Who's Who

The Big Four: Peacemaking in Paris in 1919

Alan Sharp takes a fresh look at the statesmen responsible for the Treaty of Versailles

Mass demonstration in front of the Reichstag against the Treaty of Versailles ("the brutal peace")In December 1919 John Maynard Keynes published The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a book which, for the next 90 years, established the framework for much of the discussion about the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War. In early June 1919 Keynes, a British academic economist, resigned from the British peace delegation in despair – an opportunity denied to millions of servicemen during the war. His book proved an instant international bestseller and one of the most effective polemics of the 20th century, doing much to promote the idea that three men, the British and French prime ministers, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and American president, Woodrow Wilson, meeting in Wilson’s ‘hot, dry room’ in Paris, created a disastrous settlement. He made only a passing reference to Vittorio Orlando, the Italian premier, one of only several distortions of reality in the version he created. 

Keynes on the 'Big Three'

Brilliantly written, the book reflected the bitter disappointment with Wilson’s performance felt by Keynes and like-minded British and American officials and intellectuals. Keynes portrayed Wilson as naïve and inept, squandering the immense moral prestige, overwhelming economic power and growing military presence of the United States in a confrontation in which he was outwitted and bamboozled by the caustic and cynical Clemenceau and the elusive and quick-thinking Lloyd George. Between them the formidable ‘Tiger’ and the wily ‘Welsh Wizard’ (their respective nicknames) took the ponderous Presbyterian to the cleaners and created a vindictive and unworkable settlement. 

Keynes had a grudging admiration for Clemenceau. He ‘was by far the most eminent member of the Council of Four and he had taken the measure of his colleagues.’ Keynes pictured le père la victoire (Old Man Victory) ‘dry in soul and empty of hope, very old and tired, but surveying the scene with a cynical and almost impish air … He had one illusion – France; and one disillusion – mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least.’ His was ‘the policy of an old man, whose most vivid impressions and most lively imaginations are of the past and not of the future.’

Keynes was torn between fascination at the speed with which Lloyd George could absorb both atmosphere and complex briefs and disgust at his lack of fixed principles. He argued that the December 1918 British election caused Lloyd George to abandon his natural instincts, which were ‘right and reasonable’, in favour of implied promises to punish Germany by pursuing war criminals and extracting from it as much of the costs of the war as possible. He emphasised Lloyd George’s ‘unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility to every one immediately around him’. This enabled him to perceive ‘what each was thinking and even what each was going to say next’ and to choose ‘with telepathic instinct the argument or appeal best suited to the vanity, weakness or self-interest of his immediate auditor.’ Later he pronounced, ‘Lloyd George is rooted in nothing.’ 

If Lloyd George’s principles were too easily trimmed, Keynes castigated Wilson for his stubborn inability to recognise the need for the concessions that would deliver his main objectives for minimal sacrifice. He came to Paris enjoying ‘a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history.’ He was ‘the man of destiny ... coming ... to bring healing to the wounds of the ancient parent of his civilisation and to lay for us the foundations of the future.’ Instead he proved to be a ‘blind and deaf Don Quixote’ with ‘no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House.’ He was too slow-witted to cope with Lloyd George and Clemenceau and too proud to accept that he had compromised the principles that he had enunciated in his 1918 speeches, of which the Fourteen Points, delivered on 8 January, contained the most famous. Thus, even when Lloyd George repented of earlier decisions and tried, in June 1919, to revise the draft treaty, Wilson would have none of it. It proved ‘harder to debamboozle the old Presbyterian than it had been to bamboozle him.’ 

Quite apart from his compelling and vitriolic pen portraits it is easy to see why Keynes’s book proved so effective. It reduced the bewildering complexities of peacemaking after an unprecedentedly destructive war to the relationships and the decisions of three or four men. It was much easier to explain the resolution of an enormously complicated set of global problems in terms of the personalities, interests and foibles of individual statesmen than to try to make sense of the conflicting, often irreconcilable, claims and counter-claims of individuals, groups and states, large and small, friend and foe alike. Shrinking the action to the confines of a single room and the interactions of the main Allied leaders was both reassuring and seductive. 

How far do his judgements and his analysis and portrayal of events stand up to scrutiny? Were these men all-powerful? Were they the main decision-makers and how fair was his characterisation of them? To what extent did the settlement depend on the interplay between their personalities? Above all, was the outcome a ‘Carthaginian’ peace? 

Conference Organisation 

There can be no doubt that the Council of Four, which began to meet in late March 1919, did find solutions for many of the interconnected problems which the Council of Ten had been unable to resolve. The earlier body consisted of the prime ministers of Britain, France and Italy and the president of the United States, accompanied by their foreign ministers, together with two Japanese representatives. From the opening of the conference on 18 January 1919 until the Council of Four – Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando and Wilson – replaced them as the main decision-making body, the Ten met 72 times, establishing 58 sub-committees to consider various aspects of peacemaking – an indication of the number of daunting tasks facing them. 

The Council of Ten proved too unwieldy. Nothing ever seemed to be decided – at its last meeting it was still discussing an unresolved issue that had arisen at its first. Meanwhile the problems of establishing the new boundaries of Germany, Europe and the wider world, of who should pay what to whom in terms of reparations, and how disarmament would work, all built up into a massive log-jam of indecisions that threatened to paralyse the conference. It needed a smaller, more incisive, body to cut through the issues and decide, and this, for better or worse, the Council of Four did in a hectic six-week period in March and April. Very aware of the pressures upon them, the Four needed to make decisions, fearing if they did not that anarchy and Bolshevism would overwhelm great areas of Europe left without firm or established government by the unprecedented near simultaneous collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires. 

The Key Decision-Makers 

Keynes was correct to emphasise the importance of personality and the interplay between the main characters. Simply being in the same room for long periods in each other’s company created an ambience which encouraged the leading statesmen to believe that not only should they seek solutions to the problems confronting them, but that they could actually do so. After arguments, trade-offs and compromises, some of their decisions were more imaginative than others. It needed Lloyd George’s lateral thinking to grasp that an Anglo-American military guarantee to France against unprovoked German aggression was the key to the deadlock over the future of the Rhineland and the Saar. He persuaded Wilson and together they made the offer to Clemenceau on 14 March, with Lloyd George adding the tantalising prospect of a railway tunnel under the Channel to speed British troops to France in a future conflict. In return France should abandon its claims to annex all or part of the Rhineland or to detach it from Germany. 

Clemenceau was pleased but not completely satisfied. His strategy to deal with Germany, which had a younger, much larger population and more resources than France, was to try to combine measures to deprive it of territory, people and raw materials, with a continuing commitment from America and Britain to maintain the victorious wartime coalition. He saw both as vital to future French security. His problem was to balance the two strands of his policy and to calculate how far he could pursue one without jeopardising the other. He continued to press for more concessions, including an extended Allied occupation of the Rhineland and the demilitarisation of all the German territory on the French side of the Rhine and in a 50 kilometre deep zone running parallel to the river on the German side. 

Neither Lloyd George nor Wilson had a problem with demilitarisation but Clemenceau managed to manoeuvre Wilson into supporting a 15-year Allied occupation of the Rhineland – much longer than Lloyd George wanted. Since Clemenceau also negotiated that Allied evacuation would be dependent on German execution of the treaty, he believed he had achieved both parts of his strategy. He had the Anglo-American guarantee. If Germany fulfilled its obligations, well and good. If, as he expected, it did not, he had provided a future French government with the perfect excuse to extend the Rhineland occupation (giving it a longer time to convince the Rhinelanders either that they were really French, or, failing that, that they were not part of Germany). As he told the French president, Raymond Poincaré, whom he cordially despised, ‘I have the 15 years. I now consider that the peace is made.’ 

The Rhineland debates illustrate very well the interplay between various aspects of peacemaking. Key American politicians urged Wilson to renegotiate elements of the draft League of Nations Covenant. To secure French agreement he conceded the 15-year occupation, whilst to appease Lloyd George he abandoned his demand for the freedom of the seas. Britain and the United States had long disagreed about the rights of states at war to stop and search, on the high seas, neutral shipping suspected of carrying war materials to their enemies. The Americans believed neutral shipping should proceed without interference, whilst the British held the right of blockade as vital to their security. In November 1918, Lloyd George reluctantly conceded that the question could be discussed in Paris but it was now dropped. The popular perception of the peace negotiations tends to see Wilson and Clemenceau occupying extreme positions – the liberal and generous American at one side, the hard-nosed and vengeful Frenchman at the other, with Lloyd George balancing between them. Keynes helped to create this perception: ‘The reader will thus apprehend how Mr. Lloyd George came to occupy an ostensibly middle position, and how it became his role to explain the President to Clemenceau and Clemenceau to the President and to seduce everybody all round.’ The reality was much more complex. Clemenceau did not always take the hardest line on every question – he did not, for example, as is sometimes erroneously suggested, seek to break up Germany. And this supposed cynic wept when a dusty French soldier handed him a pathetic bunch of flowers in the trenches– a bouquet that he kept until his death and which he insisted be buried with him. Wilson was much tougher than is often imagined. Lloyd George’s mercurial character meant he was always difficult to tie to a fixed position, but his underlying liberalism was rarely in doubt. Yet he shared with Wilson a strong Calvinistic impulse, with its emphasis on retribution as well as redemption. For all their Gladstonian liberalism, Wilson and Lloyd George had no intention of being soft on Germany. Recent studies of the three men confirm that they were much more fluid in their attitudes than the Keynesian stereotypes suggest. 

Reparations 

Keynes created the impression that the French, who ‘made in the first instance the most definite and the most extreme proposals’, were mainly responsible for the conference’s difficulties over reparations – essentially what compensation Germany and its allies should pay for wartime damage. In fact it was British representatives, most notably Lords Cunliffe and Sumner, who presented the highest demands, originally seeking £24,000,000,000, with £9,500,000,000 as their lowest offer. Lloyd George’s chosen negotiators were christened the ‘Heavenly Twins’ by their irreverent colleagues because they were always in each other’s company and demanded astronomical sums. The French suggested £8,000,000,000 with most other estimates in the region of £3,000,000,000 to £5,000,000,000, though the Americans were prepared to raise their proposal to £6,000,000,000 in the interests of achieving allied agreement. Lloyd George later claimed that he would have settled for much less but that he was trapped by the public expectations raised by the Twins’ figures. The reality seems to be that it was Lloyd George who insisted that the Twins maintain their demands, thus pursuing the high reparations policy he wanted, yet allowing him to present himself as powerless to follow his own moderate inclinations – a typical piece of Lloyd George chicanery. He would later claim credit for delaying the final naming of the German bill for two years so that tempers could cool – rather as if an arsonist, in mitigation, pleaded that he had summoned the fire brigade. For the Americans, it was the British rather than the French who presented the main obstacles to reaching agreement on a question that generated much more heat than light in Paris. 

Italy 

Keynes ignored Orlando but, even though Italy’s interests were less universal than those of America, Britain and France, it had a powerful impact on the settlement, sometimes with world-wide consequences. In her diary for 20 April 1919, Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s secretary, mistress and eventual second wife, recorded a moment of high emotion. Looking across from her window she could see into Wilson’s house. ‘Suddenly Orlando appeared at the window … and put his head in his hands … I saw him take out his handkerchief and wipe his eyes and cheeks … Orlando was overcome and began to sob.’ He had failed to persuade his fellow peacemakers, and in particular Wilson, of the Italian case to annex the Adriatic port of Fiume (Rijeka). He withdrew the Italian delegation and returned to Rome. 

This did not advance their case a jot. They were forced to return in early May without concessions, hence (in one of Wilson’s rare jokes) ‘fiuming’, but when the Japanese also threatened to leave the negotiations because the Americans would not permit them to annex the former German colonies in China, Wilson could not afford the absence of another major player. Against his better judgement, and very much against his principles, Wilson conceded the Japanese demands in Asia. There were also repercussions in Asia Minor, because, partly to spite the Italians for their withdrawal, the Three agreed to allow the Greeks, rather than the Italians, to try to restore order to the area and, in particular, to occupy Smyrna (Izmir). This additional humiliation for Italian ambitions proved to be, for them at least, a blessing in disguise, because the Greeks became embroiled in a long and bloody struggle with a revived Turkey led by Kemal Ataturk, which eventually ended in Greek defeat, a massacre in Izmir in 1922 – and Lloyd George’s loss of office for ever. 

Expectations Unfulfilled 

In her recent prize-winning study Margaret MacMillan argues that, in the first half of 1919, Paris became the world’s capital as it sought to resolve the problems that had brought about the war in the first place – very few of which the war itself had settled. Additional complications arose from the fighting and the vacuum of power caused by the collapse of four empires. Delegations and individuals seeking redress for oppression and years of alien rule converged on Paris in the hope that Wilson, in particular, would produce miraculous answers to their plight. It was an impossible task, as the President ruefully admitted: ‘What is expected of me only God could perform’. As he had feared, en route to Europe in December 1918, the outcome was, in many cases, ‘a tragedy of disappointment’. Wilson’s sense of powerlessness paralleled the wider frustrations of the Four, whose ability to enforce their decisions diminished in direct proportion to the distance of the problem from Paris. As Sir Henry Wilson, the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, admitted: ‘The root of evil is that the Paris writ does not run.’ In certain cases in eastern Europe the only forces at the Allied disposal were German troops required to remain in territory they were occupying at the time of the armistice. 

The Four were therefore not all-powerful. They did not make all the decisions in Paris – indeed many were made on the ground by local forces. The difficult and contentious problems found their way to them, but many of the new frontiers and issues considered to be of less importance were decided, or approved, by the Council of Five – the foreign ministers of America, Britain, France and Italy (Robert Lansing, Arthur Balfour, Stephen Pichon, Sidney Sonnino) and the Japanese delegate, Baron Makino. On occasions their original decisions were overturned by the Four – the frontiers of the Danzig corridor or of Upper Silesia are examples – but most were simply incorporated into the settlement. The Five were not necessarily happy about their relegation: witness Lansing’s disgruntled observations or Balfour’s frustration as Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George carved up Asia Minor with some advice from Nicolson (‘These three ignorant men with a child to lead them’) – but much of the routine procedures fell into their hands and their contribution to the final treaties tends to be neglected. 

Conclusion 

Keynes labelled the settlement ‘Carthaginian’– a reference to the total destruction of Carthage by the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War in 146BC. This was pure hyperbole, since the peacemakers did not seek to destroy Germany. Some wished they had. As General Mark Clark wryly pointed out in 1945, ‘We don’t seem to get much trouble from those Carthaginians these days’ – a marked contrast to his recent tough campaign in Italy against German soldiers whose health was supposedly destroyed in infancy by the treaty. But for Lloyd George and Wilson, perhaps with more scepticism from Clemenceau, Germany was part of the solution rather than the problem. 

Lloyd George and Wilson, for not entirely altruistic reasons, saw the economic recovery of Germany as vital to future prosperity. Their challenge was, in anticipation of Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s prescription 70 years later, to create a European Germany rather than a German Europe – to find ways of giving Germany a place in international affairs commensurate with its strengths and talents without permitting it to overwhelm its neighbours. The hope was that a democratic Germany, conceding that it had lost the war, accepting the settlement as just and willing to make an honest attempt to execute it, would become a good European neighbour and a pillar of the new international community overseen by the League of Nations. 

Sadly the Four did not deliver such an outcome, but they knew that the settlement was the starting point in the attempt to find a new era in international relations and they were willing to make adjustments with a Germany that accepted the verdict of 1918. But of course Germany did not, and Allied unity crumbled over the ensuing years. One of the paradoxes of the settlement was that it left defeated Germany no longer hemmed in by great powers as it had been in 1914 and hence, potentially, in a stronger position. Whilst Germany in 1919 might be temporarily weakened by its losses and the terms of the treaty, the only great power with which it now shared a common border was France, whose strength had been sapped by spending a much greater proportion of its young men to gain victory. Whereas German industry was unscathed and its debts internal, France faced the daunting expense of restoring the devastated battlefields of the Western Front and repaying loans to America and Britain. In place of Austria-Hungary and Russia, Germany now found itself surrounded by bite-sized states. 

Germany was likely at some stage to regain its strength. If then, or subsequently, its leadership was aggressive, it could more easily dominate or even destroy its neighbours, possibly using the excuse of alleged mistreatment of the German minorities to be found in each of them. In the 1930s, under Hitler, this was what happened. Under immense pressure the Four made mistakes which contributed to future unrest, but much more of the responsibility rests on their successors and especially the economic and political calamity of 1929 which destroyed the Weimar republic and brought Hitler to power.

Issues to debate

  • In what ways did Keynes caricature the ‘Big Three’?
  • What aspects of the settlement stemmed from the interplay of the major statesmen in Paris?
  • Why did the Treaty of Versailles not prove more durable?

Further reading

  • Ruth Henig, Versailles and After 1919- 1933 (Routledge, 2nd edition, 1995)
  • Antony Lentin, Guilt at Versailles: Lloyd George and the Pre-history of Appeasement (Methuen, 1985)
  • Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (John Murray, 2001)
  • Sally Marks, The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918- 1933 (Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2003)
  • Alan Sharp, The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking after the First World War, 1919-1923 (Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2008)
  • Zara Steiner, The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919- 1933 (Oxford, 2005)

Alan Sharp is Professor of International Studies and Provost of the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster. He is general editor of the Haus biographical series, the ‘Makers of the Modern World’ on ‘The Paris Peace Conferences 1919- 1923, their aftermath and legacy’. Books already published include Harry Harmer, Friedrich Ebert: Germany; Brian Morton, Woodrow Wilson: United States of America; Alan Sharp, David Lloyd George: Great Britain; and David Watson, Georges Clemenceau: France (all Haus, 2008).

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