The British would play a big role in the negotiations at Versailles, and they would be led by Lloyd George who would be one of the four individuals on the Supreme Council
Hello everyone an welcome to History of the Great War Episode 183. This is our second episode on the Paris Peace Conference, last time we discussed the American and French delegations to Paris and outlined some of their main desires from the discussions in Paris. This episode we will start off by looking at the British delegation and its leader David Lloyd George. We will then take our first crack and discussing the overall organization of the Supreme Council which would initially be made up of the British, American, French, Japanese, and Italian leaders. They would be the ones that would make many of the big decisions that would find their way into the Treaty of Versailles and so we need to discuss how the council was organized, how the members of the council got along, how they determined the topics to discuss, and then how they made their decisions. This is very important information because many of our episodes will revolve around the actions and decisions of the Supreme Council, they would quite literally have the fate of the world in their hands. In the last part of these episode we will take a deep dive into one specific topic about the conference, self determination. The concept of self determination would play a huge role in Wilson’s view of the post-war world, and almost more importantly it had become an important aspect of what many groups of people around Europe and the world thought Wilson wanted to assert at the conference. There was just one problem, self determination was not actually mentioned in the 14 points, and more importantly Wilson had not really taken the time to firmly define what he even meant by the concept when he did discuss it. You may be thinking that defining self determination is easy, just pop open Google and bam there it is, but the textbook definition of self determination and how self determination was actually defined and implemented at the Conference are two very different hings. Why that was the case, and how it would drive many of the decisions made by the Supreme Council will be two questions that this episode will seek to answer.
We start today with the British, and just as it is impossible to discuss the French without first discussing Clemenceau, or the Americans and Wilson, it is equally impossible to discuss the British without first discussing David Lloyd George. Lloyd George had been the Prime Minister since December 1916 and he would lead the British delegation in 1918. He would have the luxury of a good base of support, at least initially, after the elections in late 1918 had went quite well for his coalition. In his personal views Lloyd George seems to have been much more moderate that some of the other leaders at the Conference. These views were present earlier in the war, and they remained present when the war was over but he was a seasoned politician and he knew how to play the game. With so many other leaders taking more extreme views he was very willing to compromise on just about anything. Lloyd George’s politicking would begin almost as soon as the war was over, and one example of this would be where he stood when compared with the French and Americans. The British, and Lloyd George, had worked very closey with the French throughout the war, but when it came time for peace the British would be closer aligned with Wilson and the Americans rather than Clemenceau and the French. Although there were a few important pieces of American policy that the British were entirely against. One view that Lloyd George would share with Wilson was the idea that the conference was at risk of causing animosity in Germany that would continue into the future, and the views that the French and their push for a proper punishment for Germany was only going to make it worse. He would write during the conference that “Beyond question it was a disaster that we had to lay Germany prostrate before we could reach a peace settlement. Had Ludendorff retreated earlier to strong lines within the German frontier and there held out against us, a peace settlement might have been reached that contained fewer roots of bitterness than one dictated to a foe who even in defeat clung with his claws to the foreign lands he had invaded and devastated and in the process of liberating his hold increased the desolation. Unhappily, for the peace of the world, the hostile armies were still on the soil of France and Belgium when the end came, and the surrender had to be complete enough to guarantee the aims for which we fought.” I feel like now is a good time to bring up, not for the first or last time, the hypocrisy with which the British would push this view of moderation around the treatment of Germany. While they were pushing for moderation in one area, often involving a loud criticism of the French, their greed in non-European matters was almost insatiable. In the Middle East, Africa, and the far East they would push for the greatest possible gains.
When it came time to determine exactly who would represent the British Empire at the Conference there was almost immediately complications. One of the complicating factors was how the British Commonwealth and India would be represented in Paris. Should they have their own voting representatives, or would htey just fall under the Britsih umbrella? Initially Lloyd George and others in London did not want them to have their own representatives, but the push both from around the world and from others in the British government was just too strong and eventually Lloyd George was forced to allow these representatives from around the world. Eventually the following setup would be agreed upon, one of the five main British delegates, which would have voting rights, would be chosen from the empire and then each of the dominions and India would also ahve their own votes. As soon as this system was suggested other countries became very concerned about the arrangement. There was concern among the French, Americans, and really just about anybody that all of these voting members from the Empire would give the British unbelievable power to craft the settlement. In some ways this is exactly what happened, but not all the time. For example it gave the British alot of power when it came to matters that did not directly concern the dominions and India, so for decisions about the Balkans or Eastern Europe they would often follow London’s lead. however in other areas where the ominions and India were directly impacted they were far more likely to go their own way. With all of these members around around the glob, and those from the home isles the British delegation in Paris would includes will over 400 individuals once officials, advisors, clerks, and other supporting personnel were accounted for. They would set themselves up in five hotels in Paris, taking over the entire building of each one, and they posted guards from Scotland Yard at the front doors. The British would take security very seriously during the Conference, they would operate their own postal service to make sure nobody was snooping their mail and all British delegation members were required to wear passes with their photographs on them at all times.
Much like in France and the United States the situation on the homefront in Britain would also influence the course of the discussions in Paris. In his work Great Britain: The Home Front Erik Goldstein breaks up the feelings in Britain into three distinct phases. The first was in the last two months of 1918 when the government was preparing for the December 1918 general elections. This election was called because Lloyd George believed that he would win and win big, and with that win he could cement his legitimacy as the leader of the British negotiations. During this time British official policy pretty much just pandered to the public and what they wanted. The Second phase would be from the end of the elections until about mid-April 1919 and during this time Lloyd George was concerned that the direction of the treaty was going to be at odds with what the people back home, and members of his own government, expected. The third phase would be the final months of the conference when Lloyd George felt more secure in his power and more optimistic about the conference moving toward a more moderate final settlement. Throughout this entire process there would always be a disconnect between what the people back home wanted and the reality that the British delegation was dealing with. Overall the population of Britain generally had unrealistic expectations for the peace both in terms of how quickly and easily it would be arrived at, but also how beneficial it would be for British society. An example of where Lloyd George would see this as a problem was around reparations. He would take a very moderate stance on reparations, taking something of a middle ground between the French and Americans. he knew that the British public would hang a lot of emphasis on the reparations if only because it was the easiest part of the settlement to understand, it would just be a number, but it would also be easy to misinterpret that number. Lloyd George would argue that no matter what the number was that was finally in the treaty for reparations, no matter how large, would still result in “many people in England, as well as in France, will exclaim at once: ‘It is too small!'” The problem with reparations and the expectations for them was echoed by others within the government with Lord Blake saying “It is also true that no Prime Minister could have survived a day if he had submitted to the House of Commons as a final figure for reparations even the highest sum that was actually within Germany’s power to pay.” Because of the impossibility of satisfying both the British public and the allies, while also trying to craft a real settlement, Lloyd George would try to find a middle ground. This is by no means the only example of societal expectations interacting, and in many ways harming, the abilities of those in Paris to create a lasting and impactful peace. This was just one of the problems that the British delegation would deal with during their time at the Conference, the Irish Civil War would be brewing, there would be industrial strikes across the country, and there were serious concerns about a socialist uprising. All of these post-war issues in Britain would effect the British goals and actions in Paris.
One of the important topics to discuss for the conference were the relationship between the leaders of all of the countries involved. Tehy had generally been united during the war but afterwards huge differences of opinion would develop. Throughout the Conference there would be many disagreements between teh Allied leaders but there were a few items that could be readily agreed upon before the conference. The first was that the best course of action, suggested by Clemenceau to the British and Americans, was for the Allies to come together, figure out their terms for the peace, and then present it to the other powers. This is actually the origins of the Paris Peace Conference, just a meeting between allies to hash out the terms that would be given to their enemies. The second item was that the large number of delegates that would be present in Paris would be far too large of a number to make any actual progress and so the larger countries should figure out what they wanted amongst just themselves and then that should be presented to the wider conference. This was the origin of the Supreme Council, which we will dig into here very shortly. When these concepts were discussed and agreed upon by Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau was that these discussions would only take, at most, a few weeks and then they would invite the Germans and the treaty would be signed. As with many other features of the Conference this was an incredibly optimistic point of view, and in fact it would take months for the Allies to come to an agreement and that is just counting from the official start of the Conference. Weeks before the conference began the leaders of the delegations began de facto negotiations when they began to play some political games. Clemenceau would begin to build up relations with Eilson, expressing his strong support for the League of Nations. Lloyd George would do much the same, beginning a concerted effort to charm Wilson and to make sure that Wilson believed that Lloyd George and all of the British were strongly on his side.
Lloyd George would arrive in paris on January 11th and on the 12th he would meet with the other members of what would be called the Supreme Council: Clemenceau, Wilson, the Japanese, and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. This would would be the primary driver of all of the decisions made at the conference, they would make decisions that would quite literally decide the fate of nations and effect millions of people all over the world. Rarely in the history fo the world, at least to my knowledge, have such a small group of individuals held more power than the 5 members of the Supreme Council. They would meet at least once a day, sometimes twice, rarely three times, anytime that the Council members, or their representatives, were in Paris. These meeting would always occur withotu a set agenda, and they would deal with issues as they presented themselves. During the first week of meetings many important administrative decisions were made. Conversations within the Council would be held mostly in English since Clemenceau spoke it will and Italian Foreign Minister Sonnino spoke it well enough. It was also decided that the official languages of the conference would be English and French. This seems like a small decision, but it was discussed at length since the French wanted the conference to only be recorded and conducted in French, they would eventually be voted down in favor of a bilingual conference. After these kinds of decisions were made a real routine developed for the council. This mostly revolved around providing an audience for representatives of all of the various nations at the conferenc. During these audiences the delegates would discuss what their countries wanted and why, desires that often conflicted with the desires of other nations in the region. Then the council would discuss the situation, sometimes creating a committee to dig in deeper and provide a recommendation, then they would move onto the next topic. From one day to the next these audiences and the discussions aroudn them could vary wildly, they might discuss Czechoslovakia one day, then China the next, then South America the next day. In March there was a change to the Council and the Japanese were removed and most of the foreign ministers were also no longer allowed to be in the room. The goal of this change was to get the discussiond down to just the four leaders, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson, and Orlando, with only some secretaries present when required. This streamlined both the discussions and the decision making process, just by sheer process of elimination of people and viewpoints. That is the general setup for the Supreme council, and their discussions and actions will be the primary drivers of our narratives in these episodes. I do want to give you some of my opinions on their actions right up front, just so you know where I am coming from in these episodes. First of all, the Supreme council made some serious mistakes, huge, lasting, incredibly impactful mistakes. However, I believe that one of their largest mistakes was not actually any of those later decisions, but was instead right at the beginning, and that was the mistake of not realizing that what they wanted to do, and the task that they were setting upon themselves was simply impossible. They were tasking themselves with remaking the Western world, and seriously changing the entire world, and either through hubris of naivety they actually believed that they could do this and what would come out the other side would be better. This would be their greatest and foundational mistake, all of the others just spooled off of the belief that they could fix the world, here is the biggest spoiler for the next 15 episodes, they could not fix the world, they could barely understand what was broken.
With all of that in mind the question that could, and probably should be asked is why these leaders were put in such positions of power. Part of it was the power of their nations, military and economic power, but part of it was also just reputation and prestige. What would rapidly become clear as the conference unfolded was that these countries were not in a position to force anybody to do much of anything, and their decisions relied heavily on poeple just going along with them on the implementation of those decisions. One of the problems that they would face was trying to implement those decisions where this compliance was not present, because already in early 1919 they were all beginning to rapidly demobilize their armies, and their citizens were strongly against more fighting. This presented them with a problem, as countries throughout history, and even into the modern day, have learned, real power requires the will, ability, and desire to actually use it. This created two realities in many parts of the world in 1919 and 1920, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There was one reality that was created in Paris where the Big Four would bring out their maps and create nations, destroy them, move borders, and settle territorial disputes. And then there was the actual reality in those areas, which sometimes, but not always, aligned with the decisions made in paris. This will be a big topic of conversation for us when it comes to how the Conference handles the Middle East, especially Turkey, and Eastern Europe, especially russia. It created situations not just of the conference making decisions that were impractical, or even impossible, but also creating istuations where groups and countries were incredibly disappointed because the decisions made by the conference were not carried out. This disappointment would be a theme of Chinese involvement with the Conference. While the will and ability to project power to implement their decisions was a problem for the Council, ther was also a huge problem when it came to finding out the actual situation in some of the far flung areas around the world that they were called upon to make decisions about. Trying to solve, for example, a border dispute between Czechoslovakia and Poland would prove to be a huge challenge, especially when the exact situation in that region was unknown to those in Paris due to the chaos created by the war.
There was also just a general lack of knowledge among those making decisions, the best that they did was look at some old maps, hear the delegations from Poland and Czechoslovakia, which rarely brought the same story and then decide what to do. The one thing that the Council could do, and which they would do often, was send out commissions to both study the region and then to report back on their findings. The efficacy of these commissions varied wildly, they were often just as ignorant of the actual situation as the leaders, and even if they made an effort to physically go to an area that often did not provide a better understanding. Also, I just want to point this out, the exact geography of all of the Europe from the West to the East was often not the strong suit fo the people making the decisions at the Conference and when so many decisions that were being made revolved around territorial questions that was a problem. In his work A World Remade G.J. Meyer points out one example of this phenomenon. In one of their meetings, Wilson apparently just agreed that Italy could extend its northern frontier to the Brenner Pass, he obviously did not have any idea exactly where the Brnner Pass was, or the demographics of the region because it meant a quarter of a million Germans would be placed under Italian control. This went directly against his views on self determination, but without a better grounding in some of the nitty gritty details of European geography and demography these types of mistakes would frequently be made. I also just want to point out that in many of these territorial disputes there often was not an actual correc tanswer that would be acceptable to everyone in the region and then at the conference. To find a solution to any of them, let alone all of them, would have required a level of knowledge, time, negotiating skill, and nuance that was often not present at the Conference or in the Treaty of Versailles or the various treaties that were signed afterwards. Perfect answers were not impossible just very improbable, and so the Council can be mostly excused for not finding them, but good answers were possible, but were often not found.
We now sort of shift gears, and we are going to spend the rest of this episode discussing not events but more concepts, because when Wilson came to Europe he brought a few concepts with him that would shape the negotiations for the entirety of the Conference. Ome of these was open diplomacy, of open covenants openly arrived at, which was pretty self explanatory. Basically secret treaties should not be allowed, of course there was a laundry list of secret treaties that the Allies had signed with various nations in the war, but Wilson hoped that these would be left in the past. This was a pretty easy concept to undersatnd, but the second two were more challenging. The first was the idea that nations of the world should redefine how they created peace at the end of conflicts. They should leave reparations, indemnities, territorial acquisitions, all of those things that had been a part of post-war treaties for millenia in the past. Instead they should seek to create a peace without victory, a concept I discussed in good detail in the episodes about the United States coming into the war, don’t worry that concept will get its own time in the sun in later episodes. Instead I want to talk about another of Wilson’s big concepts, and that is the idea of national determination, or self-determination. the term self-determination does not actually appear in the Fourteen points, but its concept does and many groups of people all over the world would attach themselves to the idea and really push for its implementation. Many of these groups would point to what Wilson says about Poland in the 13th point as their example, the 13th point says “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.” I will be using Poland as my example while we discuss this idea, but the concept could, and would, be applied to many groups of people all over the world by simply substituting out Polish for any other ethnicity or nationality. Originally Wilson like dto talk about this concept of self-government, of governments created through the people, by the people, and letting people choose their own government. These ideas sound sort of stereotypically American. In February 1918 he did clarify a little more about what he thought should be done specifically around these ideas saying that they should be satisfied but only satisfied without “introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe, and consequently of the world.”
This idea seems pretty simple in the abstract, oh yeah we want people to be able to freely form their own governments that represent them, that sounds great. World safe for democracy and all of that. But when it becomes time to actually implement the concepts you have to really start defining things, what precisely is a “well-defined” national aspiration, what are the qualities that make it well defined, and who decided if a national aspiration meets those criteria. There are also other problems even if you get past that issue. From the text of the 13th point it talks about “indisputably Polish population” so is that like a percentage of the people being Polish, a simple majority, or is it more like a state of mind? These would be the question that many people would be asking during the conference and it would not just be the Europeans. The leaders of the American mission that was sent to Veinna to try and figure out what was happening in Eastern Europe would have some of the same concerns, and they would repeatedly send messages to Paris asking for clarifications. Rober Lansing, the US Secretary of State would be wondering many of these same things writing “When the President talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community? It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.” I don’t think I can more clearly state the problems with trying to implement this self-determination than Lansing does in that quote. This may not have been a huge problem at the Conference if it was clear that it was clearly stating as only applying to certain groups, and if others did not wish to also be included in it, but many groups would attach themselves to the idea, and in many cases the British and French really wished those groups would not do that. There were many peoples that the powers of Europe really wanted to keep away from ideas like self-determination, or phrases like “autonomous development” or “the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments” which were phrases that Wilson would sometimes use. When these concepts started to be discussed at the Conference red flags started going up in the largest institutions that denied groups of people all over the world a proper voice in their government, a small thing called colonialism, and the biggest red flags would be in London and Paris.
These concerns caused many conversations about who precisely these concepts should be applied to, and what precisely a well-defined nationality was. Could it be applied to the Polish people? Absolutely, but could nationality be sub divided, so should the Catholic Poles and Protestant Poles be lumped under the same umbrella or be asked if they wanted to separate? What about an extremely well development nationalist cause in Ireland? Well the British do not want to discuss it. Closer to Paris, what about the people of Alsace-Lorraine who had for two generations been a part of Germany, what if they did not want to be part of France? What about the Slovaks, whose territory and sovereignty had been surrendered to the desires of the Czechs, or the various Slavic peoles who would soon be part of Yugoslavia, controlled almost entirely by the Serbians? I phrase all of these as questions, because they would all be asked over the course of the conference. The answer that would be arrived at was to institute a controlled blindness. The leaders at Versailles picked those ethnicities and nationalities that they wanted to and they were given control. So the new Poland would contain many non-Polish people on the periphery, including the Danzig corridor which was almost entirely German. These type of actions were often taken for legitimate reasons, in the case of Danzig providing Poland with access to the sea, but that does not mean that they were well received by those whose fate was being decided without allowing them any input.
These types of decisions were not limited to the Danzig corridor, or on the topic of Poland. It was not enough to decide that certain groups needed countries of their own, and then to create rough outlines of where those countries would be. Actual borders would have to be determined, or the Conference was just dooming those countries to war with their neighbors, and in no geographical area was this process of border creation more fraught with problems than in Eastern Europe. In that area there would be multiple competing claims not just for the land of vanqished nations, which were often ignored, but also of nations on the Allied side. Poland and Czechoslovakia shared a border, so where precisely should that be drawn? On that border woudl be a mix of Polish and Czech people who had intermingled over time, and both of the new countries could look to history to try and make their claims. Historic claims is a tricky subject, and one not limited to Eastern Europe, Alsace-Lorraine is an example of a recent historic claim, but in many places of the world, for most of history, borders have been pretty fluid, especially over a long timeframe. So when discussing historic borders they first had to determine which historic border, and some nations would use claims dating back hundreds of years. The presence of Germans in and around these territories would be a complicating factor, and there would be arguments from both sides around how many of them should be included in the new countries. Some Americans of the Czechoslovak commission would say “If all the territories inhabited by the Germans of Bohemia were separated from Czechoslovakia, this separation would cause a great danger for the Czechoslovak state, as well as serious difﬁculties for the Germans themselves; the only possible solution is, therefore, to attach them to Czechoslovakia.” When making many of these decisions there was always a strong mix of racism running around the Conference, here is Lloyd George in what would later be called the Fontainebleau Memorandum, “I cannot conceive any greater cause of future war than that the German people, who have certainly proved themselves one of the most vigorous and powerful races in the world, should be surrounded by a number of small states, many of them consisting of people who have never previously set up a stable government for themselves, but each of them containing large masses of Germans clamouring for reunion with their native land. The proposal of the Polish Commission that we should place 2,100,000 Germans under the control of a people . . . which has never proved its capacity for stable self-government throughout history must, in my judgment, lead sooner or later to a new war in the East of Europe.” Lloyd George is basically saying that the Poles as a people are too weak to control having German citizens, those Germans will just be too “vigorous and powerful.” I also like how Lloyd George takes a little dig at the Poles here by saying they have never “proved its capacity for stable-self government” which sort of just brushes the actions of external powers, who were actively trying to subvert that self government. To close out this episode, I want to remind everyone that while I have used Poland as an example throughout the latter half of this episode these concepts and similar actions, and basically the same problems would be present for many of the countries at the Conference. When we visit each region of Europe we will revisit this conversation almost every time as the Conference, and the Supreme Council, tries to grapple with competing claims for territory and who deserves to be a nation. I wanted to get an overview of this topic out of the way, and to introduce all of these questions and concerns because next episode we will spend most of our time talking about the construct that Wilson believed could resolve any of this problems, the League of Nations. This international organization was his big answer to the worlds big problems, and he considered it his most important contribution to the Paris Peace Conference.