Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War 
by Margaret MacMillan.
Murray, 574 pp., £25, September 2001, 0 7195 5939 1
Show More
Show More

With war in Europe an immediate prospect in July 1914, the young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, felt a tinge of guilt at his growing excitement and ‘hideous fascination’ with the detailed preparation. He caught the mood of the moment. ‘No one can measure the consequences,’ he recorded; ‘we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance. As if it was somebody else’s operation!’ More than three years into a conflict that many had wished for and others merely succumbed to in ignorance, costs both human and material were being counted by John Maynard Keynes, who agonised about working for a government he despised ‘for ends I think criminal’. The war had, indeed, fast become an increasingly disreputable enterprise which with every discarded corpse raised the stakes of peace. Blinded by the poisonous sting of mustard gas or deafened by the roar of big guns to the rear, the surviving serviceman had every reason to demand a better world. The top-hats and dress-coats who arrived in Paris after more than four years of war were bound to fail the desperate expectations that followed them in, uninvited, from outside. The consequences of failing to meet those demands arguably mattered more than the treaties that were ultimately signed. In a parallel universe the historian who fails to include the uninvited along with the invited risks placing herself in as much jeopardy as the statesmen she portrays with so much empathy and in such detail.

The gathering at Paris was impressive by any standard. It also promised a more enlightened exercise of power than had been seen at Vienna in 1815, where restoration of the balance of power was the best that could be hoped for. The principle of self-determination would now at last be realised across Europe. This was not to be an improvised affair. The British delegation’s composition and logistics had been calculated well in advance and to the finest detail by the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, Lord Hardinge, though everything was set back while the Prime Minister went to the country to bolster his negotiating position. Four hundred civil servants were shipped across the Channel, half with shorthand. They swarmed into the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber, itself ‘a vast caravanserai . . . constructed almost entirely of onyx for the benefit of the Brazilian ladies who, before the war, could come to Paris to buy their clothes’. It was ‘the oddest kind of universal rendezvous place’ Percy Loraine, an experienced diplomat, had ever seen. From all over the world emissaries with petitions for statehood jostled anxiously in the corridors alongside those who’d been formally invited, ‘keen as saints for a front seat on Judgment Day’. Into their midst glided a young, clever and passionately idealistic clerk from the Foreign Office, Harold Nicolson, who had left his wife in the arms of others but found consolation in dreams of the glorious emergence of new states in Eastern Europe, ‘which made our hearts sing hymns at heaven’s gate’.

As it turned out, the British officials whom Hardinge had encouraged to do so much detailed work on redrawing the map of the world had little influence on the outcome. In part this was a result of Lloyd George’s belief that information may be power but knowing when to ignore it was essential to the successful manipulation of power. Instead of relying on Foreign Office expertise, he relied on the instincts of his own amateur ‘Grand Vizierate’. In part it followed from the piecemeal and unconnected manner in which the terms of peace were composed. It was also and crucially a consequence of something more fundamental, which ultimately wrecked the entire project: the pressure of events and the need to reconcile the irreconcilable. ‘What do you want me to do?’ the hapless and despairing Clemenceau pleaded. ‘I find myself between Jesus Christ’ – Woodrow Wilson – ‘on one side and Napoleon Bonaparte’ – Lloyd George – ‘on the other.’ If only it were so simple. So much had been promised on all sides; so little, it transpired, could be delivered.

Seldom had the disparity between the demagogic pledges of elected politicians and the ugly realities of power been so marked. But did the main players at Versailles wield power or did power wield them? Lloyd George, Wilson reflected, appeared ‘to have no principles whatever of his own . . . he reacted according to the advice of the last person who had talked with him . . . expediency was his sole guiding star.’ Yet moral absolutism could be preached only by the US, a power whose territory could not be reached by its rivals. In contrast, the international relations of Europe were always an intractable and disagreeable business conducted by states on top of one another with scarcely space to breathe. Only by sleight of hand could contradictory aims find swift and plausible reconciliation, and this was merely a flattering façade: the underlying crisis would sooner or later break out with the force of pent-up fury. A prime instance of this was the simultaneous and self-interested offering of Palestine as a homeland to both Jews and Arabs – perhaps the most costly promissory notes ever issued.

Lloyd George secured for Britain the final territorial additions to the greatest empire since Rome. Several treaties were signed: Versailles, 28 June 1919 (with Germany); St Germain-en-Laye, 10 September (with Austria); Neuilly, 27 November (with Bulgaria); Trianon, 4 June 1920 (with Hungary); and Sèvres, 10 August (with Turkey). Yet no sooner were the treaties signed than this overloaded imperial structure began to crumble, collapsing with a speed and a finality that astounded subsequent generations. This was only in part attributable to the Bolsheviks and their engine of revolt, the Comintern. By 1925 even the schoolboys of Cairo had come out on strike, and the 30 May Movement in Shanghai and then Canton launched the birth of a popular revolution in China that brought the mills of Lancashire to a halt for the best part of two years. As monumental New Delhi rose in Lutyens’s imperial splendour, Anglo-Indians anxiously decamped to the suburbs of London. The fate of the Empire mirrored the fate of the treaties. Despite the impressive appearance of permanence, every one of the major buttresses of that high-vaulted settlement ultimately collapsed.

Before we draw a kind of smug satisfaction from the failings of those responsible, however, we should pause to reflect. Trapped between Wilson’s high-sounding nothings and Clemenceau’s resolute determination to make the Germans pay for the war, Lloyd George needed all the guile he possessed. But technique alone was never going to be enough to cope with the complexities and magnitude of the task. More than a failure of perspective or a lack of skill caused the settlement to fall apart. Above all, failure was due to force of circumstance.

The purpose of the meetings at Paris was, of course, to settle the peace with Germany and its allies. Yet the latter were in a state of rapid decomposition. Austria-Hungary fell apart even before the Armistice was signed with Germany in November 1918. And no settlement with the collapsing Ottoman Empire was worth the paper it was written on once Turkish nationalists under Kemal Ataturk seized power, not least because the Big Four, under Lloyd George’s misguided direction and against all expert advice, allowed Greek forces into Turkish Anatolia. More important were the many problems with the German peace. First, the French had to be restrained from seizing the left bank of the Rhine, which would have given them a strategic frontier. Second, in return for this concession, an alliance was formed to defend France against future German aggression. But this alliance depended on American participation. When the US Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty on 19 March 1920, protection for France fell away. Moreover, the effectiveness of the League of Nations – France’s second line of defence – was sharply reduced thanks to the Senate’s action, since this ruled out US participation in the League. Third, the £6 billion bill presented to the Germans for reparations – the figure had doubled following the decision to include the cost of service pensions – was bound, at the very least, to undermine investor confidence in the future of the German economy, and thereby undermine the vitality of European commerce as a whole. Fourth, Allied insistence on Article 231, which attributed all guilt for the war to the Germans, was a slap in the face for the defeated, particularly given the widespread sentiment that surrender had been unnecessary and that it was offered only on the basis of Wilson’s 14 Points (which excluded indemnities along with much else the Germans eventually had to swallow). As Balfour warned, ‘an awkward case’ could, indeed, be made on Berlin’s behalf. Finally, by failing to include Germany within the new Concert of Europe, as France had been included after Vienna, the Allies were inevitably driving the Germans into the arms of the Typhoid Mary of Europe, Bolshevik Russia, which was out to infect the socio-economic order that underpinned the entire international system. Taking the hostility of these two weighty powers into account, the Italian Prime Minister rightly worried that ‘the settlement to be arrived at’ would ‘lack the assent of more than half of the population of the European continent’.

Two key points emerge: first, the Allies as well as the Central Powers were completely taken aback by the revolutionary wave that hit Europe at the end of the war and threatened to rock the settlement off its hinges. Second, even the sacred principle of self-determination that to most liberals was a solution to international instability proved just the reverse: it created more problems than it resolved. The irony was that this principle had not only been a cornerstone of liberal thought: it had also been factored into the strategy of the war. The power of principle found force through the power of interests.

At the beginning of the war no one foresaw that it would bring down the greatest empires and turn what were then merely troublesome industrial disputes and the mouthings of intellectual malcontents into socialist revolution and nationalist uprisings. The illusion existed and was consciously fostered that patriotic unity in war would survive any reverse, that the nation was an organism, as German philosophers, conservative and liberal, had latterly and fashionably professed; that the population needed only to be reminded of that fundamental fact under the impact of the threat from abroad. Had the Great Powers of Europe realised the fragility of the foundations of their hegemony, something of the spirit of Metternich would have taken hold and international ambitions and fears been suppressed and diverted to sustain social peace. But, apart from the Paris Commune, easily dismissed as a unique throwback to 1789, revolution had been lost to memory; and the failure of the prattling Second International to forestall conflict in 1914 encouraged the bellicose to believe that war could write that menace out of the agenda. Even the Russian Government under dithering Tsar Nicholas dismissed the lessons of the 1905 Revolution and blandly assumed that pan-Slavic aspirations would bind the Empire together. The fear of backing down when Serbia was threatened counted for more than the dangers brought by untimely war.

A further irony was that the Powers saw themselves as insulated by war and endangered only by humiliating retreat, while considering their rivals to be particularly vulnerable. ‘If we are to bleed to death,’ the Kaiser determined with apparent assurance, ‘then England shall at least lose India.’ The assumption was that it lay within his power to bring this about, by way of secret agents and generous subvention. Berlin sponsored unrest throughout the Russian and British Empires, while the Russians, the French and the British did the same throughout Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman domains. It was by exploiting these policies that Lenin was able to return to Russia in a sealed train courtesy of the German authorities. All the Powers therefore lent themselves in ignorance to forces that had an autonomous existence; in fouling the common ground water, they were inadvertently poisoning their own wells. But they were not to find this out until the war ground to a halt. Nationalism created enormous problems for the peacemakers in Paris who had played their part in unleashing it onto the world. Even where natural frontiers divided along ethnically homogeneous lines, islands of aliens (such as Teschen or Vilnius) could still be found in a sea of fervent patriots. Moreover, the Allies had no forces on the ground to ensure justice, even where justice could safely be determined. The reasons require further explanation, as does the extraordinarily widespread civic violence that shook Eastern Europe and threatened Central Europe in the years that paralleled and immediately followed the Paris peace. As Margaret MacMillan acknowledges in her fine study of decision-making at the summit, these forces ultimately undermined the settlement and operate still today, as we saw in the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation.

It is not least for these reasons that no account of the Paris peace and its failings can confine itself to the colourful theatre of treaty-making. This is the subject most easily documented, but it requires more than a modicum of history from below as well as from above to tell the whole story. Public opinion always played some role in matters of state, even when the public was merely an extension of the court. But rapid industrialisation was creating a force of increasingly educated opinion that could not be so easily silenced, which distilled and crystallised what might otherwise have remained sullen resentment at widespread alienation and growing immiseration.

It was, strangely, Churchill who first reflected on these forces in his memoir, The World Crisis, though the real breakthrough was made, controversially, half a century later and under the impact of the war in Vietnam, by Arno Mayer in Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking. Mayer reintroduced the fractious realities of postwar domestic society into the consideration of the treaties and their fate. It seemed that his findings might be built on and enlarged as a structure of explanation for what happened at Paris. Yet this history has been ignored by his successors, who have confined it to the isolation ward of the bibliography while retreating down the more familiar corridors of diplomatic history – what G.M. Young, not completely unfairly, called ‘clerks talking to clerks’ – diverted only by a belated awareness of the importance of economics (thanks not just to Keynes’s early polemic but also to such historians as Peter Krüger, Gerald Feldman, Harold James and Niall Ferguson). The core of Mayer’s message was that the Russian Revolution was central to decision-making at Paris; that when the slogan bisogna fare come en Rusia was adopted by the metal-workers in Turin, it was a sign of a new and dangerous contagion, the political counterpart to the deadly influenza sweeping through postwar Europe. ‘England may seem to you untouched,’ Lenin warned Arthur Ransome, ‘but the microbe is already there.’ It turned out, of course, that in Europe Fascism succeeded where Communism failed. Mayer’s conclusions may not have fully withstood the criticism directed against them, but his more general concern – to connect the home front to the battlefield and postwar disturbance to peacemaking – should not be lost sight of and is required as a complement to MacMillan’s otherwise admirable account.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences