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Vienna and Versailles Treaties: European Stability Essay

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Updated: Oct 14th, 2021


A treaty is a formally concluded and ratified agreement between states with the aim being to bring peace and have consensus on fractious issues for the greater good of the parties concerned. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 laid the foundation for modern European states based on clearly demarcated geographical boundaries drawn along ethnic lines, which emphasized the primacy of national sovereignty. Despite the initial start, the Westphalian construct did not stop the bloody interlude in Europe brought on by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era from 1793 to 1815 that engulfed almost the entire European continent. The Treaty of Vienna (1814-1815) and the Treaty of Versailles (1917) were important efforts undertaken by the European nations to bring about stability in their continent. This essay attempts to explain the effects, successes and failures of the two treaties in ensuring European stability.

Main body

The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) was convened basically to build upon peace in Europe. In the aftermath of the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Europe was in a state of disorder. The principle actors that had defeated France, namely Austria, Great Britain, Russia, and Prussia signed the Treaty of Chaumont agreeing to meet in Vienna to build a stable European order. The representatives of each nation affirmed the principles ordained in the Westphalian construct and agreed that national sovereignty was inviolable. Maps redrawn after the defeat of France were formalized and all parties agreed to recognize the territorial inviolability of each state. The states agreed to the multipolar arrangement but failed to really grasp the nationalistic fervor which crystallized along ethnic lines. The stipulations of the Congress of Vienna were tailor-made to contain French ambitions which were resented by the new French government under Napoleon III. Prussia too was not happy with the arrangement as it prevented their leader Bismarck, from embarking upon his grand plan of German unification. The decline of the Turkish Empire led to the ambitious Russians to demand that the Orthodox Church in Turkey be placed under Russian protection. This led to the Crimean war in 1854 in which the Russians faced the British and French forces. After the Crimean war, the European nations again vowed to maintain peace according to the precepts of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna. However, territorial ambitions led to alliances both overt and covert leading to increasing instability. Thus by 1914, Europe was like a coiled spring ready to spring out and all that was needed, was a trigger, which was provided by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria leading to the First World War. According to DeYeso , “The antiquated Congress System failed because Europe’s leaders opted to join alliances, consolidate power, and fight an apocalyptic war rather than sit down and resolve their disputes”.

The horrors of the First World War ended with signing of Armistice on 11 November 1918 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty was perhaps the most unequal agreement ever drawn because it contained some very humiliating terms for the defeated Germans. The treaty limited the German armed forces to an army of 100,000, a navy of 15,000 officers and men, six battleships, six light cruisers, twelve destroyers, twelve torpedo boats and no further armament. According to article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to unequivocally accept the responsibility for causing all the loss and damage to the Allies. This clause of ‘war-guilt’ was, according to many political scientists, the chief cause for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles. The clause sought to punish the German people as a nation and hurt German sentiments. The humiliation heaped upon Germany by this clause in addition to the other humiliating terms sparked off German nationalism which ultimately led to the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler.

Not only was the treaty viewed as unfair by the Germans, the British too felt that the conditions were too harsh on Germany. The French, on the other hand felt that the conditions needed to be harsher so that Germany could never again rise up against the French nation. Thus the basis of this treaty too was same as the Congress of Vienna, to contain a country for building peace and stability in Europe. The treaty was doomed to fail right from the start because the Germans viewed the conditions as humiliating and refused the reparation demands. The allies differed on the treatment being meted out to Germany and thus when Germany commenced rearming itself and making the first aggressive moves, there was no unified counter-effort by the allied countries.

The treaty also sought to reduce German territories. It was decided to have Rhineland occupied by allied forces for a period of 15 years and deprived the Germans of 13.5 % of their territories. This also led to a loss of about 10% of Germany’s population to occupied territories. Thus the clauses of the Treaty violated the precepts of the Westphalian treaty and the terms of the Congress of Vienna.

The economic sanctions imposed on Germany were very harsh. The French insisted that the reparation costs should cover the costs of restoration of invaded territories and repayment of war debts as also impose a long period of stiff repayments. The logic of doing so, as per the French, was that it would keep Germany financially and economically weak. In the end, the Treaty reduced German economic productivity by 13%.


The notable success of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) was that it laid the legal foundations for developing the law of nations. “Regulations regarding the rank of diplomatic agents, declaration concerning the abolition of the slave trade and Regulation regarding free navigation on rivers” (The American Society of International Law, p. 32) were some of the achievements of the Congress. While the Congress of Vienna did manage to maintain peace for a relatively longer time, it was doomed to fail as the terms and clauses of the congress were too generic and did not contain clauses that could empower nations to act in concert against any actor who broke the rules. The Treaty of Versailles went a step further in its negativity. It was based not only on the philosophy of containment of a country (Germany) but also included clauses of humiliation and impossible and outrageous clauses of economic sanctions which served as a catalyst for the rise of German nationalism and with it the rise of Nazism and ultimately the Second World War. The two treaties failed because they were not adequately formulated, had insufficient scholarship and gravitated towards a preponderance of vested interests rather than provide a comprehensive framework for collective security. In the ultimate analysis, it can be said that the two treaties had a limited success in ensuring European stability in the ensuing period. The treaties however, did serve to provide a groundwork for European nations to develop better mechanisms for formulating future treaties.

Works Cited

  1. DeYeso Jr, Robert L. “A Newer World Order – The Return To A Multipolar Era.” 2006. U.S. Army War College.
  2. The American Society of International Law. “.” 1947. International Law Commission.
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