Jonathan Sumption

The peace to end all peace

The first world war was the last major conflict to be brought to an end in the traditional fashion, with a formal treaty of peace.

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The first world war was the last major conflict to be brought to an end in the traditional fashion, with a formal treaty of peace. Or, rather, several treaties of peace, one for each of the defeated belligerents. They were all negotiated in Paris, but named after the various royal palaces in which the signing ceremonies were held: Versailles, the Trianon, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Neuilly, Sèvres. These great buildings, arranged like pearls in a necklace around Paris across the hunting grounds of the former kings, were built to impress. But the treaties signed in them were arguably the most prodigious acts of folly in the history of European diplomacy.

The process began on a note of high morality, with President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. ‘The Good Lord only needed ten’, said the cynical Clemenceau, who as Prime Minister of France had the job of chairing the conference. He thought that Wilson was an ignorant and impractical idealist. To Keynes, the American President was the ‘blind and deaf Don Quixote’, bamboozled alternately by Britain and France. Yet Wilson’s Fourteen Points were a serious attempt to lay down the principles for a lasting peace. They were, if anything, less radical than Lloyd George’s ‘Three-point Programme’, which introduced the concept of self-determination: national boundaries based on ethnic and cultural communities.

The real problem was that the concept was not uniformly applied, and was not applied at all to Germany. Germany was almost completely disarmed, and required to pay reparations on a scale calculated to beggar her population for a generation. She lost 10 per cent of her population, 15 per cent of her agricultural production and 20 per cent of her iron, coal and steel. Austria was cut down from a great multinational empire to a modest German-speaking province with few industrial assets, and was forbidden to unite with Germany in spite of substantial majorities in favour in both countries. In 1914, there were four million non-Germans inside Germany. In 1920 there were two million ethnic Germans outside it in addition to the Austrians. Most of them were assigned without their consent to artificial multi-ethnic states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which only despotism could ever have held together. And despotism was to be their fate until recent times.

The peacemakers, led by Britain, made an even bigger hash of the Near and Middle East. The treaty of Sèvres not only deprived the Ottoman empire of its Arab provinces, which was inevitable, but dismembered ethnic Turkey as well. Large parts of Turkish Anatolia and Thrace were assigned to Greece to satisfy the ambitions of Prime Minister Venizelos and the philhellenism of Lloyd George, or to France to indulge a romantic conceit about her special relationship with the Levant going back to the crusades and the Napoleonic wars. The straits and adjacent coasts, including the ancient capital of Constantinople, were placed under international (effectively British) control. 

These arrangements proved to be short-lived. Turkey refused to sign the treaty, dared the Allies to invade, and threw out the Greeks by force. The straits settlement was progressively scrapped over the following years. The damage done in the non-Turkish provinces of the former Ottoman empire is still with us. Most of the problems of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon date from the mandatory regimes of Britain and France after the first world war. A new state of Iraq was created as an inherently unstable combination of three minorities, ostensibly controlled by the Sunni Arabs, actually by Britain. The peninsular Arabs, to whom Britain had made vast and unrealisable promises during the war, were left to fight it out over the remainder.

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously denounced the treaties and their authors in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, one of the most brutal political pamphlets ever penned. But the odd thing is that the peacemakers were well aware of the explosive mixture that they were creating, even as they were doing it. Lloyd George denounced the draft instrument in a note addressed to Clemenceau before it was finalised:

You may strip Germany of her colonies, reduce her army to a mere police force, and her navy to that of a fifth-rate power; all the same in the end, if she feels that she has been unjustly treated, she will find means of exacting retribution . . . Injustice, arrogance, displayed in the hour of triumph will never be forgotten or forgiven.

Robert Lansing, the U.S. Secretary of State was appalled by the terms. His master Wilson lurched to and fro in an effort to rein back Clemenceau’s ferocious lust for revenge. Even Clemenceau reckoned that the treaty would only put off the next war for 20 years, a prediction that proved to be uncannily correct. Responsible British officials said much the same about the reorganisation of the former Ottoman empire. The Allies’ proposals, minuted the British High Commissioner in Constantinople, ‘would do violence to their own declared and cherished principles . . . and perpetuate bloodshed indefinitely in the Near East.’

Why did they do it? The answer, sad to say, is that they did it because crude national assertiveness and vengeance were popular with their electorates. Lloyd George had fought the ‘Kakhi election’ of 1918 on a ‘Make Germany Pay’ ticket, in which he personally did not believe. Clemenceau’s visceral hatred of Germany enjoyed strong public support in France and suited his presidential ambitions. Wilson had constantly to look over his shoulder at a suspicious and insular public and a hostile Republican-controlled Congress. A century before, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, professional diplomats had settled the fate of nations at the Congress of Vienna with minimal outside interference and correspondingly greater freedom to compromise. They did not have to cope with newspaper reporters and telegraph lines. The Congress of Vienna has had a bad press, but its work lasted longer and caused a good deal less bloodshed than the Paris Conference.

These are the first four volumes to appear of an ambitious publishing venture which will eventually comprise some 32 biographies of the leading participants in the Paris Peace Conference, one for each of the nations engaged. The conception is magnificent. Judging by this first sample, the execution will be patchier, but the best are outstanding. Lloyd George, by Alan Sharp, is shrewd, incisive and learned, a masterpiece of analytical narrative by a notable authority on the international relations of the period. The biographical format works well for Lloyd George, who dominated the Conference in a way that no other national leader did.

Andrew Mango’s volume on Turkey is in the same class. The biographical format does not work at all here and Mango has sensibly abandoned it. The dominant figure of postwar Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, had nothing to do with the Paris Conference and was largely instrumental in Turkey’s repudiation of its work. Mango, who has written one of the best modern lives of Ataturk, is a serious scholar of modern Turkey, and his work is full of thought-provoking reflections on the long-term legacy of the first world war for Europe’s closest Islamic neighbour.

The weakest volumes are inevitably those on Germany and Austria. Inevitably, because the treaties were simply imposed on them with minimal negotiation. The Treaty of Versailles was being publicly repudiated by German politicians even as the document was being signed by the middle-ranking functionary sent to France for the purpose. Neither Friedrich Ebert, the President of the German revolutionary government, nor Karl Renner, the elastic and durable politician who emerged from the ruins of post-war Austria, had done much to shape the peace. The authors of their volumes have struggled against the format, trying to combine a diplomatic history of the German-speaking states with the lives of comparatively humdrum politicians. The result is at times informative, but ultimately unsatisfactory. Perhaps it would have been better to follow Mango’s example and leave personalities out of it.

These books form part of a series called Makers of the Modern World. Publishers’ titles of this kind are often little more than puffing. But this series earns its puff. ‘In victory, magnanimity’ was the motto of Churchill’s history of the second world war. These books are a sombre confirmation of its wisdom, and required reading for any one who wants to understand how the world has got where it has.