3: The Paris Peace Conference


After the First World War the victorious nations would come together in Paris to determine the contents of the peace treaties, they would make some mistakes.


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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 3: The Treaty of Versailles. This episode I would like to give a thank you to all of the podcast’s supporters over on Patreon, where as a way of expressing my gratitude they get access to special ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month, like the current series which is a deep dive into the naval plans in America, Japan, and the British Empire before the Washington Naval Conference in 1921. If that sounds interesting to you, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. After the First World War all of the nations on the winning side of the war, and there were many, would arrive in Paris for a Peace Conference. Over 30 nations would send delegates to the Conference, with some ambiguity introduced by political situations around the world, for example China would send two different delegations. All of the delegations were coming to Paris to discuss the peace terms that would be presented to the defeated nations from the war. While the treaty with Germany is the most well known outcome of these discussions, there were also treaties created and presented to the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, and what was left of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The overall scope of what had to be accomplished in these negotiations was immense. The new nations of Eastern Europe had to be recognized, reconciled, and put on a path to sustainability. The future of the Middle East had to be determined. The fate of Germany’s colonies around the world had to be negotiated. And, of course, the most important treaty, the one that would be presented to Germany had to be written. Along the way the leaders of the three most powerful nations: France, Britain, and the United States, would try and hash out their differences on both very specific details on topics like small border adjustments on the Balkans, and on the largest concepts of what the future framework of international relations should look like in the future. Over the course of 1919 and into 1920 a huge number of decisions would be made at the conference, some of which were good, and some of which were very ill advised. However, even the bad decisions would have reasons behind them, there was always some justification, even if in hindsight we know that these justifications were either incorrect or misinformed. This episode will give a brief overview about the discussions that occurred at the Paris Peace Conference and then discuss some of the major decisions that were made, especially those that would have the most direct impact on the course of events that led to the Second World War. We will also discuss the blame that is placed on the decisions made at the conference, and if it is wholly justified. One item that will only briefly be discussed in this episode is the League of Nations, which many hoped would be the great legacy of the conference, it is a large topic that will be the subject of Episode 4.

One thing to keep in mind about the Paris Peace Conference is that it was a discussion and a negotiation between Allies, the countries involved in the conversations had either been on the winning side of the war, or were representatives of the successor states of the empires that had been destroyed by the war, like Poland and Czechoslovakia. They were all given representation in the Grand Assembly, which is where every country would get to vote on certain topics. This representation was not evenly distributed though, the larger countries: the United States, British Empire, Italy, France, and Japan had 5 votes, other countries like Belgium and Serbia had 3, and then a large group of countries had either 2 or 1. However, the Assembly was not the area where many of the debates raged, or even really detailed discussions took place, that would instead happen in a constellation of committees and commissions created to inform the choices of the representatives. Once these committees and commissions had completed their investigations and negotiations they often presented their findings to the Supreme Council. This was a body made up of representatives of the United States, British, and France, and at times Japan and Italy. It was the leaders of the first three countries: President Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister Clemenceau from France, and Prime Minister Lloyd George of the British Empire that would be the true leaders of the conference. They would make an uncountable number of decisions over the course of the conference. One of the reasons that the negotiations are so interesting is due to how often they came down to discussions and at times vehement disagreements, between these three men. Clemenceau and his bottomless hatred of Germany after seeing two wars in his lifetime, and the French needs to try and rebuild their shattered nation. Lloyd George, the experienced politician, who was often more concerned with keeping the leaders together and trying to make sure that the financial commitments and international trade resumed while also doing everything possible to prevent future conflicts. Wilson, the idealist, the leader of the country least impacted by the war, and least involved in the future of Europe, who believed that the League of Nations and international cooperation were not just an answer but the answer to preventing future war, and an idea for which every other decision should be sacrificed. These differing viewpoints, and the different demands of the citizens of each nation would come into conflict. Italy would storm out of the conference at one point, after they felt that promises made to them in 1915 were not being honored. Decisions were almost always eventually reached in the Supreme Council before further negotiations were had with other nations concerned with certain topics, and only after the outcome of the vote was assured were items brought before the Assembly.

The topics discussed and voted on did not contain themselves to European affairs, and instead would deal with topics around the globe. In Africa, Germany’s colonies were split up and given out to several of the victorious nations, with Britain, France, and Portugal all coming out with new territory. In the Middle East the remnants of the Ottoman Empire were forcefully removed from the control of Istanbul. The British and French would split up the area, drawing the infamous lines on maps that would see the territory split up into the countries that are still present in the region today. If you have ever wondered why some of the borders in the Middle East are suspiciously straight, it is because they were created by British and French statesmen during and after the war. Most of the ingredients of the tension in the Middle East that are still present 100 years later were created in the decisions made at the Conference. The arbitrary apportionment of territory and peoples, the groups of peoples together into nations like Iraq where three different groups were expected to work together, the influence by and oppression of the peoples of the region by Western governments, and of course the settlement of Jews within the Mandate of Palestine in what would later become Israel. In Asia and the Pacific Germany’s former possessions were split up, with most of them going to Japan. Some of the islands were given over to Japan and would form an important part of their outer island defenses in 1941 and many would see hard fighting during the Second World War. While it would take a line by line investigation to properly judge all of these world wide decisions, the one absolute certainty is that in classic European imperialist fashion, little thought was given to the thoughts or desires of the inhabitants of the areas around the world that were being partitioned and traded.

One area where this style of decision by decree would not function was in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe the period after the First World War was a period of chaos and uncertainty. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the most diverse empire in Europe left nothing but questions in its wake. The exact make up of the successor states, and more importantly the borders between them were largely unknown. This was a recipe for animosity, even among nations that were both on the “winning” side of the war. There were many small clashes all over the region as the new nations sought to assert themselves and their independence from their neighbors. For the most part those in Paris were just forced to go along for the ride, at least at the beginning. It would only be in the later months that some level of order would be restored and Paris became more involved in conflict resolution in the area. They would often make small judgements on very specific territorial questions, generally in committees with both nations present. These did not always fully solve the problems, but it was a valuable area of discussions that probably prevented even more border fighting, and possibly escalation into full scale war. While a huge amount of time was committed to trying to solve these problems in Eastern Europe, they were often related to, and relegated to a second level of concern behind, what everybody agreed were the most important discussions, which revolved around Germany.

The discussions around the terms that would be presented to Germany were some of the most complicated and contentious of the conference. It was in these discussions that the different views of what peace should look like would most directly come into conflict. Wilson and the Americans favored a peace that minimized the traditional roles of victors and vanquished. This would cause Wilson to often resist the more extreme forms of punishment suggested by the other leaders, and instead to push for more reconciliation. In this negotiating position Wilson often retreated to the idea that the League of Nations would resolve any problems that were created by the peace, and he would also constantly reach agreements that were in service of gaining more support for the League of Nations. Lloyd George and the British would be concerned primarily with preventing another war, and trying to bring Europe back to its pre-war point of economic power. Britain was owed a very large amount of money by her allies in the war, for most of the war the Allied war effort had been financed through London. However, if those large debts were to be repaid, the European economy had to start back up again and reach its prewar prosperity as quickly as possible. To this end Britain would often be placed in the middle ground between the Americans and the French when it came to discussions about Germany. One thing that Lloyd George carefully avoided was any situation in which the British would be committed to another fight on the continent, should it occur again. Finally, the French, and well they went straight for the throat when it came to Germany, for pretty justifiable reasons. Most of the fighting in Western Europe had occurred on French soil, and Germany had occupied the vast majority of the industrial areas of France during the war. The French leaders wanted recompense for what they saw as an act of German aggression. Clemenceau and the French would have two goals, to get the Germans to pay for what they had done, and make sure that it could not happen again. Reparations had a long history in European conflicts, including during the Franco-Prussian War when the defeated French had been forced to pay a sum designed to reduce their ability to wage war for years. Those reparation payments were within the living memory of many French leaders, who had been young citizens at the time of the earlier French defeat. Now, when they were victors in a much larger conflict, they pushed for the same massive level of reparation payments, made even larger due to the scope and damage done by the war. Reparations would become the key point of discussion among the Allied leaders, and it would prove to be a topic that was very difficult to reach an agreement on. On one hand there were the calculations of the cost of the war both in terms of how much the Allied nations had spent while fighting it, and then also the damages done to those countries by the war. When both of those numbers were added together the number was astronomical. On the other side of the discussions was some understanding of what Germany could and could not pay. It was all well and good to come up with a massive number, but if Germany, a nation just as drained by the war as anybody else, could not pay it then it would accomplish nothing and would just create future animosity. Trying to balance these two concerns would be a challenge for the political leaders. For Britain and France it was very important that the number be large enough to present to the voters at home and this resulted in a complicated system of tiers of reparations. The top line number was 132 billion gold marks, or about 6.6 billion pounds or 33 billion US dollars. This was split up into three tiers, A tier of 12 billion, B tier of 38 billion, and then C tier of all of the rest. Most of the allied leaders expected the Germans to actually end up paying just the A and B tiers, with the expectation that the C tier would just be forgiven at some point in the future. The C tier existed to inflate the number for political reasons. While this bit of political exaggeration would be in the favor of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, it would later work in the favor of radical German politicians who used the full total as one of their reasons for claiming that the Western powers were evil. Border territories were another point of discussion around Germany, and these were again a frequent topic of conversation during the peace process after a European war. The assumption was that 1919 would be no different, and several areas of territory would be taken from Germany and given to other nations. Alsace and Lorraine, which France had lost during the Franco-Prussian War was given back, areas of Silesia, the Sahr, and the Danzig Corridor were also given to France and Poland. Germany was not the only nation to have territory forcefully taken from it as a consequence of defeat, with Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire also forced to give up land to neighboring states. The removal of territory in Eastern Germany would be the most impactful, areas like the Danzig corridor had been part of Germany for centuries and it was seen as wholly German in nature, even if it was largely populated by Poles. Territorial concessions were seen as a type of reparations, but also as a way to reduce Germany’s future war-making capabilities. There were other clauses that focused on these future concerns more directly. The German army was reduced to just 100,000 personnel, it was forbidden from having technology such as tanks, aircraft, and heavy artillery. In the west a large demilitarized zone had to be maintained in the territories along the Rhine. While there were many specifics, the most important thing to remember is that the types of clauses that Germany was forced to agree to were not outside the norm when compared to previous European conflicts. They were scaled up to match the much larger, longer, and more costly nature of the First World War, but they were not totally outside the realm of reality.

The final compromises made at Versailles left very few of the leaders really happy. Around the world many people found themselves in new and confusing positions with their colonial masters seemingly arbitrarily changing hands, or a new European colonialism being imposed upon them for the first time. In Eastern Europe the new nations settled into an uneasy peace, with some disagreements barely settled, the need to find a way to build and rebuild their societies, and the future seemingly quite uncertain. In Germany the political leaders soon found their position compromised because they were trying to comply with Allied demands. They would find themselves attacked from both the left and the right as political groups on both ends of the political spectrum began to agitate against the agreements made in Paris. In America the retreat from European affairs had already began, eventually the Treaty of Versailles would not even be ratified by the United States Congress. In Britain and the Empire economic normalcy would not return as quickly as hoped, and instead the future held only economic problems, which never really ended before the Second World War began. In France the years after the war would hold only disappointment. Reparation payments would never match what was hoped for. During the negotiations Clemenceau and the French had retreated from so many positions in the search for mutual assistance guarantees and good relations with the British and Americans, to prevent a possible future war with Germany. All of this would come to naught as both of France’s largest allies would retreat from the European scene after the war. They also attempted to create a grand alliance with the countries in Eastern Europe, something that they would only be partially successful with, and which would fall apart in the years before the Second World War.

The legacy of the Paris Peace Conference and its resulting treaties, the largest being the Treaty of Versailles, is one of failure and colossal mistakes. There were some real mistakes made. In the Middle East the results of the Paris Peace Conference would take a relatively autonomous and peaceful area of the Ottoman Empire and try and turn it into a European style collection of states and colonies. This would have disastrous results, with the mistakes made still seen in modern Middle Eastern politics 100 years later. In Eastern Europe the new nations that were created and constructed would also prove to be problematic, multi-ethnic states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia would struggle to find stability, and the entire region would struggle to find security. Other decisions, often made for good reasons, would prove to be problematic. Many times these decisions would revolve around territorial choices, with one nation claiming historic rights to an area and another believing it should belong to them due to the modern demographics of the region. In many of these cases there was not a good decision to be made, there was no way to reconcile the desires of one nations with the other, and so the decisions made in Paris get blamed for enforcing a compromise which was destined to be considered incorrect by some groups.

The one event that is often, at least in some ways, put upon the shoulders of those in Paris is not instability in Eastern Europe, violence in the Middle East, or the frustrated independence around the world, but instead the Second World War. The usual targets in this blame are reparations, forced territorial concessions, and the overall judgement that the peace terms forced upon Germany were overly harsh. There was a point where I probably would have agreed with that assessment, but my viewpoint has changed over time. Historian Margaret Macmillan has said in the past that to pretend that the Versailles treaty made another war inevitable is to discount the events of the next 20 years of history, and to shift blame backwards. To say that the Treaty of Versailles, and its reparations, territorial decisions, and other clauses, caused the Second World War is to say that there were no off ramps during those 20 years of peace. That there was no way for the leaders of Europe to avoid another war. What is undoubtedly true is that leaders around Europe, and especially radical political leaders in nations like Germany and Italy used the Treaty as an excuse for their mistrust and anger towards the powers of Western Europe. They claimed that it was an unjust peace, that it should be rejected and any who thought otherwise were traitors to their countries. They would try to take the myth of the conference, of some nations doing everything they could to destroy others in service of their own agendas, and use it as the new reality. As with many events in history, the usage of the Treaty as some sort of boogeyman relied very little on the actual truth of why and how it was created and its relation with events in the past, instead the usage of the Treaty as a rallying cry for further action and war relied far more on perception and propaganda. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that the Treaty of Versailles did not cause the Second World War, but the Myth of Versailles was a critical early touchstone for right wing radicalism throughout Europe, and it would be that radicalism that would push Europe closer and closer to war.