Negotiations are all the rage in Britain at the moment, so this seems a good time to take another look at the negotiations going on in Paris a century ago. More than three months into its active life, the Paris Peace Conference was still busy trying to design a new world to replace the old. Its proceedings so far had been mired in a swamp of high-profile chaos and deadlock that even Brexit can’t match, but on 7 May 1919 it delivered proof that the stalemate had been broken.
Proof took the form of a draft peace settlement delivered to the German government, a document that went on to form the basis of the treaty signed by Germany in June 1919, and that has been despised ever since by everyone, everywhere. I’m not about to defend the peace cobbled together in Paris – no one does that – but I would like to offer a little more sympathy for its principle negotiators than modern orthodoxy tends to allow.
Despite its name, the Paris conference was about dividing up prizes among the winners rather than negotiating peace. Beaten, broken and at the mercy of their former enemies, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria – the Central Powers – played no part in the talks, and although dozens of other nations were in Paris, thirty-two of them with accredited delegates at the conference, all important decisions were made by the ‘Big Three’ of Britain, the USA and France, with Japan and Italy as their most favoured subordinates.
While the leaders of the Big Three were pursuing their separate and frequently incompatible national/imperial agendas, they faced constant distraction on multiple fronts. The important business of bickering among themselves was interrupted every day by delegations from all over the world petitioning for crumbs from the top table, and almost as often by proof that the old world, though mortally wounded by fifty-one months of the Great War, was refusing to lay down and die. All over Europe in particular (but not exclusively), revolutions, civil wars and invasions were in progress, as was pretty much every other conceivable form of sociopolitical instability.
By way of muddying even those choppy waters, discussions in Paris were being conducted with no formal agenda or guidelines fixed in advance, and the whole shebang was taking place in the biggest blaze of global publicity ever seen. With popular audiences more numerous and politically powerful than ever before, every important delegate at the peace conference needed his home audience to be satisfied by the outcomes. I’ve talked about this before and taken the narrative, such as it is, as far as President Wilson’s return to the USA on 14 February (18 January, 1919: Showtime!), so let’s move on from there.
Wilson’s departure was followed by that of British premier Lloyd George, who remained in the UK to address domestic issues – above all mounting labour unrest – until 8 March. On 19 February, French premier Clemenceau survived an assassination attempt on the Champs Elysées, when one of seven shots fired into his car by an angry anarchist pierced his chest but just missed vital organs. As rugged as his reputation, Clemenceau was back at the conference table on 1 March, still carrying the bullet but more secure than ever in his role as the man fighting hardest for French interests. Wilson eventually returned to Paris on 14 March, but in the meantime things had changed.
In the absence of the leaders their understudies – US Secretary of State House, British foreign minister Balfour and his French counterpart, Stephen Pichon – had been trying to speed up the peace process. Balfour secured agreement from the Council of Ten that the various commissions set up to investigate particular issues would report by 8 March, and promised that their reports would be acted upon quickly. By that time broad agreements had been reached on enough issues to raise hopes that they could be incorporated into some kind of partial and preliminary draft treaty that would demonstrate progress to the world.
Some commentators have since described this period as an attempt by almost everyone else of importance in Paris to slip a treaty past Wilson, who had always insisted that no agreement be signed without including a League of Nations covenant. The theory, based on guesswork, deduction and the conflicting claims of memoirs rather than evidence, may or may not be accurate – but is anyway redundant. Wilson simply repeated his terms as soon as he was back in France, while Clemenceau still refused to consider the League of Nations until the peace itself had been agreed. The conference was therefore required to face the vexed questions of, among others, German reparations, Italian claims to Fiume (Rijeka in modern Croatia), Anglo-French ambitions in the Middle East and German frontiers before any treaty could be signed.
With one eye on the ever-terrifying and massively exaggerated threat of a Bolshevik surge to the Rhine, the reconvened Big Three agreed that matters pertaining to Germany and Austria-Hungary needed to be settled first and quickly. They and Italian Prime Minister Orlando, who returned to the conference after his own spring break on 24 March, also recognized the obvious fact that the cumbersome Council of Ten was incapable of reaching any decisions, let alone quick ones. Informal meetings between House, Lloyd George and Clemenceau had been going on since early March, as part of the speeding-up process, and by the end of the month they had become regularised as what became known as the Council of Four. From 9 April, British cabinet secretary Sir Maurice Sankey was employed as secretary to the new council, providing the professional organisation needed to turn an unguided talking shop into a body capable of finalising decisions. By the latter part of that month, things were actually starting to get done.
That’s not the same as saying they were being done well. Like its predecessor, the Council of Four faced a chaotic agenda, dealing with delegations from all over the world on an essentially ad hoc basis, and took or rejected advice from experts at the whim of its members. When free to debate among themselves the four members tended, according to most witnesses, to squabble from fixed positions and waste a lot of valuable time exercising their egos. It is from this period and those witnesses – most notably the economist JM Keynes – that popular history has taken its stock, unflattering images of the main participants. Lloyd George was the silver-tongued schemer, sly and untrustworthy; Clemenceau the granite avenger, unmoving and impervious to argument; Wilson the feckless idealist, unwilling to accept the realities around him; and Orlando, barely able to follow the English used by the others, was effectively powerless and ignored accordingly.
Orlando’s marginal status became crystal clear after he stormed out of the conference on 21 April, in protest at Wilson’s refusal to grant Italy control over Fiume, only to come back on 7 May with nothing but embarrassment to show for his gesture. In the meantime, the other three leaders – abetted by the Council of Five, which comprised the foreign ministers of Britain, France, the USA, Italy and Japan, and dealt with myriad issues seen as peripheral to the big questions – did manage to find compromises. Leaving everything else until later (in particular the fate of the former Ottoman Empire), the Big Three found ways round problems that, while satisfying nobody and causing affront almost everywhere, at least allowed them to get out of Dodge with a line worth spinning to their constituents at home.
I could spend another couple of thousand words describing territorial arrangements made in Paris that redesigned central and eastern Europe from Greece and the Balkans to the Baltic coast – but ‘before and after’ maps will have to do because this piece is primarily about how the big boys found a way to mix their various ambitions and the needs of a watching world.
Italy, of course, had the mix largely thrust upon it, but even Orlando wasn’t left empty handed in territorial terms. His main aim was to extract what he could from the wreckage of the Treaty of London, which had brought Italy in the War in 1915 by promising the impossible (26 April, 1915: Secrets and Lies), and Italy gained the South Tyrol from Austria-Hungary (putting a quarter of a million native German speakers under Italian rule in spite of Wilson’s commitment to national self-determination) along with territories in Trentino and Dalmatia. Italy also took over the port of Trieste, but Wilson wouldn’t budge in his opposition to Italian control of Fiume, and Orlando’s temporary walkout in April merely scotched Italian hopes of taking over the Turkish port of Smyrna (Izmir). A Japanese threat to do the same carried more weight, convincing Wilson to compromise his principles by accepting Japan’s possession of former German colonies in China, a position that satisfied the minimum requirements of an empire bent on conquests in mainland Asia with or without international sanction.
French territorial demands presented a major problem, not least because they had nothing to do with fairness or liberal values and everything to do with crippling Germany to guarantee future security. What Clemenceau wanted was to give as much as possible of eastern Germany to other countries, and to take as much as possible of western Germany for France, including not just the ‘lost’ provinces of Alsace and Lorraine but the entire Rhineland and (coal-rich) Saar regions. Add in a reparations bill that would prevent German military recovery for the foreseeable future, along with a League of Nations army ready to enforce the peace, and Clemenceau would be satisfied.
What he got was Alsace and Lorraine, an Anglo-American guarantee of military support if Germany attacked France, and the right to occupy the Rhineland for fifteen years, after which it would be permanently demilitarized. France could take control of the Saar coalmines, but the League of Nations would administer the region for fifteen years, after which it would vote to remain German or become French. Germany was also to lose the provinces of Malmedy and Eupen to Belgium, Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark, Posen and part of Upper Silesia to Poland (along with a ‘corridor’ of territory diving West and East Prussia that connected Poland to the sea), and the port of Danzig (Gdansk) as a free city under League of Nations control.
These were the key compromises, along with Anglo-American agreement that Germany and its allies should pay reparations in full for the war they were deemed to have started. What ‘in full’ actually meant, and the price it carried, remained to be argued, but acceptance of the principle represented a major compromise for Wilson (the kind that has seen him dismissed as spineless ever since), and a significant if much smaller shift for Lloyd George, whose fears of future European economic destabilisation were already being eroded by the clamour for revenge coming from British newspapers and politicians. Nobody needed to compromise much around stripping Germany of its military equipment and prohibiting its rearmament, around forbidding any union between Germany and the relatively tiny rump state that was now Austria, or around sharing former German colonies among the victors. Meanwhile, the new idea that Germany should submit ‘war criminals’ for future trial was accepted with less fuss than its future impact deserved.
These were the essentials agreed by the Council of Four and communicated to Germany as a draft treaty on 7 May. During the following two decades, many of the diplomats involved in drafting the details fell over themselves trying to explain that the treaty’s clauses were written as first bids in a negotiation, and therefore excessively harsh for tactical reasons. That excuse only works if they really thought Germany would be allowed to negotiate. They didn’t. Nobody did. Germany was given no chance to negotiate and some six weeks later, threatened with a resumption of the war, it was forced to accept the draft treaty without significant changes.
Plenty of commentators at the time regarded the treaty imposed on Germany – not to be confused with all the other, equally important treaties subsequently arranged at Paris to deal with the rest of the world – as a recipe for political and economic disaster across Europe. History wasted no time proving them right, and the brunt of the posterity’s blame has fallen on Clemenceau, Lloyd George and above all Wilson. Their efforts in Paris have been subject to withering condemnation by every kind of historical commentator, and there is no doubt that they arrived at a bad deal – but they did at least make a deal, and it’s hard to see how they could have found a better one.
Short of some kind of simultaneous epiphany that turned all three men into radical free thinkers with no responsibility to the peoples they represented, long-term deadlock was the only real alternative to a muddy compromise that persecuted Germany. Deadlock was unthinkable, both because the world desperately needed someone to push the restart button and because, from their perspective, it was the gateway to a communist future. Faced with the Devil, they reluctantly dived for the deep blue sea, somehow managing to do so promptly and together. Next time you hear their names drenched in infamy, it might be worth considering how Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or any European leader you care to mention would react under those kind of circumstances.