Making War, Making Peace: Versailles, 1919

Article excerpt

The leaders who committed their nations to war in 1914 never dreamed that the conflict would drag on for years and claim millions of lives. They never imagined that it would lead to the birth of a massive Bolshevik state while destroying the empires of tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungary, Germany, and Ottoman Turkey. And in the aftermath of the Great War, the individuals at the negotiating table found themselves trying to do nothing less than piece their world together anew. At the centre of the negotiations were three individuals, each a fascinating bundle of enlightenment, narrow-mindedness, tolerance, bigotry, pragmatism, and idealism. And, to a large extent, we are all still living in the world they drew up for us.

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THE OBSERVATION "it is harder to make peace than war" was, as one might expect of someone so witty, that of Georges Clemenceau, prime minister of France at the end of the First World War and during the peace conference that followed. Of course he only half meant it. Yet, there is some truth in the remark as well. What could be harder than the huge, all-demanding struggle that had lasted for four years? War, as Dr Johnson so famously said about the prospect of being hanged, concentrates the mind wonderfully. And a war like the First World War, where the stakes were so very high, narrowed the choices before leaders significantly. The most important policy was to win--or, at least, not to lose. All else flowed from that.

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However, decisions about the peace settlements that followed after the guns fell silent were also taken under pressure. The peacemakers who met in Paris feared that, unless they moved quickly to wind up the war and to try to set the framework for a better international order, Europe and perhaps the wider world would be plunged into anarchy, revolution, and misery. On the other hand, they faced a great range of possibilities and choices. How should the borders be drawn in the centre of Europe and in the Middle East? What exactly should be the nature of the treaties with Germany and its allies, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire? What shape should the proposed League of Nations take? In the end individuals--surprisingly few of them--had to make such decisions.

HOW DO we judge the importance of individuals in events of the past? Clemenceau, the prime minister of France between 1917 and 1920, and his counterpart in Britain, David Lloyd George, were clearly very important in the outcome of what used to be called the Great War. After all, they made the final decisions when and where to wage the war. On the other hand, without French factories or British ships or the millions of men who went to fight, their leadership meant little. One of the great difficulties for historians as we attempt to make sense of momentous events is to strike a balance between explanations that credit only the "forces" of history and those that single out individuals. The "Great Man" theory of history has been discredited in recent years while attention has been focused on the slow, often opaque, movements of economics or ideas or fashions. But does it truly deserve to be abandoned altogether?

My own view is that we must try to understand both the context and the individuals, especially when we are trying to understand great events. Of course the men and women of the past were creatures of their own times, just as we are today. Their attitudes and their beliefs, just like ours, were shaped by the societies in which they lived. They had only the institutions and the technologies of their own times at hand. They thought in certain ways and employed certain concepts because these were the tools they had. If they changed the course of events, if they helped to create new realities, they still did so within the confines of their own times.

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was one of those moments in the recent history of the world--like 1945 or 1989--when society was turned upside down, when it was not clear what the future would be. …