196: Versailles Pt. 13 - Russia


Alone of the countries that had entered the war against Germany, Russia was not invited to Paris. In this episode we discuss why.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War 196. Thank you Joan, Francis, Caryn. This episode we make our last stop in our travels of Eastern Europe after the war. He have seen the creation of new countries, the destruction of empires, and now we turn our eyes to the chaos further east, in Russia. In February 1917 the Russian empire had been overthrown and replaced by a Provisional Government made up of many of the more moderate socialist parties. Then in October of that same year there was another revolution, this time with the moderate socialists being overthrown by the Bolsheviks. For many countries two revolutions in 1 year would be enough instability for a lifetime, but for the Russians it was just the beginning, a prelude to a Civil War. The topic for this episode is not that Civil War, that is a much larger discussion that deserves a bit more time. However, today we are going to look at how the Paris Peace Conference, and particularly the leaders of the Supreme Council viewed Russia and the Bolsheviks. We will also talk about how the Russians saw the attempts in Paris to create a peace and how the two sides tried and mostly failed to interact. Before we start in on that discussion though, since it has been awhile since we visited the Conference in Paris lets take just a bit of time to talk about what life was like in Paris for the delegates, not just of the Supreme Council but also all the delegates of the various countries that would call the city home for most of 1919.

We should start off with a reminder on just how the conference was organized. There was the larger conference with representatives from countries all over the world, however most of the power rested in the Supreme Council. This Council was made up of 5 members at the beginning, the leaders from Japan, France, Britain, Italy, and the United States. Shortly after the conference started the Japanese would be removed and it would become a Council of Four. The leaders of the four remaining countries were Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando, and Wilson. This Council met for most of the duration of the conference, however over time they slowly shed other administrative members, Foreign Ministers and other statesmen. This was done in an effort to streamline their discussions. This process of trying to optimize the meetings continued from January to March, at that point the Supreme Council had been brought down to just be the 4 leaders and then a secretary for each country. Before they landed on this setup they tried removing the secreataries as well, along with an effort not to take any notes. The theory behind not taking notes is that it would allow the leaders to speak their minds more freely, with the unfortunate side effect being that they could not actually get anything done without some kind of record of what they had already discussed. As time continued to tick getting things done became a priority, and so the secreataries were brought back. By the end of April the four leaders had secretaries who all took fantastic notes, which is part of why we today know so much about what happened in the Supreme Council meetings. Along with all of this information we also have different viewpoints on what was happening. Some of these notes, especially by the British secretary Hankey, are very carefully constructed to try and smooth over any bits of conversation that were perhaps not very flattering for the participants. Some of the other secretaries were a bit more raw with their notes, which makes for a fun comparison.

Throughout the conference a critical component that determined the future of the world was the relationship between the various members of the Supreme Council. We already discussed at pretty good length the breakdown between the Italians and the Americans, the disagreements between the two countries would greatly alter Italy’s ability to gain what it wanted from the conference. There were other cases where relations were very good between countries and that would help the countries involved. The most important would turn out to be the growning friendship between the British and the Americans. Wilson had told his delegates to work closely with the British, and Lloyd George and the British were more than happy to accomodate the Americans wherever possible. For both countries relations with the French would deteriorate throughout the conference. There were of course many reasons for this change in relations. For the French part of the problem was that they felt like they deserved a lot from the Conference, and in my opinion they definitely did. What they wanted was not a mystery, they had very specific objectives, mostly around punishing Germany and making sure that Germany was made to be as weak as possible. The problem for the French was that their methods for how to do this did not align with the goals of the other countries. As the relations between Wilson and Clemenceau deteriorated the relationship between Wilson and the French in general also declined. Wilson had been received as a hero in Europe when he had arrived at the end of 1918, but just a few months later he would be under attack by the French press. The accusations and criticism his Wilson hard, who was not good at reacting to criticism in a positive way. This would cause Wilson to set his mind against the French and relations between the American and French leaders never really recovered. That is not to say that all of the interactions between the leaders were negative, they were all part of one big working relationship and they had many things in common. All four were powerful men that had voluntarily put themselves in a position where they would have to solve difficult problems, and so they could commiserate about the challenges that they faced even if they did not agree on some of the solutions.

While most of the major decisions were made by just a few men there were over a thousand delegates and representatives in Paris, and they found a city that was very accomodating. Apparently the social life in Paris during the conference was legendary. Dancing every night at the Majestic was the prime event, and the mostly male diplomats found no shortage of young women ready to dance. This social life was boosted by the fact that very few of the male members of the delegates had been allowed to bring their wives. The British brought over 100 members just from the Intelligence Bureau, and these type of low level employees were not allowed to bring a spouse even if some higher level members could. Along with dances late into the night there was also a thriving lunch and dinner scene where various delegates would get together and discuss at least a little bit of business. While these social activities may seem like a lot, and maybe a waste of time, they pale in comparison to the European conference traditions. The number of events pale in comparison to the number of grand balls and massive formal engagements that had taken place at conferences like the Congress of Vienna that had followed the Napoleonic Wars.

February would prove to be an eventful month at the conference. The normal meetings and social events occurred, of course, but also Clemenceau survived an attempted assassination. The attempt was madde by an anarchist, Eugene Cottin, outside of Clemenceau’s house on the Rue Franklin. At the time Clemenceau was in a car, which the would be assassin fired at 7 times, only one of which hit Clemenceau. The bullet would strike him in the ribs, and although it did not hit anything vital it could also not be removed, and so it would stay in place for the rest of his life. Clemenceau would not let something silly like a gunshot wound slow him down, and later that day he was already back to business, although while confined to a chair. The next day he would be back up and walking around and after a week he would be back to his normal schedule. While he did his very best to make it seem like this event did not negatively effect him in anyway, the other leaders of the Supreme Council would notice a change in the Frenchman. He would still always attend the required meetings, and he would still participate in the discussions, but it was clear that at times he was less capable of staying mentally engaged for long periods of time.

Even with the difficult balancing act between official buisness and pleasure, and assassination attempts, there was a good amount of work getting done. One period that saw a lot of topics worked through was actually the period during the last two weeks of February and early March. This spurt of productivity was drien by the fact that some of the leaders of the Supreme Council were not present, with Wilson heading back to the United States and Lloyd George back in London. In both cases the politicians returned to their capitals with official and nice sounding excuses, however in reality they were boht going back home to deal with domestic issues. For Wilson he had to try and wrangle a Congress that was quickly slipping away from him, and away from the international agreements that he was spending so much time creating. For Lloyd George, well he had many problems, there were labor issues, financial problems, soldiers who were desperate to get home, and Ireland was on the verge of Civil War. In the absence of the two leaders the American Diplomat House and the British Foreign Minister Balfour tried to get things done as quickly as possible. They worked with all of the commissions and committees to try and get their reports ready a week before Wilson was due to return to Paris. They allowed the lower level politicians to properly prepare the reports for their leaders. Many of these reports dealt with the huge number of secondary topics that the conference had to deal with, many of which we have discussed in the previous episodes. Back in the United States Wilson’s vist was less than successful. Instead of bringing the Republican Controlled Congress closer to his viewpoint he instead managed to push them further away. When he arrived back in Paris the greeting party was far smaller than what had been present the first time he arrived, this time it was just a few low level French politicians.

Before we finally get to Russia, just a quick word about the Baltics. The three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were in an awkward place during the last year of the war and the immediately after. From 1917 onward they had been occupied by Germany and had been administers as part of OberOst, but then after the war was over Germany started to pull back to the West. In a more normal situation this would have meant that the countries would have returned to their position within the Russian Empire, but Russia was in complete chaos at this point. The Bolsheviks had taken over and then signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk but in early 1919 the Civil War was starting to heat up. There were also strong nationalist elements with Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia and there were large numbers of people in those countries that did not want to be part of the new Soviet Russia. The problems werethat none of the countries had secure borders, none of them had strong central governments, and none of them were able to obtain meaningful support from the Allies during this period. At the same time they had to deal with the German Freikorps, which were large formations of German soldiers that were sometimes helping, but other times were trying to take control. They also had to deal with the Red Army, of course, and as the Bolsheviks grew stronger and stronger this became more and more of a threat. Finally, there were large numbers of White Russian soldiers inside the countries. The relationship between the Baltic countries and the Whites was interesting because they both hated the Bolsheviks, but at the same time the Whites wanted to bring the Batlic countries back into a reformed Russian Empire, so there was a bit of friction between the two groups. So basically, they were surrounded by countries and groups that did not like the idea of independent Baltic states, but somehow they survived and all three would become independent states which would eventually be recognized by the Western Powers. Most of that would happen after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and so we will cover it in later episodes.

When the invitations went out for countries to attend the Conference in Paris they were sent to a huge list of nations. There were two important ommissions from that list, the first was any country that fought on the side of Germany during the war, those countries would only be invited later once the terms that concerned them would be presented to them. The second ommission was Russia. As we have covered in pretty good detail, the Russia that would have been invited to the Conference was very different from the Russia that had entered the war in 1914. This made many of the Allies leaders hesitant to invite them to the conference. There were two main reasons that Russia was not invited to the conference, the necessity of providing recognition for the Bolsheviks, and concern that such an invitation would result in the spread of the revolution to western countries. At the end of 1918 none of the Allied countries had officially recognized the Bolshevik government as the official government of Russia. There was also no guarantee that the Bolshevik government would be in control of Russia at the end of 1919. During 1919 there was active and strong resistance from the Whites, and the Whites were supported by the Western Allies, there was a very real chance that the Bolsheviks would be defeated. To then invite the Bolsheviks would have been to admit that they were Russia, and they would be Russia moving forward, and none of the leaders were prepared to make that commitment. The second main reason was concern that it would cause the revolution to spread westward. Both Clemenceau and Lloyd George were concerned that providing recognition of the Bolsheviks and then inviting them to the Conference might trigger rioting and revolts in their own countries. Clemenceau would tell Balfour that he was concerned that if the Bolsheviks arrived the far left politicians in his country might start a riot in Paris, and that kind of Riot, of Left leaning revolutionaries, had a history of causing Revolutions when they marched the streets of Paris. It would have been a bad way to start the Conference.

While Bolshevik Russia would not be invited for the reasons just discussed, there were no qualms about inviting Russian successor states, even those that barely existed. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, all formerly parts of Russia were all at least unofficially represented at the Conference. There were also discussions about inviting other groups, or even inviting the Whites, but there was always some concern that doing so would make Western interference in Russian affairs a bit too noticeable. Lloyd George would say “To say that we ourselves should pick the representatives of a great people was contrary to every principle for which we had fought.” Really, he was right, both from a principle perspective but also from an optics perspective. The appearance of the actions of the Western powers in Russia was very important, he knew that the Allies were not prepared, or even really capable, of going all-in on stopping the Bolsheviks from controlling Russia. The British and French were exhausted from the war, Wilson still believed that political measures were better than strictly military ones for dealing with the problem. He also knew tha tif the Allies did too much it would make their actions very unpopular in Russia and among the Russsian people, even those that did not support the Bolsheviks. These concerns would be realized, due to the actions of the British just as much as any other country. Instead of just supporting the White Russian forces the Allies also got directly involved with the fighting. The French would send a force of French, Polish, and Greek troops to the Ukraine where they lent some assistance the White forces under General Denikin before they left. This evacuation was required by the fact that the Russians hated their presence and the soldiers were ont he verge of mutiny. The British would land troops at Murmansk, obstensibly to secure military supplies, but the Bolsheviks were able to claim it as a foreign invasion. Finally the Americans and Japanese would send troops into Eastern Siberia, where they would accomplish very little other than give the Russians another propaganda victory by being able to claim that yet another foreign invader threatened Russia.

On the other side of the coin the Bolshevik views twards the West drastically changed over the course of the first few years after the revolution. In 1918 the Bolsheviks had pushed strongly for a Global Revolution, and it featured heavily in Bolshevik speeches and policy, over time this push was reduced. As the Russians grew stronger, and they began to realize that the Whites could not defeat them without massive help from the West, they became, or at least put on the appearances of becoming, more conciliatory. This started with just a straight up offer of peace not long after the armistice had been signed wit Germany and it would continue through attempts by the Allies to organize meetings and conferences with the Bolsheviks and the other players in the Russian Civil War.

In his work Russia and the Versailles Conference George Kennan outlines the five different attempts that were made to try and reach out to the Russians during the Paris Peace Conference. The first was an attempt to bring not just the Bolsheviks but all of the paries in Russia to a meeting on the island of Prinkipo near Istanbul. The second was an attempt, which was not successful, was a threat the Bolsheviks being told to either negotiate with the Allies or the Allies would massively increase their support for the Whites. The third was an attempt by the American diplomat William C. Bullitt to go to Moscow and negotiate directly with the Bolsheviks. The fourth was an effort by Herbert Hoover to import huge amounts of fodo into Russia to feed its population while at the same time meeting with the Bolsheviks. The fifith and final effort involved just ignoring the Bolsheviks entirely and instead shifting to a policy of trying to get the leaders of the White movement to make public statements about how they were fighting for democracy and freedom, which they kind of were not actually doing, but by making the statements the Allies hoped that it would allow their countries to increase military assistance to those same White forces.

While the Allies were trying to reach out to the Bolsheviks, either to bring them to some sort of conference, but not the Paris Peace Conference, or to threaten them into submission, Lenin was also playing his political game. From the end of the war until early 1919 Lenin sent several peace overtures to the Allies, most of them carefully crafted to appeal to the leaders. This is part of why the first attempt was made to set up a meeting on Prinkipo. These messages were mostly just Lenin playing some politics, because he still believed that a global revolution was on its way, which would take care of all of the problems with the Western leaders. Also, just one quick statement about the threats that were delivered to the Bolsheviks, even if they talked a big game they were in no state to actually ramp up their military expeditions into Russia. It was estimated that it would take hundreds of thousands of troops to even have a chance of making a meaningful difference in Russia, and it would also be very expensive which for the cash strapped European countries was an ever growing concern. None of the Western Governments, and not all of them together, could have sent enough troops to Russia to make a difference while at the same time surviving the political ramifications at home, either in the form of riots or election defeats.

The first of the attempts to meet was for the Bolsheviks, Allies, and other Russian parties to meet on Prinkipo. It provides the perfect example of why untangling the situation in Russia through political means was so challenging. Prinkiplo was an island near Constantinople. The French, British, and Americans agreed to send invitations to all of the warring parties in Russia to a meeting on the island. The invitations were sent out on January 22, 1919. This was pretty early in the peace conference, and also quite early in the Civil War. Most importantly it was still early enough that all of the parties still believed that they could be victorious. Because of this belief there was little incentive for the Bolsheviks on one side and hte White leaders like General Denekin or Admiral Kolchack to come to the table for negotiations. Neither side wanted a negotiated settlement in early 1919, they wanted to win and they wanted to remove their opponents from Russia. The White leaders just straight up refused to attend, while the response from the Bolsheviks, which while still rejecting the invitation, was evasive enough to make it seem like it was not a flat out rejection but just a political necessity that the Bolsheviks not attend.

Another, more direct method, was taken when the American diplomat Bullitt was sent to Moscow. His goal was to establish relations with the Bolsheviks. This was just as unsuccessful, only this time it was becuase the Allies were not in alignment about the discussions should be with the Bolsheviks. The British and French were now strongly against recognizing and working with the Bolshevik government. They blamed the Americans for threatening everything by starting to move towards officially recognizing the Soviets. Wickham Steed, a Daily Mail editor would write, echoing the views of many within the British and French governments that “The Americans are again talking of recognizing the Russian Bolshevists. If they wanted to destroy the whole moral basis of the Peace and of the League of Nations they have only to do so.”

Russia would never be brought into the Paris Peace Conference, but its shadow would greatly change the eventual results of the Conference. All of the Eastern European treaties and decisions and commissions had to take into account the Bolshevik threat that could come from the east at any moment. Even after the major treaties were concluded the Peace Conference would continue on while it cleaned up all of the smaller matters, and Russia would still be a topic of conversation. In the final months of the conference there were many meetings about what to do with Russia, most of which focused on the ongoing attempts to help the White leaders. From Moscow Lenin actually throught that being excluded from the conference, and then also from the final settlement, and then from the League of Nations after, actually was a good thing for Russia. The Bolshevik movement has always been built on the concept of a global revolution, and this was always pushed for with the justification that if the revolution did not spread then the Western Imperialists would stamp out the burgeoning revolution. With the League of Nations Lenin no longer had to make up some mythical Western Coalition that were hell bent on crusing the revolution, because they nicely organized themselves into an offical international organization, and they had not invited Russia. Obviously these were the enemies of the revolution. Lenin would allude to this in a speech to the Comintern in 1920, saying “Every day of the existence of the Covenant [of the League] is the best agitation for Bolshevism,” The Russian story would just be getting started when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the summer of 1919, and we will cover it in greater detail in the future.