Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the convening of the Paris Peace Conference. This meeting would result in the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War I and radically change the shape of world. Many of the assumptions we take for granted about the world today were established at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
While many aspects of the treaty and agreements in 1919 set the stage for World War II, barely two decades later; far more endured and became the basis for the modern world we live in today.
This post provides a brief background to the Parise Peace Conference and 10 facts of the Paris Peace Conference you might not know.
The ferocity and violence of World War I was unlike anything the world had seen before. Almost overnight the world moved from an age of warfare that included horses and swords to one dominated by tanks, airplanes and chemical weapons. Europe was stunned by the violence and sat stalemated in a gridlock of trench warfare that was not moving forward.
The United States and the majority of voters were adamantly opposed to any involvement in what was perceived as a European war. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson successfully ran for reelection under the slogan “He Kept Us Out of the War.” Upon being reelected however Wilson came to believe it was actually in America’s interests to join the fight.
Several propaganda fronts were initiated to sway public opinion to that ends. Most notably, Wilson initiated a tour of the country and then of Europe with what he outlined as his Fourteen Points.
The US, Wilson explained, was joining the war because there was a unique opportunity for the future of civilization. The war must be won and it must be the last Great War. The old world order would pass away with the war and a new order would be established. The order of the world would no longer be built upon conquest and oppression but upon liberalism and democracy.
Ideas like self-determination, where nations and people groups could rule themselves rather than be ruled by imperial powers; the League of Nations, and free trade were all included in Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and idealism made him a hero in Europe and much of the world. He gave a moral cause for the devastation brought upon the world by World War I. Unfortunately, he also greatly frustrated the plans and intents of the Great Powers as they arrived in Paris for the Peace Conference of 1919. They had no desire to conclude the destruction of the terrible war with no spoils.
In many ways, the frustrated fruit that resulted from the Paris Peace Conference was due to the conflict between the highly publicized vision and ideals of the leading powers and the meetings and the underlying continued pursuit of interests and power as usual.
Almost 30 nations were in attendance at the peace conference in 1919 but the proceedings were dominated by the small group of nations who became known as The Big Four. The Big Four included the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy.
Each of The Big Four nations entered the conference with their own agendas and calculations for what would make a suitable peace.
Italy was the junior member of the The Big Four and seldom voiced their intents and preferences into the Paris Peace Conference unless the issues at hand related specifically to Italy.
The United States grew in wealth and power through the war. The allies of Europe owed the US a collective $7 billion as a result of assistance given in the war. The US was still not a major power on the global stage, but their army and navy had grown to rival some of the major European powers in the course of the war. Wilson was focused upon a lasting peace at the conference but his uncompromising demeanor and failure to include his political allies set his plans up for destruction on the domestic front in the United States.
Great Britain was focused on retaining their colonial power. Wilson’s Fourteen Points threatened their own holdings from southern Asia to Africa, not to mention the potential for holdings in the collapsed Ottoman Empire.
France, more than any of the other members of The Big Four, wished to punish Germany for its aggression that started World War I. In many ways the power of France was already in decline in the final years of the 19th century and this came as Germany was on the rise. France lost more than any of the other members of the Big Four during the course of the war. The French economy, infrastructure, and nation were in shambles as a result of losses to Germany. In addition, France had lost one-quarter of its men ages 18-30 during World War I.
There was one major ally who began the war but was not included at the Paris Peace Conference. At the opening of the war, Russia was among the allies. Russia was considered a behemoth among the European powers but the country was also suffering from significant internal issues.
Midway through World War I revolution hit Russia and resulted in the execution of the Tsar and his family.
The new rulers of Russia, the Bolsheviks, made public secret agreements that the former Tsar’s government made with Great Britain and France regarding how the Ottoman Empire would be divided up between these superpowers after the war ended. This countered the public face of a new age of liberal democracy that the Great Powers had been celebrating with President Woodrow Wilson. Shortly after the revolution the Bolsheviks also withdrew Russia from the war.
Even as the peace conference began the world was already much different than when the war first started. One of the largest empires in history, the Ottoman Empire, had been in decline throughout the 19th century. As World War I began the leaders of the empire made the fateful decision of allying themselves to Germany. This sealed the fate of the Ottoman Empire!
The lands we know as the Middle East today are largely the dissected remains of the Ottoman Empire. Those dissections were made at the Paris Peace Conference.
Even though an armistice was declared to end the hostilities of the Great War between the allies and Germany, fighting and violence continued among smaller powers throughout much of Europe.
The harsh terms of the treaty to Germany are notorious. Most historians believe these issues agreed to in Paris and imposed upon Germany afterward helped plant the seeds that led to the rise of Hitler and World War II. Beyond this, however, even in the immediate aftermath of the conference Germany recognized they had gone too far toward peace without having it secured first. When the terms of the treaty that ended World War I were made known Germany had no option but to accept them. The army and the government were already too disorganized to return to the fighting.
The potential for a new world, independence and self-determination brought all sorts of voices and figures to Paris to plead the cause of their nation and people’s identity before the Big Four.
One such figure was Nguyễn Ái Quốc. The young man had been traveling the world by steamship for several years, paying his way by washing dishes. He drafted a request for greater autonomy for the people of his homeland who were currently being ruled by the French. The request was sent to the US Secretary of State. The request was ignored and Nguyễn Ái Quốc was not given an audience at the Paris Peace Conference.
Having been ignored by the great powers, a year later he was embraced by the Communist Party. In future years he would change his name to Ho Chi Minh and become the leader of the Vietnamese in their wars against both the French and the United States.
The American activist and leader/founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) WEB Dubois, arrived in Paris in 1919 with the dual objectives. He wanted to push the cause of justice and rights for the people of Africa living under colonial rule and he wanted to promote justice for the soldiers of color who had fought for the allies during World War I.
In an effort to garner attention for his causes and the rights of people of color throughout the world he set up a meeting that was intended to coincide with the peace conference. His Pan African Congress was hobbled from the beginning. The American government would not allow several members of his organization to even travel to Europe. The Pan African Congress was not heard by the Big Four and the injustices that Dubois sought to stop continued on.
In spite of the idealistic rhetoric leading up the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Big Four determined that no delegates from their colonies would have an audience in the meetings designed to shape the future of the globe. Many Africans and Asians had fought on the side of the allies in the war and this led to growing bitterness among some. The Europeans, through the war, proved they were no more civilized than any other nation or people group. Economic pressures in Europe resulted in many immigrant jobs being lost and given to white European soldiers returning home. As a result, a new base for local nationalism in Africa continued to rise throughout the interwar period.
Areas of China that were once considered German colonial territory were given to the German, rather than given back to the Chinese in the spirit of self-determination and independence. This move infuriated Chinese nationalists and helped empower the Japanese strategically for advances into China at World War II.
Colonialism was no longer in vogue following the Great War. This was partly due to Woodrow Wilson’s popular idealism that spread across the world but also to the Russian Revolution’s attacks upon the colonial system. Still, the major powers insisted they have their rewards for the losses they suffered in the war. “Reward” traditionally meant colonies.
To navigate this public relations concern the idea of the “mandates” was presented. Most of the areas of the world that previously existed as colonies would now enter “mandate” status. It was a new system that would help guide them toward independence and self-rule.
The mandates were split into organized categories according to how prepared they were for self-rule. There were Class A, Class B, and Class C mandates. A mandate could graduate, once the people proved themselves capable of independence and self-rule to a higher level of mandate class and closer to self-rule.
In later years, an overview of this mandate class system easily demonstrated that the cultures and people groups of darker complexion occupied the lower mandate classes – that is, they were seen as less capable to rule themselves. Lighter complexion peoples were seen as more capable.
In other words, the mandate system continued the organized and racist attitudes of the European colonial system.
Much of the lands that were part of the Ottoman Empire when the war started now became the Near East (to Europeans). This would be replaced with the popular regional name “The Middle East” by the US in later years.
As planned, the region was divided among the European powers. Few of these divisions had any significant measure of support from the people on the ground in the region. This was not about self-determination or independence. It was about European interests. Several of the segmented areas in the western area of the region (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon) were popularly believed to be part of Greater Syria and the division was seen as an imposition. In the east, Iraq was formed by combining provinces that had no commonalities except a shared history of Ottoman rule for many centuries. The merging of these provinces to create the new nation of Iraq was both artificial and doomed to failure.
Much of the violence that resulted in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries (which did not exist previously) was born by the flawed decisions at Paris in 1919.
During the course of World War I, the British built several alliances with varying factions in the Middle East to help topple the Ottomans. In return, these allies were promised lands and rulership in the region after the war was over. Among the most famous of these allies was Prince Feisal of the Hashemites. His fame was further bolstered by the friendship and support of T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. The two men pushed for the Hashemite designs on the Middle East at the Paris Peace Conference.
According to legend, at one point in the Paris Peace Conference Feisal was allowed to address the meeting and voice his desires for his homeland and the region he felt was owed to him and his family. Lawrence acted as his interpreter. Rather than actually interpreting for Feisal however, Lawrence presented a speech of his own to the assembly while Feisal quoted passages from the Koran.
There is no way of knowing if this story is true or not and it certainly shows signs of being apocryphal. The simple fact that the legend has endured through the decades, however, demonstrates the level of duplicity that was frequently in play at the meetings.
Among the most popular items on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points that set the tone and stage for the Paris Peace Conference was the League of Nations. The League was a forerunner to the United Nations. It was intended to be a permanent fixture for great power politics to reduce the risks and needs for war in the future. The League was to be the primary instrument by which the Great War would be the last Great War.
The problem was, Woodrow Wilson’s government back home had no interest in joining the League of Nations. By the time the Paris Peace Conference came to a close the Fourteen Points and Wilson himself had declined in popularity in the United States. The Republican-controlled Congress determined to have no part in Wilson’s foreign adventures and the United States never joined the League of Nations which their President had convinced the world to create.
It is popularly believed today that one of the causes for the collapse of the German government and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime was the stringent conditions of reparation that the Paris Peace Conference put on Germany. Germany was forced to hold the blame and costs for the entire war and this collapsed the German government and in the ensuing crisis, the Nazis rose to power. This belief is actually a myth.
It was common practice for the losing side of a conflict to pay the costs of the conflict. Germany demanded this from its beaten foes at several points prior to World War I (including from France). In fact, Germany never paid the debt of reparations it owed after the war. The economy did collapse but this collapse was not the result of the Paris Peace Conference but the terrible mismanagement of the nation’s war economy during the conflict.