The world’s attention is turning to Paris, where Allied leaders are meeting to draft the peace treaties that will bring the war to a final end. To those of a historical bent, the Paris Conference is reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna that marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars. However this conference is solely for the victors: whereas France’s Talleyrand played a key role in Vienna, the Germans have not been invited to send representatives to Paris. The intention is that the Allies will agree terms among themselves, which will then be presented to Germany as a fait accompli.
The first plenary session of the conference meets today, on the anniversary of the 1871 coronation in Versailles of the first German emperor. The date is no coincidence. In his opening address to delegates, President Poincaré of France states:
“This very day forty-eight years ago, on January 18, 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed by an army of invasion in the Chateau at Versailles. It was consecrated by the theft of two French provinces; it was thus vitiated from its origin and by the fault of the founders; born in injustice, it has ended in opprobrium. You are assembled in order to repair the evil that it has done and to prevent a recurrence of it. You hold in your hands the future of the world. I leave you, gentlemen, to your grave deliberations, and I declare the Conference of Paris open.”
In truth, the real work of the conference has already begun, as the leaders of the key Allied powers have already begun deliberating among themselves. This Supreme Council is made up of the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Japan. The first four countries are represented by their heads of government and foreign ministers, while the Japanese delegation is headed by Prince Saionji Kinmochi and Baron Makino Nobuaki, former prime minister and former foreign minister respectively.
The Allied leaders are now pursuing different objectives. President Wilson wants to secure a just peace that will remove the causes of future wars; a key goal for him is to create a League of Nations, through which countries will be able to resolve their differences without recourse to war. France’s Clemenceau however wants to so weaken Germany that it will never be able to threaten his country again; he is also keen to assert French claims to territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Lloyd George is also keen to advance British colonial interests but is wary of treating Germany so harshly that the seeds are laid for future conflict. Italy’s Orlando meanwhile is keen to secure the gains promised in the secret Treaty of London, and to secure the port of Fiume and other territories at the expense of the newly emergent Yugoslavia (and also to grab its share of the Ottoman Empire). Japan’s goals are a strange mixture of the venal and idealistic. As the only country not led by whites, Japan’s delegates are keen to insert a clause into the League of Nations’ charter affirming the equality of all races; they are however also looking to secure the territories they seized from Germany at the start of the war (some Pacific islands and the naval base of Tsingtao and the surrounding Shantung peninsula, which China would like to see returned to it).
The Supreme Council has already faced internal disagreements over the language to be used in its discussions (Clemenceau favoured French but was forced to accept the use of both French and English). They have also been unable to reach an agreement on what to do about Russia: whether to intervene more forcefully on the side of the Whites or whether to try and engage constructively with the Bolsheviks. As the conference progresses, more areas of disagreement are likely to emerge; it may well prove impossible for the Allies to maintain a united front against Germany.
The full text of President Poincaré’s address
images source (Guardian: The Paris peace conference begins – archive, January 1919)