Between Jesus and Napoleon

Jonathan Haslam

  • Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War by Margaret MacMillan
    Murray, 574 pp, £25.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 7195 5939 1

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’.

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