Since we’ve been following the Great War’s centennial pretty closely here on Silent-ology (click here to read last year’s WWI in Film Month posts), I wanted to make sure today was given some attention. June 28, 2019, marks 100 years since the Treaty of Versailles, the first and most significant of the peace treaties that officially ended World War I. While Armistice Day famously declared a ceasefire, these treaties put an official end to the actual “state of war.”
On that day, crowds gathered outside Versailles–no doubt the air was thick with the excitement of history in the making. Cavalry lined the cobblestone road leading to the palace, and a grand military parade preceded the long line of delegates’ cars. In an orderly fashion, the cars pulled up to the palace and the delegates were ushered inside.
The treaty was signed in a formal ceremony in that lavish palace of the last kings of France. The signing room was the famed Hall of Mirrors, chosen very deliberately by the French–it was the place where Wilhelm I was smugly crowned emperor of Germany after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian war. (Let’s just say it was apparently payback time.) The vast room was very crowded; there were chairs and a u-shaped table for the dignitaries and a slightly raised table at the end where the Treaty would be signed.
Delegates from 27 nations had negotiated the treaty, and some of the terms demanded that Germany take full responsibility for starting the war, pay reparations, weaken its military and give up some of its territories (Edwardians didn’t mess around with subtlety). In keeping with the “punish Germany” theme, it had been agreed that the first signers would be the two German dignitaries, Herman Müller and Johannes Bell. After they added their signatures, there was the booming of a military gun salute outside, and the crowd on the palace grounds started cheering.
Sir Harold Nicolson was a member of the British delegation to the Treaty of Versailles, and later recalled his experience there:
The officials of the Protocol of the Foreign Office move up the aisle and say, “Ssh! Ssh!” again. There is then an absolute hush, followed by a sharp military order. The Gardes Republicains at the doorway flash their swords into their scabbards with a loud click. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” says Clemenceau in the ensuing silence.
Through the door at the end appear two huissiers with silver chains. They march in single file. After them come four officers of France, Great Britain, America and Italy. And then, isolated and pitiable, come the two German delegates. Dr. Muller, Dr. Bell. The silence is terrifying. Their feet upon a strip of parquet between the savonnerie carpets echo hollow and duplicate. They keep their eyes fixed away from those two thousand staring eyes, fixed upon the ceiling. They are deathly pale. They do not appear as representatives of a brutal militarism. The one is thin and pink-eyelidded. The other is moon-faced and suffering. It is all most painful.
They are conducted to their chairs. Clemenceau at once breaks the silence. “Messieurs,” he rasps, “la seance est ouverte.” He adds a few ill-chosen words. “We are here to sign a Treaty of Peace.” The Germans leap up anxiously when he has finished, since they know that they are the first to sign. William Martin, as if a theatre manager, motions them petulantly to sit down again. Mantoux translates Clemenceau’s words into English. Then St. Quentin advances towards the Germans and with the utmost dignity leads them to the little table on which the Treaty is expanded. There is general tension. They sign. There is a general relaxation. Conversation hums again in an undertone.
The delegates stand up one by one and pass onwards to the queue which waits by the signature table. Meanwhile people buzz round the main table getting autographs. The single file of plenipotentiaries waiting to approach the table gets thicker. It goes quickly. The Officials of the Quai d’Orsay stand round, indicating places to sign, indicating procedure, blotting with neat little pads.
Suddenly from outside comes the crash of guns thundering a salute; It announces to Paris that the second Treaty of Versailles has been signed by Dr. Muller and Dr. Bell. Through the few open windows comes the sound of distant crowds cheering hoarsely. And still the signature goes on.
Apparently once the signing had finished, Allied leaders made a procession through the nearby streets and cheering crowds swarmed the grounds of Versailles, where the famed fountains had been turned on. There were celebrations throughout Paris and headlines proclaimed the news around the world.
Footage of this momentous event survives today, thanks to newsreel cameraman. This fascinating video includes shots of Versailles, views of some of the crowds, shots of delegates arriving at the palace in all their top-hatted glory, and scenes inside the Hall of Mirrors itself.
Not too surprisingly, the Treaty of Versailles was deeply unpopular in Germany, creating long-simmering resentment that was a major cause of World War II. So while the signing was a jubilant occasion back in 1919, it’s hard to study today without a sense of foreboding.
In any case, the Treaty signing was one of the most significant events of the 20th century, or indeed of any century. It was the ceremonial finale to a bloody conflict that truly changed our world forever.
Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.
“Signing the Treaty of Versailles, 1919,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2005).