Lessons from History? The Paris Peace Conference of 1919
Historians are always reluctant to draw lessons from history, and with good reason. History has been so often abused to support outrageous policies, to promote extravagant claims to territory or to explain away bad decisions. We all know how nationalist movements have created, and indeed been the creation of, highly selective histories. We have seen in the recent past how reference to, for example, appeasement can be used to justify actions in contexts which are not at all like that of the 1930s. Nevertheless I am going to break the rules of the Historians’ Guild and see whether the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 offers any useful suggestions for today. The word ‘lessons’ is perhaps too strong, but history can offer us instructive analogies. It can help us to formulate useful questions about our own times. And it can provide warnings: we are on thin ice here, there are dangerous beasts over there.
Since the end of the Cold War, our world has become an increasingly complicated and troubling one. We have seen the spread of an irrational, powerful and anti-Western fundamentalism in the Muslim world. Failed states, Somalia for example, provide a convenient home for terrorist movements. Ethnic nationalisms, which many of us thought were dying out, are challenging secular states such as India. Rogue states such as North Korea remain outside the international system. A war which shows no signs of ending is ravaging the Great Lakes area of Africa. The Trans-Atlantic alliance which proved so strong during the Cold War has been damaged by recent events, perhaps fatally. The United States, a somewhat reluctant hegemon, is for the time being under the guidance of unilateralists who dismiss the concerns and national interests of other nations as irrelevant. This is bad news at a time when so many challenges, from terrorism to Aids, require more international co-operation rather than less.
If the great conference in Paris at the end of the First World War has been drawing attention recently, it is largely because of our concern with our own world. During the Cold War, the events of that earlier war and the peace settlements which came at its end were remote. They seemed to have no relevance to the great struggle which locked East against West. What did it matter how Yugoslavia or Iraq came into existence? Or how the statesmen then envisaged a world order. Since the end of the Cold War, such questions have become important again. We have also realized that sometimes it is necessary to understand the historical roots of the issues with which we are dealing. Countries and peoples, like individuals, have memories and they have experiences, which shape the ways they act towards each other, shape how they react to the present and approach the future. Of course we also need to understand economics, social structures, geography, or value systems. But if we ignore history, we deprive ourselves of a useful tool.
The Paris Peace Conference was an event the like of which we will never see again. It brought together some of the most powerful people in the world for six months. As they talked, debated, agreed and disagreed, they got to know each other in a way that few leaders have time for today. It is simply inconceivable today that the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Prime Ministers of Italy and France, Australia and Canada or the Queen of Romania, to mention only a few of those who were there, would spend so much time together talking over great and sometimes trivial issues.
The Peace Conference has usually been remembered as a failure and its participants as obstinately short-sighted and foolish. This is unfair. The peacemakers faced problems which often defied solution. It should always be remembered that the conference took place in the aftermath of the worst world war that had been seen in modern history. The signs of the war were visible everywhere in Paris. Half the women on the streets in 1919 were wearing black because they had lost someone in that war. There were gaps in the trees along the grand avenues because the trees had been cut down for firewood. Many of the delegates also made the short trip northwards to the battlefields of the Western Front.
The war––known as the Great War in those days––had devastated Europe. Twenty million men had died, twice as many again were wounded. Four years of fighting had churned up huge tracts, in the north of France and Belgium, along the frontiers between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Russia, and in the Balkans. European civilization and the confidence that Europeans had once had in themselves had been shaken to the core. The Europeans of 1919 had a very real feeling that they had destroyed not just physical parts of their civilization, not just all those lives, but their very political, social and economic structures. Russia had started down the path to revolution in 1917, and, as the old regime collapsed, parts of the great Russian empire broke away. In the Caucasus, peoples such as the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis, and the Georgians, tried to set up independent states. Ukraine briefly had its own independent government. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fought for their freedom. Further west, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, that enormous empire, which had for so many centuries occupied the heart of Central Europe, fell into pieces in the last month of the Great War. The German Empire had collapsed and the monarchy had been replaced by a republic.
The peacemakers did their work in atmosphere of fear: first that they would never be able to put European civilization back together again but also that there was worse still to come. An image, used often during the Peace Conference, was that of being on the edge of a volcano which was about to blow up. This was not an unreasonable apprehension when you think of what they had already experienced by 1919. The Russian Revolution was still working itself out. The Civil War, between the Bolsheviks on the one hand, and a collection of anarchists, liberals, nationalists of various stripes, and the remnants of the old regime, was going on. It was not at all clear yet that the Bolsheviks would win. It was also very difficult to get any reliable information about what was happening in Russia. Most of the communications had been cut and virtually all foreign diplomats, journalists, and aid workers had left. In 1919 Russia was as unknown a country as Iraq was before the coalition defeated the forces of Saddam Hussein.
The Bolsheviks called on the left-wing forces of the world to rise up against their rulers and it seemed, for a time at least, that their call was successful. The fall of the monarchies in Austria-Hungary and Germany was marked by revolutionary upheavals. In a number of cities soviets––consciously named after the model in Russia––of workers and soldiers took power. Bavaria had a communist government briefly in the winter of 1919, and Hungary had one for several months in the spring and summer. Depending on your political perspective there were grounds for fear or for hope, that revolution was going to spread westward and there was certainly evidence that it might as France, Italy, Belgium, Britain, even North America experienced militant demonstrations and strikes.
That fear of revolution was sometimes useful in Paris. Queen Marie of Romania, for example, asked for huge territorial gains, including half of Hungary, for her country. When leaders such as Woodrow Wilson of the United States or Georges Clemenceau of France demurred at granting this, she warned that a disappointed Rumania might well have a violent revolution. This was not something that the peacemakers wanted. Revolution in Romania would bring the threat of Bolshevism much closer to the heart of Europe. The peacemakers, it has been suggested by the historian Arno Mayer among others, were heavily influenced by their apprehensions about revolution when it came to making the peace settlements. While I would argue that this was not their only consideration, it is certainly the case that the French, in particular, felt that it was necessary to have strong states as a cordon sanitaire to prevent revolution from spreading.
The threat was also helpful to a Canadian representative. In the National Archives, there are some delightful letters from Oliver Mowat Biggar, who was legal advisor to the Canadian delegation. Biggar worked extremely hard but he also had time to visit the theatres with other Canadians such as Sir Robert Borden. They went to the classic plays by Racine and Molière but they also went to the opera comique and the revues. Biggar described his evenings out to his wife in Ottawa: the attractive women of the demi-mondaine, the actress who had almost nothing on above the waist, the way in which French women’s ankles compared to those of Canadians. Mrs Biggar, not surprisingly, decided that she ought to join her husband in Paris. He warned her off by pointing out that France was likely to experience violent upheavals.
The peacemakers had equally important consideration, that of the expectations of their publics. This was a time, of course, when public opinion was already a factor in international relations. The war had been so catastrophic and the losses had been so great, that there was a very strong feeling, first of all that someone should pay for it. Reasonable or not, it is human nature to want to find someone to blame, particularly after a great catastrophe, and to want to make someone or something pay. After every European war the losers had lost territory or property such as art work. They had also frequently paid fines (often called indemnities) or, in some cases, reparations for the damage their forces had done. The difficulty with the Great War was that the damage was so great and the strength of public feeling so strong, that the potential bill to be presented to the losing side was astronomical. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, and Clemenceau knew that they had little chance of extracting vast payments from the defeated nations, but they dared not say so publically for fear of losing political support. They also had to deal with Wilson, who had made it clear in public statements that he would not support punitive fines.
In the Allied countries, before the peace conference met, there was as well considerable enthusiasm for punishing the leaders of the Central Powers, in particular those of Germany which had been the dominant partner. There was talk of trying Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, after one last bombastic speech about dying at the head of his troops, had gone off ignominiously by train to a comfortable refuge in the Netherlands. Lloyd George toyed with the idea of sending him, as the British had done with Napoleon, to an island, perhaps in the Falklands. In the end the Dutch government refused to hand him over.
Public opinion, contradictorily and confusingly, also wanted a better world. Many on the allied side, and indeed among the defeated countries, felt that the sacrifices, the waste in human and other terms of the First World War, would only make sense if the world moved on to find ways of preventing future wars and to build fairer societies. Wilson, although he expressed ideas which many Europeans had been talking about for a generation, came to be seen as the spokesman for such hopes. In his great wartime speeches, particularly that in which he laid out his Fourteen Points, he sketched out a new sort of international relations, where countries dealt openly with each other, where armaments were reduced to the bare minimum for safety, where trade barriers fell and the ships of the world travelled the seas without interference, and where a new type of organization, a league of nations, brought its members collective security.
Then there were all the expectations of those people who had not yet had or who, for some time, had not had their own country. The Paris Peace Conference operated in a context when national self-determination was something that was a very powerful force. This was not something that had mattered during the Congress of Vienna from 1814-1815 which met to create the peace settlements at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At that time the idea that nations should run their own affairs had not yet really taken hold of Europe or indeed of the world outside Europe.
By 1919, it certainly had taken hold. Woodrow Wilson is sometimes blamed for this -for creating all these expectations that ethnic groups should have their own nation states. This again is unfair. He certainly gave encouragement to the idea in his public statements, including the Fourteen Points, but he did not create what was by now a very powerful force. Europe had already seen how powerful nationalism and the desire of nations to have their own states could be with both Italian and German unification. It had already seen how powerful that force could be in the Balkans. Ethnic nationalism and the idea of self-determination for ethnic states was not suddenly created by a few careless words from the American president.
Given such an array of expectations, from revenge to a brighter tomorrow, is it any surprise that the peace settlements are so often seen as failures? The Paris Peace Conference was only partly about making peace settlements and about making a better world; it was also the focus of the hopes and expectations of nations trying to reconstitute themselves, in the case of Poland, who wanted their independence from an empire, in the case of the Baltic states, or who were new nations such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, or Kurdistan. Paris was in the six months between January and June 1919 the centre of world power, perhaps even a sort of world government. The peacemakers rapidly discovered that they were dealing with an agenda which kept on growing. An obscure assistant chef at the Ritz Hotel laboriously drew up a petition about his own very small part of the French empire in Asia which he failed to get to the attention of the peacemakers. Ho Chi Minh decided on another way to lead Vietnam to independence. Day by day, fresh petitioners came in, from nations that nobody had heard of, made their way to Paris. Suffragette groups asked for votes for women, Labour organizations promoted better working conditions. African-Americans appeared to ask for rights for their people. So did black Africans from French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.
The peacemakers dealt with all these issues and more. Their days were crammed with work. Most of them tried hard, and with some optimism, to build peace settlements that would work. If there are lessons to be learned from the peace conference, it is that you can only make peace when the circumstances permit it. In 1919, in my view, the circumstances were not favourable.
In 1815, at the end of that series of wars which started with the French revolutionary ones and ended with those of Napoleon, when the great powers assembled at Vienna to make peace, they had a much easier task. They were dealing with a world that was tired of war, where the revolutionary impulses set off in France in 1789 had basically worked themselves out. What was quite different about 1919 was that the revolutionary fires - those of Bolshevism or other forms of socialism and anarchism as well as those of ethnic nationalism were still on the increase. In the case of Bolshevism they were not really going to burn themselves out until the 1980s. As for ethnic nationalism, it is not clear that we have seen the end yet. Nor was 1919 like 1945 when the revisionist, aggressive nations such as Germany, Italy and Japan were destroyed and inert and the powers, in that case largely the United States and the Soviet Union could impose their will.
We tend to assume––as did the Allies at the time––that the peacemakers had the capacity to do the same in 1919. The statesmen who assembled in Paris knew their enemies were either defeated, in the case of Germany, or had simply vanished, in the case of Austria-Hungary. They had the significant remaining armed forces. They expected that they could reach out and do what they wanted in Europe, in the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Africa. Yet they found time and time again that their capacity to influence events, particularly the further away they were from Paris, was very limited indeed.
In reality their power was much less than it appeared and certainly much less than the victors possessed in 1945. True the Allies possessed huge armed forces at the end of the war in November 1919. Those forces melted away surprisingly quickly in the succeeding months. The men themselves wanted to go home and their families wanted them back. Taxpayers were no longer prepared to pay the costs. By June 1919, Allied armies were down to about 1/3 of what they had been at the end of the war. Moreover the capacity or morale of those that remained was very much in question. The French army had never really recovered from the great mutinies of 1917. Parts of the French navy were to mutiny in the spring of 1919. The British Army was perhaps in better shape but it too was shaken by riots and demonstrations. Morale was still high in the American armed forces but the last thing the Europeans wanted was more American influence over Europe or further afield.
Projecting power was also a problem. When empires broke up and revolution had spread across Europe, economic and transportation structures had crumbled. The trains could not run if the coal were not available or the rolling stock had disappeared. Many ports were scarcely operating. When it came to Asia Minor or the Caucasus the logistical problems were even greater. Again and again in Paris the statesmen had confronted the need to do something and their own lack of capacity. One day, for example, the Big Four of Lloyd George, Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, Wilson, and Vittorio Orlando, the Italian Prime Minister, discussed the small war that had broken out between Poland and Czechoslovakia over a rich coal area. All agreed that the two countries must be told to stop. It became clear however that there were no troops available to send. Lloyd George’s final solution was to send a firm telegram. Discussions like this happened repeatedly.
There is a danger, it seems to me, for great powers in looking outwards from their great capitals at the world and imagining all the things you might do. The pieces out there in the rest of the world, however, are not as malleable as you might like and ordering them about may not be as easy as you think. There is perhaps a lesson for today in this. Of course, the world of 2003 is different in many ways from that of 1919 and the United States is much more powerful in relation to its enemies (as well as its friends) than any single power was then, but American policy makers can still fall into the same trap. Some of the schemes that are being floated around Washington today––for the complete reorganization of the Middle East––make that assumption that the pieces on the ground are going to fall into their slots very neatly and stay where they are told to stay.
That brings me to Germany. Here again the situation in 1919 was different from that in 1945. True Austria-Hungary had gone; Bulgaria was completely defeated; and the Ottoman Empire was tottering and had already lost most of its Arab territories. But Germany was not completely defeated or certainly not defeated in a way which was going to make the making of peace easy.
The allies had decided, and it was a very contentious decision, to agree to Germany’s request for an Armistice in November 1918. German armies had been defeated on the battlefield. In August 1918, the German lines had broken and the German troops had fallen back towards their own borders. German officers reported from all quarters that they could no longer fight on. (This is something that Germans later on forgot or never knew.) The German High Command, headed by Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, panicked and demanded that their civilian government get an armistice as quickly as possible. The request to the allies came in the old-fashioned way when two German officers waving a white bed sheet tied to a stick came across to the Allied lines. But it was also came in a very modern way through an exchange of public messages. The German government asked the American president Woodrow Wilson to arrange an armistice for them with the European powers. Wilson replied saying that he would undertake to intercede if the Germans accepted that the Fourteen Points would be the basis of a subsequent peace.
The making of the armistice caused contention, partly because neither Britain nor France felt they had been consulted on the process. More importantly, the Germans assumed that they were making peace on the basis of Wilson’s new type of diplomacy and his new world order and that they would be treated gently. They assumed that Germany would have to pay nothing or little in the way of war damages or reparations, and that they would lose very little territory. Indeed if national self-determination were to be taken as a basis for decisions, Germany might even gain the German-speaking parts of the defunct Austria-Hungary for example Austria itself and the parts of Czechoslovakia that Germans called the Southlands, the Sudetenland. Furthermore, since Wilson had hinted broadly that Germans should get rid of their old regime and become a republic, and since this had in fact happened at the end of the war, many Germans assumed that there was now a new Germany which should not have to pay for the sins of the old one.
There is another and very significant difference between the ends of the First and Second World Wars which affected the ways in which peace came. In 1918, very little of Germany was occupied by Allied troops. There was discussion at the time and there has been since about whether the Allies should have pursued the war to the end. General Pershing, the American commander-in-chief, whose troops were still relatively fresh and enthusiastic, wanted to go on. He wanted to carry the war into Germany and Allied troops marching in victory through Berlin. From the point of view, though, of Marshal Foch, the French commander-in-chief and Supreme Allied Commander in Chief, the armistice terms which the Germans were prepared to accept, which included their surrendering their heavy armaments and the German navy, were tantamount to a complete capitulation. Foch also pointed out, and he was probably right, that Allied opinion would not stand for more waste of lives when victory seemed assured. His political masters agreed: it would have been politically and militarily very difficult for Britain and France to go on fighting against Germany, once an Armistice had been publicly requested. In retrospect, knowing what we now know, it might have been better to make the sacrifice and occupy Germany in 1918 because many Germans were later able to persuade themselves that Germany had not been defeated and that the peace terms imposed by the Allies were deeply unfair. As it was most Germans never saw Allied troops and the German army which marched back in Berlin was greeted by what was now the President of a Republic as the undefeated.
Germany came out of the war weakened and smaller. It has been argued, though, by a number of historians that Germany in some ways was in a stronger position strategically after 1919 than it had been before 1914. It no longer had an Austria-Hungary on its eastern borders. In its place, were generally weak states, which tended to quarrel with each other. And thanks to the reconstitution of Poland, after a gap of almost over a century, Germany no longer had a common border with Russia, something which had always made German statesmen look uneasily eastwards. Germany was also relatively unscathed by the war. Certainly its population suffered much from the Allied blockade but its infrastructure was relatively untouched, certainly by comparison with that of France’s. Most of the fighting had been, of course, on the Belgian and French soil, western front on, or on Russian on the eastern. German factories and mines were largely intact unlike those in France or Belgium. That perhaps does not matter because what also counts in international relations as in domestic affairs is what people believe. The Germans, who had a tendency as see themselves as surrounded by hostile nations even before the First World War, felt themselves to be weak and vulnerable after 1918.
No one who loses a war ever likes conditions of the peace settlements but the widespread and deeply-felt rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in Germany has much to do with the way in which the war ended and the often unrealistic expectations that the Germans developed in the months before they finally saw the peace terms. and so, there was no way that Germany was going to like any peace terms.
Unfortunately the Allies made it worse by not negotiating with Germany. The Peace Conference was initially meant to be like earlier ones, where winners and losers sat down and hammered out a peace. The Allies met in Paris in January 1919 for what they expected would be a preliminary conference for two to three weeks, where they would hammer out common peace terms and then call representatives from Germany and the other defeated nations and have a full-blown peace conference.
When the Allies started their discussions, they rapidly found that the issues were so complicated and involved so many parts of the world, that it was difficult to get agreement. Matters were also complicated Woodrow Wilson’s insistence - and one can see why he did it - that the covenant of the league of nations be included in the German Treaty. Two to three weeks turned into two to three months. It was not until the beginning of May 1919, that the Allies managed to draw up a common set of peace terms for Germany, which they could all agree on. The drawing up of those terms had painful and difficult.
A particularly divisive issue was how France should be protected in future from Germany. Should Germany be disarmed completely? - which would leave it defenceless against its neighbours and perhaps against Bolshevism. Or partially? - in which case, how big an army should it have and with what sort of weapons? There were those in France who wanted Germany to be broken up completely and returned to the collection of states it had been before 1870. Others were content to take the Rhineland, part of Germany west of the Rhine River, and turn it into an either independent state or a state attached to France. Lloyd George refused, pointing out that Europe had already been disturbed enough in the 19th century by unfulfilled German ambitions. On the other hand, the French argued, with some justification, that they still needed to be protected from Germany. The basic French problem was that there was still a very big Germany and there were more Germans than French and therefore more future German soldiers than French ones. The demographic gap was clearly going to widen.
Trying to come up with a figure on what Germany should pay for war damages was also extremely difficult, partly because of public expectations. Huge figures had been floated around in the weeks preceding the Peace Conference and the Allied publics in Britain and France in particular had come to expect that Germany would make up for all the money spent during the war (and perhaps even for the future pensions to widows and orphans of soldiers) and for damage to Allied property. Even Canada drew up a list which included freighters that had been sunk in order not to be left out of the final distribution. Then there was the damage done by the fighting on Belgian and French soil. It was hard even to get any estimate of what that amounted to. American army engineers who were starting to do surveys of the battlefields assumed it would take at least two years to get any realistic estimate.
When the Allies finally managed to reach agreement on the German terms, no one wanted to sit down and reopen the whole thing in discussions with the Germans. By May 1919, there was another consideration––the fear that they no would no longer had the capacity to impose their will on Germany especially if protracted negotiations opened up. The Allied leaders had gloomy conversations with their military experts about what would happen if Germany refused to sign its treaty. Foch prepared a plan to strike simultaneously into Bavaria and across the Rhine, where the Allies held the bridgeheads, toward Berlin. But he warned that the German resistance might be fighting might be bitter and Allied losses high.
During those long months, views of the war, ultimately very influential ones, were starting to take root in Germany. The High Command and its supporters argued that Germany’s armies could have fought on if only certain unpatriotic elements on the home front––left-wingers, for example, or Jews––had not stabbed them in the back. Although many of those who supported the new republic did not subscribe to the stab-in the-back myth, they also came to share the view that Germany had not lost the war on the battlefields at all. Rather, the German government, in an attempt to save all combatants from further loss and destruction, had wisely, even nobly, asked for an armistice. And Woodrow Wilson had promised, had he not, that Germany would be treated justly by the Allies.
The German government approached the peace negotiations with some optimism. It expected that the customary negotiations would take place in Paris. During the winter and early spring of 1918-19, the Foreign Ministry prepared detailed studies of every aspect of what it expected to discuss in Paris. When the German delegation was finally summoned to Paris in May 1919, it brought with it crates full of materials. The German delegates were shocked by their reception. On their arrival in Paris, they were put in a third-rate hotel surrounded by barbed wire and guards, so it was said, for their own protection. At a brisk ceremony in the Trianon Palace Hotel near Versailles, Clemenceau handed them the terms and told them that they had two weeks to enter any comments in writing. There were to be no negotiations. The shock among the delegates and back in Germany was profound. The Germans felt betrayed. When they looked at the terms themselves they were horrified.
Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German Foreign Minister, who headed the delegation, took two speeches with him to the Trianon Palace Hotel. One was conciliatory, the other much more defiant. He did not decide which one he was going to use until he received the peace terms. He chose defiance. Since he looked very much the Prussian Junker, and since nerves forced him to speak seated, the speech made a lamentable impression. If the Allies had felt qualms about treating Germany harshly, they no longer did so.
Von Brockdorff-Rantzau subsequently made a decision, which in retrospect had unfortunate consequences, to attack two clauses in the section on reparations. Article 231 of the Germany treaty has come to be known as the War Guilt Clause. In fact, if you read it, it says nothing about guilt, only about responsibility for the war. It was put in to establish Germany’s legal liability. The following article, 232, limits that liability by stating that Germany’s reparations obligations had to be based on Germany’s capacity to pay. The actual wording came from John Foster Dulles, who was a young lawyer with the American delegation. Von Brockdorff-Ranzau’s decision came after considerable debate both among the German delegates and back in Germany. Interestingly enough, none of the other defeated nations, whose treaties included similar clauses, ever made an issue of it. In time, of course, the ‘War Guilt’ clause became deeply embedded in German thinking about the Versailles Treaty, as it came to be known, and was one of the many grounds on which Hitler and his fellow nationalists attacked the peace settlements. As the years went by and the opening of the European archives suggested that the war may well have started as the result of a series of mistakes on both sides, Germans and indeed many in the English-speaking world, felt that the clause, and by extension, the whole treaty, was unfair to Germany.
In recent years a number of historians, myself included, have come to the conclusion that the German treaty was not as bad as it has been portrayed. Whatever the High Command later said, Germany had lost the war. It should have expected to lose territory. If Germany had won, it certainly would have taken territory from its defeated enemies. It should have expected that the Allies, and particularly France, would attempt to limit Germany’s capacity to wage future wars. It should have expected to pay something just as France had paid after it lost the Franco-Prussian War. In fact, the Germany Foreign Ministry had worked out figures and drawn up schedules for the reparations it expected to be imposed. But with a treaty that was widely seen as unjust, and this was right across the political spectrum, there was little will in Germany to pay any reparations. The arguments between Germany and its former enemies, which poisoned international relations for so much of the decade after the war, obscured the fact that Germany never paid that much in the end, probably less than a sixth of what it owed. Nevertheless in Germany, reparations became shorthand for every economic problem, for unemployment and for the dreadful inflation of the early 1920s. The real culprit was fiscal mismanagement by the German government but that is not how it was perceived in Germany. What is true in history is sometimes less important than what people believe to be true.
Germans in the interwar years also resented the military clauses, in part because the Allies had said that there would be a more general disarmament which never in the end materialized. But was Germany’s war-making capacity that seriously affected? Germany was to have an army of 100,000 but no limits were placed on the number of non-commissioned officers. The German army, after 1919, had the highest proportion of these in Europe, which meant that it had the backbone for a much larger force. The military clauses were supervised by a small Allied military commission whose members frequently complained, with little effect, that they were receiving minimal co-operation from the Germans. Germany was not meant to have an air force but it had a great many flying clubs in the 1920s. When Hitler took power in 1933, it took him two years to construct an air force.
The perception that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair and immoral played an important part in the rise to power of Hitler who took every opportunity to attack the ‘Diktat’ or dictated peace which bound Germany in chains. It also had an impact on the Allies, as it contributed to the appeasement of the 1930s. If the treaty were as wicked as the Germans claimed, then clearly Hitler was justified in wanting to undo it. John Maynard Keynes, in Paris as the Treasury adviser to the British delegation, set the tone early in the great polemic which he wrote in the summer of 1919. The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which became an instant best-seller and has been in print ever since, attacks the peacemakers as foolish and short-sighted. They sat in their rooms at Paris indulging in sterile debates about punishment and reparations while they should have been rebuilding Europe and getting trade going again. The book was of course immediately translated into German and it also had a tremendous impact in the English speaking countries. In France, the notion that reparations were deeply unfair, and that the whole Treaty was a mistake, was never as widespread. When the French tried, with increasing desperation, to enforce the terms of the treaty in the interwar years, the British found them unreasonable. Britain, as it had so often done before, was withdrawing from engagement with the Continent and concentrating on tending its Empire. The Americans, although the extent of their isolationism has been exaggerated, withdrew partially from involvement in world affairs in the 1920s in part because they had tired of what they saw as the old vindictive European ways.
There is another sort of criticism of the Peace Conference which may offer useful parallels for the present and that is that it was not properly planned ahead and was simply inefficient. “Worthless schemes and improvised ideas” was how Paul Cambon, the wise old French ambassador in London, described the way in which the statesmen worked. There is something in his complaint. None of the Big Three had much experience in international relations. Lloyd George had a notoriously weak grasp of geography. Maps brought happy surprises such as his discovery that New Zealand was on quite a different side of Australia than he had always imagined. Unreasonably perhaps none of them had much use for their own foreign offices. Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau all chose as foreign ministers men whom they could safely ignore. All preferred to take advice from their close associates or from academic experts or journalists rather than their own diplomats. The conference took too long to get underway. What was meant to be a preliminary meeting of the Allies to work out a common position turned gradually into the only peace conference there was to be.
Given the extraordinary range of problems which came before it and the way in which the agenda kept expanding with as fresh issues, the rebirth of Poland for example or the relief of many parts of the former Austria-Hungary, it is doubtful that any organization or meticulous plan could have kept up. The peacemakers were dealing with such a new world, with new forces in the shape of Bolshevism or ethnic nationalisms, that improvisation was forced upon them. It also made sense to draw on expertise beyond what existed in their foreign services. The peace conference marked the use of experts from the private sector and from the academic world. This was received by the diplomats with a certain amount of scepticism but in fact the professionals and the amateurs worked very well together on the conference’s many committees and commissions.
Wilson spoke for many both in Europe and the wider world when he said that a new and more open diplomacy was needed based on moral principles including democratic values, with respect for the rights of peoples to choose their own governments and an international organization to mediate among nations and provide collective security for its members. He was called dangerously naïve at the time and Wilsonianism has been controversial ever since. In the world of 1919, though, when the failure of older forms of diplomacy––secret treaties and agreements, for example, or a balance of power as the way to keep peace––was so terribly apparent, a new way of dealing with international relations made considerable sense.
There was no need, though, for the statesmen to take on so much themselves. In each of their meetings the Big Three (or Four if Orlando is included) dealt with several different matters, some major issues but others details, such as minor adjustments to borders, which they should have left to the many committees and commissions which were working away. It was also foolish and self-defeating of the leading statesmen to ignore tried and useful procedures. The Council of Four, which Wilson insisted upon when he returned to Paris from the United States, was meant to be so informal that it did not at first have a secretary. At the end of three days, the statesmen found they could not remember what they decided so called in Maurice Hankey, the British secretary to the peace conference, who kept his usual meticulous records.
The diplomats felt sidelined and resentful but, for all its innovative nature, the peace conference shows how important they were. Major decisions were usually made by the Council of Four or by the earlier Supreme Council. In many cases, however, the statesmen simply ratified the recommendations, including most of those on Europe’s borders, which came up from the committees and commissions. These bodies took their work very seriously. Their members gathered huge amounts of information, interviewed experts and petitioners, and had exhaustive discussions. If the borders they drew left many people feeling dissatisfied, that was because the population in the centre of Europe was so mixed that there was no way of drawing borders based on ethnic considerations. The peace settlements left approximately 1/3 of all the people living in the centre of Europe as minorities in the countries in which they lived. That, of course, was going to be a source of trouble throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
As democratically elected leaders, the statesmen also carried the burden of domestic affairs. Sir Robert Borden, who was in Paris for several months, received dozens of letters and telegrams from his associates in Canada, telling him of crises and urging him to hasten home. Wilson and Lloyd George both had to leave the conference for a month to deal with problems at home. All the statesmen felt the pressure. Lloyd George, who was the youngest, survived the best. Wilson had trouble sleeping and developed a serious tic in his face. There is a possibility that he suffered a minor stroke while he was in Paris. Clemenceau, a man of extraordinary vitality, was wounded in an assassination attempt part way through the conference; observers felt that he never was quite the same again.
The great objective forces matter in history: factors such as economics, geography, military power. So does the intellectual and political context. People think largely in the categories which they have inherited. In 1919 people were thinking in ways which would have been alien to anyone in 1815 but which are familiar to us today: the whole notion of democratic participation in foreign policy, of ethnic nationalism, and of self-determination. Nevertheless the individuals who occupied positions of power are important. In moments particularly of crisis––August 1914, much of 1919, the weeks and months following September 11––when decisions have to be made, the personalities of those who are making those decisions can be of enormous importance.
The Paris Peace Conference reminds us not to ignore the players in history. It made a difference that Wilson was not a healthy man: in Paris he made concessions, to the Italians for example, out of sheer weariness. When he returned to the United States to try to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, with the League embedded in it, his natural stubbornness was exacerbated to the point where he refused all compromise with the moderate Republicans. As a result the Treaty was not ratified and the United States never joined the League of Nations. It mattered, to take another example, that Eleutherios Venizelos, the great Greek Prime Minister, managed to charm Lloyd George and persuade him that the ancient Greek empire in Asia Minor could be reconstituted. Lloyd George gave Greece the go-ahead to land troops at Smyrna and encouraged the Greeks to advance inland. The result was the mobilization of Turkish nationalism under Kemal Ataturk, the defeat of the Greek forces and the end of the centuries-old Greek communities throughout Turkey.
It is sometimes decisions taken lightly or hastily which cause the most trouble in the long run. The fate of the Saar coal mines, which caused so much trouble at the peace conference, or the Duchy of Teschen, which nearly led to a war between Czechoslovakia and Poland, do not seem important today. The minorities treaties, which were laboriously drawn up to try to protect the ethnic minorities in the centre of Europe, were largely ineffective. On the other hand, the creation of Iraq, which was done in an imperialistic deal between Britain and France, has had repercussions right up to the present.
After some haggling, Britain got three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. These had been ruled separately from Istanbul and did not constitute a nation. The British wanted them partly to keep the French from moving in, partly to protect the new air routes to India and partly because they suspected that there were significant deposits of oil. Britain made Iraq and found an Arab ruler in the person of Prince Faisal on the assumption that it would be easy and cheap to run. There were few of what we think of as the building blocks of a successful nation. Iraq contained different ethnic groups and different religions. There was no Iraqi nationality, although one did develop over the years. Almost from the moment Iraq was created, the British had trouble with it and the world has had problems ever since.
The final lesson which the Paris Peace Conference offers is that getting international agreements is one thing, enforcing them quite another. The Treaty of Versailles was a cumbersome document; it embodied a series of uneasy compromises among the powers and it was unnecessarily irritating to the Germans. In the long run, though, the most important thing was that there was not sufficient will to enforce it among the winning nations. There were enforcement mechanisms in the Treaty, but someone had to decide to use them. The French and, at first, the Belgians were willing, but they needed support from the British and perhaps the Americans and that support was not there in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1935 onwards Hitler violated the provisions of the Treaty––starting with the announcement that Germany had an air force and then moving troops into the demilitarized Rhineland––and got away with it. If, and it is one of those big ‘ifs’ in history, he had been stopped early on, the Second World War in Europe might not have taken place.
Were the present American administration and its supporters right to see a parallel situation with Saddam Hussein? Were the attempts by the United Nations, supported by countries such as France and Germany, to carry out weapons inspections merely a 21st century version of appeasement? The difficulty with taking lessons from history is always in finding the right one. Unfortunately we do not often know until many years later. Perhaps decades from now the O.D. Skelton Memorial Lecture will be on the lessons of 1919 and 2003.
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