended until 23 June 1919.
4 Germany’s signature did not terminate the work of the peace conference. The Supreme Council, now consisting of the heads of delegation, supervised the finalizing work on the peace treaties with Austria (signed 10 September 1919; St Germain Peace Treaty ), Bulgaria (signed 27 November; Neuilly Peace Treaty ), Hungary (signed June 1920; Trianon Peace Treaty ), and the peace treaty with Turkey (signed 10 August 1920; Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Turkey [‘Sèvres Peace Treaty’]), which was later renegotiated (Lausanne Peace Treaty  ; Treaty of Lausanne, Interpretation of [Advisory Opinion]). The conference’s work was officially terminated on 21 January 1920.
C. Treaty of Peace
5 The peace treaty was signed on 28 June 1919, the fifth anniversary of the Sarajevo assassinations, in the hall of mirrors at Versailles palace. On 22 June 1919 the German National Assembly had approved the treaty with 237 votes in favour and 138 against. It was signed by the US, the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan—the principal Allied and Associated Powers—as well as Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, the Hedjaz, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Serbe-Croat-Slovene State, Siam, Czechoslovakia (Czechoslovakia, Dissolution of), and Uruguay—called the Allied and Associated Powers—on the one hand and Germany on the other hand. The British dominions (Commonwealth) Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa each signed the treaty separately. China is mentioned as a signatory but did not sign the treaty due to a controversy about the territorial clauses regarding Shantung and the territory of Kiaochow with Japan (Arts 156–58 Versailles Peace Treaty) in which the Supreme Council decided in favour of the Japanese interests (Territory, Lease). China and Germany concluded a separate peace treaty ([signed 20 May 1921] 9 LNTS 271). Costa Rica, which had been in a state of war with Germany, did not attend the peace conference. The state of war was declared to be terminated by Costa Rica on 4 February 1920 and by Germany on 15 May 1921. The Soviet Union (Russia) as successor to the Russian Empire was neither party to the treaty nor invited to participate in the peace conference.
(b) Ratifications and Entry into Force
6 According to the treaty’s closing provision the treaty came into force between the Contracting Parties the moment that Germany on the one hand and three of the principal Allied and Associated Powers on the other hand ratified the document. The treaty entered into force on 10 January 1920 after the deposit of ratifications by Germany, the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan and Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, New Zealand, Siam, South Africa, and Uruguay. The entry into force for the remaining States was as follows: for the Serbe-Croat-Slovene State on 10 February 1920, for Cuba on 8 March 1920, for Greece on 30 March 1920, for Portugal on 8 April 1920, for Haiti (Haiti, Conflict) and Liberia on 30 June 1920, for Romania on 4 September 1920, for Peru and Poland on 1 October 1920, for Honduras and Nicaragua on 3 November 1920, and for Panama on 25 November 1920.
7 For Germany the legal situation in respect of the treaty’s entry into force has to be judged from two perspectives. The 10 January 1920 only marked the entry into force on the international level because the German Parliament had already approved the treaty by a law enacted almost six months before, on 16 July 1919. This law entered into force on 12 August 1919. This unusual practice had become necessary in order to secure the treaty’s primacy over the new German constitution that was adopted on 31 July 1919. Art. 178 Weimar Constitution provided that the stipulations of the peace treaty signed on 28 June 1919 do not affect the constitution.
8 The Versailles Peace Treaty was not ratified by the US, Ecuador, and the Hedjaz. The US, which saw the treaty rejected by the Senate, concluded separate peace treaties with Germany (Germany-United States Peace Treaty ), Austria, and Hungary in August 1921.
2. Content of the Provisions
(a) Preamble and Peace Clause
9 The preamble of the Versailles Peace Treaty deviated in several aspects from the traditional style of peace treaties. It started with the identification of the partners of the treaty that did not use the official but the common names of the States. The following clause on motives and purposes only attributed the desire to have peace to the Allied and Associated Powers by accusing Germany and Austria-Hungary of being responsible for the outbreak of the war. The preamble abstained from any consideration that the States Parties acted upon a mutual consensus to conclude peace (see Steiger 81). Moreover, the treaty also lacked—like the German-French treaty of 1871—the traditional peace clause by which the partners reassured one another peaceful relations for the future, defining peace not only as the mere absence of war. Instead the preamble’s last clause stipulated that from the coming into force of the treaty the state of war would terminate. From this moment on official relations between the partners were to be resumed.
(b) Covenant of the League of Nations and Constitution of the International Labour Organization
10 Part I Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 1 to 26—comprised the Covenant of the League of Nations. The treaty’s signatories, mentioned in the Annex to the covenant, were deemed to become original members of the League of Nations depending on the condition that the peace treaty would be ratified. As Germany was neither mentioned as an original member nor invited to accede it remained—until 1926—outside the new institution that endeavoured to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security. The covenant was complemented by the Constitution of the International Labour Organization (International Labour Organization [ILO]) that was incorporated as Part XIII Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 387 to 427.
(c) German Boundaries and Overseas Territories
11 Parts II to IV Versailles Peace Treaty concerned territorial alterations and their political consequences. The boundaries of Germany were redrawn with respect to Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Denmark (Part II Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 27–30), political obligations were imposed with regard to demilitarized zones, the acceptance of treaties between third parties, the holding of plebiscites and the protection of minorities (Demilitarization; Minority Protection System between World War I and World War II; Part III Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 31–117). Belgium received the Kreise Eupen and Malmedy and the territory Montjoie whereby the inhabitants got the opportunity to register their desire to remain under German sovereignty. Luxembourg had to withdraw from the Zollverein (German Customs Union). Alsace and Lorraine, that had been ceded to Germany by the peace treaty of 1871, were restored to French sovereignty (Frankfurt Peace Treaty ). On the left bank of the Rhine and 50 kilometres inwards from its right bank demilitarized zones were established (Rhine River). As compensation and as part payment towards the total reparations France also received exclusive rights of exploitation of coalmines in the Saar Basin (Saar Territory). In addition Germany renounced the government of the Saar basin in favour of the League of Nations for a period of 15 years terminated by a referendum on the final disposition. In respect of Austria Germany guaranteed its independence which was inalienable except with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations (Art. 80 Versailles Peace Treaty; for a subsequent development see Customs Regime between German and Austria [Advisory Opinion]).
12 Poland obtained access to the Baltic Sea as West Prussia—Pomerania—was ceded by Germany. This led to the separation of East Prussia from German main territory by the corridor. The city of Danzig with its surrounding territory was exempted and constituted as a free city under the protection of the League of Nations (Danzig, Free City of , Free Cities). Memel as part of East Prussia became part of Lithuania. The eastern part of Upper Silesia, with predominantly ethnic Polish inhabitants, came under Polish rule, while the German-speaking part remained part of Germany (German Interests in Polish Upper Silesia, Cases concerning the). Both territorial changes were based upon plebiscites among the inhabitants. The Hultschiner Ländchen, a portion of Silesian territory, was allocated to Czechoslovakia.
13 The German-Danish frontier, although Denmark neither had been in the state of war with Germany nor was a party to the treaty, was subject to a referendum in Schleswig; Heligoland was demilitarized. The abrogation of the peace treaties between Germany and the former Russian Empire that had already been declared in connection with the armistice was accepted as final.
14 Part IV Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 118–158— concerned the overseas territories and rights derived from international agreements (Overseas Territories, Australia, France, Netherlands, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States of America). Germany renounced all claims to its colonies and treaty-based rights in Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Liberia, Morocco, Siam, the province of Shantung, and Turkey.
(d) Military and Humanitarian Clauses
15 Part V Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 159 to 213— provided for a far-reaching disarmament. The German military forces were reduced to the size of 100,000 army soldiers and 15,000 men in the naval forces. Military or naval air forces were excluded in principle, as was the possession of tanks and submarines. The permitted armament, ammunition, and possession of war ships was regulated in detail and restricted in numbers. Germany had to abolish its compulsory military service, shifting its recruitment to voluntary enlistment. The execution of these disarmament provisions was supervised by an inter-allied commission.
(e) Penalties and Extradition Clauses
17 The treaty also included penalty clauses (Part VII Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 227–30) that provided for the extradition of the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, and persons accused of having committed acts in violation of the laws and customs of war (War Crimes). The German government had to furnish all documents and information necessary for an effective prosecution. Art. 227 Versailles Peace Treaty envisaged a special tribunal for the trial against the former German Head of State charged ‘for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties’. The tribunal should have been composed of five judges from the US, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
(f) Reparations and Clauses on Financial, Economic, and Transport Matters
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
19 In addition, the property rights of the German submarine cables were expropriated and all German foreign assets and property were transferred to the Allied and Associated Powers. Germany had to pay the total costs of all armies of the allied and associated governments in occupied German territory from the conclusion of the armistice on 11 November 1918 onwards (Part IX Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 248–63).
20 Part X Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 264–312—included numerous and far-reaching economic regulations. Inter alia Germany had to grant access to its market to products of any of the allied or associated States imported into German territory on the basis on non-discrimination and the principle of equal treatment. Art. 267 Versailles Peace Treaty stipulated a one-sided most-favoured-nation clause as Germany had to extend any immunity or privilege to the importation, exportation, or transit of goods granted to another State without request and without compensation. The aerial clauses (Part XI Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 313–20), restricted ratione temporis until 1 January 1923, provided for an open sky policy allowing aircraft of the Allied and Associated Powers full liberty of passage over and landing in the German territory and territorial waters (Territorial Sea). The principle of equal treatment also applied to the access of foreign aircraft to German airports.
21 Part XII Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 321–86—liberalized the German infrastructure for transit on the most convenient routes by any mode of transport. Transit duties, undue delays, or restriction were prohibited. The rivers Elbe, Oder, Niemen, and Danube were declared international (Danube River; Elbe River; International Watercourses), with the consequence that nationals, property, and flags of all powers had to be treated on a footing of equality and non-discrimination (States, Equal Treatment and Non-Discrimination). International commissions became responsible for the administration. The Kiel Canal and its approaches had to be maintained free and open on terms of entire equality to the vessels of commerce and of war of all nations at peace with Germany.
(g) Guarantees and Final Clauses
22 The execution of the treaty provisions was guaranteed by the occupation of the German territory west of the Rhine and four Rhine bridgeheads (Coblenz, Cologne, Kehl, and Mainz) by allied and associated troops (Part XIV Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 428–33). The occupation was limited for a period of 15 years in total, with successive withdrawals after five and ten years if the treaty conditions were fulfilled (Occupation, Pacific). The withdrawal of German troops from territory that belonged to the former Russian Empire was also addressed.
23 The final provisions (Part XV Versailles Peace Treaty—Arts 434–40), apart from clauses on ratification and entry into force, addressed some marginal aspects such as the recognition of the agreement between France and Switzerland concerning the neutral zones of Upper Savoy and Gex, the acceptance of all decisions by allied prize courts and the allied right to examine all decisions and orders of German prize courts as well as a special regulation for Christian religious missions that were being maintained by German societies or persons (Free Zones of Upper Savoy and Gex Case ; Prize Law).
24 The peace treaty has lost its de iure validity. A number of provisions had been executed such as the territorial changes (Parts II–IV Versailles Peace Treaty) and the demilitarization (Part V Versailles Peace Treaty). The regulations on aerial navigation (Part XI Versailles Peace Treaty) expired on 1 January 1923; the extradition clauses (Part VII Versailles Peace Treaty) were not executed as the Dutch government rejected the allied request to extradite the former emperor and the Allied Powers acquiesced to the German practice of national trials against German military personnel before the Reichsgericht (for details see Hankel).
25 The outbreak of World War II suspended the peace treaty among the belligerents according to the customary rules of international law (Belligerency; Customary International Law). After the war neither Germany nor the Allied Powers attempted to re-establish the validity of the treaty (Germany, Legal Status after World War II). The occupation law (Allied High Commission Directive No 6 [19 March 1951]) provided for the formal notification of those treaties which continued to be applicable between the former belligerents (Occupation, Belligerent). Those notifications had not been issued in respect of the peace treaty. The political clauses at some point discontinued their validity due to fundamental changes in the factual circumstances, although the International Military Tribunal decided that the unilateral violations of the treaty by Nazi Germany had been ‘crimes against peace’ (Art. 6 (a) Charter of the International Military Tribunal; International Military Tribunals). The Covenant of the League of Nations (Part I Versailles Peace Treaty) became redundant after the founding of the United Nations (UN) in 1944 and disappeared legally when the League of Nations decided on its own dissolution. The ILO continued its work based on the revised provisions in Part XIII Versailles Peace Treaty. Concerning the reparations (Part VIII Versailles Peace Treaty), an agreement adopted on 9 July 1932 at the Lausanne conference de facto terminated the payments. However, as the Dawes Plan of 1924 and the Young Plan of 1929 had reorganized the reparation payments by the conversion of debts into private bonds, the German acceptance of debts resulting from World War I in the London Agreement on German External Debts (1953) meant that they were still relevant. Germany repaid the remaining debts from these foreign bonds amounting to a total amount of 1.53 billion Deutschmark. The interest for the period 1945 to 1952, however, had been deferred in respect of the reduced economic power and territorial losses until a final general settlement.
26 The conclusion of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany of 12 September 1990 (‘Two Plus Four Agreement’ ; Germany, Unification of), which terminated the post-war period from a legal point of view and closed remaining legal gaps, can be regarded as this settlement. Consequently, the deferred repayment of interest that amounted to a total sum of 240 million Deutschmark resumed after 3 October 1990. In order to clear these debts Germany issued a bond with the term of maturity in 2020. Interest and repayment rates amount to €2.5 million per year (see Schriftliche Fragen mit den in der Woche vom 23. Juni eingegangenen Antworten der Bundesregierung [Written Questions and Answers of the Federal Government Received in the Week of 23 June 2003] 27 June 2003 BTDrucks 15/1279, 16).
D. Relevance for International Law
27 At the time of its adoption the Versailles Peace Treaty was an unprecedented legal instrument in several aspects. Given the large number of participating States and the issues addressed, the treaty as such truly was a legal document of universal relevance. Apart from the elements of territorial and financial compensation, that had always been the subject of peace treaties, the Versailles Peace Treaty modified the traditional clauses and also adopted some new lines. As already mentioned, the treaty abstained from the traditional concept that a peace treaty marked the threshold between the status of war, which should fall into oblivion, and the amicable and co-operative future. Instead the ‘war guilt clause’ (Art. 231 Versailles Peace Treaty) enabled the Allied Powers to extend Germany’s political, economic, and financial responsibility to an undetermined date in the future, keeping Germany permanently in a punitive bondage. Hence, the treaty was not the expected base line for new relationships between the former belligerents. In addition, the penalty clauses that purported the extradition of alleged suspects of war crimes—including the former German Head of State—were legal inventions that had been, from the German perspective, unexpectedly incorporated into the treaty. Their purpose was not identified as a remedy for the moral relevance of war, but as further humiliation of the German people. Altogether these provisions discredited the treaty as an instrument of law among broad groups within German society. In conjunction with the circumstances of the German participation in the peace conference they symbolized the dictate of shame. The legal inventions fostered the struggle against Versailles that characterized the Weimar Republic. The science of international law in Germany immediately vigorously engaged in this fight against the diktat of Versailles, pointing to numerous violations of public international law at that time (see G Crusen ‘Versailler Frieden’ in Hatschek and Strupp vol 3, 36; Pohl), whereas under the dictatorship of National Socialism (National Socialism and International Law) this subject heavily influenced, if not determined, the identity of the academic discipline as such. Widely held public opinion even among the Allied Powers saw the treaty as one of the sources of a future war between the European powers—a notion that is still widespread today.
28 The treaty also marked the introduction of self-determination and minority protection as concepts of international law, although the relevant provisions did not meet the expectations raised—foremost in Germany—by Wilson’s Fourteen Points. In respect of Danzig, certain Silesian territory, South Tyrol, and the planned union between Austria and Germany, the idea of self-determination was subjected to political and economic considerations. The discrepancies between the Fourteen Points on the one hand and the treaty on the other were a result of the specification of an imprecise visionary text on the common aspirations of mankind by a legal document that has to be seen as a compromise text between the Allied Powers. Moreover, the Versailles Peace Treaty is inextricably linked to the founding of the League of Nations and the idea of a system of collective security in order to guarantee peace among nations. In this respect the treaty deserved credit for the initiation of the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), because Art. 14 Versailles Peace Treaty gave the Council of the League of Nations responsibility to formulate plans for the establishment of a world court. However, the inclusion of the Covenant of the League of Nations in the treaty as such and the initial exclusion of Germany and Soviet Russia from the League of Nations as consequences of the treaty’s architecture were a considerable burden on the work of the international organization and its credibility from the outset.
29 With Part XIII Versailles Peace Treaty on the ILO, the treaty addressed the social dimension of international relations and created a framework that developed uninterruptedly from 1919 to the present. The provisions aim to respond to communist revolution and to the attraction of Soviet propaganda in the Central and West European States. The general principle that had been included in Art. 427 Versailles Peace Treaty defined standards of social protection—eg, adoption of an eight-hour day or a 48-hour-week, abolition of child labour (Children, International Protection; Forced Labour/Slave Labour), equal remuneration for work of equal value—that were deemed to ‘confer lasting benefits upon the wage-earners of the world’. Their significance for private labour relations and public labour policy today substantiates that the Versailles Peace Treaty was in this respect ahead of its time.
30 The peace treaty’s foremost relevance at present can be summarized in the general conviction that a peace treaty may contain the seeds of a new war. Although a treaty that ends a military conflict will be drafted to cover the distribution of political and military power among the belligerents, the legal document should be based on reciprocity and should not treat the vanquished party in an excessively unequal manner (Treaties, Unequal). The factual peace settlements after World War II and the conditions under which West Germany was given the opportunity to participate in European integration and, at first, in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) raise the impression that experiences with the Versailles Peace Treaty shaped the positions of the Western Allied Powers in a decisive manner.
31 International treaty law has drawn consequences from the fact that at least until the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) international treaties were considered to be valid even if their conclusion was brought about by the threat or use of force (Use of Force, Prohibition of). According to Art. 52 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) a ‘treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations’. Retrospectively, the peace treaty also became the precursor of International Criminal Law with its provisions on the moral and legal responsibility of the German Kaiser and military personnel.
32 Finally, the central principles of Wilsonian diplomacy—self-determination and collective security—have been consistently reaffirmed, building the foundations of the current world order. However, faced with the case of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, to name a current example, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the respective provisions of the Versailles Peace Treaty and above all the idealistic nature of the principles underlying them have been often subjected to critique (Yugoslavia, Dissolution of). In recent years the Versailles Peace Treaty has attracted new attention in respect of its provisions on international territorial administration (International Administration of Territories).
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