194: Versailles Pt. 11 - Shadows of an Empire


There were many countries trying to carve out their own place in post-war Eastern Europe.



Hello everyone and Welcome to History of the Great War Episode 194: Shadows of an Empire. Thank you Doug. Over the last few weeks we have discussed the event in Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia in the years after the war, and how those events were reacted to and interacted with by the leaders at the Paris Peace Conference. Today that series of episodes continues as we touch on several more, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. These four countries would each come to Paris in different situations. Greece would arrive and be seen as a key piece in the Allied plans for the eastern Mediterranean after the war. The British, having lost their past ally the Ottoman Empire, which they had long used to counter balance Russian influence in the region saw Greece as a new, very important, friend. Bulgaria would arrive as a defeated enemy just like Austria and Hungary, but did not find the same level of animosity leveled against it. Romanian would arrive as a defeated ally, having signed a peace treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary in early 1918. But that did not stop them from wanted their share of the victors spoils. And finally there is Czechoslovakia which was another new country formed out of the pieces of the old Empire, just like Yugoslavia, and the Czechoslovak representatives were searching for legitimacy and to expand their borders. Even though all four of the countries came into the conference very differently, they would all leave it disappointed in their own way.

We start today with Greece. The Greek delegation to Paris contained many members, including the Foreign Minister, but the only person that really mattered was Eleftherios Venizelos. Venizelos was the Prime Minister of Greece, a position he had occupied since the old government had been overthrown which is what brough Greece into the war in the first place. Venizelos was perfect for the role that he had to play at the Conference. Lloyd George’s wife, Frances Stevenson would describe him as “A magnificent type of Greek, cast in the classical mould mentally and physically.” That is quite a favorable description, other words that were used to describe him from a variety of different people include such gems as energetic, charming, persuasive. If you were going to design a delegate to go to the Conference from a small Eastern European country, Venizelos is pretty close to what you would want. Intimidation does not work well for these countries, but charm was perfect. He would use this charm to win over the French and Americans, but above all he would use it to win over Lloyd George and the British. Bringing the allies over to the Greek side greatly assisted Greece in getting what it wanted out of the conference, including pieces of Asia Minor, which was a long quest for Greece and one that we will begin today, but will only finish later this year in some future episodes. It is enough at this point to say that Venizelos would not only get Greece what it wanted, but as it turned out far more than it could handle, and there would be drastic consequences for the Greeks in the unforgiving landscape of inner Anatolia in 1922.

Venizelos would make his presentation to the Supreme Council on February 3, 1919, and in that meeting he would lay out all of Greece’s territorial claims. They were, to put it mildly, lofty. In Europe Greece wanted parts of southern Albania and Thrace, then a few islands in the Aegean. Thees were the reasonable pieces of the request, the more unreasonable came with Greek claims in Asia. Asia Minor was their target, and they wanted a vast swath of the Western Part of the region. Venizelos would lay out his arguments based on the idea that Greece should be in control of most of the areas where the majority of the people were Greek. This type of request was not unheard of, or uncommong, at the conference. However, when it came time to discuss which areas contained a majority of Greeks Venizelos had a tendency to greatly overstate the presence of Greeks people. For example in Albania, where he claimed that many people would have claimed themselves to be Greek, if you asked them they almost certainly would have said they were Albanian. Then in Asia Minor there certainly were many Greeks, but it would only be in the city of Smyrna and its surrounding area that there were large numbers. Regardless of the factural accuracy of his proposals and his numbers, Venizelos knew how to sell an idea. In front of the Supreme Council his was full of statistics and maps, he even brought photo albums of people from some of the areas, always Greek people of course. He would also point out the history of the Greek people and their belief and support of democracy. He used every trick in the book, and it would be effective.

On the Supreme Council the most important views would be held by the British. The British had long been friendly with the Ottoman Empire. This friendship had been built out of antagonism with Russia and a desire to keep the Eastern Mediterranean safe from their advances. But now that the Ottoman Empire was no longer present, Greece seemed to be the rising star in the region. If the Britsh could count on the Greeks, which was possible, then it was important that they get as much territory as possible, since every piece would make them stronger. The Greeks were great at playing this part as well, with Venizelos telling the British that if they wanted to give Cyprus over to the Greeks they could, or they could keep it for themselves, either way British forces, and especially the Royal Navy, would always be welcome on the island. This is just another example of how good Venizelos was at playing the political game. The Americans were also supportive of Greece, although not nearly as fervently as the British. They had some concerns about some of the Greek claims, but they also preferred them to the Italians. It was the Italians that were the problem, the Greek and Italian desires overlapped in multiple areas. They both wanted Albania, they both wanted the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean, and they both wanted the same pieces of Asia Minor. They probably could have come to an agreement on the first two, but there was no chance that either side would back down from their claims in Asia Minor. This would set the two sides up for a conflict that would not be quickly resolved.

The situation in Albania is an interesting one. Albania was a country that had been created just before the war during the Balkans wars which saw much of the Ottoman territory in Europe break away. Albania was one of those areas. It was not an area with a robust economy or infrastructure, it had no railways, almost no industry, and very little to trade. It also had very few friends, with Greece, Italy, and Serbia all wanting pieces of it. There had even been agreements between the Serbians and Greeks that said they would split the country amongst themselves, if only to keep the Italians out. Afte the war was over the Italians would occupy the territory with the excuse that they were just trying to keep the piece. They of course hoped that they would be allowed to maintain this peace permanently. However, the Albanian would soon be in full scale revolt over the Italian presence in their country. These protests, and the fact that the Americans took up the Albanian cause meant that nobody would be splitting up Albania because it would continue to exist after all of the treaties had been signed. In 1920 it would even be admitted into the League of Nations, a rare success story of a small and poor country resisting the imperialism of its neighbors after the war.

The Italians and Greek would not come to an understanding which would reconcile their aspirations until the summer of 1919, after the Orlando government had been removed from power. This brought a new government to control in Italy, one far more concerned with the huge number of internal problems in the country. The deal that was reached by Venizelos and the new Italian government involved the two countries splitting up the territory that they desired, with the understanding that in all cases both countries would support the claims of the other country for the rest. So that meant greece would get Thrace, the northern part of Asia Minor, most of the Dodecanese Islands, and the southern part of Albania. Italy would get southern Asia Minor, the Albanian port of Vlore and its surrounding area, and a few of the islands. Not all of these claims could actually be successfully pursued, but it at least allowed both countries to focus on other problems, like getting anybody else to agree to these expansions, instead of just fighting with each other about who would get what.

While the Greek would reach an agreeement with the Italians, the fate of most of their claims would be in the hands of the Greek commission that was setup by the Supreme Council to really dig into the situation in the eastern Mediterranean. This commission would discuss the situation, but recommend that no permanent decision be made until the treaty with the Ottoman was concluded. Thrace became a large topic of conversation around this time as well, with the United States deciding to no longer support its incorporation into Greece. This was at a point where the United States was already starting to pull back from European affairs, so this change in opinion was mostly ignored. Eventually the Greeks would find themselves in control of many new territories, including areas of Asia Minor. However, it would be in Asia Minor that they would suffer a serious setback at the hands of a new Turkish National Army under the command of Mustafa Kemal, who you may know as Ataturk. More on that in later episodes.

Alone of the Balkan countries Bulgaria would find itself on the wrong side of the war. Since the country had joined in the war on the side of Germany it was not invited to the Paris Peace Conference. This did not necessarily work against the country though, mostly due to how well the arguments used by other countries in the Balkans worked for, instead of against the Bulgarians. Every country in the region woudl claim that its borders needed to expand to allow more of its own people, or people of its represented ethnicities, to be included in the country. Well, for the Bulgarians the two areas that they had hoped to gain by entering the war, southern Dobrudja and Western Thrace, both had a large Bulgarian majority. If they allies wanted to use a strict principle of self-determination both of these areas probably would have joined with Bulgaria. The Dobrudja was particularly likely to vote itself into Bulgaria, instead of into Romania which was also attempting to gain the region. Of the 300,000 people that called the area home, only 10,000 were Romanian, the rest were a mix of Bulgarians, Tatars, and Turks. The self-determination of this area was supported by the United States. The British and French mostly did not care, which of course meant that they fell back on the idea that since the country was an enemy, they should be punished.

Unfortunately for Bulgaria they wree far down the list of priorities in Paris, and so the exact terms that they would be given did not arrive quickly. Instead they would have to wait until September before they were given their treaty. I say that this is unfortunate because this was long past the point where the United States was throwing its weight around in Paris. Since the United States was the primary supporter of the Bulgarian claims to the Dobrudja it no longer mattered what the people of the region wanted, it would soon be part of Romania. Thrace, and Bulgria’s access to the Aegean would go to Greece. when the terms were published in Bulgaria it would result in a national day of mourning, but there was nothing that the government or anybody else could do, the treaty would be signed.

The country that would soon be in possession of the Dobrudja would be Romania. Romania had entered the war in 1916, only to then suffere a disastrous defeat at the hands of a combined German and Austro-Hungarian army. It had then signed a treaty in early 1918 with those same countries to get out of the war, a necessity due to the fact that Russia had also signed a treaty in early 1918. When the Romanian came to Paris their defeat did nothing to reduce their ambitious desires. The full list included Transylvania from Hungary, Bukovina from Austria, Bessarabia from Russia, and the Banat on the border with Yugoslavia. The basis for all of these claims was particularly strong for a few reasons. First, the country was on the winning side, that always helped. Secdon, the Hungarians and Austrians were firmly in the enemy column, so Bukovina and Transylvania were easy to argue for. Third, for Bessarabia, well, there were also no many fans of the Russians in Paris, or I guess more specifically therew were not too many fans of the Bolsheviks in Paris. That left the Banat, but the Romanians mostly managed to take care of that before the enemy of the war. In October 1918 they had started discussions with the Serbians about the Banat and where the border would be. They came to a rough agreement, which would mostly match up to what it would be after the conference.

When the Supreme Council heard the Romanian desires they did not have any problems with some of the areas, for reasons just discussed. The only other option was to hand over Bessarabia and Bukovina to the Russians, and that simply was not going to happen given the relations with the Bolsheviks. When it came time to discuss Transylvania, which honestly was the most important area for the Romanians, the Allies had a tougher time. As was so often the case the four leaders fell into their familiar camps. The Italians tried to block the expansion, mostly as a way of using the same excuses to later block Yugoslav expansion. The French wanted to build up both Romanian strength and the country’s relations with Paris. The Americans wanted to try and fight some kind of righteous option, which probably did not exist. The British mostly acted as a referee.

To try and determine the best path forward a commission was created. This commission, the Commission on Romanian and Yugoslav Affairs would deal with all of the territorial quesitons around the two countries. These commissions were quite common when it came time to work out border problems,a nd even though they could not really bring the sides together they could still make recommendations. In this case, and in the case of several other commissions, the recommendations created which were supposed to guide and inform the Supreme Council would actually go into the final treaty mostly unchanged. This would be done if only for the fact that it was very difficult for the leaders of the conference to overrule the recommendations, many of these bits of territory were totally unknown to leaders outside of the countries directly involved in the dispute. One of the British members of these committees would say that the pressure was difficult to deal with. “How fallible one feels here! A map—a pencil— tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of the people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people.” For Romania the commission’s recommendations, and then the Supreme Council’s final decisions, would make Romania one of the biggest winners to come out of the Conference. With all of the territory that they gained the country would double both in population and in size. The official treaty would be the Treaty of Trianon which was signed in June 1920 and it provided Romania with everything, Transylvania, Bessarabia, Bukovina, and most of the Banat. Of all of the countries at the conference Romanian would leave with the knowledge that it had achieved almost all of its objectives. A rare happy customer I guess you might say.

While, by percentage, the Romanian may have been the biggest winners from the Conference, perhaps the most popular delegation from the east was from the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. The quest for independence by the Czechs and Slovaks began before the war started, although the war would move their plan forward. Throughout the course of the conflict leaders from both the Czech and Slovak communities would be active in trying to gain support from the Allies for their quest for independence. They would find a receptive government in Paris, with the French always willing to at least have discussions about finding new friends in the East. On June 29th 1918 this quest for independence would come to a successful conclusion when France would officially recoginize the country of Czechoslovakia, with the French Foreign Minister writing in his announcement that “The Government of the [French] Republic, witnessing your efforts and your attachment to the cause of the Allies, considers it equitable and necessary to proclaim the rights of your nation to independence. . . . During long centuries, the Czechoslovak Nation enjoyed the incomparable benefits of independence; it was deprived of them by the violence of the Hapsbourgs allied to the German princes. The historic rights of a nation cannot be destroyed. It is in defense of those rights that France, who was attacked, fights today with her Allies. The cause of the Czechoslovaks is particularly dear to her. . . . True to the principle of nationality and of liberation of oppressed peoples, the Government of the [French] Republic considers as just and well-founded the claims of the Czech nation and at the proper time will endeavor with all its means to secure your aspirations to independence within the historic boundaries of your provinces finally liberated from the oppressive yoke of Austria and Hungary.” Six weeks later the British would also recognize the new country, which would be created after the war. When the war was almost over the Austro-Hungarian empire began to collapse, and with that collapse came a declaration of independent from Czechoslovakia. This declaration would be made in Prague, and tens of thousands of people would come out to hear it.

Two of the most important leaders in the this quest for independence were the Czech stateman Tomas Masaryk and the Slovak Edward Benes. They ahd been the leaders of the Czech organization that had worked so long and hard to get the recoginition from the French and they would also lead their country after the war and into the conference. Their relationship was strained at times, but together they were stronger, and they would form a partnership that would last until Masaryk’s death. This arrangement would leave the Slovaks, much like the Croatians and Slovenes in Yugoslavia, under the control of another group, in this case the Czechs, but this was seen as greatly preferable to being put back under Hungarian domination.

Masaryk would not actually spend much time in Paris during the conference, even though he had spent most of the war in Paris and London. After the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 he had went to Russia on a British passport with the goal of finding a way to get all of the Czech and Slovak prisoners of war out of the country. These prisoners had been captured by the Russians while they were fighting for Austria-Hungary, but Masaryk hoped to ship them to Western Europe where they could create the core of a future Czechosloka Army. After arriving in Petrograd he would have some success in these negoatiations and the newly created Czech Legion would soon head towards Vladivostok where it would cross the Pacific to Ameria and hten onto Europe. After this arrangement had been made Masaryk headed to Italy, and in late 1918, with Austria-Hungary having fallen apart and the declaration of independence for Czechoslovakia already having been made Masaryk went across the border to Prague. When he entered the capital he would form a new government and he would be the first president. With Masaryk in Prague trying to get the political situation under control, Benes was in charge in Paris, and he would do a fantastic job.

While Masaryk had been travelling the world Benes was spending his time primiarly in Paris. He had arrived in the city in 1915 and as a member of the Czechoslovak National Council he would spend th enext three years preparing for what would become the Paris Peace Conference. He would build up a greatly relationship with the French government, especially Clemenceau and this put Benes, and with him Czechoslovakia, in a great place at the Conference. Alone among the new nations of Eastern Europe they had been given a representative at the meeting of the Supreme War Council in late 1918 that had determined the armistice terms that were provided to Austria-Hungary. This influence would then role into the Conference as well, and on February 5th he would be the one to put Czechslovakia’s claims before the Supreme Council.

So what were those claims that he presented? Well, first of all he wanted full recognition for the new country, which was an easy one given the already announced French and British support. Just like everybody else they wanted more territory. This drive for more territory had a greed dimension of course, but it was also a defense mechanism. Czechslovakia, no mattter how many small territorial concession it received, would be a small country and it would always be bordered by Germany to the West. There was also a fear early on that it would also be bordered by a Bolshevik Russia to the east, which would not end up happening due to the presence of Poland, but in 1918 it looked like Poland might get swallowed up by a Bolshevik Russia. Because of this fear of the nations around them, Masaryk and Benes wanted as much territory as possible because the more territory they were in control of the greater their population and industry would be. This increase in strength would not only make their country stronger economically and militarily, it would also make them more attractie as an ally. This was also their best chance to push the borders out, given the general state of chaos.

Which specific pieces of territory were they pursuing? Well Benes would lay them out for the Supreme Council in a February the 5th meeting. In the west they wanted to expand the borders of what was traditionally known as Bohemia and Moravia. This would allow them more control over the former German and Austro-Hungarian coal mining and industrial regions. In both cases they would claim that these adjusted borders were important because it would straighten out their borders and make them more defensible. In the north they wanted a few bits of Poland. IN the south they wanted to extend into more Hungarian territory, especially around the Danube river. This was somewhat easy on the western side because the border would be put on the Danube, however the Danube swings almost directly south in the middle of the border between the two countries. So east of that bend there was no geographical feature to base a border on, so eerything was up for debate. Along the entirety of the border in this region the Hungarian and Slovakians ere both present in large numbers, so it was also challenging to draw any kind of border based on ethnicity. This southern border question would get even more confusing once Bela Kun took over Hungary and instilled his Bolshevik government. In the east Benes requested an area of mainly Ruthenian people, partially so that the country could have a shared border with Romania, which was Czechoslovakia’s strongest ally in the region. AS weith most of the other territorial questions all of these were difficult to work out at the conference and so a commission was created. This commission would meet for about a month and they would work through all of the various claims to see which should be awarded to the new country. their final report would be released in early March. They would not provide Czechoslovakia with all of the territory they requested, but the borders would be pushed outward, and that big chunk of territory in the ast would be granted.

While the Czechoslovaks had supporters at the Conference, there were also officials that did not like their almost endless desires for more territory. One American would say that “In Bohemia they demand their ‘historic frontiers’ regardless of the protests of large numbers of Germans who do not wish to be taken over in this way. In Slovakia they insist on the rights of nationality and pay no heed to the ancient and well marked ‘historic frontiers’ of Hungary.” There were certainly some ethnic concerns with the new borders. With so much territory taken from the countries around them Czechoslovakia would barely have a Czech majority, at right around 50 percent. The Slovaks made up just 16% of the new country, with the Germans made up 22%. There were then sizeable numbers of other minorities, Hungarians, Ruthenians, and Poles just to name a few. Regardless of the ethnic make up of the country with their new borders Czechoslovakia achieved many of its goals. This included three quarters of the industry of the old Empire. This, along with the regions gained from Germany, meant that Czechoslovakia would become the tenth largest economy in Europe overnight. There were still many questions for the new country, with border with Poland being one example, but for the most part it would leave the Conference pleased with the situation, although the country would have a rocky future.