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On November 11, 1918 the artillery of the Allied and German armies fell silent in northern France, ending over four years of combat that had claimed 8,500,000 lives. Recent setbacks on the Western Front, the military collapse of both the Ottoman and the Austria-Hungary Empires on Germany's southern flank, and a naval mutiny had emboldened German democrats. These politicians, led by German socialists, deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II, established a republican government in Berlin, and concluded an armistice with the Allies. While the German Army still occupied French soil and the British fleet continued to blockade German ports, Allied leaders began consultations on provisions for a treaty that would conclude the Great War once and for all. On January 18, 1919 the Big Four Allied heads of state, Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Britain, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy met in Paris to discuss the treaty terms to be offered to the German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau.

The peace agreement was supposed to be based on the 14 Points peace plan conceived by President Wilson, but these principles were interpreted in diverse ways by the conference participants as they attempted to resolve four basic issues. In fact, each of the Big Four heads of state, not to mention the German Foreign Minister, has his own perspective on the main issues to be decided at the peace conference. These issues concern reparations for damage caused by the war, disarmament, the disposition of German colonies and disputed territories, and the League of Nations. In particular, the opinions on reparation payments by Germany ranged from 7 to 60 billion dollars (with the total assets of Germany calculated at about 75 billion dollars.) As for disarmament, proposals ran the gamut from general disarmament to exclusive elimination of most of the German armed forces. On the issue of colonies, positions vary between recommendations for the liberation of all colonies to the annexation by the victors of Germany's colonies. On the topic of disputed territory there is disagreement about what should be ceded, to whom, and how. Lastly, negotiators disagree on the feasibility, function, and membership of the League of Nations.