Many European empires were dissolved by the end of the First World War. Germany, being on the losing side, also had to give up its colonies. The victors of the war started to discuss the future of the German colonies during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, often referred to as the Versailles Conference. The U.S. President Woodrow Wilson played a central role during this conference. He is often portrayed as a liberal statesman who in his Fourteen Points Speech had envisioned a new world order, in which states would be based upon the idea of national self-determination. This thesis analyses his policy and speeches on the German colonies in order to see if his ideas on those colonies fit with this liberal description. First of all, this thesis demonstrates that Wilson’s policy was not radically liberal as some other historians have argued. His ideas were not based on self-determination but rather on ideas of self-government, meaning that he did not advocate independence but government by consent. Furthermore, it is clear that Wilson used liberal ideas to defend ideas of self-government, also with regard to the German colonies. This led to heated debates between Wilson and the representatives of the British Dominions. In those debates he demonstrated to be a liberal in words and in deeds. There are some cases in which Wilson acted as a realist, by seeing the German colonies as property for the League of Nations or with regard to his policy on Japanese expansion. However, the conclusion of this thesis is that Wilson was willing to compromise on the mandates in order to establish a League of Nations. Since the League was his ultimate goal, he made some deals that were conflicting with his ideas on self-government. More than anything else, those deals show that Wilson was a liberal institutionalist 'avant la lettre'.

Paris Peace Conference 1919, Versailles, Versailles Treaty, League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson, Wilsonianism, U.S. foreign policy, liberalism, Fourteen Points, ‘national self-determination’, self-determination, self-government, mandate system, mandates, German Colonies.
J. Euwe
Maatschappijgeschiedenis / History of Society
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication

W. van den Noort. (2019, April 4). Woodrow Wilson and the German Colonies: Between liberal principles and bargaining chips. A case study of Wilson’s policy on the German Colonies. Maatschappijgeschiedenis / History of Society. Retrieved from