Dreamland of the Armistice: Alan Sharp Looks at the Factors Shaping National Policies in the Weeks Preceding the Paris Peace Conference, When the Failure of the Victorious Allies to Agree on Aims and a Process for Negotiations with the Germans Resulted in a 'Tragedy of Disappointment'

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On the morning of November 11th, 1918, Harold Nicolson, a young British diplomat, chanced to look from the Foreign Office towards Downing Street:

   It was 10.55 am. Suddenly the
   front door opened. Mr Lloyd
   George, his white hail fluttering on
   the wind, appeared upon the front
   doorstep, tie waved his arms outwards.
   [ opened the window hurriedly.
   He was shouting the same
   sentence over and over again, l
   caught his words. 'At eleven
   o'clock this morning the war will
   be over'.

The end of the war had come suddenly and unexpectedly early. In March 1918 German forces on the Western Front, reinforced by men released by the defeat of Russia, very nearly split the British and French armies. As late as June the French government contemplated evacuating Paris, but when the tide turned it was inexorable and the Central Powers collapsed, accepting the Allies' terms--first Bulgaria on September 29th, then Turkey on October 30th and Austria-Hungary on November 3rd. On October 4th Germany sent a telegram via Switzerland requesting that the American president, Woodrow Wilson, negotiate a settlement based on the Fourteen Points speech that he had delivered to Congress on January 8th, 1918.

The two months between the Armistice on November 11th and the official opening of the Paris Peace Conference on January 18th, 1919, were characterized by Ernst Troeltsch, the German theologian, historian and sociologist, as the 'dreamland of the armistice period'. The expectation that republican Germany would immediately be forgiven the sins of Wilhelm II was soon exposed as unrealistic, though the Germans still continued to hope that US President Woodrow Wilson's policies would prevail over those of the vengeful European Allies, it was a time for the Germans of hope, fulfilment and expectation--but also exhaustion, anxiety and despair. The leaders of the new German government of November 1918 under Ebert found themselves torn between the desire to distance themselves from the militarism of the imperial era and the need to retain the conditions negotiated for the Armistice by the Kaiser's last government. These, theoretically at least, provided some assurance that the eventual treaty would conform to Wilson's precepts. Reluctantly they opted for continuity, thus finding themselves the unwilling apologists for the previous regime--although it is unlikely that the victors would ever have cast them in a different role. Later, their belief in Wilson turned to despair; by June 1919, German cartoonists showed Wilson's 'genuine American paint' running to transform the Fourteen Points into 'Scorn' and 'Hate'.

The visit to Lorraine and Alsace on December 8th and 9th, 1918, by the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and his bitter rival President Raymond Poincare--the two in harmony for once--represented the triumphant fulfilment of the French policy of revanche for the loss of the two provinces in 1871. Unique among all the territorial revisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the official date for the return of Alsace-Lorraine was November 11th, 1918, not January 10th, 1920, the day on which the treaty was ratified and became operative. Whether Clemenceau could deliver the more ambitious French schemes--eagerly advanced by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied commander, and Poincare--to detach the Rhineland from Germany or to annex the Saarland was less certain.

For Lloyd George victory represented an opportunity to turn his popular support into political capital. He was the leader of a coalition consisting of the Conservatives and his supporters in a Liberal party divided between them and those who preferred the former prime minister, Herbert Asquith. There was a compelling constitutional case for the general election that Lloyd George and the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, immediately called--the current parliament had been sitting since the election of December 1910. …