1919 - A time for peace
The Paris Peace Conference set out with the highest ambitions possible: to achieve eternal peace. Obviously it failed, but what can future peacemakers learn from the failures of 1919?
Most of the time history is a rather linear affair. One thing leads to another and despite the occasional impression of something unexpected happening, history is actually rather predictable, at least with hindsight.
There are also surprises, of course. Like the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. No one expected it (except the CIA apparently). And it has undoubtedly changed history. These events are unusual but they do shape the future and since they do it in unexpected ways they add a bit of surprise to current affairs.
Apart from genuine surprises there are also the “known surprises”. Events we know will take place but which we do not know the outcome of. At these times history is made, we know it is being made but we do not know for sure what will become of it. You might say these moments are history at a crossroads.
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was such a crossroads. The First World War had ended with an armistice on 11 November 1918. What this armistice would mean and the terms of the actual peace was to be decided at the peace conference. The Paris Peace Conference was thus an imperative moment in history. The future of the world was at stake and at the time nobody knew how it would end.
The First World War was the biggest war since at least the Napoleonic Wars that ended in 1814 or 1815 (it’s complicated…). The Napoleonic Wars ended with the Congress of Vienna, a conference that set the course for most of Europe’s 19th century history. The peacemakers in Paris 1919 were inspired by the Congress of Vienna, to the point that they commissioned a historian to write a manual on how the Vienna congress was conducted in order to emulate it.
Out with the old
In 1919 the world was at a watershed moment. You could say that this was when the modern world was born and you would only exaggerate a little. The Paris peace conference was difficult in no small part due to the collision of two different worldviews: The old, harking back to Antiquity, where wars were fought for loot and profit. And the new, where the good war was fought for democracy, liberalism and self-determination.
Especially the last point, self-determination, was at the heart of the whole peace conference. The USA had entered the war late, in 1917, and its president, Woodrow Wilson, set up a list of fourteen points that would form the objectives for the US participation in the war. At the core of all fourteen points was the desire for and necessity of national self-determination.
This was a new way of looking at diplomacy and warfare, one that did not necessarily place one’s own interests first. It also clashed violently with the old way of doing things. Among the great powers, Italy especially was on the side of old diplomacy. Italy had entered the war on the allied side in 1915 for entirely opportunistic reasons. In a secret treaty France and Britain had promised Italy the conquest of the Slav-inhabited Austrian lands to the east of the Adriatic. At great cost Italy had defeated Austria and now it expected its reward. American talk of national self-determination did not go down well either with the Italian government or the Italian people.
But Italy was not the only one trapped in old ways of thinking. France and Britain both supported the right to national self-determination, as long as it did not clash with their own interests. France could not accept any sort of compromise on Alsace and Lorraine, two previously French provinces that had been conquered by Germany in 1871. And neither France nor Britain gave much attention to talk about self-determination for non-European colonies.
Crossroads, crossroads everywhere
And this was only the squabbles among the big nations. As it turned out the idea of self-determination was far from easy to realize. In practice most nations’ aspiration for self-determination clashed with other nations’ aspirations. The fact that many of the small nations showed themselves to be at least as chauvinistic as Italy made the peacemaker’s job fiendishly difficult.
Serbia was thoroughly defeated during the war. But by being part of the allied side, Serbia could still claim to be a winner. Through determination, diplomacy and a grand dose of luck Serbia ended up with most of what it wanted, which was more or less all of the western Balkans.
Serbia had the good fortune to be competing with Italy in the west and north, and neither France nor Britain had any interest in a stronger Italy in the Mediterranean. The United States, of course, was dead against Italy’s old school diplomacy and Serbia therefore got a very sympathetic hearing. The objections of the Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians in the northwest of the Balkans were overlooked. Since they spoke the same language as the Serbs the Western leaders assumed they had the same interests.
For the most part the interests of the local population were not as airily dismissed as in northern Yugoslavia. The peacemakers in Paris sent out numerous fact-finding missions to determine the will of the people in all parts of Central and Eastern Europe and also to the Middle East. When the circumstances were right referendums were held to accurately determine the will of the people.
While the ideal of national self-determination was never completely abandoned, in practice it came to be severely circumscribed. It was never possible to coerce the major nations into dutiful disciples of self-determination. France never accepted a referendum in Alsace-Lorraine that it in all likelihood would have lost. Italy did not get everything it wanted in the eastern Adriatic but was still given a substantial chunk of land inhabited by Slavs.
Even the minor nations quickly realized that self-determination was a very pliable concept. Stronger nations, like Poland, used their military to take control of as much territory as possible, creating facts on the ground that were very difficult for the peacemakers in Paris to change. Weaker nations, like Romania, could still influence the outcome of the conference by overestimating their own populations and underestimating that of others in contested areas (admittedly, Romania was greatly helped by the fact that their main competitor, Hungary, was both on the losing side of the war and spent a good part of 1919 embroiled in a Bolshevik rebellion).
The simple fact was that in central and eastern Europe there were no simple facts. The region had been ruled by non-nationalist empires for half a millennia and different ethnicities were dispersed far and wide. More often than not it was a matter of opinion rather than statistics that decided which areas ended up in which nations. Nevertheless, many borders in Europe today are exactly as the peacemakers in Paris drew them more than one hundred years ago. Some things are hard to change.
An American job
The leading nation of the Paris peace conference was the United States its president: Woodrow Wilson. America was a late entrant to the war and never played more than a minor part in the hostilities. Its influence instead came from a combination of soft power; Wilson’s fourteen points had made headlines all over the world, and hard economic power; USA was the only big nation that still had spare capacity with which to feed a starving world.
That made it all the more unfortunate that the United States was detached from the peace conference almost from the beginning. Woodrow Wilson himself never gave up on the peace, of course, and especially not his pet project: The League of Nations, an organization that was supposed to guard the freedoms won during the peace conference.
But American participation became severely entangled in American domestic politics. Arguably the peace process was fatally doomed already in December 1918. That was when President Wilson left for Europe with a delegation only consisting of his fellow Democrats. America’s entry into the war had been a controversial decision at the time and had only been possible after much negotiation with the opposition Republicans. When Wilson decided to make the peace without any Republicans, he more or less guaranteed that whatever he negotiated would not be ratified by the American congress, where the Republicans held a majority.
The realization that Wilson could probably not back up his words with deeds permeated the negotiations from early on. This was especially noticeable in the Middle East. The peacemakers, including the USA, had decided early on that some “primitive” nations were not yet ready for full self-determination but instead needed a steady hand to guide them to full independence. The solution to this was mandates, where a major power took on the governing responsibilities for a nation that could not govern itself.
France and Britain were cynical about the mandate system and viewed it as not much more than a way of adding more colonies. Idealistic America would probably have made a much better mandate power than any of the colonial powers. Multiple possible mandates for America were also discussed, mostly in the Turkish lands. An American mandate for Armenia was suggested, as well as one for the Bosporus and sometimes even one for Kurdistan. None of these ever came to pass, mostly due to the fact that President Wilson was well aware that congress at home would never accept them.
The end to the war to end all wars
Despite their disagreements, which at one point included Italy walking out on the entire conference, the peacemakers did succeed in drafting several treaties. The most important of these was the peace treaty with Germany, the well-known Treaty of Versailles.
Germany, as one of the defeated nations, was not part of the peace conference and was presented with a finished treaty to either sign or reject. The contents of the treaty came as a shock to the German people and it looked for a time like Germany would refuse to sign it. Germany was, however, still suffering from revolution and civil war and was wholly dependent on American food aid and was in no position to squabble. It signed the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.
Other treaties for the other defeated nations followed. Everyone signed. This did not, however, end all hostilities. Mostly because the defeated nations were by this time so insignificant that their submission made little difference on the ground. The main warfare taking place in the summer of 1919 was the Russian civil war which was by now in its most intense phase. But Russia was technically on the winning side of the war and even if Russia was represented in Paris by several delegations of White Russians, the Bolsheviks, who held most of the power, were boycotting the peace conference altogether.
It could also be very profitable to ignore the peace treaties. The Ottoman Empire was one of the defeated nations and duly signed its peace treaty. But by the time the sultan signed the Treaty of Sèvres, his power extended to hardly more than his own palace. Leadership of the Turkish people had instead migrated to an army officer named Mustafa Kemal, and he had no intention of signing anything that did not benefit Turkey. This proved to be a winning strategy since the Allied powers were either unable to fight a war (Greece) or unwilling to do so (the rest). After several years of warfare throughout most of Anatolia Turkey could sign a new treaty that was vastly more advantageous than the previous one.
The Treaty of Lausanne that Turkey signed in 1923 was also more comprehensive than the treaties of 1919 had been. Four years of warfare had clarified some things. The Turks had ethnically cleansed western Anatolia from Greeks. In a move that was controversial at the time, and still is today, this ethnic cleansing was acknowledged and expanded by population swaps where the few remaining Greeks in Anatolia were swapped for Turks living on the Greek islands.
Mission not accomplished
Most of the accomplishments of the Paris Peace Conference came tumbling down in 1939 with the start of the Second World War. The newly created nation states of Central and Eastern Europe were rife with ethnic divisions and many welcomed the new war and the chance to set straight what, in their opinion, had been made wrong in 1919.
One country that managed to stay out of the Second World War was Turkey. Thanks to the population swaps there was no lingering ethnic conflict between Greeks and Turks (except on Cyprus, a British colony). Since there was no ethnic conflict neither Greece nor Turkey had any acute motive to commence hostilities.
The problem of ethnic minorities in Europe was solved during and after the Second World War in the “Turkish way”: ethnic cleansing during the war and population swaps after the war. Ethnic cleansing has, rightfully, quite a stigma attached to it. But the dirty little secret of ethnic cleansing is that it seems to work. Europe has seen very few military conflicts since 1945 and the ones that have occurred have mostly taken place in areas that for some reason avoided the ethnic sorting during and after the Second World War.
The most obvious example is Yugoslavia after 1945, where the (Croat) dictator Tito heavy-handedly imposed a pan-Yugoslav conformity that did not allow any national identities. The death of Tito in 1984 and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 ushered in a new era where tensions in the ethnically mixed country quickly escalated into secession and war.
Also the Russians were unaffected by the ethnic sorting after the Second World War. The Soviet Union, as one of the winners of that war and espousing a non-nationalist ideology, saw no reason at all to conform to notions of ethnic homogeneity. Unless, of course, it suited its interests. The Soviet Union gladly expelled Germans en masse (and to a lesser extent Poles, Finns and others it deemed untrustworthy) from their newly conquered territories and replaced them with loyal subjects, who were mostly Russian. At a time when most of Europe was meticulously sorted into homogenous ethnic states, Russians were instead deliberately scattered across different nations.
The effects of this non-sorting in Eastern Europe are still with us today. All former Soviet republics have some sort of Russian minority. The current war in Ukraine is in no small part due to the large Russian minority in Ukraine and Russia’s willingness to aid this minority.
Chances are there will be some sort of peace conference after the Ukraine war as well. It will probably not be as grand or as glittering as the Paris Peace Conference. But it might still decide the future of much of Eastern Europe. As the conference in Paris it will most likely forgo the option of population swaps. But it might set borders better suited to the nationalities living within them. If it will be enough to secure peace for more than 20 years remains to be seen.
A lot of the information in this article is sourced from Margaret Macmillan’s 2001 bookParis 1919: Six Months That Changed the World which I read a few months ago. The other big source is a multitude of Wikipedia pages.
Edit: A former version of this article stated that the peace process was fatally doomed in 2018 instead of 1918.