18 JANUARY, 1918: Showtime!

The Paris Peace Conference – probably the biggest, flashiest, most important international summit meeting ever convened ­– opened a hundred years ago today.  The anniversary comes at an appropriate time for we British, who have been re-learning what it means to go into negotiations without a clear agenda, and is anyway well worth commemorating as the start of a shambles that is generally considered one of the modern world’s defining moments.  A lot of people have written a lot of words about an event that merits a long book, and has inspired one or two very fine books – Margaret MacMillan would be my recommendation – but casual bloggers like me are allowed to relax into snapshots and hope some kind of big picture emerges from the collection.

So I’ll start by saying the Paris Peace Conference was set up to fail, in general because each of the three states making all the important decisions wanted something different from the peace, and in detail because they had been manipulating the conference for their own ends during the planning phase.

Press and public referred to the ‘Big Four’ throughout the conference, meaning Britain, France, the USA and Italy, but the title barely disguised the fact that Italy was one of the also-rans, in no position to argue with anything decided by the others.  Of those three, the USA had made its position abundantly clear, or rather its president was abundantly clear that the peace should embody his Fourteen Points in all their liberal sanctity and produce a League of Nations to police its enforcement.  The British government, informed by its electorate in no uncertain terms that a pound of flesh was required, wanted to satisfy the public and pay for the War, but above all (and as ever) wanted to rebuild prosperity by securing and enlarging Britain’s enormous empire, a process that ran directly contrary to Wilsonian principles.  The French negotiators wanted payment and imperial expansion, and like the British they considered Wilson’s liberal ideology dangerously anti-colonial, but above all they represented their public in wanting to take revenge on Germany, and to make absolutely sure that Germany would never again threaten France.

Liberal platitudes coming out of Europe weren’t fooling the Chicago Tribune.

All of the above is generalisation, in that the delegations themselves were crammed full of bigwigs and seldom of one mind, but you get the picture.  That the picture involved punishing Germany, Wilson notwithstanding, was made abundantly clear by the location and timing of the conference.  Held not in some neutral country but in Paris, it opened at the Salle d’Horloge on the Quai d’Orsay on 18 January, the anniversary of unified Germany’s proclamation under Kaiser Wilhelm I at exactly the same location in 1871.  All this had been arranged at the insistence of fiercely nationalist French premier Clemenceau, for once in tandem with French President Poincaré, but the British – in some ways as incapable of taking responsibility for European affairs as they had been in 1914 – were happy enough to let him have his way (for all that Lloyd George later claimed to have been against the idea).

At work in the Salle d’Horloge

Posterity has not been kind to the principal negotiators.  Wilson is seen as naive and inflexible, Lloyd George as the artful dodger concealing a greedy imperialist agenda, and Clemenceau as the equally cunning fury willing to sacrifice future peace for revenge. Months of negotiations lay ahead, and that should give me plenty of time to undermine those facile judgments, but whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonists they were hobbled from the start by their collective failure to come up with an agenda before the conference began.

The French had put forward an agenda.  Based on the precedent of the peace congress that had ended the Napoleonic Wars, it proposed that the matter of Germany be dealt with first, followed by the many issues arising from the late war’s impact on the rest of the world.  The implementation of Wilson’s cherished plan for a League of Nations, something the French described as far too vague for consideration at an early stage, was to be left until last.  This very Gallic take on priorities was universally ignored, and no serious discussions about an agenda took place before 18 January, presumably because nobody wanted inevitable disputes to go public before the conference had started.

The result was noisy chaos.  While the figureheads debated general principles, a series of international commissions went to work to formulate Allied demands as the basis for future negotiations with German representatives.  It soon became clear, although it was never formally stated, that the Germans would not be invited to negotiate, a misunderstanding that meant the very harsh terms intended as opening Allied bids often ended up in the final treaty. Meanwhile delegates were still arriving in Paris from all over the world, many from regions seeking international recognition as independent nations, some making rival claims for control of the same territories, all demanding attention from the decision makers. Many of them – including (among many) delegations from Ireland, Vietnam, Tonga, all the new states in the Caucasus, Egypt and Korea, along with a Zionist delegation – were not accepted as voting members of the conference plenary session, and I’m going to list those that were because it makes for a good snapshot.

This is the Egyptian delegation arriving at the conference (and destined to be denied a voting voice).

The surviving Central Powers (Germany and Bulgaria) were not invited to the conference, and the Soviet Union, having signed a peace at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, was also excluded.  Otherwise, the Big Four aside, old European states were represented by Belgium, Romania, Greece, Portugal and tiny San Marino , while Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Montenegro and Lithuania were new or aspiring European states. The ‘British Empire’ fielded a delegation that included Canadian representatives, but South Africa was merely a strong voice at the British imperial table through Jan Smuts, and Africa was otherwise represented only by independent Liberia.

Latin America sent delegations from Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, all of them invited on the coattails of declarations of war in support of the US, and the Arab Revolt was represented as ‘the Hejaz’.  Siam (modern Thailand) was a wartime ally and one of three Asian states recognised as voting members of the conference.  Another was China, which was primarily concerned with protecting its territory and economy against the third: the only nation outside the Big Four with any real clout, Japan.

Japan’s interest in the peace was purely regional, but two Japanese delegates sat on the Council of Ten, along with the premiers and foreign ministers of the Big Four, which became the principal arena for meaningful debate once it became clear that no full session would ever achieve anything.  Not that the Council of Ten achieved anything much, beset as it was by petitions from all over the world and arguments about basic agenda points.  By the time Wilson went back to the States for a month in mid-February, it had managed to agree that Germany should forfeit its colonies and to produce a (very rough) draft covenant for the League of Nations.

That’s a good place to stop for now, because a lot went on while Wilson was away from Europe and because, from March onwards, the Council of Ten would be recast as the Council of Four, comprising Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Italian premier Orlando. While the committees wrestled to resolve literally hundreds of diplomatic and political issues on every continent, these four men would have the punishment of Germany organised by late June and then, like a big football club in a minor cup competition, the stars would depart and let the fringe players get on with reshaping the world.

The show would go on for another year after that, and although British popular history is inclined to focus on the disastrous outcome of the treaty with Germany signed at Versailles, it can be argued that the most lasting, and certainly the most wide-ranging effects of the Paris Peace Conference – those that still need sorting out a hundred years on – were unleashed by the treaties with the rest of the world that followed.  I’ll get down with the diplomatic chutzpah at a later date and, because the conference was a show, I’ll find a time to look at how its performance played with the public, and how it helped redefine global relationships between mass politics and high politics.  Meanwhile this was a small reminder that, while your world was conceived in fire during the First World War, it was brought to life by the diplomatic fireworks ignited on the Quai d’Orsay.

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